The Great Globalization Swindle? The Relationship Between the Global Economy and Music Reconsidered

Franz Kasper Kroenig. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 2. Praeger Perspectives Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

If we think about the historical situation of music today, we can hardly avoid taking the terms of globalization and economization into account. Music as a form of art seems to be affected by the global condition. Critical observations concerning the “homogenization,” “McDonaldization,” and “Americanization” of culture do not just simply refer to the relation of art to economy but also to art as such. This idea means to make the globalized economy responsible for certain changes inside of the art system in general and music in particular and not only for changes in the way music is brought to market, promoted, and distributed. The common view sees an influence of economy on art in the shape of exploitation, adaptation, and standardization, which poses the questions of an art/entertainment-distinction or the equally problematic low-art/high-art difference. In this point of view, the economization of art is a problem of growing relevance because economy is conceived of as a global, dominant, and uncontrollable societal force. The premise of this view is that economy can influence art in terms of instruction and dominance. However, I doubt the possibility of such an economic influence that makes art a passive object to a societal process driven by economy. On the contrary, I want to show that art is in a special way sensitive to societal evolution and that the current economization of art can be regarded as an autonomous and art-internal reaction of art to the present state of society. Thus, art is not a victim of a globalized economic system but rather an autonomous system that manages to adapt to its environment very well. From  a historical perspective, we can compare the relation between the globalized economy to the art system with the relation between art and other formerly dominant social systems. In this context, it seems that the role of globalization must be relativized.

Globalization as the General Social Situation

Globalization must of course be understood as a societal phenomenon that affects the “shape and ‘meaning’ of the world-as-a-whole.” But still, the prevailing notion of globalization puts all emphasis on the role of economy, politics, and law. The other social spheres such as art, religion, education, science, and health care are not conceived of as the setting of globalization but just as a cultural sphere that passively receives the collateral damages of the globalization process. The reason for this situation is the common idea to construct globalization in the medium of power: Global processes determine local spheres, and local spheres cannot determine global processes. The problem—due to this point of view—is that the balance of power between the global market and the nation state is lost and must be reestablished.

This seems to make sense when it comes to questions of politics and law. The global/local problem is one that affects the political system with its nation states and to some degree the law system. Therefore, the problem with globalization is that we have powerful global circumstances and no powerful global politics and law. Opposed to the political and the law system, which are strongly bound to nation states, there are the global systems of religion, art, science, and economy. If we regard globalization in respect to power, the problem must consequently be that these systems cannot be controlled by national politics and national law. But we can clearly see that we do not suffer from nationally uncontrolled art, religion, and science. The whole discourse on globalization in terms of hegemony, imperialism, and dominance seems to have a severe shortcoming in this point. Power is not the general medium of globalization.

The Special Role of Economy in the Globalization Process

Whereas we do not object to the globality and uncontrollability of art, religion, and science, we do so in the case of economy. Why is that? Nobody describes a scientification, aesthetification, or transcendentalization of society, but an economization of society is oft noted. It is quite obvious that economy has a greater impact on art and religion than vice versa. This has not always been the case. When we think of the Middle Ages, we can describe religion as the dominant social system. Politics and law were legitimated transcendentally; art needed—as Luhmann puts it—to serve religion, and science was subordinate. The mercantilist economy was totally under control of (transcendentialized) politics. So, it would make as much sense to speak of a transcendentalization of art and other social spheres in the Middle Ages as of an economization today. In the Renaissance we can find more and more examples of a scientification of society, which, of course, does not imply that other x-ifications could not also be observed. With regard to art, the idea of rational beauty comes to mind, and the fact that art could resist the influence of so much science could even be called the real miracle of the Renaissance.

Currently, it seems that economy is the most influential social system with the greatest impact on all other systems. If we see the comparability to the historical developments, we cannot simply take it as a matter of course from a Marxist point of view that economy is the societal base and art and religion are just parts of the superstructure. The actual dominance of economy cannot be based on any properties of structures of the economic system or of society in general because it is just a contingent historical fact.

Music and the Music Market

Still, there seems to be much evidence for our everyday intuition that global economy influences music to an extent that has never been seen before. In order to understand the relationship between music and the music market it is helpful to define music on the one hand and the market on the other. Although this might be a difficult task for many theoretical approaches, it is very easy for the systems theory. There is a music system with well-defined borders and an environment outside of these borders that contains—among others—the economic system. This can be compared to an organism that lives in its environment and maintains certain relations to this environment but is nevertheless clearly separate from it. As much as an organism depends on food from its environment, the music system needs things that it cannot produce itself, most of all money. The thesis of this systems theoretical approach is that music or art in general cannot make money but only art. If a work of art is sold or if a composer earns money, this theory speaks of environmental relations. So financial operations are economic wherever they take place, and music stays music, whether or not it generates income. The counter argument would be that there are some cases where it is not possible to decide whether something is music or economy.

In this theoretical setting, the plausibility of the idea that economy influences or dominates art cannot be held up so easily. How should the environment determine the system? When a work of art is bought, this is clearly just an economic operation that does not cross the border to the system of art. Economy observes works of art only as good or bad investments and not as beautiful forms. Art cannot be instructed, dominated, or economized by payments for more than one reason. First, the economic environment remains totally opaque for art. Artists can, of course, keep up the intention of making economically promising art, but it will not succeed in most cases because only economy can see and decide what is economically interesting. Anyway, this would just be an example of a self-steering attempt and not of economization. Economy cannot influence art intentionally due to the fact that economy can only observe economically and can never see what is happening inside the art system. But, does this theoretical framework really account for the mutual relations of music and the music market?

When we accept these borders between music and economy, which imply a certain autonomy of both systems, we can still question the effects and the impact of the economic environment on music. Niklas Luhmann points out that these so-called structural couplings are often overestimated because art in general cannot commercialize itself without becoming suspect and, in the end, even unrecognizable as art. We can imagine that Luhmann thinks of claims such as originality and authenticity here, which are incompatible with the attempt of art to produce for the market. One could argue that Luhmann only takes the so-called high art into account and forgets pop culture phenomena, which could be said to have a much stronger connection to the market. This could be especially the case in the domain of pop music, where we expect a very strong impact of economy. I want to argue that this is merely an illusionary view on pop music, which can probably be traced back to the fact that one only takes note of the commercially successful products of pop music; so that one could strike on the idea that pop was qua pop already successful.

First, the great majority of all pop cultural production is economically totally fruitless considering all the rock bands in their cellars who keep on rehearsing without even the slightest chance for economic success in the shape of a major label CD release. Secondly, most of the really successful products of pop culture are forced to be original and innovative at least to the same extent as works of high culture. The way for a certain pop song or pop artist to succeed could be compared to an evolutionary survival of the fittest—especially when we think of highly democratic and uncontrolled platforms such as British acts such as the Arctic Monkeys or Kate Nash became very successful by just putting their songs on this free Web page, whereas millions of other artists could not benefit from the same opportunity. The factors that helped this success cannot be found anywhere other than in idiosyncratic properties of these bands. In contrast to this, the success of so-called serious music can always be suspected of being grounded in arbitrary decisions of public sponsorship, state funding, or organizationally supported inequality. A good example for the latter one is the German GEMA—basically the same as the ASCAP—which subsidizes serious music with the money from entertainment music (these are the terms of the German royalty system). For one minute of airplay by a national radio station, the licensees (typically the composers and their publishers) of a string quartet earn $63.33, whereas the licensees of a pop song get only $7.48. The success of popular music, however, cannot be traced back to interventions of cultural policy in such a way. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the politically defined quote for French music in France. In general, I want to argue that the success or failure of pop music cannot be determined by economical or political decisions. Furthermore, the reasons and conditions for the economic success of pop music are completely invisible for economy.

Can’t the success of pop music be planned and designed by putting lots of money into it? The artist and repertoire managers, who are responsible for finding and signing new talent, have exactly this impossible job of anticipating and planning the market success of pop music. Obviously, these managers cannot design hits and stars at home, but they have to go out and find preexisting (human and musical) material that they have to assume is shapeable for their purposes. Therefore, it is quite apparent that the music industry is dependent on substantial properties that they cannot determine themselves. The qualities of pop music may be quite different than the ones of classical or avant-garde music, but they are definitely not arbitrary or obsolete. Are singing competitions such as American Idol not an example proving the opposite? Is this not an instance of pop music that is controlled by the music industry and whose success is programmed? On the contrary, these shows demonstrate the impossibility of economic intervention into the aesthetic domain. These televised competitions are an instrument to control all the parameters of success, which seem to be quite reliable. However, none of them are music intrinsic. There are the looks, the charisma, and the technical ability of the candidates, which can to some extent be objectified and selected. The problem for the music industry is that there is no link between these factors and artistic qualities, which could provide for a long-term career of these stars and thus to long-term profitability for the companies. Nobody really expects the successful contestants to contribute to the catalogs of the record companies such as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones did, which makes it essential to keep on producing new seasons. The contestants are purely mass-media phenomena and no phenomena of the art system. If they make the step from the mass media to art, this is exactly the step that cannot be done by the mass media or the music industry. However, it is quite obvious that the music industry—which can hardly survive with their catalogs—could in no way subsist on the expensively purchased short-term success of these contestants. The “global recorded music trade value trend” has been almost consistently digressive for 10 years now (exception: very small gains in 1999 and in 2004), and the German music market (the fourth biggest of the world) has even lost 35 percent volume in the 10 years from 1995 to 2005. This music industry’s economic nightmare cannot just be traced back to the damage caused by illegal downloading because it has decreased significantly between 2003 and 2006 as a result of the legal fight against music piracy. We can see that the steering attempts in the shape of talent shows have not helped the music industry a lot. What is quite interesting in this regard is to compare the two possible models of economical steering of pop music. On the one hand, there is the model of singing contests such as American Idol, and on the other hand, there is the model of formed bands that have their members cast like actors for a movie. Obviously, the degree of steering is higher in the case of the latter one. If one assembles a boy band, it is possible to consider four or five complementary characters in order to encompass the taste of nearly everybody. A very successful example of such a formed group was the British band Take That (1991-1996). In spite of this example, the model of formed groups must be regarded as a failed attempt at economical steering of pop music for two reasons. First, formed bands are simply too expensive because they need a much greater staff including external songwriters, fashion advisors, and various coaches for the improvement of abilities, which are naturally expected from normal bands, not to mention the fact that even “performers” who fit the “right look” test often lack instrumental skills and performance experience. The other reason is that a serious part of the pop audience does not seem to accept the idea of a cast band. Especially because in genres such as rock, alternative, and indie, or niches such as metal and punk, authenticity has a high value for fans. That revered authenticity is substantially compromised by the model of bands formed via TV show competitions or by casting Svengalis.

No matter how hard the music industry tries to gain influence on the autonomous subsystem of music, it is in principle bound to fail. Economy can neither see what is going on inside of the music system—and transparency is the necessary condition for steering—nor can it make music itself, which is a very banal statement with strong implications.

Self-Economization of Music

My thesis is that there can be an economization of music without the assumption that the economic system invades the music system. Maybe it is helpful to compare this situation to the system-environment-relation of an organism again. The food an organism can find in its environment cannot determine the state of this organism. It does not force itself into the organism. Though the organism is dependent on food, it remains completely sovereign and active. This is the way we want to see the relation between music as a system and economy as its environment. In order to survive, organisms must adapt to their environment, and one of the most vital adaptations concerns the economic situation: the scarcity of food. Organisms will inevitably develop internal stuctures that adjust to the specific environmental food situation. The point is that this adjustment is a specialization that increases the organism’s dependence on the selected food in the environment. The koala is a good example of how intense this specialization can get. The benefit of being so extremely well-adapted to the leaves of the fever tree is that they become a sufficient food. The cost is, of course, that the efficiency of the adaptation is only possible when the koala gives up its ability to digest other food. To come back to the analogy: Who would ever regard this over-adaptation to the economic environment as a causal influence of the environment on the organism? Who would speak of the eucalyptization of the koala? I want to argue that the relation between music and global economy, which is often described in terms of economization, dominance, and commercialization, can be understood as an over-adaptation of music to economy. This concept allows us to preserve the idea of an autonomous music system. Economization can then be understood as the fact that the music system increases its adaptation to the economic environment and decreases its adaptation to other systems freely. In his famous essay on jazz, Theodor W. Adorno pointed out that there are no evil business people in charge of the commercialization of jazz, but jazz does it itself. The means of this self-economization—according to Adorno—are standardization, simplification, and the use of certain tricks, formulae, and clichés. So, these are strictly musical devices that are not forced into the music system from outside but accepted voluntarily. It is quite plausible to suppose that the motive for this development is the attempt of the music system to strengthen its relation to economy. In our time it seems to be a matter of course to do so because we regard the relation to economy as the most important one imaginable. One of the greatest advantages of systems theory is that it can make things that seem to be obvious appear rather improbable. Because the environment of the music consists not only of economy but also of religion, education, law, health care, science, and politics, there are many other possible candidates of importance for music. From a historical perspective we can see that economy has not always been the favorite environmental system for art. If we think of the Middle Ages, it is quite obvious that religion played the role of the dominant system. Beauty was always at the same time transcendent. There was no difference between those completely contradictory preferences (aesthetic vs. religious) for the art system. Every stroke of the brush was as much a matter of aesthetic decision as of transcendental inspiration and service. A composer of that time would not just invent melodies on the basis of his own creativity but would also listen to what the Holy Ghost told him. Many medieval pictures show Pope Gregor I (†-604)—later centuries regarded him as the composer of the Gregorian chants—with the Holy Ghost in the shape of a dove dictating the melodies to his ear. So, one would have to speak of a transcendentalization of art in the Middle Ages. An economization is out of sight. In the Renaissance one can find more and more evidence that art developed ways for better adapting to another system: science. The beautiful was now true and scientifically correct. And again, there was no conflict between these incompatible preferences for the artist. The scientific view was not an external imposition but a much more intrinsic condition for beauty: Forms, which are mathematically correct or scientifically exact, are beautiful. A good example for this is the so-called pythagorizing architecture of the Renaissance, which resulted in the construction of churches on the basis of complex but harmonic mathematical calculus, even in cases when the effect of these computations were invisible or hidden. At that time it was a matter of course that sculptures and pictures should be anatomically correct and detailed. From Leonardo da Vinci we know several studies of the human body and its organs that almost look like they were taken from a modern atlas of anatomy.

If we may skip to the last century, we can find an example where art adapted to another system in its environment: the political system. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was suddenly necessary for an artist to be political. This was not just a matter for left-wing intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre but also for pop musicians who had formerly confined themselves to writing and singing love songs, such as John Lennon. Of course there has been an attitude of protest in the earlier rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1950s, but this protest was not political in the same sense as in the late 1960s. Political protest in the strict sense is no rebellion against the parental generation and especially not against one’s own parents. The fact of youth and their fight for its free expression as such is not political. Not until there is a concrete will to change the societal structure with determination to gain the power to do so can we speak of political protest. So, the moaning of the blues singers and the rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll both lack the political awareness of having the actual power to change the political system. Therefore, there could be an even deeper meaning behind the story that Elvis Presley asked President Nixon to ban the Beatles from entering the United States than just his fear of competition. Maybe Presley was really concerned that the Beatles could spoil America’s youth. The rebellion of Elvis is compatible with supporting the Republican Party because it is an individual, sexual, and, to some extent, cultural rebellion but no political protest. At least from 1967 on, the Beatles, and especially John Lennon, had developed not only a political attitude (pacifism) but also the idea that they could contribute to change the world in this direction. It is quite obvious that music in the late 1960s had strong tendencies to politicize itself in the same sense as it had tendencies toward scientification in the Renaissance and transcendentalization in the Middle Ages.

Against this historical background, economization of art is no extraordinary matter. It is simply the situation that art can focus on several different systems in its environment, and now it seems to be economy. The reason for this cannot be found in the globalization process or the dominance of economy today. It is rather the other way round: The dominance of economy is established by the other systems’ attempt to strengthen their environmental relation to economy. We can easily observe how this works in the case of art. Walter Grasskamp describes the enormous amounts of money that have gathered behind certain works of art as a kind of magical energy, a unique power, making a strong impression on the observer of such a work in a gallery. If a picture is highly expensive, it can somehow claim a right for attention and admiration. If you watch a singer—think of Bob Dylan—on a huge stage with a great lighting system, every meaningless gesture and every casual word is amplified and charged up by the attention of the audience around you. Also, the great blockbuster exhibitions can give us an example of the intermingling of aesthetic and economic values. Whenever there is a Van Gogh or Kandinsky exhibition, the number of visitors to the museums explodes. The longer the people have to line up to get into such a well-advertised exhibition, the greater is the probability that they will attend it at all. About half of the people who went to the Museum of Modern Art in Berlin’s showing of pieces from the New York MOMA’s collection, —for which they literally stood in line for hours—had never, or very seldom, attended an exhibition before. There can be no doubt about the conclusion that the economic success of art boosts its aesthetic success. This is possible because art improved its adaptation to economy by neglecting its adaptations to the other systems. Religion, science, and politics play a very minor role for the art system today, especially when it comes to music. We find the reason for this development not in the objective dominance of economy but rather in the autonomous over-adaptation of music to economy.


The difference between the common notion of the economization of music in the course of globalization and the self-economization I’ve described has at least two major implications. First, it leads us away from the intuitive idea that economy does something to—or inside of—other systems. Grasskamp calls this thinking in terms of the dirty market, which contaminates the pure domain of art, more naïve than naïve painting can get. If artists are confronted with money or scarcity of money, they will react in their very special aesthetic way, which cannot be traced back to this economic environment in terms of linear causality. The example of talent shows makes clear that the economy cannot instruct the art system, even if the artists yearn for being instructed in the hope for commercial success.

Second, the matter of globalization does not help us to understand the relation between music and the music market at all. The common notion of globalization as a problem for the autonomy of art depends on a construction of globalization in the medium of power, which we could not accept. The relationship between music and economy is not one of control. The idea of steering depends at least on the transparency of its object, and art remains an opaque sphere for economy. The only thing economy gets to see when it looks at art are objects of purchase and investment, and this is—we hope—not all there is about art.