Through its mass manufacture and transmission
(commodification) by the West, Popular Music by its very
existence reflects Western political culture and cultural power
(sometimes called cultural imperialism). And it has acted
therefore as a tool for 'Westernisation' or 'Globalisation' of the
world. In other words it 'sells' the West to the rest of the
world and is thus implicitly political. But 'Pop' can also take
the form of an explicit political action when various artists
form of delivery is changing. In one sense it is being weakened. In the other it is being
strengthened. But the mechanism remains the same! Music still transmits messages
and still affects emotions and still wields power, and still therefore is a tool of
politics. It can subtly politicise, or it can do it more directly. A good example is the
national anthem as a tool of nationalism. Ever hear Hendrix do the Star Spangled
The Origins of Pop's Commodification
To appreciate the nature of Western Popular Music, we must
of course first understand its origins and its commodification.
To quote Adorno: `The role of music in the social process is
exclusively that of a commodity; its value is that determined
by the market. Music no longer serves direct needs nor
benefits from direct application, but rather adjusts to the
pressure of exchange of abstract units’.
What Do We Mean By Commodification?
First, what do we mean by commodification of music? Simply this - the packaging
and mass production of forms of music for the market place - or if you like, the
conversion and production, of certain forms of music, identified as having market
appeal, or transformed to have market appeal, by the capitalist production process,
for mass consumption and profit.
In other words, with the industrial revolution in Western Capitalist society, music,
just like the manufacture of cars and washing machines, became commodified and
mass produced in `factories’ for the market, such factories being music publishers
(Tin Pan Alley) and then the record industry itself.
The Commodification Of US Pop
Now, lets look at the commodification of Western Popular
Music as it occurred mainly in the USA. We make no
apologies for this as the USA was and still is the main
source for the generation of Western Popular Music, as we
know it. We apologize to the 'Brits', but we can look at the
UK some other time.
The Early 1900s
With the development of the phonograph and technologies for
the mass production of, and indeed for listening to, music in
the early years of this century, in the United States a small
number of recording companies emerged, including Victor and
Columbia records. These soon became dominant in the music
market and helped shape the way music was commodified.
Originally they recorded operatic music and instrumentals,
but then dance music was soon introduced, and popular songs
were recorded. For example, Irving Berlin’s songs were
popular (Alexander’s Ragtime Band), and Jazz was also soon
Between 1918 and 1922, the recording industry flourished -and Jazz, as the latest
craze in the West was commercialised. This was an important event because for the
first time the sale of records outpaced sheet music, and in this respect weakened the
power of Tin Pan Alley. However, this success was short lived for the record
business as it was soon severely curtailed by the popularization of radio.
Impact of Radio
By 1922, the radio had stolen much from the phonograph,
it was free and programs could be constantly varied. Radio
as such, soon became a giant industry- dwarfing and then
absorbing the record business. Although the business of
phonograph records greatly shrank during the 1920s, audio
recording technology moved forward during that period
with microphones and amplifiers applied to top recordings.
There were also other developments and new developments
in recording and disc manufacturing also soon enhanced the dynamic range of
Also significant was the expansion of recorded repertoire during the 1920s. The first
`race’ records, mainly Blues intended to be bought by the black population, began to
appear. But radio, nevertheless, continued to dominate home entertainment during
the Depression, and the big networks considered their record labels as something of
a sideline. But then DECCA came along, slashed prices, and forced the other labels
to follow suit making records again affordable to the public.
What About The Music At This Time?
Many of the top recording artists of the 1930s were also the radio stars of their day.
Their repertoire came primarily from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. While a few
songs of the period were influenced by the Depression ie. 'Buddy Can You Spare A
Dime?’, the majority of Popular Music proved more optimistic, or at least
sentimental. By the mid 1930s, the first albums of 78 rpm discs appeared.
From the mid-1930s until after World War Two in America, a
recovery in the Popular Music record business took place, aided by
two outside forces: juke box and radio. Many restaurants and
public recreational places had jukeboxes. This was important, as
not only did juke box operators purchase large numbers of records,
but jukebox exposure seems to have stimulated consumer sales of
records as well. But radio also helped to sell records by giving
exposure to popular artists and new songs.
`big-band era ‘ had dawned. ie. artists such as Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman
not only affected what was recorded but influenced the pattern of the music business
behind the scenes as well.
Tin Pan Alley
Now at this time, as in the 1920s and 1930s, most of the
power of the industry came from something called 'Tin Pan
Alley' in that most of the repertoire of songs sung by Pop
artists came from one or another of the large New York
music publishers known collectively by this quaint term.
Originating as far back as the 1890s, these publishers and
the composers they represented were the most powerful
single influence on popular style and therefore popular
taste. The lyrics of Tin Pan Alley songs followed a
philosophy of escapism rather than realism, and the music
used the forms, harmonic patterns, and melodic styles
inherited from the lighter European traditions, such as operetta - ie.Tea for Two,
Blue Moon, etc.
A Tin Pan Alley publisher’s traditional means of promoting the sales of a printed
song was to persuade one or more record companies to record it. However, after the
advent of sound films (The Jazz Singer, 1927) the screen furnished a new alternative
for introducing and promoting songs. Probably the movie song most successful on
records was `White Christmas’ by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby in the film
Holiday Inn (1942). Its sentimentality was quite typical of the Tin Pan Alley songs of
Tin Pan Alley music publishers were accustomed to wielding a great deal of power
in the matter of recorded repertoire. Within the existing system it was they who
found new songs for the big label’s major artists to record. Thus the publishers had
held the initiative. However, most of the new ‘Swing’ style tunes and arrangements
played by Big Bands did not come from publishers but rather from the leaders and
members of the bands themselves.
The Big Bands were the first complete entertainment ‘packages’ (forerunners to the
later self-contained Rock bands) and they had little need for Tin Pan Alley. Prime
examples of swing tunes and their popularisers include “In the Mood” (Glen Miller)
The Big Bands held sway from the late 1930s until after the US entry into World
War Two. However, they soon lost out due to record companies countering their
independence and industrial action, by promoting featured singers. In the end - they
were left with little promotion and a dwindling audience.
Emergence of Country and Rhythm & Blues as Pop
The World War Two military bases and defense plants
caused much of the American work force to relocate in
various parts of the country. These people carried with
them their own regional tastes in music. As a result, during
the war years two styles outside of mainstream ‘Popular
Music' gained more prominence: Hillbilly (Country and
Western) and Race (Rhythm and Blues). At first the major
labels began making records for these growing markets, but wartime shortages of
record materials made them cut back to mainstream Pop releases only. After the war
the newer styles flourished more fully, but the major labels were successful only with
the Country style. The relatively small Rhythm & Blues market was left to
independent record companies.
Major Technological Developments At This Stage
The post war years also saw major technological advances which revolutionised the
recording industry; the use of magnetic tape for recording and the invention of the
Long Playing Record - LP. RCA at first declined to adopt the LP format and instead
introduced 45 rpm records in 1949 - then followed a war of the speeds which the 45
There was also the Introduction and Impact of Television
TV also affected record sales, but its effect was counterbalanced by 2 developments.
One was the improvement in the quality of the sound of records and increased
playing time. The other was the changes that radio underwent - due to high costs
radio ceased transmitting live music, it also lost much live acts to television - so the
format soon ended up news and music, featuring phonograph records.
As a consequence, by the mid - 1950s numerous stations had adopted the very
successful `Top 40’ format. Frequency of airplay became one of the intrinsic
measures of a new record’s success. Radio, which in the early 1920s had nearly
destroyed the record business, now owed its own recovery to its new role as
something of a promotional tool for the recording industry.
The Onset of Rock n Roll
Black Rhythm and Blues - R & B, had become a distinct and powerful force in
records after 1950 and grew to have a white, teenage market around 1952. From
R&B evolved early Rock n Roll, and for a time there was only a thin line between
them. Each had a crossover black and white audience, and each eventually
incorporated both black and white musicians.
Bill Haley’s classic was `Rock around the Clock’, which featured in the 1955 movie
The Blackboard Jungle. The worldwide popularity of that movie and of its sequel,
Rock Around The Clock, succeeded in making Rock n Roll a sudden international
Major Labels vs Independents: The Shifting Markets - and the Power
To quote one expert: `The industry establishment’s `reaction to Elvis was typical.
Until RCA was bold enough to sign Presley, the major Pop labels of the time
(Columbia, RCA, Decca, Capitol, Mercury, and MGM) would not even consider
contracting with Rock n Roll artists. Although the companies were turning their backs
on an obvious jackpot, there were reasons for ignoring the new phenomenon.'
One reason was that the major labels all had `stables’ of established popular middle
of the road artists in whom the companies had made sizable investments. Another
reason was the record industry’s connection with the Tin Pan Alley establishment,
which traditionally supplied the songs on which these artists built their styles. RnR
songs, heavily controlled by the singers, were anything but Tin Pan Alley in style.
The record industry’s aversion to RnR was reinforced by objections in the part of
adult consumers (many of them parents). Record executives were fearful of losing
their goodwill at a time when the future of the industry appeared uncertain.
Although large dollar volumes were being projected for LP records, the major labels
failed to realize that in spite of the LP, there was still a huge market for single
records. In fact the biggest market transformation in the history of the industry was
about to take place, and it would be focused on single records. Teenagers and college
students now had money and were creating the record market if the future: the youth
This unprecedented state of affairs left the door open for entrepreneurs to create
new labels built on newer styles.Among the most successful independent labels of
this period were Atlantic, Chess and Dot.
The situation also nurtured a new breed of industry personality: the independent
record producer. Two prominent early single record producers were Sam Phillips and
Phil Spector. The independents felt freer to pioneer novelties in sound.
Ultimately, the major labels had to give in. Elvis Presley was with RCA, Decca
signed Bill Hayley and Buddy Holly, and in the mid-1950s the other major labels also
began to attract and promote their own RnR stars. The decision to serve the youth
market, rather than resist it, completed a revolution in the record business and
charted the path of its future history.
Rock bands were also self contained packages which shattered the power of Tin Pan
Alley once and for all.
The Implicit Politics of Commodification
In the commodification process of Popular Music there was political action - hence
commodification saw the political shaping of popular music.
Now as we have seen, the emergence of Popular Music up until the 1950s, and
indeed right up until now in reality reflects the capitalist system. And inherent or
implicit in the way Popular Music was/is produced are political values, a system and
indeed an ideology. Popular Music as a capitalist commodity in the West reflects the
capitalist commodification of music and in turn reflects the Western Capitalist system
with its emphasis on libertarian values and the profit motive.
As Adorno noted: All pop music is produced within a social context.' As such, people
like Adorno argue that a mass listening consciousness is shaped by this process, ie.
“The commodity form of music and the consciousness of the listener are, in
Adorno’s design, both tailored from the same cloth. Across the moment of exchange
he draws a tight correspondence between economic forces and musical practices,
any vestiges of use value being forever expelled.’
Music is thus censored and politicised by a number of processes which renders it
ultimately - political music reflecting the system.
The Forces Shaping The Nature of the Music
Through its commodification Popular Music by its very existence
reflects Western political culture and as such has a cultural power
(cultural imperialism) and as such it has acted as a tool for
Westernisation/Globalisation ie. it has acted to 'sell' the West to the
rest of the world. This action has in part been sculptured by the
Within the industry there are/have been many inputs/forces shaping the nature
(through censorship, etc) of music: for example the action of Tin Pan Alley (music
publishers) , as already noted, record companies and producers, managers,
producers, radio DJs etc, the so-called gatekeepers who have shaped and moulded
the form and indeed message of Popular Music. They have shaped it to give it what
they believe is maximum market appeal.
In this sense, Capitalist commodification of music into Popular Music means it has
become more political (a 2nd dimension of its political power) because it reflects the
capitalist system itself.
This Process Saw A Mass Sanitising of Music, a Rendering to
'Sameness' - Because Making 'Predictable Music' Provided No Profit
The industry at the same time had a `sanitising’ effect on the nature and message of
Popular Music - a distinct production of sameness to ensure profit making. But it was
this sameness that early Rock n roll in the 1950s challenged!
The industry has always tended to produce what is known as `predictable music’. In
the US, after World War 2 in particular, the big record companies saw a profitable
future with adaptations of music that was already popular. They tended to sign huge
contracts with proven performers like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Cloony. The
companies were so confident in themselves that they gave performers little room for
originality, ie: the company would select the songs and tell the artists like Peggy Lee
to come and record them, and then they would do anything they wanted with them.
The artist had little or no say. This was a time when the artist was supposed to show
up and put up with anything the almighty recording company wanted. 'And what the
company wanted was predictable music, because it involved far less financial risk.'
BUT ROCK N ROLL CHALLENGED ALL THIS!!
Let's Go See How In Part B Of This Segment - Click Below
Part B - The Politics Of Its Evolution And Mass Production