One of the most influential facets of our culture on music is neoliberalism. And no, I’m not going to speak about song rights, the labor of the musician, the commercialization of songs, nor the Metallica/Napster fiasco. It’s the ethics that capitalism invites into a musical relationship on which I want to comment.
Music isn’t pure. It’s not a clean, unadulterated zone of creativity that we can step into and feel immune to the pollutants of culture. Rather, music’s direct relationship with the cultural contexts in which it’s located invites a funneling of all that we know, think, and expect. Thus, a consideration of these influences allows for a more conscious agency as we move throughout the world of both playing and listening to music.
Neoliberalism is an updated form of liberalism which asserts that the notions of individualism, free markets, and a laissez-faire approach will create a context that will “address problems.” This is a set of values that is deeply engrained into the American cultural fabric. A political example would be the use of “carbon tax credits” to address global warming, with the expectation that these “credits” would motivate corporations to address their carbon output on their own terms.
This philosophy (and others, of course) has constructed American relationships in a particular way, where relationships are a complex web of transactions. Our daily language is littered with these ideas. For example, when people say “he has nothing to offer me,” or when romantic relationships go sour and one party might say, “I’m not getting anything out of this relationship.” A more personal example is as my wife and I began to consider having kids, my first thought was the impact on my “time and money.” This kid was going to “take” so much of my time! “That makes perfect sense though,” the reader in my mind’s eye cried. But what this conceptualization doesn’t address is the ways in which any relationship completely changes us. It’s not a matter of passing ideas and emotions back and forth, that we can cut off as needed. It’s that the presence of another person completely changes us. Our identity is constituted by the relationship we’re in.
As you can imagine, social groups (bands, in this case) are ripe and tumultuous settings for constructing each other. Thus, the perspective and following ethics makes such a difference. Some of my favorite bands and music don’t consist of solely superstar, prodigal musicians, but rather musical friends who enjoy being around each other. There’s a big difference between “playing the part” and “feeling a groove.” The actions that constitute the performance of playing appear the same, but it feels and sounds very different. More concisely: when the musicians in a band are friends, you can hear it.
The idea of creativity is also incredibly susceptible to the influence of neoliberalism. In the context of neoliberalism, creativity is a skill set that can be harnessed to create products and generate money. My wife is a high school teacher, and there are many aspiring-rapper students that she encounters whose main desire is to “get rich and famous” via music. Expand this concept to 4-5 people who are in a shared context together, and you have a competitive environment for the “most creative” or the “best” riff. Neoliberalism inherently invites competition and hierarchy. This can be good in some contexts, but in music, is toxic.
What I am proposing here is to consider the assumptions we hold when approaching a band, and to be careful of the expectations that are generated from the taken-for-granted threads of neoliberalism in our society. Be careful of the judgments that come with the questions of “are they creative enough to be in this band?”, “they’re limiting my creative process,” or “why doesn’t the drummer just play his part and leave the ‘music’ to the rest of the band?” Music is best created and played with when it’s for fun and expression, not marketing and sales.