Income inequality and music

www-02-mahagonnyA highly esteemed, major-bank-funded fine arts organization puts on The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, an 86-year-old political satire against capitalism. After the brief, half-sold run they drink high-end cocktails at the cast party, congratulating themselves for attempting to be so progressive.

A major-label rock band with a $200k recording budget screams about the inexcusable greed of the 1%. They wreck the stage, and working-class union stage hands fix it.

Our eyes glaze over at these ironies; we don’t take it any further. Why? Because we’re consumers – not just of products and productions, but more importantly, of the social order. We swallow these hierarchies whole, ironies and all. We conform easily or with difficulty, but we conform.

We conform easily by using our privilege in the cultural upper class (our parents were professionals, professors, highly educated musicians, stable Atlantic Monthly readers) to assimilate ourselves to the placid rituals and institutional guard rails of the conservatory. Yes, we work hard at the art; we can afford to.

We conform easily by hiding our economic privilege behind a facade of indie band coolness, when there is clearly no way we’ve struggled from rags to the five 180g vinyl albums on our merch table, recorded impeccably in the most expensive studio in town in just as many years – somebody’s got family money or a sweet tech gig, but you’re a dick if you ask about it. The whole trick is to make this look easy, like twee indie magic, and to pretend we’re all starting from the same place. Yes, touring and selling all that merch takes dedication and effort and risk; good thing we have a leg up.

We conform with difficulty, taking on massive student debt, working a pointless work-study job when we should be practicing, and struggling with depression as we try to keep up with the rich kids who never fail to remind us, in the subtle cues of insiders, that we don’t belong and we’re likely to fail. Maybe we prove them wrong, and find our place at the table of elites. Was it worth it?

We conform with difficulty, saving up meager funds and scrappy equipment over a couple of years in the face of low-income ups and downs to do a rushed recording in a cheap studio that never gets quite right, only to run up against a friendly “keep trying” wall among the hyper-consumers who blog, review, and stream as gatekeepers of the fashionably conformist pseudo-underground. Maybe we keep at it for a decade, or more, and finally put out something that gets a little play, and we actually break even on one tour. Was it worth it?

My primary impulse is not condemnation but liberation and self-realization. I believe that’s what we’re here for, and that’s what art is for. I’m not looking to engineer some forced-equality system from the top down; I still agree with Bernie, real change always happens from the bottom on up. But what I see in music are social systems that, by design and by emergent behavioral patterns, empower a very few, excluding and implying struggle, failure, and illegitimacy for the many. How is it possible for us self-selected progressive creative types to address the forces of inequality at all in our world, if we don’t dare address them in art? I don’t mean address inequality as a topic, but as a fabric, in the way we share and produce and listen to one another’s work. Cooperative, inclusive art which fosters idiosyncrasy is not some fantasy; it’s been done. If we can’t break away from our addiction to pyramid-like cultural hierarchies in this most volitional and communal of all social activities, why should we expect anyone else to do so in industry, in finance, in government?

Do we need to have PhD’s to compose and play music? No, of course not; we can remember that the most transformative music of the 20th century came from brilliant, un-credentialed African-Americans in New Orleans who looked to their own community (in economic and social ways as well as artistic) and invented jazz, eclipsing with fecund exuberance and virtuosity all of the self-important and strained gyrations of rich white 20th century “serious music”.

Do we need to have commercial production values and exhaustive marketing on par with the entertainment industry to make records that matter? Not inherently: some of us still remember the golden age of college radio, or of various less-bankrolled phases in local undergrounds, when *real* idiosyncrasy and lo-fi production coupled with an actual message (not craptastic navel-gazing soaked in reverb) were embraced precisely because they were so evidently non-conformist and non-corporate.

Somewhere between the dry white paper of privileged fine arts and the unctuous shiny plastic of indie-tainment there are actual people. I.e., us. Maybe if we stop looking at what everyone else is looking at – the credentials and institutional committees, or the production values and precious marketing – and actually look at each other, we’ll find a way to build community with our art, and to include and empower everyone here, now, in this city and this scene. Art can lead the way in building new inclusive models of community; why should we accept the way of aristocracy or the way of the mass market? Maybe we’ll invent the next great cultural explosion because we reject the notion that an expert can tell us what’s possible based on a narrow aristocracy-first view of history. Or we’ll just buzz the really weird stuff and see it become truly original, while laughing at the conformity of records that all sound merely “current”. We’ll stop giving a shit about who’s got daddy’s money – where the buck of patriarchy truly stops – and find other ways to do things. If we can’t do this, then let’s stop pretending anyone else can.

Art is a symbol, a bellwether, not just in content but in how it is produced and shared. Look around: we’re all continuous enablers of systems of power where each person’s default identity is not creator but consumer. Our eyes and ears are like voracious demons from some Miyazaki film, gobbling up all that flows through our feeds and podcasts. We exemplify the pervasive assumption on which all the world’s pyramid schemes rely: we must swallow what’s given unless by some magical fiat we find ourselves in the board room or the control room, an insider at last, flush with enough cash to create something for the feeding frenzy.

In the shitshow of extreme wealth inequality, our hands – the hands of musicians known and unknown, working within these exclusionary systems and impulses, still trying to “make it” – are just as dirty as any Wall Street banker’s.


Christopher Corbell is the founder of Muse:forward. He writes and produces underground opera and art-song in Portland, Oregon through his company Cult of Orpheus.