David Rovics is a musician and activist who routinely posts essays on music and culture at his blog. The following essay, “The Cultural 1%,” was recently published at his blog and circulated to readers via his email with the invitation to repost it. So we’re taking Rovics up on that invitation and posting his essay below. It is, as is common for him, thoughtfully provocative.
Amy Goodman and many others have referred to the corporate media as an “echo chamber,” which is a very accurate metaphor. Mostly privileged, overpaid white men who fall within a narrowly-constrained political spectrum pretend to have debates, while failing to even discuss most of the most pressing issues of the day. When they need something to back up an argument, they quote each other.
While those of us who know who pays the salaries of these talking heads can dismiss their nonsensical blather as what it is — the things corporate stooges will say to stay on the payroll of Fox or CNN — their influence on society at large cannot be dismissed so easily. Many well-meaning people believe and trust the opinions of these intellectual prostitutes, and then we inevitably have to listen to our friends, neighbors and relatives linking the crime rate to immigration, questioning the existence of climate change, or expressing unfounded fears about the Iranian nuclear program. In society, these conversations are all within norms established by the corporate media. Discussions about, say, a 99% reduction in military spending, multiplying education spending nationally by ten times or an absolutely massive increase in the tax rate of the rich — moves that many progressive intellects would say are not only sensible but necessary national priorities — are way outside t! he bounds of acceptable conversation.
There is also an echo chamber in the realm of culture. Of course there are forces that counter it to one degree or another — such as, by nature, the internet, and to a certain extent community media and the inherent drive of humans to create new music and art. But when ignored — when it’s not consciously opposed — the cultural echo chamber easily replicates itself within the internet, community media and society at large.
The Cultural Echo Chamber
In its simple form it goes like this. Community radio is sometimes really good, but it’s usually staffed almost entirely by volunteers who often have a taste in music that is too eclectic for most listeners to handle. There used to be another alternative, before my time, which was the phenomenon of independently-owned, for-profit radio stations that, although in the business of selling advertising, had a lot of leeway to play a far wider variety of locally-flavored music than the powers-that-be today will allow. But that’s in the past — what remains today of the independent FM spectrum is a monolithic corporation called Clearchannel, and a tiny handful of massive record labels that provide them with 100% of their extremely limited content.
Listening to these radio stations, watching sitcoms on TV, or reading the major newspapers, you will rarely if ever come across a mention of recording artists who are not what they call “celebrities” — people who have at some point had a chart-topping song, or at least a song in the charts. It would often seem that artists who have not sold at least a million records simply do not exist — not only are they not played on the radio, they are not even part of the discourse.
A recent article in the New York Times is typical. James C. McKinley Jr. wrote an article that makes a point that has been made by many others in the big media in recent months, one that is patently ridiculous — that the Occupy movement lacks a musical culture, that it lacks an “anthem.” He mentions a couple major label artists who have written songs related to the movement, and then basically rests his case that the movement lacks cultural expression. What he is doing is typical, in that this sad excuse for a journalist is apparently unable to search the internet or to do any research that takes him beyond the Billboard charts. Because if it hasn’t been in the charts, it doesn’t exist, it’s not worth mentioning, or maybe it’s just too hard to find when you’re a busy man working for such an important paper.
Now, once a musician manages to get into the echo chamber they might get bounced around a few times before getting ejected. I recently had this experience in a very small way, and there was nothing mysterious about it. The corporate media has been giving a lot of well-deserved attention to the Occupy movement in the past couple months. At a rally in Washington, DC in October that I sang at there was a lot of press. I’ve sung at a lot of far larger rallies where there was virtually no press present, but at this one there was a line of news vans two blocks’ long running their generators all afternoon, and lots of big, fancy cameras pointed at the stage. My singing at the protest was featured on NPR, BBC, CBC and other networks around the world. As a direct result of these 15 seconds of fame I got a small flurry of calls from reporters from corporate, public and community media from around the world. Articles published in the Washington Post and on MTV’s website then bou! nced around the internet for a few more weeks, resulting in more media interest. The echo chamber at work — I was temporarily relevant as a musician by virtue of the fact that my existence had been acknowledged by someone who mattered. Only weeks after me, Emma’s Revolution and Rebel Diaz were featured on the cover of the Style section of the Washington Post, James C. McKinley Jr. is once again asking in the pages of the New York Times, “where are the protest musicians?”
“Something Everybody Knows”
Like it or not, those of us who grew up in the US (and many other countries) have been pretty much swimming in corporate shit all our lives. The music of Michael Jackson, Toby Keith or Lady Gaga is as unavoidable as Santa Claus, car commercials or billboards advertising the latest Disney movie. Inevitably, though, we grow attached to the music we heard when we were teenagers, even if we were basically listening to it against our will. So while I was repulsed by the pop music that most of my schoolmates were listening to in high school in the early 1980’s, now when I inadvertently have run-in with Madonna, Cyndi Lauper or Def Leppard, I am filled with warm feelings and positive associations — warm summer days illegally swimming in the local reservoir, skipping school, my first kiss. That’s how memory works.
Sometimes older people at my shows ask me why I don’t write songs that are easy to sing along with. They tell me how fondly they remember singing songs together in the 60’s, when everybody knew the words to “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” “The Times They Are A’Changin’,” or “We Shall Overcome.” The truth is, though, that perceptions aside, many of my songs are at least as easy to sing along with as any Bob Dylan song. The catch is, with any song you want to sing along with, you have to know it first. So whereas I might sing at a rally in Copenhagen and clearly hear hundreds of people singing along to one of my songs, I may sing at a rally in my home town of Portland, Oregon, and hear only a handful singing with me. Inevitably, someone from the crowd will ask if I can sing something everybody knows — by which they mean, of course, something that sold millions of records and became part of popular culture as a result.
The desire for the familiar is perfectly understandable, human, and ain’t going anywhere. But how music becomes familiar, what music becomes familiar, and how wide a variety of music becomes familiar, these are questions that will be determined by the cultural echo chamber — as well as by whatever alternative efforts may or may not exist to disseminate culture, such as alternative media, unions and other progressive organizations. Within an organization that’s somehow or other involved with disseminating culture, if a specific effort is not made to not take part in the cultural echo chamber, the echo chamber will often become the default.
The Example of Democracy Now!
Baltimore-based singer-songwriter Ryan Harvey wrote a response in Truthout to James C. McKinley Jr.’s New York Times article, in which he provided a good list of a couple dozen songwriters and bands from various musical genres who are working hard recording songs and making records about the times we’re in, doing shows, tours, visiting and playing at Occupy encampments and other political and cultural venues around the country and the world. Here’s some of what Ryan wrote:
“A quick glance at the shirts and patches of people at any of the Wall Street-inspired occupations around the country will surely turn up popular band logos that have inspired those participating in the protests, whether they are punk outfits like Rise Against, Propagandi, and Strike Anywhere, or hip-hop artists like Lupe Fiasco, The Coup, and Talib Kweli.
“If you asked any of these participants what music they are motivated or educated by, you will likely be exposed to a vibrant, hard-working underground of artists that have for years enjoyed much popularity within social movements in the US and around the world. This underground includes poets, MCs, folk-singers, DJs, electronic producers, Son Jarocho bands, drag troupes, choirs, punk and pop bands, and more.
“Artists like us at Riot-Folk and our musical allies like Rebel Diaz, Broadcast Live, Taina Asili, The Coup, Majesty, Son del Centro, David Rovics, Emma’s Revolution, Invincible, The Foundation, Born In A Cent, Son of Nun, Emcee Lynx, Las Krudas, Final Outlaw, The Wild, Climbing Poetry, Jim Page, The Readnex Poetry Squad, Blackfire, Intikana, Hot Mess, Mischief Brew, Olmeca, Head-Roc, Spiritchild, Defiance Ohio, Here’s To The Long Haul, From The Depths, and Riders Against the Storm — just to name a few — have all been influential forces in social circles that have participated in the recent occupations.”
As I was reading Ryan’s list of musicians I was thinking of how many other bands and other performers I could add to that, from the US and other countries. And I was thinking, wow, of all those artists Ryan listed I think I and maybe one other are the only ones to have ever been played during a music break on Democracy Now!, and the most recently-written song of mine that they’ve played was written in 2004. I’ve got a hundred other songs about current events since then, as do most of the folks he listed.
Now of course at this point one might legitimately say who cares what they play during their little music breaks? But I decided to do a little study of the music breaks during the show, evidence I’m sure of an unhealthy obsession on my part, and after a month of keeping track of all the music breaks I determined that a majority of the artists featured were major label artists, most of whom had at some point had a hit and sold a million records. To put this in perspective, fewer than 1% of CDs produced in a given year even sell a thousand records. So most working musicians are already within the 1% of CD-selling musicians. The ones among them who produce a chart-topping hit on a major label represent a tiny fraction of that 1%.
To be sure, many of the song selections were somehow thematically related to the story before or to the one coming up, and the music represented some of the best stuff ever in my opinion, as well as a rich ethnic and stylistic diversity. To be sure, some of the best artists ever are and have been on major labels, and they should certainly not be punished for their success (don’t worry, they won’t be). But it is nonetheless sobering to add up the songs and realize that, along with playing me and some other independent artists, the majority of the songs played were recorded by very famous people. I also noticed that many of the very famous artists were dead.
Now there’s nothing wrong with dead artists — their art is still great, if it was when they were alive. But while part of the reason to have an author of a new book on a show is to feature the subject matter of the book, the other objective is to help the author sell those books and get audiences along the way on their book tour. Music breaks on a show as popular as that can very effectively work that way for musicians, and I know from experience with national radio broadcasts in several countries, including DN. So it seems a shame if too many of the music breaks feature artists that are too famous to need the publicity, and often also too dead to have a tour or a new CD to promote.
Here’s another quote from Ryan’s response to the Times:
“McKinley does correctly mention artists like Tom Morello and Anti-Flag, who have been among a crew of dedicated, mostly mainstream artists that have also spent time within movements for social justice. That crew also includes people like Dead Prez, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Immortal Technique, Eddie Vedder, The Flobots, State Radio, and others.”
Now this is a shorter list, but in it we have three recent live musical guests on DN — Tom Morello, Billy Bragg and Steve Earle. To the short list of live musical guests DN has had in recent years you can add Buffy Sainte Marie and Pete Seeger. I love all these artists, but it is nonetheless the case that all of them have at some point in their careers had chart-topping hits and had record sales in the millions. (The only non-chart-topping musician to appear as a guest on the show in recent years as far as I recall is Boots Riley, and he was there with Tom Morello.)
This is just an example, and of course we’re talking about a news show here, a fantastic one at that, and I don’t want to blow this example out of proportion. When a producer or whoever is under pressure to quickly pick a music break and they want to find one on a certain theme, they are likely going to include songs that they are familiar with, ones that are easier to find. In order to break that pattern it has to be a priority thrown into the mix. Something like this is done by radio stations around the world who are required by law to have a certain percentage of local music content included in each broadcast, it can’t all be familiar stuff from LA. When this kind of thing is not required (by law or by applying the principle voluntarily) the default can easily end up being mostly bigger-name artists.
The Fallacy of the Open Mike
The internet has been the best thing for independent musicians — that is, the 99% of working musicians, who make a living touring and selling maybe a few thousand CDs in a year, doing shows for crowds in the dozens or maybe in the hundreds, more at festivals if they’re lucky. For decades now we’ve had no hope of large-scale airplay on radio stations long ago corporatized and pre-programmed by computer across the country. The internet, along with community media and live concerts, is the way our music gets out there.
But those who pronounce the music industry dead or big media irrelevant do so very prematurely. True, the internet is an amazing way to reach your fans and find new ones. But if you take a quick look at some of the music that gets viewed the most on YouTube, it’s generally artists that have benefitted from lots of commercial press attention over the years. You can comment all you want on Facebook pages and post all the music videos you want on YouTube, and that’s great and maybe some of that stuff will go viral, for sure, but it’s generally no replacement for what happens when you get consistent airplay on popular radio shows or featured in a popular newspaper. People still want editors — probably now more than ever. Whether it’s information or music, we are inundated, and we value those who are willing to analyze what’s out there and give us some of the best bits.
Part of the Solution: Being Aware of the Problem
Within the realm of very famous artists there exists a wide spectrum of politics, and it is certainly possible to find eloquent voices representing various political perspectives in song and in prose, along with everything else. But if you’re writing for a newspaper or choosing music for a radio show, whether a big national outfit or a little community station with a 10 watt signal, you are in a position to choose whether to recreate the cultural echo chamber or strike out beyond it. You choose whether to stick with the familiar or introduce yourself and your constituents to new things. You choose whether to explore only the first ten results on Google or look at the next ten as well.