IASPM-US Interview Series: Timothy Taylor, The Sounds of Capitalism

by justindburton on April 15, 2013


In his book The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture, Timothy D. Taylor uncovers the veiled history of music used in advertising in the United States. Beginning with music’s role in early radio broadcasts, Taylor synthesizes musical characteristics of particular eras with ever-evolving approaches to making and using music for the purposes of advertising. From early radio broadcasts of the Clicquot Club Eskimos (example 1.2) to Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas,” (example 7.3), Taylor provides a detailed account of the story of music and advertising. The Sounds of Capitalism stands as a landmark as the first book to tell the story of advertising music. To purchase The Sounds of Capitalism and hear all accompanying musical examples, click on the following link: http://www.soundsofcapitalism.com

Sounds of Capitalism

Josh Ottum: In the introduction, you lay out your argument that uses of music in advertising “has helped make us into the consumers we are….” (p.2) A few pages later you mention Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music as a notable exception to the lack of writing connecting music to capitalism. Do you connect with Attali’s notion of music functioning as a prophetic device? And can you expand on the idea of music’s effectiveness as a tool for advertisers?

Timothy D. Taylor: When I first read Attali’s book, it blew my mind. There’s a lot of stuff in that book that I thought that was just incredibly smart and interesting. Like the way that he interprets the story of the Pied Piper, etc. The way I was trained is the way we were all trained back in the day, and is still pretty true in most Musicology departments, is that it’s all about the music itself and you’re not given much theory at all. I read Attali’s book on my own. I must’ve read Marx and some Adorno back then, but Attali just seemed to make the story more compelling…. Today there is a lot I’d disagree with although the book is pretty old. And I think I would credit Adorno more than I did when looking at the project of music and capitalism.  There is less attention paid to the fact that one of Adorno’s major projects over decades was to look at the production and consumption of music in capitalist culture. With respect to what my book does, I have to say, I really struggled with the theoretical perspective in the book because nobody knew that history except me when I was writing it. Some people knew bits of it, like Bethany Klein knows all the stuff about licensing in the book that she wrote, but nobody knew the overall history of music and advertising, including topics dealing with medicine shows and sheet music, etc.. So, I made a conscious decision to let the historical narrative that I was trying to tell be the main focus and not spend a whole lot of time talking about, or theorizing about, American consumer capitalism until the last chapter, after the historical narrative has concluded. My hope is that the book tells a history in a way that’s compelling. It’s also my hope that people understand the role that music used in advertising played not just in the establishment of consumer culture, but in the maintenance and growth of consumer culture. Music did pay a powerful role in this process. I wanted to tell this historical narrative which nobody knew….

It’s amazing the story has not been told…it’s such a familiar sound! Music and its connection to capitalism is ingrained in the America’s consciousness. Your book does an excellent job at starting the conversation.

Thanks. I think the reason why this music hasn’t been studied much before, and there is very little literature on it at all, is that in a conventional music or musicology department most people still study canonical music or music by famous figures in rock or jazz. Ethnomusicologists increasingly study music of their own culture but it’s often, again, music by their own people, or it’s music by an ethnic enclave in a city. So, advertising music just fell through the cracks.

A few years ago the independent record label Asthmatic Kitty began a music library series. Described as “a series of instrumental albums designed for possible use in films and television, background sounds for home or office, or personal needs, such as relaxation, stimulation, meditation, concentration, or elevation,” we find a record label taking aesthetic cues from models of making music for specific purposes, often connected to acts of lifestyle and consumption. Growing interest in the compositional traits and production values of ad music points to an appreciation for the work outside of its original context. Do you see music done for advertising as having its own sound?

In the early days of radio programs, before the jingle, the music sounded like the popular music of the day. That sound lasted well into the jingle era, even after the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. But for two or three decades, there was a particular sound you wouldn’t mistake for anything other than a jingle or advertising music. You’d have a quartet of vocalists or maybe more, with a jazz-inflected group of instrumentalists, doing music that was kind of retro, but not so retro that you would mistake that sound for the Andrews Sisters, or another group. This sound lasted a long time. People also talk about the sound of “The Madison Avenue Choir,” which I write about in the book, which included singers with impeccable diction because you had to pronounce the name of the product correctly and flawlessly. This sound connects to Michael Schudson’s idea of capitalist realism, and I believe we had it in music for at least a few decades. Given the current interest in all things retro and the resurgence of vinyl consumption, it makes perfect sense that labels such as Asthmatic Kitty and other boutique labels would be embracing this aesthetic.


As a film and TV composer myself, I have always been struck by the recurring theme of agencies asking for something that sounds like “X” band or artist. In your book, you clearly outline the trajectory of advertising music’s shift from following trends towards the creation of original, compelling content. Still, there remain a number of recent cases where “demo love,” as Josh Rabinowitz calls it, takes over and the resulting music has a soundalike quality (often resulting in a finale involving the sound of a gavel or an out-of-court settlement). Did you get a sense from your research of how this idea functions in the world of today’s commercial composers?  

A bunch of people I interviewed told me that they would be told by a client that “we want a song that sounds just like ‘X’,” and they were supposed to produce it. One person at a jingle house in New York told me they think they have to get everything vetted by a musicologist before doing the work. When I was doing the research for the book, people seemed to be more concerned about licensing and about how that would affect their work. The days of the soundalike seem to be on the way out.

At the end of the book you provide an update to Bourdieu’s conception of the new petite bourgeoisie. A few of the aspects you highlight are issues of “mediating cultural forms and…the attitudes held toward consumption.” Can you offer your vision of how you see the relationship between advertising and music evolving as we head into the future?

I think there’ll be more of the same: convergence of commerce and content. The record industry has been really stupid about how to deal with digital technologies. They’ve been so focused on trying to maximize profits in the ways they always had that they’ve been completely superseded by everyone else. It’s astonishing to me that you could stream films on Netflix years before you could stream music on Spotify or Rdio. The advertising industry has been much smarter about filling the gap. They play important roles as both A&R people and as tastemakers.  I think the advertising industry will become more and more important, not just in A&R, but in terms of production. I don’t know if the music industry will figure out how to make a profit again other than focusing on tours and merchandise. Gradually, I think they’re going to leave recording up to advertising and film industries. The advertising industry is full of hip, young people who listen to interesting stuff and who have an effective way of getting it out there. And the music industry, more and more, is populated by people with an MBA who may not know about music and they’re not in the position to find the next hip or cool things that’s going to sell.

Good point. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

When people ask me about the state and future of the music industry, it can sound pessimistic. However, there are tons of interesting indie labels. I’ve been studying a couple of record labels locally, one of them being Burger Records. A lot of these labels and musicians are committed to staying outside the mainstream industry and doing it on their own terms. To me that’s a positive thing. And I also think we shouldn’t forget all the people out there that are just making music for pleasure, who aren’t trying to make money out of it at all. The present (and future) of music making is healthy. It’s just that once you decide to try to make a living from music…well, then things can begin to look pretty bleak. But, last I heard musical instrument sales were up and I think there is a lot to be happy about for the future.

Agreed. Technology has definitely democratized the situation. It brings us back to Attali’s final chapter “Composing,” where he paints a picture of a creative, communal model in which the players are participating in postures that operate outside of capitalistic tendencies. What are you working on now?

This book took 11 years and I did around 50 interviews. The plan when I finished was to do an ethnography of a music house here in Los Angeles. It turned out to be too big of a project and I decided an ethnography should be its own thing. That’s what I was going to do next and then Ron Radano and Phil Bohlman asked me to contribute to a series for U of Chicago Press called “Big Ideas In Music.” So I said, “OK, music and capitalism!” So I felt I’ve reached a stage in life and career where a broader, more “theoretical book” was the right thing to do for me. I look back at my earlier work and I see I was trying to think about capitalism in various ways but I wasn’t in an intellectual position to articulate it. But now I can. The book will deal with neoliberal capitalism of the last few decades and what this has meant for the nature of the music business. It will also address issues of technology and globalization. So on some level it’ll synthesize some of my earlier work but everything in the book will be new.

Fascinating. I look forward to it. Thanks so much for your time, Tim.

Sure, my pleasure!


Timothy D. Taylor is a Professor in the Departments of Ethnomusicology and Musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Global Pop: World Music, World Markets (Routledge, 1997), Strange Sounds: Music, Technology and Culture (Routledge, 2001), and Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World (Duke, 2007), and Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio, co-edited with Mark Katz and Tony Grajeda (Duke 2012), as well as numerous articles on various popular musics, classical musics, and social/cultural theory.

Josh Ottum holds an MFA in Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology from UC Irvine and is currently a PhD student in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University. His research interests include Southern California, Van Dyke Parks, library music, and synthesizers. As a musician, Josh has released multiple records on various labels, completed numerous international tours, and has had music appear on MTV, AMC’s Mad Men, and NPR.

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