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New Highway, Same Hershey Bar

How new modes of production, such as the computer industry, generate new populist ideologies of distributing symbolic capital to find out where repressed discourses about democracy really lie, and why we find momentary glimpses of freedom in our own consumption.
Joel Schalit

Issue #18, January 1995

'After all, capitalist work arrangements have succeeded in appropriating the discourse of communism — an analysis of labor and its liberatory power -and reduced it to techniques of manipulation: 'Arbeit Macht Frei.'
— Felix Guattari and Toni Negri, Communists Like Us.

A great deal of attention has been placed recently upon the political implications of the information superhighway. From its capacity to facilitate the low-cost exchange of information to its ability to reconfigure the work place and reconstruct the geography of labor, the information superhighway is seen as having a remarkable potential to reshape how we live our lives, in what manner we are forced to consume goods that we produce ourselves, and in its capacity to demolish the traditional work space. The possibilities it holds out in this regard seem eminently attractive because the superhighway literally delivers on what it promises: An elimination of the physical distance between home and work; an easing of consumption and the time expended consuming what one produces; and the integration of leisure with the tools of labor in the form of multi-media computers, CD-ROM, computer games, and cultural activities such as watching movies and listening to music.

Even though it is crucial to see the liberatory potential inherent in such a remarkable transformation of everyday life it is important to recall Marx's statement in The Eighteenth Brumaire that history often repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. While the perpetual transformation of capitalist modes of production continually offers increasing opportunities to emancipate the individual from the necessity of performing tasks that inhibit self-development, these new modes continue to exist within an economic context in which all historical developments in modes of production continue to work together and complement one another rather than replace each other. In the case of the information superhighway we have a new instantiation of an old problem, precisely being one in which we misconstrue the liberatory possibilities that a new form of production offers and superimpose the freedom it holds out to us on all other aspects of the division of labor. Essentially we ontologize a new, more superior mode of production by believing that it will transform all other productive practices, when in fact it merely redistributes them among different nations, ethnicities and classes.

An excellent example of how this process occurs can be found in the recent hoopla surrounding the ability to broadcast music through a medium distinct from radio or television: The computer. The introduction of music libraries on the Internet by record companies and reconfigured radio stations also known as music servers has radically differentiated the dissemination of popular music. From the introduction of computers used to store music that can be recorded onto a blank CD once one has decided to purchase it, to the ability to broadcast music from a computer while it is linked up via modem to a mainframe where music is kept, the whole petite-bourgeois and corporate structure of the production and distribution of cultural goods has changed radically. What has emerged from the confusion over what this new centralization of entertainment resources means is a one-sided embracement of the labor saving, cost-cutting, anti-capitalist meaning of the new mode of production that computer-delivered music arises out of. If we are to take advantage of what we know to be truly emancipatory about a new form of production, then it is also necessary to acknowledge that we also understand its ideological meaning. Otherwise we would continue to repeat the time old practice of living under the delusion of older forms of domination without recognizing the ideological distinctions between old and new forms of labor.

The New Universe of Profitablity

In March 1994 The San Francisco Examiner ran a feature piece in its Sunday arts section on two undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz who had created a computerized music service which for the first time would allow computer users to listen to new, underground music over the telephone lines using their computer modems. All you needed was a sound card in your computer, and voila, you could listen to just about any independent rock band imaginable. Titled 'The International Underground Music Access' server, it inspired the creation of a plethora of similar computerized radio station equivalents on the information superhighway. Now nearly every independent and major label has their own Internet address. While some of these sites allow you to listen to new releases on a particular label such as the IUMA, other label sites are merely places where you can find information about upcoming releases and pricing information on currently in stock label product. As the Platonic form of the music server, the IUMA not only provides access to entire selections of new releases, it also provides access to them through label specific pull-down icons, such as Teenbeat and Dischord records, as well as stock portfolios of unsigned rock groups such as the IUMA's own house band The Ugly Mugs, along with many other similarly named groups.

The new universe of cybernetic possibility could not have come at a better time. As multinational entertainment conglomerates continued their massive takeover of the independent music business, the discovery of a new broadcasting infrastructure in personal computers, modem telephones, computer mainframes, and Internet access services gave the independent music business a new opportunity to deliver its goods and services. Outside the domain of a neutralized college radio industry, troublesome distributors that never pay on time, record store chains too discriminating to carry titles that were commercially accessible as far back as their inception, independent labels could now distribute themselves directly to their customers with as little interference as possible. Not only would distribution problems be eliminated, sharing profits with second party resellers would be removed, thus guaranteeing the greatest possible return on music sales short of paying taxes. While such an optimistic scenario has not been fully constructed, it is now possible to download entire songs to one's hardrive and then send them to a cassette deck through a digital to analog converter. It will still be a considerable amount of time before cheap enough hard drives capable of storing massive amounts of information at extremely high speeds will be available for home consumption that will eventually allow someone to copy an entire record's worth of material from digital library sites on the Internet previously called record labels.

It is too early to tell whether the new broadcasting infrastructure will spur the creation of new artistic movements such as eighties punk which initially stressed economic autonomy, popular ownership of forces of production such as independent record labels, and petite-bourgeois modes of distribution such as college radio stations, volunteer-run stores like Epicenter in San Francisco, and cooperative concert venues such as Berkeley's 924 Gilman Street and ABC No Rio in Manhattan. The welcome which computer-based music delivery systems has been accorded certainly suggests such potential. But as quickly as this new system was developed, it was also coopted because the IUMA innovated a new mode of music distribution amidst an already pre-determined economic hegemony in the form of the music business. The August issue of Billboard magazine featured an in-depth article about how IUMA founders Rob Lord and Jeff Patterson were already taking contracts with the David Geffen Company to promote certain alternative groups on the Internet such as Cell when the group planned to play club dates in the San Francisco Bay Area. Already industry pioneers before graduating from college, Lord and Patterson were previously invited to speak at the New Music Seminar in New York in July. Not since Apple Computer's Steve Wozniak sponsored the US Festival in 1982 had the computer business and the culture industry been so closely tied together. The only difference between the two events was the new centrality of computers to the production, distribution and promotion of new music as opposed to the US Festival's demonstration of the then newly found ability of the home computer business to sponsor the consumption of mass culture.

The Prehistory of Music Server Ideology

When analyzing the significance of Internet-based music delivery systems it is important to remember the intellectual, economic and technological history that makes the uncritical acceptance of home delivered music possible. On the level of superstructure, the idea of being able to dial into a music library to listen to new material has its precedent in the very ancient idea of a public space in which it was possible to experience the sharing of information, ideas and art free of the principle of exchange: the stoa, or the public square in Athens where philosophers would publicly announce their respective views of the world, argue, and in the words of contemporary critical theorists Jurgen Habermas, come to understand one another through dialogue. Modernism makes the same proclamation about culture, specifically that art has the same function that the stoa once did because within the limitless confines of post-feudal culture art has been given the freedom to critically reflect upon itself and society without the restrictive influences of the division of labor. When attempting to determine the ideological meaning of the new cybernetic freedom proclaimed by the music industry one must take special care to examine what new trends in forces of production make possible the continuous reconstitution of ancient myths and ideologies that disguise new modes of exchanging goods and services.

In the case of this Enlightenment ideology, it is intimately tied to the political philosophy implicit in and intrinsic to rock'n'roll. Rock purports the ability to empower anyone to speak for themselves because it contends that it speaks for everyone. This is what is meant by its continued reiteration of generation specific pop forms such as rockabilly, surf, psychedelic, acid rock, punk, metal, new wave, rap, grunge and techno. Ask anyone what they think of when you mention any particular sub-genre and they will do so by way of discussing its historical context and their relationship to it. Watching television frequently certainly affirms the historical specificity of rock's identity forming tendencies when every ten years or so you begin to notice ads for K-Tel compilations for such and such a decade's greatest hits. The practice began in the late seventies when the trend toward political conservativism in the United States triggered popular nostalgia for the sixties in the form of Freedom Rock, voice of generation-style compilations, featuring a heavy preponderance of faux protest songs such as the tepid Youngblood's sing-along 'Gotta Love One Another,' or Ten Years After's equally lukewarm expression of bourgeois humanism 'I'd Love To Change The World.' Generation X similarly has the 8 disc DIY series to document its own passing, as does the seventies generation in other post-K-Tel histories such as Rhino's Disco's Greatest Hits, as overdue as it may be.

If rock speaks for everyone than it also interpellates everyone as well. Nothing could be more appropriate to update rock's hegemony than by giving it over to a new distributive ontology such as the information superhighway. Not only would the new mode of production have a form of art that could legitimate itself through giving it a distinct form of cultural identification, it would also be able to assign to its own value a rootedness in the hollow Enlightenment ideology ascribed to by a great deal, if not all of rock'n'roll. In this sense we are able to recognize that the information superhighway is in reality of secondary consideration to the ideologies which it rearticulates. The only distinction would be that the highway itself will eventually develop its own particular ideology of empowerment that would inevitably have to be complemented by another even more efficient mode of production, which, due to its paradoxically labor-saving qualities would generate an even more comprehensive form of false consciousness than that which preceded it.

If capitalism has shown itself to be the only economic system capable of delivering the most amount of goods to the least amount of people, than what can be learned from the ideology of Internet music servers is that capitalism is capable of delivering the greatest amount of cultural goods to the largest amount of people. While the same could be probably said about all other cultural services based on the same computer driven ontology of distribution, music servers have their own distinct ideological function because they are endowed with the responsibility of disseminating the Enlightenment ideology of autonomy that is particular to rock'n'roll's interpellative hegemony. The same cannot be said of film or video to the same degree, because even though they may be distributed in the same manner, music's level of integration with everyday life is far more profound. A good example is the never ending development of fashions among teenagers. They are more apt to dress like their favorite rock star than they are to mimic the dress code of an actor or actress. Conversely one is more likely to notice how actor's costumes in films are always attempting to represent the tastes and trends of music scenes contemporaneous with their roles. One year Mel Gibson will have a punk hair cut, the next he'll resemble a member of The Eagles. On a more tragic note, try comparing how many adolescents committed suicide after River Phoenix died with how many killed themselves as a result of Kurt Cobain's death.

Can't Stop Loving You

Prior to the advent of cable television in the seventies, pop music was only broadcast on variety shows such those hosted by Ed Sullivan and The Smothers Brothers, featuring acts ranging from Elvis and The Beatles to The Byrds and Pete Seeger. Rock concerts were only broadcast by major network such as Woodstock was in 1969 before culminating in the BBC's music-only Top of The Pops, the precursor of MTV. By the early eighties the music industry had found in cable a perfect medium by which to promote new releases above and beyond taking out advertisements in magazines, mailing records to journalists for reviews, and sending bands out on tour to support their new albums. As much as cultural commentators initially lamented music television's new hegemony such as The Dead Kennedys did in 1985 with 'MTV Get Off The Air,' music videos never totally replaced vinyl, compact discs, cassettes, or live concerts. They only served to enhance the surplus value of these mediums through having established a differentiated avenue of exposure for them.

As much as music servers historically have in common with music television and the variety shows which preceded MTV, their function signifies a radical departure from the singularly promotional intention behind televised music. Music servers are primarily computerized retail outlets, and to a lesser extent archival sites similar to libraries. Their purpose is to distribute forms of music that cannot be found at chain retailers such as Sam Goodys, Music Warehouse, or Camelot Music. Hence, the IUMA specializes in the home delivery of underground music as opposed to pop, heavy metal, country, or alternative rock. Historically speaking it has to because the evolution of capitalist modes of distribution of goods and services is progressively differential, meaning that the goal of all advances in the provisions of goods and services is to diminish the labor necessary for consumption, and until recently the whole notion of underground rock has implied a higher degree of labor to produce and consume music than all ostensibly above ground rock sub-genres do. For example, you could always hear The Allman Brothers on a classic rock station but you had to go to the post office and purchase an international money order before sending payment to Avant Discs in Tokyo for the latest John Zorn collaboration with God is my Co-Pilot, Futsushita, or whomever Sonic Youth claims to be best friends with these days.

If the recent celebration of Internet music servers has anything positive to teach us, it is that we have to remember to appreciate the meaning behind the ideological investment we attribute to all technological breakthroughs in the development of methods to deliver more goods and more services to more people. From there we can begin extrapolating what it means to be able to deliver only one particular good, specifically culture, and then reflect upon why it is we can't distribute other things, such as food, wealth, education and shelter. All we have to do is reflect back upon how it is that new modes of production such as the computer industry generate new populist ideologies of distributing symbolic capital to find out where repressed discourses about democracy really lie and why we find momentary glimpses of freedom in our own consumption.

Joel Schalit is a Ph.D. student in the program in Social and Political Thought at York University in Ontario, Canada. He is also a member of the soon-to-be-fabulously-successful crank-call band, The Christal Methodists. He can be reached at the following Internet address:

Copyright © by Joel Schalit 1995. All rights reserved.