Perfect Sound Forever

Popular Music and the Corporate Machine

Ryan Theis (July 1997)

When Green Day signed on to Reprise Records in 1994 and released "Dookie," their first album on a major corporate label, they were denounced by a large segment of the punk rock scene. This west-coast pop-core band had originally released its material on the Berkely-based Lookout label, now it was doing videos for MTV. Newsgroups such as alt.punk were plastered with angry rants about the band's corporate complicity. Some went so far as to claim that Green Day was "not punk." While many might disagree with such a statement, one thing was unanimous - Green Day had "sold out."

Of course, punk rock is not the only genre of popular music vulnerable to this phenomenon, and Green Day isn't the only band to have made sacrifices for the big-name scene. Selling out is applicable to any style of music with money-making potential. Any band that dares to approximate the sounds of the MTV generation may hear from the likes of Warner Bros. and Viacom.

But what, exactly, does it mean to "sell out"? The term itself highlights the gains that can be made from it - namely, money, and greater audience (which translates into more money). Essentially, if the pursuit of money replaces creative expression as the primary goal in making music, then the musicians involved are considered to have sold out. This statement clearly points to the fact that selling out, or commodification, can occur in not just popular music, but all forms of creative expression. Many people believe that Quentin Tarantino sold out in his transition from Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction. Popular writers such as Stephen King have been charged with prioritizing money over expression, especially with regard to their roles in the movie-versions of their texts.

That is, in my opinion, an oversimpified answer to a very important question. When confronted with this answer, any critic is justified in stating "so what?" In many cases, bands that sign onto major labels produce music that seems unchanged from their days of local shows and 7" splits. If the output of creative expression remains the same, it becomes difficult to see where the desire for money had any effect upon it.

A more decisive answer lies in the fact that the creative value of a piece of music (or for any work of art for that matter) is not determined by its output alone. To determine whether a group of musicians has sacrificed expression, it becomes necessary to analyze two types of value that apply to expression - intrinsic and extrinsic.

Defining the Terms

For popular music, and all other forms of creative endeavor, intrinsic value is a direct function of expression. It is determined from the meaning of the music to the musicians themselves - why they chose to express themselves in their particular manner. Intrinsic value deals with the social messages, historical, personal, and cultural significance inherent in the music. For instance, the more music has to say about the culture it originates from, the greater its intrinsic value. Music that has been inspired by the musician's personal tragedies would also have a high intrinsic value. This value-class does not change with time. It is derived from the original, objective meaning of the music, which remains the same since the day it was composed.

Extrinsic value is determined by the audience. The greater the number of people who find meaning and value in a piece of music, the greater its extrinsic value. This value-class is culturally determined. That is, the values of the culture that composes the audience play into it. As these values change through time, so does the extrinsic value of the piece they're being applied to. As an example, the music of Beethoven, having emerged from a less flamboyant scene of Classical composers, originally had a lower extrinsic value. As a transitional form from Classical to Romantic, it did not conform to many Classical standards. But when the Romantic style flourished with the efforts of Schubert and Schumann, these old standards gave way, and Beethoven's music seemed to conform well to an audience's expectations. In this way, the value of Beethoven's music increased extrinsically through time.

Certain standards exist for popular music today, without which a piece of music will have a lower extrinsic value. Among these are the presence of a discernible melody and a uniform time signature - usually 4:4. Key changes, if any, are usually limited to one. Recorded music must have a high sound quality, and include absolutely no mistakes. The quality of vocals differs from genre to genre, but they must be loud enough to be heard, if not understood. And, of course, popular music must meet ideological standards as well. Lyrics that express an ideology that is unacceptable to society as a whole (or to an official representation, as determined by the government, the corporate world, and the media) will bring down the extrinsic value of a piece of music. It is in this way that a band such as Slayer, which includes references to Satanism and horrific slaughter (both being devalued in our society enough to extrinsically decrease the value of the music), produces music with a lower extrinsic value. Ideological standards are probably the most dynamic of all those I have mentioned, and a great deal of music heard on the radio today would have had a much lower extrinsic value 50 years ago. Jill Sobule, whose music often depicts bisexuality and bi-curiousity, provides a good example of this trend. These themes certainly would not have been featured on MTV had it existed 50 years ago.

Applying the Definitions

In general, when music is commodified, its intrinsic value decreases. As defined, intrinsic value is fully a function of artistic expression. But of the purposes for commodifying music, expression is not one of them. A musician is free to compose or create regardless of whether carried by an independent or a corporate label. The only puposes for making music a commodity, as stated before, is to make money. This money is made by not just the musicians themselves, but by the major producers, distributors, retailers, and networks which market, sell, and air the music. It is here where intrinsic value is lost - the fact that other people, whose concerns lie not in creative expression, but in profit alone, are making money off of the music. Thus, citing the critic's example, even if a musician's work remains unchanged in expression from previous, independently released work, and unless the musician had no choice in the matter, anything released into the corporate machine has lost some intrinsic value. In such a situation, the desire for money may not replace creative expression, but it certainly has a negative effect upon the value of that expression.

This is simply an argument for showing how all commodified music loses value. In most concrete examples, however, the amount of intrinsic value lost is much higher, and there is usually a dynamic relationship between the intrinsic and extrinsic values of music sold to corporate America. Such relationships are many and varied, depending upon the circumstances from which they arose. Each of the following bands exemplifies a different intrinsic/extrinsic dynamic.

GREEN DAY: This band illustrates the most common "selling out" scenario - that of music which gains extrinsic value and loses intrinsic value. It illustates corporate capitalization off of musical "fringe" groups, or "turning rebellion into money", as the Clash put it. When fringe styles of music gain enough popularity (usually among teenagers) to attract the attention of corporate labels, the forerunners of these styles are approached with big-name record deals. Green Day was one such band.

Most fringe styles include musical elements which keep them from becoming mainstream - elements that do not conform to popular standards. In technical jargon, they have a lower extrinsic value than popular radio music. When corporate labels take up a fringe group, the first course of action is to raise the extrinsic value of the music, or "clean it up", as some would put it.

When Dookie, Green Day's first Reprise release, is compared with material released on Lookout, this musical clean-up becomes evident. The old material, in a word, is raw. Mistakes occasionally occur in the drum line, Billie Joe hits some foul notes, and many of the second vocal lines are distorted or undermiked. All of these elements are negative from the perspective of popular music values, and none of them occur on Dookie. The increase in extrinsic value is fairly obvious.

It can be argued, however, that "rawness" is an element inherent to punk rock music. Sloppy drum rhythms and distorted vocals certainly are not major concerns to the musicians, and are sometimes encouraged. In this sense, rawness becomes a defining element of punk rock, and is significant to the punk subculture. When Reprise replaced Green Day's raw sound with a more MTV-friendly sound, it also removed a significant cultural element, thus decreasing its intrinsic value.

The intrinsic loss of value in Dookie is most apparent, however, when one considers the fact that punk rock is also traditionally anti-corporate. Anarchist and socialist ideologies have been defining cultural elements for the punk scene since its beginnings, and when such a band yields itself to a profit-driven system, it creates a contradiction that makes a complete farce of the music. These ideologies may not have made their way into Green Day's lyrics, but they are still characteristics of the scene from which Green Day hails. When a corporate label markets any music as "punk," that music has automatically lost some intrinsic value because of it.

NIRVANA: Cleaning up the sound of fringe styles for the mass-media seems to be popular among corporate labels these days. The Seattle-based grunge scene has been commodified in the same manner as California pop-core. All one needs to do is listen to Nirvana's first album, Bleach (first released on Sub Pop in 1989), and compare the music to that released later on the Geffen labels. Like the material Green Day released on Lookout, Bleach contains a certain amount of noise and discordance that are inherent to grunge music. These culturally significant elements are absent on both Nevermind and In Utero (with the possible exception of "Endless, Nameless," the final track on Nevermind), and their absence was fully intentional.

The result was a wave of popular radio music that swept over the international youth culture and became one of Geffen's primary money-making machines. Indeed, the inertia of the Nirvana phenomenon has maintained a scene of commodified "grunge"-like music that continues to dominate MTV and popular radio. Kurt Cobain himself, in his suicide note, seems to have understood the degradation of creativity caused by this corporate scene:

" ...the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and the embracement of your community has been proven to be very true. I haven't felt the excitement of listening to, as well as creating music, along with really writing something for many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things..."

METALLICA: Bands don't need to sign on to major labels in order to sell out. In many cases, commodification occurs well after a band has been established on a big label. This seems to have been the case for Metallica, which has been carried on the Elektra label since its release of Master of Puppets (its third album).

It was the fifth album, Metallica, that saw a loss in intrinsic value for the band's music. Like Green Day, this loss was accompanied by an increase in extrinsic value. Unlike Green Day, there was no "cleaning up" involved. Any imperfections in the music featured on Kill Em All, Metallica's first album, were completely absent by the time their fourth album came out. This album, And Justice For All, was, in fact, extremely well orchestrated and produced. In this case, the style of music itself was under attack.

Presumably, Metallica's first style - speed metal, for which they are often credited the inventors - was losing its popularity, its money-making potential. With the release of their first MTV video, "One" (from And Justice...), Metallica already had one foot in the door for a complete makeover. It was the first video they made and sold to MTV (owned by multi-media giant Viacom) through the Elektra label. Selling any video to MTV through a major label is what I'd call a corporate exchange. The result was a new style - an album of songs that were much more radio-friendly. This style conformed to popular standards more than the traditional speed metal. The songs were shorter, more melodic, and you could dance to them without breaking something (they were slower). It was a change in style that increased the music's extrinsic value.

Intrinsic value was lost solely in the fact that the style change was most certainly made for Elektra. It can be argued that Metallica themselves grew bored of speed metal, and were looking for something new. But in such a case, it seems suspicious that the new style would be so radio-friendly, especially since the change certainly alienated many original Metallica fans. For the corporate machine within which the band had entangled itself, these lost fans were small numbers compared to the revenue increase the new style would bring. It was commodification that depreciated the intrinsic value of Metallica's music, not the style change itself.

FUGAZI: Many bands have changed their styles for purely personal reasons, and when such changes are not prompted by the pursuit of money, personal significance keeps the intrinsic value up. This seems to be the case for Fugazi, which has gradually changed its style since the release of Repeater (its first album). The independent label Dischord, operated by Fugazi front-man Ian Mackaye, has carried the band for all of its releases, including the last album Red Medicine. It was this last album which saw the most dramatic change in style for the band. This style, however, was not accompanied by a significant increase in extrinsic value (you won't hear them on the radio), and based on the fact that no corporate label is involved, no argument can be made for a loss in intrinsic value.

R.E.M.: Bands that have achieved the widest popularity are also the most likely to sign the biggest record deals. These deals are appealing to bands because they involve such large sums of money, and they're appealing to corporate labels because they involve contracts for multiple future albums. Given that a corporate label has adequate marketing resources, this is a way of ensuring a greater chance to profit from a big-name band. Regardless of the quality of material that's being put out, a very popular band, such as R.E.M., will always have a high minimum standard of buyers. The chances of maintaining a profit off of each individual album is fairly high, so if the first one doesn't bring in enough revenue, the subsequent productions will.

R.E.M.'s relationship with Warner Bros., as of last May, has involved two such deals, and the result has been a mixed-bag. The first contract provided for six albums. It was essentially a promise by the band that they had enough creative inertia to perform such a task. To that promise, the sub-text can be added, "If, at any time, we lose the creative inertia to produce truly expressive work, we'll put out what the listening public wants to hear." For such albums as Monster and Out of Time, that seems to have been the case - music produced not to satisfy creative urges, but to satisfy the terms of a contract.

These albums lack some of the truly meaningful pieces featured on such albums as Green and Life's Rich Pageant. Their songs have a high extrinsic value, featuring simple rhythms, coherent lyrics, and catchy choruses suitable for the radio. The albums do not feature anything like "Swan, Swan, Hummingbird" or "The Wrong Child," which have no drum lines (making them extrinsically lower in value), yet express meaningful themes of cultural and literary significance (making them intrinsically higher). These songs indicate that R.E.M. has the capacity to produce intrinsically worthwhile music, and with that in mind, the release of songs like "Bang and Blame" (from Monster) require some sort of explanation.

The answer, of course, lies in the Warner Bros. contract, a perfect example of how commodification depreciates intrinsic value. Milking an existing work of expression for as much profit as possible is bad enough; putting capital into the expression even before it is produced is a disaster waiting to happen. R.E.M.'s new contract with Warner Bros., signed last May, provides for five more albums (with $10-million advances for each of them). Whether R.E.M. has the capacity to keep from producing another album like Monster is, for the time, a question to be answered.