Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Musical Labor and Machine-Age Imperialism

By Sergio Ospina-Romero, Fritz Schenker, and Allison Wente

The discussions about music, labor, and value that have long accompanied the history of popular music have recently seemed to bubble to the surface across a range of media. From academic books and journals to documentaries, newspapers, and blog posts, a wide range of scholars, musicians, and listeners are increasingly exploring what it means to work as a musician. Some of these conversations reveal shifts in the division of labor in music-making by examining relatively new or largely overlooked careers, from playlist curators and top-liners to workers at CD manufacturing plants. High profile music copyright cases, strikes among major US orchestras, and widespread arguments about the merits of working for “exposure” among amateur and semi-professional musicians have sparked contentious debates about the changing value and worth of musical labor, or revealed shifting ideas about the relationships between the musician as artist and the musician as entrepreneur.<1> Many of these debates seem to stem from dramatic changes both in music technology and broader economic shifts. The rise of post-Fordist industries has inspired scholars across a range of disciplines to explore how models of “cultural work” – such as music-making – are increasingly becoming inspirations for managing those engaged in “immaterial labor.”<2>

Much of the recent debates about musical and other cultural work are historically specific to the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, but similar concerns appear in other decades, too. The rise of the commercial music industry in the early twentieth century famously inspired all sorts of anxiety and vitriol. This apprehension included everything from Adorno’s critiques of applying industrial models to the making of cultural forms to Sousa’s dramatically dire warning in 1906 about the harmful impact of player pianos and phonographs (couched within an article meant to inspire support against new copyright laws that would affect his own wallet). While there are important differences, there are also remarkable parallels between today and the early twentieth century, when new technologies and changes in markets were transforming the commercial music industry, spurring musicians and composers to form unions, and giving rise to new music professions that had not existed ten years earlier.

We decided to explore some of these matters of music and labor in a panel at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. In part as an attempt to provide some historical context for current discussions about music as work, we considered three different case-studies from the early twentieth century: 1) advertisements for mechanical instruments in the U.S., 2) Victor Record’s representatives seeking new recordings in South America, and 3) Filipino vaudevillians in the U.S. As we quickly realized, however, our projects required us to think about music and labor not simply in relation to technological innovations or domestic economic changes but also in relation to the global expansion of the US music industry through the reach of US and European colonialism.

The technological innovations of mechanical music and the scope of US imperial ambition might initially seem completely unrelated, and they might seem to apply to questions about musical work in only a superficial manner. There are important connections, however, as Jeremy Lane suggests in his book about jazz in France in the interwar period. Lane explores the interplay between two phenomena: 1) the shock of the second industrial revolution in France, as Taylorism and the increasing rationalization of labor began to transform work practices in France, and 2) the increasing visible and audible influence of French colonial action in Africa in French art music and other areas of daily life. As Lane argues, “it would be possible to see both phenomena as having their origins in a particular economic conjuncture, in what might best be called the era of machine-age imperialism, in an effort to capture the articulation between imperial expansion and metropolitan economic development at its core.”<3> Lane demonstrates how the music industry, imperial conquest, and changing work practices were necessarily intertwined in the decade after the end of World War I. We could also consider the relations between these seemingly different realms and ideas in the U.S., as music executives sought to profit from markets in colonial lands and from new immigrants at home, and as manufacturers of mechanical instruments and records profited from an increasingly transnational supply of labor and natural resources.<4>

Over a series of three additional posts, we’d like to offer some brief takes from our papers considering musical labor in an era of machine-age imperialism. We explore various ways in which the early twentieth century was marked both by anxieties about the future of music-making and also excitement about musical work. From the gendered labor of middle-class women to the low-level agents of massive companies to the transpacific observations of the US vaudeville stage, we examine how thinking about musical work allows us to consider new opportunities for economic progress and political action alongside concerns about musical performance, making a living, and political sovereignty.

<1>See also William Weber, ed., The Musician as Entrepreneur, 1700-1914: Managers, Charlatans, and Idealists (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).
<2>A useful and accessible starting point is David Hesmondhalgh, The Cultural Industries (London: SAGE Publications, 2002).
<3>Jeremy Lane, Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism: Music, “Race,” and Intellectuals in France, 1918-1945 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 9.
<4>See, for example, Karl Miller, “Talking Machine World,” Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010): 157-186.

Allison Wente is Assistant Professor of Music at The State University of New York at Fredonia. Her work focuses on mechanical instruments and recording technologies, specifically the player piano in early twentieth-century America. She received a PhD in Music Theory from The University of Texas at Austin in 2016.

Fritz Schenker is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at St. Lawrence University. He previously held the same position at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016.

Sergio Ospina-Romero is a Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology at Cornell University. His publications and research activities are focused on popular music in Latin America in the early twentieth century, particularly in relation to sound recording, mechanical reproduction, transnationalism, and music consumption. His first book, Dolor que canta. La vida y la música de Luis A. Calvo en la sociedad colombiana de comienzos del siglo XX, was just published by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History. Sergio is the director of Palonegro, an incredible ensemble of Latin American music in Ithaca, NY.

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