Corporate Takeover [Part Three] The Collapse of the Muzak/Music Distinction

(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three)

II. An Outside the System?

In a world of Global Capital, where all media function collectively as the perfect mirror of Capital, we can recognize a global Image or universal imaginaire, universally mediated, lacking any outside or margin. — Hakim Bey, “Against ‘Legalization’

The disappearance of the artist IS “the suppression and realization of art,” in Situationist terms… our will to power must be disappearance. — Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone


Taste and the Margin

In order to create an experience outside of the reproducible, to create a music without style and therefore without branding potential, artists have to efface themselves, erase their own presence in the music. In perfect improvisation, this would be affected by a performance coming as if from nowhere, surprising the performer as much as the audience. Compositionally, this project was originally understood and undertaken by John Cage, whose crowning achievement in that regard was the Musicircus, a participatory event, without a score, in which the public performs the music. A Musicircus performance approaches noise, which is to say unorganized rather than organized sound. Fred Lonberg-Holm writes, “Of course, nobody wants to say ‘hey, come and check out my cheap composition gig,’ so instead they call it ‘improvisation’ as though because they aren’t reading music, that makes it improvisation… I guess that when it becomes ‘good’ it ceases to be improvised.” This gets at a worrying suspicion I have that if “good” music is what people consider worth listening to, then “good” music is what people will pay to listen to. That is, as long as people bring their preferences and tastes to bear in their listening practice, they will engage in dollar voting. If enough people share your tastes and pay to hear the same music you hear, then the music you like will enter the consensus repertory and the purview of Muzak Holdings, LLC, after which entry it will accrue commercial associations and become not yours, but theirs (e.g. Ford’s, NIKE’s, McDonald’s, etc.)

To take a specific case: “As defined by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, this ‘alternative movement’ was out of a desire for music resistant to ‘commodification,’ be it noise, lo-fi, 20th century experimental music and improv, or global and rediscovered American roots musics like bluegrass, folk and blues.” Sonic Youth, former champions of commodification-resistant music, have appeared on the TV show Gossip Girl, released a Starbucks-exclusive compilation album, and Moore regrets not breaking up, because their perseverance cost the band a surely lucrative reunion tour and comeback album. While Sonic Youth might have produced music with only a limited appeal at the beginning of their career, as more people came to appreciate what the band was doing the music became useful. Music constitutes a community of people with similar preferences, and there is nothing inherent to the music that limits the growth of its community.

Hence the impulse to seek out weird music, music that few people are familiar with or like: it generates the illusion of exclusivity. But we have already seen that advertisers recognize the demand for uniqueness and individuality. They are therefore necessarily aware of marginal-sounding if not “authentic” marginal music in targeting the anti-consensus lifestyle. Since 1997, Muzak has not been threatened by consumers who approach commercial music with the intent to enter and engage it critically. In fact, so long as abiding in the music does not prematurely exhaust its potency, entry is conducive to the cultivation of brand loyalty.

“Once the band’s music has entered corporate consciousness, it is no further insult for Sonic Youth to distribute a compilation album through Starbucks.”

We now have some idea of how Moore could give such a jaded answer to the accusations of “sellout” regarding Starbucks. “There’s no difference between working with Starbucks and working with record labels like Universal and Geffen. It’s a knee-jerk reaction from PC watchdogs. I mean, really, which long-distance company do you use for your cellphone [sic]? Are you on the grid? If you’re off the grid, I’ll listen to you.” Disappearance is a serious political decision and undertaking, and if an artist’s intervention already signals a failure in his or her work, then Moore need not have qualified his defense by offering to listen to the criticism of those off the grid. Once the band’s music has entered corporate consciousness, it is no further insult for Sonic Youth to distribute a compilation album through Starbucks.

Music retreats to an aesthetic that cannot be marketed, but the success of resistance is only guaranteed in the short run. An abrasive noise song might appear in a TV commercial 30 years hence, when the sound of brand-incompatibility, if it exists, will be something yet more extreme. This form of resistance, music for-itself and illusory in-itself, defines itself in opposition to commercial music. It is not necessarily functional, but its identity is circumscribed by muzak. As stated above, the paradox is that if enough people purchase anti-corporate music, corporations respond to demand and the music becomes a more likely candidate for sensory branding.

Finally, we adopt a strategy of disappearance, of non-participation and non-creation — we take ourselves off the grid. Whether this can succeed is unclear, in part because the goals of such a strategy are nebulous and necessarily individualistic, and in part because we are addicted to music. An analogy can be drawn between anarchism and taste- and marketing-independent music. Pure anarchic power structures cannot be sustained perpetually. Neither can music perpetually resist the attention of the consensus culture. A TAZ can only be constituted by a restricted community at a specific time and place; at some point, it either disappears or the community’s population reaches critical mass and a structure emerges to regulate power relations.

It is mere fantasy, then, to think that a music resistant to commodification is possible, because any music that generates sufficient demand will be employed for its emotional utility. If we remain averse to selling out, we might preempt the collapse of a musical community by refusing to organize sound in the first place. After all, the logical endpoint of Cage’s philosophy, as I understand it, is attuned listening to ambient noise as ever-potential music to the exclusion of the artistic production of sound. But the question of whether to create is a non-question and disappearance a nonstarter, because just as there will always exist the will to political organization, there will always exist the will to audio organization.



Urban Outfitters makes music playlists available for download on their website. About the sixth in the series (LSTN#6), the most recent at the time of this writing, the company says, “THNKS FR DWNLDNG LSTN! We’ve scoped the Internet, scoured our iTunes library, barged our way onto guest lists and caught 3 AM secret shows — all in the name of compiling 25 of the best new tracks out there. Hey, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.”

Who does do it? I emailed to find out and received the following response: “We have a creative position that focuses on the music promotions in our store and he works closely to find bands that are the perfect fit.” When I asked a follow-up question about whom he works closely with, Kimiko Brewer informed me that “the music manager works with both the commercial music distributor and our Urban Outfitter’s Marketing Department to find the most appropriate music to promote it.” When I asked Kimiko whether she could tell me which commercial music distributor this was, she wrote, “Unfortunately, we are not able to inform you of which commercial music distributor Urban Outfitters works with,” and then went on to tell me how I could go about submitting music samples. Mistaken for a starry-eyed hopeful! I didn’t have the heart to ask how many emails she receives weekly from young musicians with the dream of one day hearing their songs played over the speakers in their local Urban Outfitters.

“As long as we live ‘lifestyles,’ we are susceptible to the manipulation of foreground music. As long as we enjoy popular music, we are susceptible to the manipulation of advertising.”

Why the secrecy? I could understand why the manager at Old Navy would need to contact Corporate first (she never got back to me), but what does Urban Outfitters risk by releasing information about which music distributor they use? If the present exploration of sensory branding has not been wildly off-track, then Muzak and its competitors should have little fear of public exposure. It is not merely a limitation of my imagination that sensory branding appears as a permanent feature of the retail landscape of late capitalism. It does not matter that Urban Outfitters Inc. states on its website that “Our goal is to offer a product assortment and an environment so compelling and distinctive that the customer feels an empathetic connection to the brand and is persuaded to buy.” What will change if everyone reads that statement?

Nothing will, because it’s too late: musical experience is circumscribed by the experience of consumption, and to defamiliarize the experience of shopping is a daunting task indeed. Businesses will always play the music their customers want to hear, because companies like Muzak excel at the business of researching and compiling songs that appeal to specific lifestyles and demographics. “You are a brand,” as Muzak’s website informs us. As long as we live “lifestyles,” we are susceptible to the manipulation of foreground music. As long as we enjoy popular music, we are susceptible to the manipulation of advertising.

Muzak “uses the power of music to create audio experiences for more than 400,000 businesses around the world.” Through the consolidation and effective deployment of this power, Muzak has seemingly defeated the possibility of independent music, music outside the scope of sensory branding. When once we could have hoped for a world without muzak, now we hope for a world with music. And the words have lost their meanings because every day they undergo collapse, ending in their identity: music is muzak is music. We mourn the impossibility of silence. And finally, there is nothing to mourn — there is only reason to rejoice, because muzak is “The last message delivered… at the first moment of truth™.”

(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three)

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