Listen to the Musicians

October 22, 2007

posted by Claudia  

While many artists directly express their stands on larger political issues, others discuss the current political and economic context indirectly, by referring to their position in the arts scene. Many of them say that do not want to become a part of the arts world as it functions nowadays (as a busines, that is). But many add, either through words or deeds, that they do not have a choice either.

The documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon”, which came out last year, did a good job at depicting how Lennon, becoming increasingly aware of his political role in a world going through radical transformations, tried to exploit his visibility as an artist in order to popularize a message of peace. There is no better proof for his major impact than the fact that the U.S. secret services started following his actions closely, until they decided it is better to neutralize him.

Mainly due to their sizeable audiences and hightened ability to transmit messages, artists can play an important political role. Many of them even translate this potential into a responsability. Famous examples can be brought from the sphere of literature, where important authors use prize ceremonies in order to send political messages (the case of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech prize in 2005, a passionate attack against U.S. imperialism and war).

So artists are well placed to talk to us. But what have they been saying lately? 

While many of them directly express their stands on larger political issues, others discuss the current political and economic context indirectly, by referring to their position in the arts scene. Many say that do not want to become a part of the arts world as it functions nowadays (as a busines, that is). But many add, either through words or deeds, that they do not have a choice either.

The reason I am writing this is the Sigur Ros “concert” I attended last night. It was a “filmkonzert”. The band came, played 3 songs and then showed the enchanted audience a movie about their homeland, Iceland. It was a documentary about a series of concerts they played last summer in their country, after coming back from a world tour. They went to the most remote locations and sang for free, in front of as little as 2 people and as many as thousands. The band members explained that “they wanted to give back”. Their music is inspired from the scenery and life in this country and the people of Iceland were their first fans, so it made sense to them to come back and give music for free.

The band members often said that they feel trapped by their engagements in the music industry, that they want to be “normal prople”, that they liked playing for free for everybody. It is a strong statement, this one, that they want their music to be available for all people, everywhere. And it is beautiful music.

The problem I saw, though, is that the presentation of this movie was a business, completely counter to the anti-commercial and democratic message presented in the film. People came for a concert and got a movie (arguably, a beautiful one-I liked it, others did not). They got 3 songs as well, and the band’s answers to audience questions, when one of Sigur Ros’ main messages is that words don’t matter. The movie was made by a director from Disney and the EMI label was shown all over the place.

So, Sigur Ros was trying to send a message through the movie, but because of the limitations imposed by how the music world works, their message did not come across, or it came across distorted.

And, naturally, this story brings up the case of Radiohead, who actually have a decent record of fighting the music industry. On October 10, they made their new album available for download from their site, for any price that the customer can afford or wants to pay. It is a clear statement against the commercialization of their art. Of course, even Radiohead cannot avoid the hussle of card transactions and fees. And, more importantly, people tell me Radiohead was barely able to fix a couple of gigs lately.

The musicians are sending a message, and it is a political one. But will the message make it to us or will it be suffocated by the strong “order of things” in place?


  1. It’s a long topic and very interesting one – the musicians, other artists as well, are always in the balancing act between their views and personalities on one hand, and the agendas and profit motive of the major companies they sign with. As The Brooklyn Funk Essentials sing: ‘You are not selling out, you are buying in!’ I am not sure whether I prefer an outright commercial artist like 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg, who sing about ‘cash and bling’ or a band with an agenda like Rage Against the Machine who have political lyrics but in the end are also cashing in and funding the establishment via record companies… It’s a tricky thing, I usually go for the better sound, without thinking too much about the undercurrent… What about you, Claudia? and others too…

  2. today i was reading an article about workers which makes the following comment: “the problem is that workers can neither fully submit to the logic of the market (first of all, because what they “sell” on the market is not a “genuine” commodity), nor can they escape from the market (because they are forced to participate, for the sake of subsistence)” (Claus Offe); musicians-workers
    as for your question, vassil, of course the main thing should remain the music, if we give in too much to the criticism of how artists deal with their art and ignore the music on account of that, this should be the ultimate sign of defeat, of them and us, in the face of those unmentionable forces which we so much resent 🙂

  3. The Brooklyn Funk Essentials

  4. this logic of the market and commercialization is so disturbing like someone saying ‘the revolution will not be televised, the revolution will be LIVE’ but hopefully the dangers and the opportunities are about equal…like Martin van Creveld says…and…true! the music is the message…and the medium is just a medium, although others believe otherwise 😦
    great great song :p

  5. interesting piece, but perhaps you could have written more about what you think the connection is between politics and record labels. Is it simply that statements about one’s position in showbiz are in some sense political statements? I’m asking because it seems to me that an artist’s relations with record labels is a matter of corporate ethics, not necessarily politics..These need not overlap, though they may.
    The Sigur Ros case is not that easy at least because, like in most cases, we only know that much. If you’re willing to be charitable, you could interpret their gesture as made despite the EMI labels flashing around, perhaps as a response to them (and not as something done in bad faith). I can imagine that the EMI labels have to do with contract obligations and that sort of stuff. I can also imagine that a ‘young and stupid’ artist would enthusiastically sign a contract with EMI without realizing what it invloves and later thigs are hard to fix. I can also imagine that someone could sign with EMI and swallow the medicine for the sake of being able to get the music across because the bargain is worth it (even in ethical terms). In most cases we don’t know enough about the artist’s intentions.

    As for Radiohead, they’re not the first ones to do that. And besides, record labels got them where they are now, i.e. in a position where they can afford to sell their record for whatever price the public is willing to pay. There are plenty of obscure musicians who do that, but of course they have daytime jobs to earn a living. Now, there are still other issues to deal with. It has been argued that there’s nothing wrong with commercializing music because that’s what musicians do for a living, and most of them don’t have a retirement plan. And apart from all that, are we sure we’re not throwing out the baby with the water when we criticize record labels so harshly? they’re greedy and all that, but what about the positive aspects? Oh well, it’s a can of worms. I guess I’m trying to say that there are some distinctions to be made here.

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