The struggle for music by and for all

October 6, 2017
Dave Randall is an activist, guitarist and author of 'Sound System: The Political Power of Music'.

Dave Randall is an activist and guitarist with the band Faithless and his own band Slovo. He is the author of the recently released Sound System: The Political Power of Music. Green Left Weekly’s Barry Healy spoke to him about music and politics. A longer version can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.


You write in Sound System that the “relationship between economics and culture is complex”. What are some of the linkages that are not so visible in the musical-industrial complex?

Anyone who thinks that everything produced within the culture industries is bad and everything produced outside the commercial sphere is good, or some other similarly mechanical formulation, can miss important details.

Philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were well aware of these complexities and warned against crude, deterministic approaches to the relationship between economics and culture. To give an example, grassroots political movements who organise demonstrations in the streets can influence the world’s biggest pop stars, inspiring them to make useful political statements, even at the most corporate of entertainment events.

One instance I explore in my book is Beyonce’s decision to reference the Black Lives Matter movement during her performance at the SuperBowl last year — a performance seen by an estimated 111 million people.

Political movements and organisations matter — what we, ordinary people, do makes a difference — and what we do can become reflected back by the culture industries in surprising ways that can be politically useful.

There was a time when punk rock offered a “do-it-yourself” avenue for youth to create their own culture. How did the music industry react and what are some examples of grassroots cultural movements today?

The most powerful aspect of the punk “do-it-yourself” ethos was when it became a consciously political act: a rejection of “top-down” politics in favour of working class self-activity.

The context for this in Britain was the betrayal of working-class voters by a Labour government, who in 1976, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, forced through deep public spending cuts.

Failing public services and rising unemployment led to anger and punk became an expression of that anger. However, the anger could easily have been harnessed by right-wing political forces, including the far right.

Thankfully a group of left-wing political activists responded to rising levels of racism, including from rock stars such as Eric Clapton, by launching Rock Against Racism (RAR). It was pivotal moment in British cultural politics. I believe it helped to steer the “common sense” of the nation towards anti-racism at a time when that was far from inevitable.

It was effective because it encouraged ordinary people to get involved — to put on their own RAR gigs and fight against racism wherever they were.

We see some similarities in the Black Lives Matter movement and the broader campaign for social and economic justice in the US. It too has been effective because of the emphasis on the grassroots — on change “from below”.

In Britain, we have a slightly different situation because for the first time in my lifetime the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is a left-winger who has vowed to break with neoliberal orthodoxy and redistribute wealth. He has become hugely popular with ordinary voters and looks likely to win the next election if one is called anytime soon.

In my view, we should support him at the ballot box but also build the broader progressive movement in the streets and workplaces. That movement will be crucial in defending Corbyn against the inevitable attacks he will face from the elites.

This is why my chapter, “Rebel Music Manifesto”, begins by talking about the importance of music in our communities and of being active participants in culture, rather than just passive recipients.

The music industry seems intent on erecting rock stars above the adoring masses as super-people who can sweep whole arenas full of crowds into frenzy.

Yes, in the book I draw the distinction between music “by-us-for-us”, which tends to enhance feelings of community, and music commissioned “by-them-for-us”, which tends to reinforce social hierarchy. This distinction has existed for thousands of years — probably in all class societies.

I give one example from 12th century Europe, where a nervous establishment placed severe restrictions on music in an attempt to encourage quiet spiritual contemplation, rather than the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. The restrictions were largely ignored by ordinary people.

I also trace the roots of the “pop star” phenomenon back to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the wake of the French Revolution.

It seems that for a long time, rulers have wanted to us to gaze upward in awe rather than celebrate one another and take action to improve our collective lot in life. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, perhaps we’re still in the gutter because we’re distracted by the stars.

The ideal seems to be that stars create their music as lone individuals and then reveal it to the consumers. It is an example of thinking about production that the neoliberals adore. But Marx pointed out that production is always social. How “social” is the production of music?

It seems to me that corporate capitalism wants to produce music in its own image. The example I give in Sound System is TV talent shows such as X Factor, Pop Idol and The Voice.

The format of these shows is revealing. They all fetishise competition, in a sphere where I believe that is particularly inappropriate and unhelpful.

They operate a pseudo-democracy: viewers can vote, but who gets to enter the competition in the first place and how those entrants are perceived is determined by an unelected panel of “experts”. And whoever wins, the same huge companies get richer, since a condition for entry is signing exclusive deals with those companies.

The production and consumption of music can be among the most profoundly social and therefore wonderful experiences in life. That’s why we should all have access to music.

There are lots of initiatives we can take to move culture in that direction — defending local music venues and music education funding and so on. But ultimately, culture will only be truly free when society moves beyond capitalism to a deeply democratic and more equitable system. Only then will human individuality and creativity really flourish.

So for now, we should defend music in our communities but we must also think carefully about the ways in which it can contribute to the broader political struggle for a better world. Sound System is my attempt to do that.

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