Capitalism + American Electronic Music
Thursday, December 9, 2004, 10:59 PM
Capitalism and American Electronic Music

Some people think a composer's supposed to please them, but in a way a composer is a chronicler... He's supposed to report on what he's seen and lived.
-Charles Mingus

American electronic music in the '60s and '70s evolved to be distinct from Western European electronic music because of the unique cultural and economic climate in America. In America, "popular" music reigns supreme, and this is in large part due to our political policies of "supply-side economics, small government, and free trade" (Osborne 2004). Music that doesn't find sustainable marketability is music that stands little chance of being distributed on a national level. In a "relatively unmitigated capitalist system", such as we have in America, big business controls what mainstream culture sees and hears, and big businesses tend to be concerned primarily with one thing. That thing is rarely the cultural importance of high art, or of artistic fringes, and so, music that isn't likely to make money isn't likely to garner the interest or support of American record companies. Even if a "fringe" composer can put together enough capital for creating a piece, it's unlikely that they will be able to distribute their work without the aid of the recording industry. The industry controls the distribution networks and chooses most of what we hear on the radio, and see on TV. This heavy reliance on big-business is due to the dearth of public funding in the arts. It silently creates a climate of cultural isomorphism, where "artistic expression tends to reflect the general cultural and sociopolitical beliefs of its environment" (Osborne 2004). Cultural isomorphism tends to be damaging to artistic freedom. However, the economic pressures on American electronic composers shaped their music into something that is uniquely appealing, and culturally significant by forcing the composers to focus more on aesthetics, marketability, and building an audience than was necessary for survival in Europe.

In 1960, the federal government contributed exactly $0 to the National Endowment for the Arts. Why so little? Prior to 1966, there was no publicly supported foundation for the arts in America. In fact, in 1966, when the NEA was founded, they received a budget of $2.5 million dollars, and had "fewer than a dozen employees" (NEA 2000). According to William Osborne, a writer for the Arts, "except for the military, there has been continual political pressure to reduce government". Cultural and educational programs tend to be the first institutions to be cut from government spending, and so, out of a total federal budget of $198.4 billion, just what was the military's budget in 1966? $50.1 billion dollars (Office of the President of the United States 1996). Approximately 25% of the national budget was spent on the military in 1966, and a dismal 0.0013% on the arts. Things haven't really changed all that much over the years, which suggests a prevalent socioeconomic trait of American culture. In fact, thanks to "populist rightwing attacks on controversial artists" (Osborne 2004), the NEA's funding was actually cut almost in half in 1996, from $162 to $99.5 million (NEA 2000). American art is highly influenced by the need to survive economically, and this influence forces artists and musicians to either fit into the mainstream, or to find alternate funding for their works. This isn't necessarily the case in the rest of the world. In Germany for instance, "cities with more than about 100,000 people often have a full-time orchestra, opera house, and theater company that are state and municipally owned" (Osborne 2004). Germany also has "one full-time, year-round orchestra for every 590,000 people, while the United States has one for every 14 million (or 23 times less per capita). Germany has about 80 year-round opera houses, while the U.S., with more than three times the population, does not have any" (Osborne 2004).

With such modest public support for the arts, the need to be marketable has become a dominant trait in American music. Even "serious" music has had a higher degree of intermingling with "popular" music, when compared with European trends. European music is tied strongly to the historical traditions which preceded it, and in a culture where "publicly funded cultural institutions are used to educate young people", fringe music is economically feasible, because the society maintains a "high level of interest in the arts" (Osborne 2004). In much of Europe, the masses find value in music which is strongly tied to tradition. This, to some degree, explains the success of serialism, and serialist electronic music in Europe. With the belief that the "Second Viennese School" was carrying on the tradition of the classical "First Viennese School", and the Cologne studio was carrying on the tradition of the "Second Viennese School", the serialists fit into a cultural mainstream in Europe, but never quite found that sort of broad acceptance across the Atlantic. In America, where tradition doesn't date back quite so long, and European traditions are often seen as old and stodgy, traditional ties don't necessarily foster success.

American electronic composers can't create much of anything without capital, and so they must find ways to make ends meet. The fusion of popular music with electronic music has proven to be a good way to raise mainstream support, and strong album sales garner continuing interest from the recording industry. The predominant trend is that the music with the most mainstream success is the most successful music. As Bob Moog likes to joke, "you know what real music is for the record industry? Music that makes real money!" (Pinch 2002). In early European electronic music, exquisite attention was given to formal structures, sonic properties, and classical tradition. The "Europeans rejected most attempts in their own societies to merge commercial and classical music". In America, early electronic compositions weren't judged by how well they adhered to a serial structure, or under which particular synthesis principle they were created, they were judged by how they sounded. A classic example is Wendy Carlos' review of Morton Subotnick's Silver Apples of the Moon, written up in Electronic Music Review (published by Moog). While she admits that it's "one of the 'prettiest' electronic compositions", she complains, "I'm sorry but 'Silver Apples' is a bore…all is euphoric and pleasant, but never musically compelling" (Pinch 2002). The comment, "never musically compelling" is a distinctly American criticism in the 20th century. The European electronic composers were ever-focused on formal structures and theories about sound. They wrote papers and books and designed complex mathematical formulas, but a simple comment like "never musically compelling" never could have been mentioned, because if you tell a serialist that you don't find their music compelling, they'll just respond that the fault lies with you, and your lack of musical sophistication, and not with their music.

Ironically, in the land where success is less tied to tradition than in Europe, the greatest electronic hit of all was Wendy Carlos' Switched On Bach, an album made up entirely of music composed 200 years prior, but arranged on a Moog synthesizer. However, the album's success wasn't because of its ties to classical tradition. It was a hit because 17th, 18th, and 19th century classical music has a loyal, if comparatively small, market in America, and also because the mixture of popular music and classical music (especially Bach), was trendy at the time. Keith Emerson had just "scored a surprise hit in Britain with [his] rock version of the Brandenburg Concertos" (Pinch 2002), and Columbia was interested in Carlos in response to "the pressure they were under from Jac Holzman's newly developed Nonesuch label which was marketing classical music to a young audience "with slick modern packaging" (Pinch 2002). Nonesuch found success particularly with the Baroque Beatles Book (1965). Switched on Bach was financed and distributed by Columbia because it was a catchy concept at the time. It became a hit largely because it "changed the public's notions about electronic music and the synthesizer". Prior to its release, electronic music was somewhat unpopular in the American mainstream. According to Carlos, "the general public considered [electronic music] to be avant-garde in the worst sense, completely without redeeming value or commercial interest". Carlos, with the help of her producer Rachel Elkind, helped to change that notion by creating an album that the general public could understand and embrace.

Aside from creating popular recordings, one of the most successful avenues that electronic musicians have found for garnering public acceptance and sustainable funding has been through creating a popular local "scene" with live performances. From the earliest roots of Cage and Tudor, live performances of electronic music became the norm in America, and as other groups like the Space Theater, ONCE festivals, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) came along, live multimedia "happenings" helped to bring in money, and to promote public awareness of exciting electronic music. "The SFTMC is important not only because of the composers who worked there but also because its early history reflects the dilemmas faced by many American composers of electronic music in the early 1960s. There was no funding or institutional support for their efforts, making it necessary to pool their equipment, locate performance spaces, and raise funds for publicity on their own". At the Space Theater, Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma were successful in "thoroughly [exploring] the creation of live music using amplified small sounds", and "always to capacity audiences" (Holmes 207). Also, thanks to Ken Kesey and Augustus Owsley's group, the Merry Pranksters, and their Acid Tests, which blended LSD and avant-garde music to foster group synesthesia, multimedia "happenings" began to be associated with the '60s drug-using counterculture. While this counterculture created sustainable income for many musical groups, such as The Grateful Dead, the association with drug-use was met with mixed-approval by many electronic composers. Ramon Sender actually left the Tape Center for a short while to help run the "Trips Festival", which was a collaboration between Kesey and Stewart Brand to create a "much bigger public acid test" (Pinch 2002), but Morton Subotnick, for instance, was more worried about the possible effect that a perceived association with the Trips Festival would have on their ability to receive grants from the Rockefeller Foundation (Pinch 2002).

Many electronic composers found sustainable financial success by composing scores for television and cinema, because "film work paid handsomely" (Pinch 2002). Some of the most notable films, because of their widespread commercial success, are Wendy Carlos' scores for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. However, electronic music in American film dates back much further to Louis and Bebe Barron's score for Forbidden Planet in 1956. The Moog synthesizer, in particular, found a place in quite a few movies. The Graduate (1967) was the first, and Apocalypse Now (1979) followed suit, along with many other films. On television, the Moog found a place in commercials. Bob Moog recounts, "I remember being surprised that J. J. Johnson…one of the great trombone players, he came by, and we thought he was using it for a jazz instrument, but no, he was using it for commercials" (Pinch 2002).

Electronic music evolved in a much different way in America than it did in Europe. Early American electronic composers such as Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley were more likely to consider themselves "tinkerers" in electronics than a part of the heightened intellectual culture of electronic music in Germany or France. Because of the relative lack of public funding, American musicians were, and are, forced to either join the cultural mainstream, or to find some alternative market for their music. Several different markets for electronic music developed, such as fringe-pop, live performance "happenings", counterculture, and film, but all American electronic music shares one common trait, the need to find an audience willing to offer monetary support over an extended period. American musicians don't have the luxury of complete artistic freedom that consistent public funding brings to the arts in much of Western Europe, and so, in America, composers are more prone to create music which will find an audience. This is most noticeable in mainstream popular music, but the effects of unmitigated capitalism trickle down into the rest of American music as well. This creates an interesting dichotomy between artistic freedom, and cultural norms. If not for the capitalistic system in America, perhaps the differences between American and European electronic music would be less pronounced, and many terrific pieces would never have been created because the need to create them would never have existed.

-Tom Gersic


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Holmes, Thomas B (2002). Electronic and Experimental Music. New York: Rutledge.

The National Endowment for the Arts (2000). A Brief Chronology of Federal Support for the Arts. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

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Office of the President of the United States (1996). Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

Pinch, Trevor and Frank Trocco (2002). Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.