Final Political Economy of Music Essay

Analyses past, present and future trends within the production and consumption of music in relation to the strengths and / or weaknesses of Attali’s arguments.

In his book ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’, Jacques Attali writes about the commercial use of music, with this he argues that it is possible to produce a prophetic vision about the future of music and society.

His first idea is that music is a prophecy and a mirror. The political process of structuring community is similar to the musical process of structuring noise. It is a mirror because the organization of music resembles the present organization of our society and is a prophecy ‘because it explores, much faster than material reality can’ (Attali. 1985. p11).

Attali points out that ‘it is not by coincidence that Russolo wrote his Arte Dei Rumori … in 1913; that noise entered music and industry entered painting just before the outbursts and wars of the twentieth century, before the rise of social order’ (Attali. 1985. p10). This is not too dissimilar to what Karl Marx’s model shows; the base – production lines, the economy and the superstructure –art, culture, literature and music, both feed off each other in a reciprocal process: changes in one will lead to changes in the other.

‘Music, an immaterial pleasure turned commodity, now heralds the society of the sign, of the immaterial up for sale, of the social relation unified in money.’ (Attali. Noise. P 3,4) Music has become a representation of the fact that the whole of culture, in terms of how we value things, is now measured in economic terms. Because music now has an economic value, this shows that everything else is valued in the same way. This must mean either music is being produced for the sole purpose of making money or the economic value must reflect how much meaning a song has.

Attali also writes that ‘Music and the musician essentially become either objects of consumption like everything else, recuperators of subversion, or meaningless noise’ (Attali, 1985, 8) and that music ‘goes anonymous in the commodity, and hides behind the mask of stardom’ (Attali, 1985, 5)

The commercial value and music have a problematic relationship and Attali points out that style over substance idea, where the image attached to the musician may influence the listener to buy music rather than the music itself, is clearly seen in todays culture. Music becoming a commodity is one of the first problems; selling merchandise is an addition to this. The economic value of music has become equivalent to that of merchandise.

But ‘it took centuries for music to enter commodity exchange’. (Attali. 1985.p14) In the past, in a society before exchange, music was used in rituals to help people forget that order had taken over freedom. It showed that society was able to set aside differences, in a ritual sacrifice, and that noise (violence) could be turned into music.

Attali defines noise as ‘a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission.’ (Attali. 1985. p26) Something that disrupts a social process or a source of pain or, at an extreme level, could kill.  He argues that:

‘Noise is violence, i.e., murder. Music is a channelization of noise and a simulacrum of sacrifice, a sublimation to create order and political integration. Therefore music is ritual murder.’ (Attali. 1985. p26)

In the present day ritual murder is almost impossible to imagine. The emergence of noise started in the industrial revolution and in today’s society it is almost impossible to visualize a world with out it. But YouTube, a central network for music, represents a new form of channeling ritual murder as it suppresses violence and enforces political integration.

It is not only YouTube. Adorno believes that popular music is simplistic, boring, repetitive and not serious – standardized. It ‘is mass art because commercial forces now produce it on an industrial model. It is a commodity aimed at the largest possible number of consumers…  it must combine a high degree of standardization… and so the same rhythms and structures appear again and again.’(Gracyk. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008). Mass Music is harmonically very traditional and reutilizes what has already been done in the past, supporting Attali’s idea on repeating.

Popular music uses the same formula to appeal to the masses. Adorno suggests music will stay like this because of the commercial forces that manipulate it to satisfy and control the masses that submissively respond to it. He also believed popular music encouraged passive listening and social power with standardization being the opposite of free choice. If music makes society possible, it must also be being used to gain a level of control over a society by channelizing violence to construct organizational control. The repetition in songs influences this with the help of popular music radio stations playing these songs.

Organizational control could be useful to open source projects, such as We-Think, that want to generate mass innovation through mass participation.

But open source projects are fighting against the traditional closed organisations, as they try to prevent innovation. ‘Industrial-era corporations are at war with themselves and we are caught in the crossfire’ (Leadbeater, 2009) Companies are competing against each other for money. Nothing that is being created by closed organizations has a use until consumers create one for it. With consumers downloading music for free, companies have started to merge together.

‘The large corporation that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was built on a military model of organization… We-Think is emerging as a different organizational recipe…. A way for capitalism to recover a social dimension that people are yearning for’ (Leadbeater, 2009) But Mass Innovation could just lead to a continuation of Mass Production. Which is the main problem with consumerism.

With the Internet more people are becoming media outlets. ‘Our social tools remove older obstacles to public expression and thus remove the bottlenecks that characterized mass media. The result is mass amateurization of efforts previously revered for media professionals.’ (Shirky. 2009. P53). Again this could be beneficial to the large social community that is We-Think by using mass participation to create mass innovation.

We-Think encourages new ideas that are needed to outlast products that are currently being made by allowing a collaborative work ethic to potentially make an idea better. Linux is a good example of this as it encourages the consumers that use it to adapt it and make the software better. ‘We-Think will gradually change five fundamental aspects of economic life: how we work, consume, innovate, lead and own productive endeavors’ (Leadbeater. 2008. p88) Collaboration makes creativity highly active. The idea that creativity and music suppresses violence by bringing a community together could lead to Mass Innovation.

Consumers are often ahead of producers. Usually it is hard to find good ideas in the mainstream markets. For example Rap music could never have come from producers but consumers. This is because this kind of music could have only come out of African American youths in low-economic areas in New York as the music reflected the economic, social and political environment that culture was in at that time. Hip Hop is an early example of re-using mass produced materials as a means of creative expression.

‘…“HipHop/scratch” artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced – the record player becomes a music instrument.’ (Cox and Warner. 2004. P132)

This is an older model of the consumer becoming the producer that Leadbeater talks about as it reflects the ideas of We-Think and is similar to Attali’s idea on composition. It also shows Attali’s idea of ‘repetition’ has and is already happening.

Repetition was already taking place when printing was discovered, as the reproduction of scores and books on a large scale was now possible. Before then scribes were successful in re-producing them as reading and writing was a scarcity.

 ‘In the late 1400s scribes existed side by side with publishers but no longer performed an irreplaceable service’ (Shirky. 2009. p68)

The way in which scribes earned a living vanished as‘reading and writing became ubiquitous. If everyone can do something, it is no longer rare enough to pay for, even if it is vital.’ (Shirky. 2009. p79)But printing led to the standardization of the score, allowing it to circulate as a commercial object, and to the progression of harmonic development. It was not until the end of the 18th century composers received the rights of having full ownership over their work. Publishers had only the rights to publish work; their job was to essentially valorize music with the composer still owning the music. The current music industry tends to have total control over artists; having copyright over music is essential for them to receive royalties. But today the problems record companies face are with users that are finding different means to download or stream music for free.

Copyright is a big issue when it comes down to piracy but research has shown that a majority of pirates do buy music. The European Commission’s influential Joint Research Centre survey concluded that their “results present no evidence of digital music sales displacement,”(Rensikoff. Digital Music News. 2013). This suggests that consumers use the alternative way of illegally consuming music, ‘but much of what is consumed illegally would not have been purchased if piracy was not available’ (Rensikoff. Digital Music News. 2013). Consumers buying music would only be 2% lower than streaming when illegal downloading is discounted. Although streaming is an act of piracy, the effect on digital music revenue is marginal.

During the 20th century the problems with ownership and use value started to change. Whilst music as a commodity was developing so was the concert hall. Attali calls this the spectacle. This allowed for the value of music to reflect the performers or composers labour. Charging different admission fees that reflected different labour would not work, as the time to create the music or live performance would not reflect it either. The value is essentially the use-value for the audience. Music makes the consumer believe that society is rational and coherent because “representation leads to exchange and harmony.” (Attali. 1985. p62) Its aim is to make ‘people believe by shaping what they hear’ (Attali. 1985. p61)

But before recording there cannot have been live music as there was nothing for it to be contrasted to. With the invention of the phonograph, recording became a ‘way of storing representation’ (Attali. 1985. p32). It made an entirely new network for the economy of music that encourages ‘the individualized stockpiling of music on a huge scale’ (Attali. 1985. p32).  This is the era that Attali calls repetition and is a new society with the emergence of mass production; everything has become ‘consumptions of replications’ (Attali. 1985. p88).  The new network stops music being a social event as the production of the material object has made the consumption of music individualized.

‘The repetition of music always creates disorder since it does nothing but replicate a recorded representation, imperfectly and without creating anything new: thus is necessary in repetition to spend increasing amounts of value to maintain order’ (Attali. 1985. p33) Repetition still holds the idea that music makes society possible just as ritual sacrifice did.

The function of music has changed; not to make the people believe or forget but to silence them. Music, just as Attali suggests in the chapter ‘Repeating’, is still being used to create organizational control within a society but now in composition.  The listeners are now silently listening to music that has been designed to distract. Music has been manipulated and commoditized into a new appearance that is being produced by the music industry.

But websites such as Soundcloud encourage more domestically made music and is a free platform that allows musicians to collaborate, promote and distribute it. This would support Attali’s idea that within an era of composition, there is no real difference between production and consumption of music. This is where the term Prosumer was devised as the merging of roles between producer and consumer started to occur.

With the rise of the single, releasing an album maybe pointless.  Attali suggests that there is a new a noise and society emerging. Currently, with commercial music streaming services such as Spotify, consumers are beginning to create custom playlists. This becomes a new form of ‘Composing’, in Attali’s terms, as the listener tends not to listen to a whole album, instead becomes the producer by selecting tracks for their individualized playlists.

Music websites on the Internet are beginning to shape into Attali’s idea of composition. But it is impossible to predict the future because of the Internet.

‘The future that we could have is much harder to describe. It is harder because the very premise of the Internet is that no one can predict how it will develop. Yet there are elements of this future that we can fairly imagine. They are the consequences of falling costs, and hence falling barriers to creativity.’ (Lawrence Lessig. 2001)

Music’s future becomes dependent on whether or not the next generation are creative. Both Attali’s ‘repetition’ and ‘composition’ ideas are very strong as they are being seen in today’s society but the idea of creativity being expanded by mass innovation is very likely too as more people are investing time on ideas.

Attali’s idea that consumers are becoming the producers is a likely future as it is already starting to happen. Mass innovation, with sites such as Soundcloud encouraging creativity in a domestic form, will make creativity highly active generating more music that is being produced for its aesthetic value. ‘A music produced by each individual for himself, for pleasure outside of meaning, usage and exchange’ (Attali. 1985. p137)


Attali, T. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cox, C and Daniel, W. 2004. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New york: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Gracyk, T. (2008) Internet Enclyopedia of Philosophy [Online] Availiable from: [Accessed: 19th April 2013]

Leadbeater, C, 2009. We-Think: Mass Innovation, Not Mass Production. 2nd ed. London: Profile Books.

Lessig, L. 2003. The Future Of Ideas. New York: Random House Inc

Rensikoff, P. (2013) Digital Music News [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 5th May 2013)

Shirky, C. 2009. Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when People Come Together. London: Penguin.

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