When the (Recorded) Music’s Over

Note: this was first published in Black and Green Review #5

Image result for record album

Tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly has often repeated a glib definition of technology as “anything invented after you were born.”i The flippant definition resonates because it is very close to how the word is used in casual conversation and in popular media. The iPhone is generally perceived as technology but a manual can opener is not. The tech section of a newspaper will readily feature an article on drones but not necessarily on dovetail joints. Moving back and forth between a casual definition and a more precise definition can yield a rhetorical advantage for technophiles like Kelly. If a new technology seems threatening, disruptive, or otherwise problematic it can be compared to an older technology which may seem safe and familiar. The new technology then becomes safe by association because it is alleged that to condemn one is to condemn the other (and who is going to blame the ills of the world or the corruption of youth on the can opener in their kitchen drawer?).

This strategy exploits the fact that anti-tech critics have a reputation for being a bit curmudgeonly; their arguments are often dismissed as nothing but a collection of these kids today!-type complaints. Their position is treated as an outgrowth of their own confusion and technical ineptitude: we are to believe that they are all old people who can’t manage to program their VCRs and drone on about “the good ol’ days.”

Given this caricature, it is important for serious critics of technology to dig deeper and make clear the problems with technologies that were invented long before they were born; to critique the technologies that are so commonplace that they often fail to even register as technologies. The point must be made that it is not simply that the new and the novel are threatening or confusing due to their unfamiliarity, but rather that even those technologies that are entirely familiar, wholly ubiquitous, and seemingly quite banal have often been, in many ways, quite detrimental to our overall well-being.

To overlook the damage done by technologies prior to our birth, those that are now ubiquitous, is akin to ignoring the damage to the environment carried out in earlier ages. It is a common mistake to treat the state of the natural world during one’s childhood as a sort of baseline from which to measure the damage done. But that baseline recedes with every generation; everyone alive today was born into an already devastated world. Likewise, we are all constrained, controlled, injured, and mutilated by the technologies that were introduced long ago.

Consider, for example, recorded music. This purported luxury that is so highly valued by so many of us has, in many ways, contributed to the widely felt emptiness of the modern experience. It is an inadequate substitute for something greater of which we have been robbed.

Recording Music

“Small-time musicians have become as obsolete as the Indian.”
-The Nation (1942)

For quite some time now, to make a record has been to make it as a musician. In the dominant culture, a recording contract imbues legitimacy and is a clear marker of success. Countless musicians have relayed the giddy experience of hearing themselves on the radio for the first time or of watching their record climb the pop music charts.

In his recent autobiography, Bruce Springsteen described the incredible feeling of being signed by Columbia Records: “I felt my heart rise up inside me, mysterious particles dancing underneath my skin and faraway stars lighting up my nerve endings.” Indeed, there is a significant difference in the status of one who is labeled a mere musician and that of a “recording artist”. Springsteen was a musician long before auditioning for Columbia Records but only became a recording artist when offered his first contract. His status changed and he marveled about his good fortune saying: “we’d climbed to the heavens and spoken to the gods who told us we were spitting thunder and throwing lightning bolts.”ii

It may therefore seem quite odd to learn that in 1942 the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) imposed a ban on recording music which was sustained until November 1944. The ban received widespread support within the labor movement. It was formally endorsed by the American Federation of Labor. International support came from the Musicians’ Union of Great Britain which supported the ban by refusing to export records to the United States and Canada.

Image result for james petrillo

The AFM and its members perceived recorded music as a threat to the livelihood of musicians who at the time relied primarily on live performances rather than making records. There was little or no profit to be made from records or radio play. Yet, as the sound quality of phonographs gradually improved, radio stations were dumping live acts and jukeboxes were displacing musicians in hotels, bars, and restaurants. From our present point of view, jukeboxes may seem fairly inconsequential, but in 1938 there were already half a million in use in the United States accounting for forty percent of record production.iii By 1950, “jukeboxes were everywhere” and in all manner of businesses and community spaces.iv By the time of the ban, theaters had already largely stopped employing orchestras as silent films were replaced with sound films. Prior to sound films, theaters employed a large portion of AFM members as pit musicians. As recorded music was embraced opportunities for working musicians seemed to be shrinking.

James Petrillo was president of the AFM at the time of the recording ban and explained:

“Nowhere else in this mechanical age does the workman create the machine which destroys him, but that’s what happens to the musician when he plays for a recording. The iceman didn’t invent the refrigerator, the coachman didn’t invent the automobile. But the musician plays his music into a recorder and a short time later the radio station manager…says…we don’t need you anymore.”v

Petrillo was a high-powered labor leader who proved himself in union battles as president of AFM Local 10 in Chicago during the 1920s and 30s. His first major accomplishment in Chicago was forcing radio stations to actually pay musicians. Note that this was not paying musicians for use of recordings but paying musicians for performing live on the radio from the station. Radio stations had always argued that publicity alone was sufficient compensation for such performances. Two years later, possibly as a response, Petrillo’s home was bombed. He would eventually begin traveling in a bullet-proof car equipped with bullet-proof windows.vi

Punching up or punching down, Petrillo was known for an aggressive style that frequently got results. When an Italian jubilee was set to use nonunion musicians in Chicago he sent a cable of complaint directly to Mussolini. Likewise, when a high school band was set to perform at the mayor’s inauguration, Petrillo threatened the radio station that was going to broadcast it with a strike and consequently the high schoolers were replaced with union musicians.vii

By the time he became president of the national AFM, he already had his sights set on tackling the threat represented by recorded music—or as he frequently called it, “canned music” or even “dehumanized music.” He became president in 1940 and the ban was put into effect in 1942.

The principal concession won by the AFM via their recording ban was the creation of the Recording and Transcription Fund which directed a royalty from the sale and manufacture of recordings and transcriptions directly to the union for use in creating work for unemployed musicians and offering free concerts to the public. Prone to hyperbole, Petrillo declared it “the greatest victory ever achieved by a labor organization.” In any event, it was a short-lived victory as the Fund was dissolved in 1947 with passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.

This prompted a second recording ban in 1948. The Recording and Transcription Fund was soon replaced with a fund that served a similar function. This new fund was not under the exclusive control of the union and was thereby within the bounds of the new law.

The touted victory underscores the point that the AFM was never explicitly against recorded music as such despite some of Petrillo’s heated rhetoric. “For the union, its primary objections were not about the record but about the unlicensed duplication of artistic labors.”viii Consequently, what they sought was not the abolition of any particular technology, but rather a mechanism for musicians to be compensated for their work and share in the profits made from such recordings.

But the impact of recorded music extended far beyond the immediate financial concerns of working musicians who struggled to cope with shifting technology. The act of recording music changed how music is made, how it’s performed, how it’s consumed, and how it is sold.

Producing and Consuming Music

“Music is what people do on their own.” -Tom Vanderbilt (2016)

Once music is recorded, reproducible, and effectively commodified it creates a situation where “[m]usic escapes from musicians.”ix The role of the musician isn’t simply financially uncompensated as was the chief concern of the AFM, but music itself is diminished in significant ways for both the musician and the audience.

First, the ability to repeat a song at will (and often ad nauseam) alters how it is experienced and what gets produced. In Innovation and its Enemies, Calestous Juma effectively makes this point:

“Recorded music introduced [an] element that didn’t exist with live performance. Recorded music could be played repeatedly at will…The ability to repeat elevated the role of the sound technician and made the musician subservient to technology and, by extension, to those who controlled the sound production…”x

On the surface level, this mirrors a concern expressed by Petrillo and the AFM. They saw and were concerned that disc jockeys, broadcasters, and other non-musicians were ascending in influence at the expense of their membership. Non-musicians stood to profit to a much greater extent than the musician who actually performs on the record. Musicians were paid once for a performance that was recorded whereas non-musicians profited each time the recording was played.

On a deeper level it also mirrors a concern put forward by many critics of technology. Records are presented as a means of making music more accessible and giving the listener greater control—greater control is effectively what all technology promises. But what is given with one hand is surreptitiously taken, with considerable interest, by the other. Listeners can repeat a song if they wish, but the fact that music that is increasingly controlled by corporate executives, experts, and technicians shrinks the role of the musician and limits what gets produced and distributed. The distance between musician and audience is magnified as the listening experience is increasingly mediated. The musician’s overall contribution to the final product shrinks as an increasingly intense division of labor is imposed via the recording process.

Digital technology exacerbates this situation—despite promising even greater control of one’s experience—as the repeat function relies on just the push of a button. I have encountered numerous people who profess a great love for music, maintain a large digital collection, and yet are seemingly unable to listen to a song in its entirety. Their listening experience seems to consist largely of playing a song for perhaps a minute or so and then anxiously clicking to find a different one. For example, someone recently wanted to share what they described as their “favorite song” with me, but we only listened to about twenty seconds; in response to my confusion, I was told that that was “the good part” of the song. Even one’s favorite song isn’t worth listening to in full. It is perhaps related to the phenomena of people watching television shows on fast-forward to get through more shows in less time. Even one’s recreation must be rationalized and made efficient.

Second, while live performances obviously haven’t disappeared, recordings have altered their meaning and content. Juma again explains:

“As time progressed, live performances were judged on how they compared with the recorded versions. This was often detrimental to musicians as fewer people attended live shows. Musicians often felt pressure to record a perfect version of a song because they knew it would be mass-produced and repeatedly played.”xi

George Harrison made a similar point in 1965:

“[The Beatles] used to improve at a much faster rate before we ever made records. You’ve got to reproduce as near as you can, the records, so you don’t really get a chance to improvise or improve your style.”xii

Upon first reading, this seems an odd statement coming from someone like George Harrison given that the Beatles’ most artistically significant work came only after they stopped touring and entered the recording studio full time. But the point is that they only circumvented the trap of mimicking their records by giving up on live performances altogether. In their case, the need to make records didn’t simply alter their performances but put a stop to them. The biggest musical act in the world effectively conceded that recordings were now primary and performances derivative and dispensable. But this strategy only worked for so long as eventually “they felt like prisoners of the studio” according to producer George Martin.xiii Their famous rooftop concert was a prison break, as was the ultimate dissolution of the band.

Closer to the present—half a century after the 1948 recording ban—the fiercely independent Ani DiFranco included these lyrics in her song “Fuel”:

“People used to make records /
As in a record of an event /
The event of people playing music in a room”

If this was ever how and why “people used to make records”, it was for a very short window of time. As explained above, recordings are rarely simply records of “people playing music in a room”; far more often people in a room are trying to mimic what they heard on a record (even if they are the ones that made the record in the first place they are then compelled to mimic themselves).

Writing a full fifteen years before DiFranco’s song, Brian Eno explained how thoroughly disconnected records had become from performance:

“There’s been a break between the traditional idea of music…and what we now do on records…It’s now possible to make records that have music that was never performed or never could be performed and in fact doesn’t exist outside the record.”xiv

The record became primary, thus making both the musician and the performance derivative. The situation has been paradoxically summarized: “a disc recording is generally considered to be a live performance, while a live performance attempts to reproduce the recording.”xv Music critic David Hadju shares what I suspect is a widespread intuition:

“When I thought of pop songs as a young music fan…I thought of records. The music seemed inextricable from and even in some ways subordinate to the thing that contained it. A song I didn’t know of as a record—a chant from the kids on the playground, a tune my mother hummed while she cut pie pieces—seemed as if it were not really a real song.”xvi

While music has largely been an ephemeral experience, recording technology has provided the means to capture it and fix it in place. Yet, the fact that live performances remain extremely popular suggests that people still value the ephemeral experience and perhaps even the lack of control that necessarily comes with it. Indeed, there are whole genres and musical subcultures that have actively resisted the trend of pop music by maintaining the primacy of performance and shown little interest in recording and packaging their music.

Third, the very notion that music was even the kind of thing that could be consumed was itself a radical conceptual shift which brought significant consequences. The song that David Hadju’s mother would hum while slicing pie didn’t count as fully real, in part, because it existed outside of a commercial space. “It wasn’t touchable, holdable—possessable,” nor was it “sellable, buyable—consumable.”xvii

Prior to the widespread availability of high-quality (technically, not necessarily artistically) recorded music, people primarily experienced music rather than bought music. In fact, people were initially more apt to buy sheet music to facilitate their own amateur performance rather than recordings from professionals.

But music scholar Tim Anderson reports that by the time of the second AFM recording ban in 1948, sales of sheet music were plummeting and sales of records were soaring. People were transitioning from actively making their own music to purchasing recordings:

“listening habits surrounding popular music were changing from live amateur and professional performances to electronically rendered recordings of compositions which were typically allied with ‘name talent’”xviii

The calculated move toward “name talent” should not be overlooked. It is the bolstering of celebrity culture where a small number of musicians are zealously promoted and extravagantly rewarded while the vast majority are ignored and impoverished. That small number of musicians could then be within the control of an even smaller number of record companies. Four companies controlled 75 percent of the record sales market in 1948 and “name talent” was essential to their economic dominance.xix

This is not incidental but almost necessarily the case when music is distributed via a mass media.

“The increasing differentiation between performers and receptors can be understood as a mark of a high musical culture: thus the irrevocable gulf without the least possibility of mutual contact between performers and receptors is a consequence of presentation through the mass media”xx

The dominance of celebrity culture undercuts the frequently made point that recorded music allows for access and appreciation of a much wider variety of music than would otherwise be possible. The point is true as far as it goes, but as it turns out, it doesn’t go that far. Almost all of recorded music is now simply a click away, but studies have found that when presented with such expansive access people’s listening actually becomes narrower and less diverse.xxi In 2013, the top one percent of musicians earned 77 percent of all recorded music income; digital services exacerbated this disparity rather than helped level it. This is partially explained by “consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actually hinders discovery.”xxii

This is a particular example of a much broader phenomenon documented by Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice—regarding how people respond when presented with an exceedingly large number of choices or options. In many cases it proves debilitating, people will often refuse to make any choice or accept whatever happens to be the default option even if it is not in their interests. Having more choice isn’t necessarily empowering and isn’t always better.

David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog, relays his own first-hand, experience of the paralysis resulting from the burden of too many musical choices in the now digital age:

“I frequently found myself opening the app, only to become paralyzed with indecision. My options were infinite, literally every single album and song ever recorded…It was as though the ease and convenience of digital music had sucked the very fun out of listening to it. The entire world of music was just a click away, but I couldn’t even be bothered to do that.”xxiii

It is the same institutions that make services such as Spotify, Rdio, and iTunes possible that foster celebrity culture; this means that while listening to a wide range of music is technically possible people are still being pushed toward “name talent.” The technology was alleged to have a democratizing or leveling effect, but almost everyone is still listening to Taylor Swift and Beyonce. Again, there are, of course, those who have recognized the artistic cost of relying on distribution via the mass media and have essentially refused to participate. This is most evident in anti-establishment, anti-mass society music scenes such as anarchist punk rock.

Fourth, prior to recorded music, music happened largely in public spaces and was enjoyed in the company of others. It was almost inherently social. In contrast, the contemporary consumption of music is described by Tom Vanderbilt in his 2016 book You May Also Like. Vanderbilt writes: “Music is what people do on their own: in the car, with their headphones, via their playlists and customized stations.”xxiv

Music, arguably from its origin, has been capable of fostering community and even mending social relations, but is now, to a large extent, used to facilitate and maintain one’s isolation. Making music together is a cooperative activity that has been used to resist social stratification. It was something that people did together and is now something to be consumed alone. We may all be listening to Taylor Swift and Beyonce, but we are largely doing so alone. Raising one’s headphones is now a widely recognized symbol for cutting off a conversation. Where the technology has been successfully resisted, such as in many indigenous contexts and communities, music remains a bonding rather than an isolating force.

Image result for john blacking

Finally, Petrillo often referred to recorded music as “dehumanized music”, but it would be equally accurate to call it “disembodied music.” Musicologist John Blacking has said “music begins…as a stirring of the human body,” but when music was severed from performance it was also severed from the human body.xxv Music now seems to emerge from machines and devices rather than from people. Even when attributed to people it is often from celebrity figures who exist across an “irrevocable gulf without the least possibility of mutual contact.”

Perhaps more importantly, music has almost always been associated with dancing. But as music becomes something that is increasingly being consumed alone this changes. Just as people don’t often laugh out loud when alone, people don’t often dance when alone.

Mass Culture Requires Mass Media

“Recording has always been a means of social control” -Jacques Attali

The AFM was a powerful union by the time of the 1940s recording bans. They had weathered the Depression years and even Prohibition which was a particular threat for a musicians’ union. The recording bans were an ambitious and controversial tactic but were carried out in the service of fairly modest goals and reforms. This is evident in some of the compromises that were offered by the union prior to the recording bans.

The union proposed that phonographs be produced for private, home use only and not available for use on radio. They proposed that if phonographs were to be used on radio that there be a limit to how many times a particular recording could be played before being discarded or otherwise destroyed. Despite legal challenges, they engaged in a practice known as “featherbedding” whereby an employer would be required to hire union musicians as standbys whenever non-union musicians were used or a recording was used. The union wanted its members to be given jobs as “platter turners”; that is, they wanted their members to be the ones to put the records on the turntables at the radio stations and receive pay in accordance with union wage scales; after all Petrillo explained: “we feel that if there is music on the record, that the man who puts the record on the machine should be a member of the musicians’ union.”xxvi

The goals were more employment opportunities and greater compensation; the same goals as almost any other mainstream labor union. Despite the modesty of these goals. The bans were certainly perceived as a serious threat. Indeed, as a threat to national security.

The AFM recording ban was seen to be of such national significance that President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to intervene and broker an end to it albeit without success. Roosevelt considered the lack of recorded music a threat to national morale during World War II.

The Justice Department offered an even more extreme statement: “We regard a handicap on industrial progress by preventing the use of improved mechanical equipment in an industry as an attack upon industrial production.”xxvii

An attack upon on industrial production! There’s something worth paying one’s union dues for if only it was the case. The hostile reaction was at least in part explained by the fact that media was in the process of becoming mass media and the recording bans were not conducive to that transition.

Private enterprise was hostile to the recording bans not only because using recordings was obviously far less expensive than continually hiring musicians but also because recordings allowed for greater flexibility when scheduling and distributing programming. With recordings came “the ability to propagate and move significant amounts of information across large portions of geography, both national and international, in smaller and smaller amounts of time.”xxviii In other words, they made mass media possible and practical.

The U.S. government was hostile to the recording bans in part because it was depending on the existence of mass media to effectively shape public opinion regarding the ongoing war:

“given that most American broadcasters needed musical recordings to retain their audiences and profit, a void of new musical recordings would endanger the ability of the Office of War Information to communicate to the nation about wartime goings-on.”xxix

The stated virtues of recorded music—the promises of the technology—are the very values of modern, mass society.

“for the first time, music did not depend on the physical presence of performers in specific settings, or the simultaneous presence of an audience. Music was freed, so to speak, from the social context of its production.”xxx

“Just as spatial restraints have been removed, so have temporal ones”xxxi

Music is freed. Restraints are removed. This is the rhetoric and these are the promises that mask the harm of the technology.

Compare this with sociologist Wilhelm Weber’s definition of mass musical culture:

“This is not just a matter of brute numbers of people buying music or going to concerts. What has characterized mass musical culture primarily has been the impersonality of relationships between listeners and performers and the active exploitation of a broad public by the music business.”xxxii

Mass society frees us from the inefficiency of personal relationships and of feeling connected to particular people and particular places. Mass musical culture frees music from constraints of time and place making everything available but nothing worth any effort. We used to dance and now we might tap our toes. Fringe and countercultural music scenes persist, in part, because they embrace rather than discard personal relationships. They eschew and deflate the purported virtues that the technology offers.

Conclusion: Music Without Recording

“[M]any industrial societies have taken away from people much of the
practice and pleasure of music making.” -John Blacking (1973)

Recorded music is now ubiquitous and so it is quite difficult to imagine life without it. For consistent critics of technology to suggest that recorded music is less than a godsend—that it comes with a steep cost—may seem as strange as musicians refusing to make records. Even the phrase “recorded music” is somewhat awkward as it borders on redundancy for many of us; it calls attention to something so obvious that it very often escapes serious scrutiny. Recorded music? Is there any other kind?

But music predates the recording industry and will outlast the recording industry. Within the self-absorbed cocoon of civilization, such plain statements of fact often need to be said out loud. It is a banality that cannot be argued but nonetheless seems to possess a radical edge. Music has not always been a commodity, it’s not always been recorded, and participation hasn’t always been restricted to a narrow, special class of persons.

When the recording industry presents itself as the very source of where music itself originates it promulgates a dangerous and self-serving lie that diminishes our humanity for it tells us that we are less than what we are. In truth, “men [and women] are more remarkable than most societies ever allow them to be.”xxxiii

Again, music predates the recording industry and not to insignificant extent. The earliest known instruments date back 36,000 years. These were flutes found in a cave in southern Germany; they were crafted from the hollow wing bones of large birds. In the Pyrenees, pipes crafted from bird bones have been found that are nearly just as old. These would have relied on the insertion of a reed and were carefully crafted with finger holes placed in depressions to ensure a full seal when fingers were applied to the instrument. Furthermore, it is widely assumed—and stands to reason—that music made with the human body and found objects significantly predates the deliberate creation of actual instruments such as bone flutes and pipes.xxxiv

“So whereas we now visit painted caves in a hushed reverence, they probably once reverberated with the sounds of pipes, stalagmite xylophones, singing and dancing.”xxxv

In communities that existed prior to or apart from recording technologies, attitudes toward music were often drastically different from our own.

Steven Mithen writes:

“The appreciation of music is a universal feature of humankind; music-making is found in all societies and it is normal for everyone to participate in some manner; the modern-day West is quite unusual in having significant numbers of people who do not actively participate and may even claim to be unmusical.”xxxvi

In contrast, John Blacking reports that the Venda people believe “all normal human beings are capable of musical performance.”xxxvii It’s a sentiment that would likely be echoed by many punk rock musicians and folk singers who can still see music and something larger and more fundamental than what appears in pop music charts.

The consequences of recorded music go beyond the ability to amass a highly-tailored and extensive playlist or maintain a vast record collection. In evaluating the technology, one must consider music as an industry and not merely an art form, the development and propagation of celebrity culture, mass media and mass communication writ large, and the passive role that most of us were assigned when music became a commodity.

Recorded music is a palliative for one of the many mutilations inflicted on us by civilization. Like any palliative, the fact that we make use of it shouldn’t blind us to the original injury that has made it necessary. Soon, we’ll need to kick the habit.


i Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants (New York: Viking, 2010), p. 235.

ii Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), p. 172.

iii Peter J. Martin, Sounds and Society: Themes in the Sociology of Music (New York: Manchster University Press, 1996), p. 239.

iv Ed Ward, The History of Rock and Roll, Volume One: 1920-1963 (New York: Flatiron Books, 2016), p. 43.

v Harvey Mars, “The Silence Was Deafening,”(July 2016) http://www.local802afm.org/2016/07/the-silence-was-deafening

vi Robert Leiter, The Musicians and Petrillo (New York: Bookman Associates, 1953), p. 43.

vii Ibid., p. 46.

viii Tim Anderson, “’Buried under the fecundity of his own creations’: Reconsidering the recording bans of the American Federation of Musicians, 1942-1944 and 1948,” American Music 22.2 (Summer 2004, 239-269) p. 247.

ix Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economiy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985) p. 115.

x Calestous Juma, Innovation and its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 210.

xi Ibid., p. 210.

xii Quoted in Steve Turner, Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year (New York: HarperLuxe, 2016), p. 11.

xiii Quoted in David Hadju, Love for Sale: Pop Music in America (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016), p. 44.

xiv Martin, p. 257.

xv Quoted in Ivo Supicic, Music in Society: A Guide to the Sociology of Music (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1987), p. 187

xvi Hadju, p. 13.

xvii Ibid, p. 13.

xviii Anderson, p. 253.

xix Martin, p. 248.

xx Quoted in Supicic, p. 182-183.

xxi Tom Vanderbit, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), p. 92.

xxii Mark Mulligan, “The Death of the Long Tail,” Music Industry Blog (March 4, 2014) https://musicindustryblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/the-death-of-the-long-tail

xxiii David Sax, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (New York: Public Affairs, 2016), p. x.

xxiv Vanderbilt, p. 92.

xxv John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973) p. 111.

xxvi Marina Peterson, “Sound Work: Music as labor and the 1940s recording bans of the American Federation of Musicians,” Anthropological Quarterly 86.3 (Summer 2013, 791-824), p. 795.

xxvii Anderson, p. 239.

xxviii Ibid., p. 249.

xxix Ibid., p. 238.

xxx Martin, p. 20.

xxxi Ibid., p. 20-21.

xxxii Quoted in Supicic, p. 155.

xxxiii Blacking, p. 7.

xxxiv Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 269.

xxxv Ibid., p. 270.

xxxvi Ibid., p. 1.

xxxvii Blacking, p. 34.

Letter to the Editor re abuse allegations

Date submitted: 22 November 2017
News outlet: Eugene Weekly
In a society characterized by elaborate power structures and widespread alienation it should come as no surprise that abuse and harassment are rampant. Proposed solutions such as more frequent workplace training, tougher laws, and more aggressive criminal investigations aim only to further regulate personal behavior and more precisely delineate how one must act in any given situation. The implicit assumption is that only strict instruction, codified behavior, and the threat of swift punishment can prevent abusive relations; as if, the degree to which we are free is the degree to which we harm others. It is a lie at the heart of mass society.
No matter the problem, mass society’s solution is always greater control; the utopian vision being pursued requires robot-like behavior governed by finely-tuned algorithms that deny our autonomy. It is a vision that is hostile to human well-being. It is a breeding ground for abuse and harassment.

The Potholes in Portland

Anarchists in Portland are taking to the streets! But it seems that these particular anarchists are not feeling that old “urge to destroy”. Portland Anarchist Road Care (PARC) is instead filling in potholes; assisting in the maintainence of the city infrastructure. They allege that “state neglect has caused the streets to fall into disrepair” and are consequently taking direct action.

On February 28th, they boasted of a “successful preliminary action” via Facebook; they “patched 5 potholes on SE Salmon between 37th and 39th”.

This Portlandia-style praxis along with daring photos of anarchists in balaclavas behind construction cones has succeeded in generating a lot of press with news reports appearing both in print and online. A small sampling includes: The Portland Mercury, The Oregonian, The Register Guard, US News & World Report, CityLab, AutoBlog, Zerohedge, Reason, and The Stranger.

It’s weird but it’s not parody. Oddly enough, PARC is sincere in their efforts and their stated defenses of the “action” seem to only make things worse:

“Be creating structures to serve the same purpose as state structures, such as our organization, we have the ability to show that government is not necessary for society to function, that we can have a truly free and liberated society.”

I am not sure why anarchists would want to “create structures to serve the same purpose as state structures”. If the State didn’t exist would we really want to invent it?

This is what the Left does and it’s not an attempt to abolish the State but rather to become the State; to take on State functions requires State power. The anarchist critique of the State has to go deeper than demonstrating that the State is failing to maintain city infrastructure to an adequate degree; after all, it’s not anarchists who promise to make the trains run on time.

Remember, the infrastructure does not exist for our benefit even as we are coerced into making extensive use of it. This is akin to prisoners repairing the bars on their cells; blaming the guards for allowing things to fall into disrepair.

But if you really want roads—at least in their modern form—you need something like the State. Consider the fact that PARC’s “successful preliminary action” amounted to patching five potholes which they say they are now monitoring to see how they hold up. The monitoring is necessary because PARC’s cold patching process is technically inferior to the job that would be done by city workers using heated asphalt. There is an issue of scale here that can’t be ignored: the city reports fixing 8,000 potholes every year. Anarchy doesn’t scale up very well.

Nonetheless, PARC doesn’t seem deterred by these numbers. According to The Oregonian, “The group said it’s now exploring alternatives to patching holes, including mobilizing people to fix roads in their own neighborhoods”. To fix 8,000 holes requires more than direct action; it requires mobilizing people in significant numbers but again anarchy doesn’t scale up very well.

It should be further added that filling potholes must be one of the least challenging tasks necessary to maintain a network of roads sufficient for a city the size of Portland. Should we expect PARC to eventually be building new roads from the ground up, adding lanes to existing roads, re-routing traffic with detours, monitoring air quality, and perhaps installing roundabouts at dangerous intersections? And, if they do, will they still be anarchists? To put it mildly: I am skeptical.

On a final note, a spokesperson from the Portland Bureau of Transportation said “We’d like to repair more potholes more quickly, but our efforts have been thwarted by Mother Nature.” With PARC promising more actions, that fight against Mother Nature has gained an ally.

Letter to the Editor re Zerzan’s Warning

Date submitted: February 7, 2017
News outlet: Register-Guard

silicaJohn Zerzan’s recent letter [“Peaceful protest changes nothing,” Feb. 6] had the feel of an obligatory public service announcement or perhaps one of those overly cautious product warning labels. Like those quirky product warnings it compels one to think about the terribly, difficult life of those who genuinely require such elementary advice: the person who hadn’t realize he shouldn’t use his electric iron while under water, eat the silica packet that comes in a pair of new shoes, or place a baby into a washing machine. The warnings strike most of as silly and perhaps even insulting but for a small part of the population those warnings are presumably quite important.

Zerzan’s warning is addressed to those confused folks who are under the delusion that by simply marching a sufficient distance or as part of a big group they will thereby magically bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice and throw off the yoke of oppression. While the number of people attempting to use their toaster as a flotation device is probably fairly small, those who mistake good manners, well-planned marches, luncheons with cops, and letters to politicians for real resistance is embarrassingly large. It’s pathetic that we even need the reminder that Zerzan offers us: peaceful protest changes nothing.


The Landscape of My Childhood


It is probably a truism that the world of a child is smaller than that of an adult. But, paradoxically, the opposite of a truism is often also a truism: the world of a child can be vast and without the limits that regularly constrain adults.

Perhaps it’s my age, a few years shy of forty, or perhaps it’s something else of which I’m unaware but I have been reflecting on my childhood and piecing together memories; attempting to discern the active ingredients from the sum total of those days—to single out those experiences which still resonate, ripple, and influence my adult life.

The first place that I can remember living was William Street in western New York. I can still remember the full address and phone number. I had to learn those things in kindergarten along with how to tie my shoes. The house was pale green when my family moved in and we would later paint it a burnt red color; I was allowed to climb a ladder to apply some paint. Climbing the ladder while holding the paintbrush proved slightly challenging as I inadvertently painted the lenses of my glasses before reaching the upper rungs. There was a well behind the house that probably didn’t work given that I can’t remember ever seeing an adult make use of it—it was only kids who ever pumped the handle or poured water down the spout.

But my memories of William Street are not really of the house. With some effort, I can dredge up some mundane details of the interior of the house. But it takes no effort at all to remember the backyard and behind that the woods. It proved to be the landscape of my childhood.

I remember the morning when me, my younger brother, and the kids who lived next door discovered that tent caterpillars had suddenly invaded the apple tree in our yard. The apple tree was a critical landmark and reference point for us. The apple tree effectively marked the start of the transition from backyard to woods. It was a meet up spot and was perfectly shaped for a child to climb. I spent time reclining in the upper branches. It was one of several fruit trees but it was the one everyone had the most affection for—regardless of the fact that the apples weren’t really edible. The invasion of the tent caterpillars had to be resisted. All other thoughts and plans vanished; the day was dedicated to tearing through their silky sticky tents, evicting and eviscerating the trespassers.

I remember the board that laid in the tall grass of the neighbor’s yard. We would sometimes lift the board to check for snakes. If a snake was seen, whoever had lifted the board would immediately drop it and we would all run for our lives before stopping to compare notes about what, if anything, we had just witnessed.

I remember the bridge that crossed the creek. Two utility poles spanned the gap; boards had been nailed between the poles to form a bridge. For all we knew, the bridge had always been there; it was almost a feature of the landscape. Our childhood minds could have more easily imagined a time when the bridge was first discovered rather than imagining it ever having been built. The bridge was aged and in a state of disrepair that made it fascinating and perhaps even slightly dangerous. The boards were not very secure, some merely setting in place with nails that had long since worn loose. Stepping to the edge of the boards rather than walking down the center could—and did—result in a fall into the creek. The board you fell off of might then fall on you but fortunately the water was never very deep.

We established landmarks and named unique spaces as we saw fit and there was no known edge to the terrain we wandered. There were presumably property lines but we were oblivious to them; we cut through neighbor’s yards with a presumed right of way. We could—and often did—spontaneously decide to go somewhere we hadn’t been before. And it would probably be a place our parents had never been before either. Off the map!

I remember we decided to follow the creek to parts unknown wherever it might lead. We set out with a sense of purpose taking long strides through familiar scenery and eyeing the horizon for something new. We got to the bridge and jumped off. At one point the mud got so thick it was pulling our boots off and sock feet were landing in mud. If it were a movie, it would be at this point that someone would plead “go on without me!”

The landscape and one’s sense of the world can potentially expand with adulthood but often it doesn’t. Adults tend to have longer, stronger legs able to span greater distances and the ability to pull their boots free from the mud. But for many, it seems, the world contracts, getting smaller and less interesting. The multitude of landmarks and reference points discovered in childhood all get reduced to “the backyard”. Adults never spent time in the upper branches of the apple tree and they were totally unaware of the tent caterpillars; adults didn’t discover what we called Vine Village where vines were as big around as our arms and could support our weight; adults never fell off the bridge or gathered up their courage to look under the snake board. Adults generally have their decisions made for them by other adults and their days are scheduled well in advance.

If my parents had been asked where my brother and I were during the day they could only have said “in the backyard” or perhaps “in the woods”. They didn’t know what direction we set out in and couldn’t easily find us. The only expectation was that we return home by dinner time or at least by dark. We never left word where we were going because we never really knew. Plans were apt to change and discoveries couldn’t be predicted.

It has been over a quarter of a century since those halcyon days and I am now relying wholly on my memory to reconstruct the past. If I returned to that same expanse today, it’s unclear how or if my memory would align with the facts on the ground. Perhaps the backyard wouldn’t seem quite so vast and maybe the woods wouldn’t feel as though they were a yet-to-be discovered continent. My horizons have expanded with time, experience, and travel but I have also succumbed to many of the trappings of adulthood. I would be hard pressed to say which is greater: that which I have learned or that which I have forgotten since wandering those woods. I am working on remembering.

Why We Shouldn’t Vote…as Explained by Barack Obama


Anarchism is one thing and democracy is another. The two are not synonyms; indeed, they are not even compatible. If one exists, then the other does not. Consequently, anarchists should be not be expected to promote, strengthen, or applaud democratic institutions. Democracy is one tactic or organizing principle that a state may use to secure its power and neutralize resistance.

Anarcho-primitivists are often at great pains to point out that “civilization” has a substantive meaning and is not simply an honorific; it does not denote considerate behavior, good manners, or artistic accomplishment. Likewise, the term “democracy” has a substantive meaning and should not be mindlessly applied to all political arrangements that strike one as generally fair or seemingly just. For one thing, democracy generally involves voting which is the turning over of power to someone else who may or may not adequately represent your interests (assuming such representation is even possible). Voting is one means that the state can use to transform dissidents into defenders of state power.

In wake of the recent election and the somewhat surprising result, there is incredible acrimony over who voted and who didn’t, why and how come. If you’re keeping score, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore voted for Clinton; Hulk Hogan and Tom Brady voted for Trump; Colin Kaepernick and Kanye West didn’t vote (although Kanye has suggested he would have voted for Trump had he voted). Partisans on all sides are rushing to either take credit or assign blame for the results.

And amongst anarchists, there is of course endless discussion about the appropriateness of voting at all.

At this point, I will turn to an unlikely source for an anarchist to rely on: President of the United States Barack Obama. Grant me this liberty as sometimes the words of those in power can be revealing in ways that they do not necessarily intend.

Yesterday in Berlin, at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Barack Obama inadvertently provided solid grounds for anarchists and others who abstain from voting. The italicized lines from this point onward are all from Barack Obama:

do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life”

Despite historically unprecedented unfavorable ratings, the two major party candidates still managed to win upwards of 90 percent of votes cast. This means that a very large number of people voted for a candidate that did not appeal to them. And at least from my own observation it seems that even votes for third party candidates were often not enthusiastically cast but rather were default options taken by those who for whatever reason felt compelled to vote for someone.

To actively vote for someone who you actually disapprove of must require a severe cynicism, an awfully bleak outlook, or at least a lack of imagination. The bars on one’s cage must seem unshakable; our systems of government and way of life completely unalterable. It is these voters who “take for granted our systems of government and our way of life.” It is their continued oppression that they are taking for granted. “Given that I have no real power, I will vote for _______.”

In the United States, if 43 percent of eligible voters do not vote, then democracy is weakened.”

Obviously not intended as such, the above statement from Barack Obama provides strong grounds for not voting if one is an anarchist. Low voter turnout is appropriately interpreted as a lack of faith in the institution. Low voter turnout weakens the claims of elected officials to be governing with the consent of the governed. Low voter turnout can pierce the “We the People..” propaganda that is so important to this empire. The People, in large measure, did not vote or did so only grudgingly.

In a society in which institutions exist to perpetuate and further our domestication and servitude, anything that weakens those institutions—including democratic institutions—is a good thing. Weakening people’s faith in the legitimacy and the perceived invulnerability of such institutions is of vital importance.

If people…are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process…then democracy will break down.”

This is simply another way of saying that state power is likely to break down. Obama naturally considers such a possibility to be a disaster; it is why he is now all but campaigning for the president-elect despite having described him as “uniquely unfit” for the presidency only a little more than a week ago. Those in political power require, if not the consent, the tacit cooperation of those being governed.

If democracy exists, then anarchism does not. Anarchists are right to do what they can to attack and weaken democratic institutions such as elections.

Offshore Wind: The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done?


Factories that work for Old Uncle Sam /
Run on the power of the Grand Coulee Dam”
-Woody Guthrie, “Song of the Grand Coulee Dam”

Seventy-five years ago, folk singer Woody Guthrie signed a contract to write songs for the federal government. The recently created Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) needed to generate enthusiasm and support for massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River most notably for the Grand Coulee Dam. The Roosevelt administration envisioned the dams providing cheap electricity and irrigating farm land—creating “green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground” as Guthrie would put it.

To complete this assignment, Guthrie traveled through the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia River Gorge and wrote 26 songs in a month’s time. Some of the songs were destined to be amongst his most well known such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and “Roll On, Columbia”; these are songs that would enter the folk music canon and the American psyche.

With the benefit of hindsight, Guthrie’s zealous support for the Grand Coulee Dam project has been the subject of some debate and much scrutiny: defended by some and condemned by others. In his recently released book 26 Songs in 30 Days, Greg Vandy writes:

“By today’s thinking, it can be difficult to understand why a folksinger like Woody Guthrie, who proved willing to walk away from good money based on principles before, so vociferously endorsed a project like the Grand Coulee Dam. It killed salmon, took away tribal land, and powered war industries—all factors well understood by Guthrie at the time.” (74)

But the explanation for Guthrie’s support is quite simple. The project aligned incredibly well with his leftist politics. As Vandy explains, from Guthrie’s perspective “the dams were the answer to the ills of his time and the path forward for his people” (76). In short, “the dam project was [Guthrie’s] idea of democratic socialism realized” (89). It was capital-p Progress.

We never arrived at Guthrie’s intended destination. Indeed, in A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia River, Blaine Harden writes:

“The river was killed…and was reborn as plumbing. The place where this fateful murder and curious resurrection took place was up the Columbia at the Grand Coulee Dam.” (75)

Flash forward to the present.

Last August, a private company, Deepwater Wind (not to be confused with Deepwater Horizon), completed construction of the nation’s first offshore wind farm—the Block Island Wind Farm—off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s scheduled to begin operating before the end of the year. The news was received with great enthusiasm amongst many environmentalists, liberals, and leftists.

Like the Grand Coulee Dam, it’s a massive project. The surface area of each individual blade is roughly equivalent to the surface area of a football field and the turbines themselves penetrate 200 feet into the sea floor. The turbines are nearly four miles offshore and stand 260 feet tall. There are only five turbines but this is widely considered a test run for much bigger operations.

Writing about wind power generally 350.org founder Bill McKibben has said: “We need a new aesthetic for the 21st century—one that looks at a turbine blade spinning as a sign that we’re finally getting our act together. I can’t think of anything lovelier than the breeze made visible.”

Regarding Block Island Wind Farm specifically, the Sierra Club enthusiastically explained: “Block Island isn’t just an offshore wind farm, it’s also a starting gun…the success at Block Island proves that investment in offshore wind is viable.”

A column in Grist states: “The potential for offshore wind power is enormous. The Department of Energy thinks offshore wind could one day deliver twice as much electricity as Americans used to keep the grid stable last year.”

The New York Times editorial board published an op-ed titled “The Unlimited Power of Ocean Winds

Unlimited power! To listen to the hype, it seems offshore wind could be the biggest thing man has ever done.

While not as lyrical as Guthrie, the Department of Energy explains that “offshore wind technologies…can capture wind resources”. The technology is introduced and sold as a way to combat global climate change and quickly becomes about “unlimited power” and capturing resources. It’s the very same process that transformed the Columbia River from a wild, living river into mere plumbing. Instead of commanding humanity’s respect it now takes humanity’s commands. It became something to be harnessed just as there is now talk of harnessing the wind.

Guthrie’s song “Grand Coulee Dam” makes the point explicit:

Roll along Columbia, you can ramble to the sea /
But river while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”