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Pitchfork on the State, Sweden, and Music

April 21, 2010

Many who are into the indie music scene most likely have heard of Pitchfork — hipsters’ first refuge for music reviews and culture. Pitchfork is known for their army of English/Comp-lit students who write verbose, witty and often sardonic reviews of everything from the latest Jay-Z to Animal Collective albums (whom they love by the way). Love ’em or hate ’em they’re a force unto themselves at this point in the indie music world due to the sheer magnitude of their output.

Over the last few years, more essay-like content has appeared on the site, which can be hit or miss. In a recent piece, entitled “What’s the matter with Sweden?”, Marc Hogan explores the idea of the state funding for popular musical endeavours. Hogan starts by exploring the state support for music groups in Sweden, who annually receive tens of millions of dollars in support. What is fascinating is that it’s not “classical” groups or musicians, as of course we would think when it comes to state support in the US,  but popular “bands,” such as the uber-popular electro-indie group, Knife. In addition to groups, labels also get support from the state. Hogan then goes on to explore similar modes of support in Denmark, Canada, and the UK, though they don’t nearly match the levels in Sweden. The situation is the US is obviously much different. As Hogan notes, “Back in the U.S. ca. 2010, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pop music act with National Endowment for the Arts funding.” Well, yea. With all furor for the state supporting you in the event you are dying in a hospital, can you imagine American tax-payers happy to support this (good song though)?

Hogan then leaps over to the recent healthcare debate in the US and ties the healthcare debate to the issue of state funding for musicians. A telling, though not surprising stat, is that some 44% of aspiring musicians do not have health insurance. Hogan seems pessimistic that new the healthcare bill will do much to help musicians in the US. After ending on a rather down note, he wraps it by saying, “With or without taxpayer grants or public health insurance, Americans aren’t particularly lacking when it comes to opportunities to make a living playing music.” Then come a requisite reference of “at least we’re not them” to a “totalitarian” Iran (had this been written in say 1987, the Soviet Union would have been the reference).

The thesis of the article, as far as I can tell is: state support for music, especially for groups who play popular music, can be great, though it’s hard to figure out whom to give the money, and the American music system is not very supportive, but there are opportunities and we’re not Iran. Well…where to start…the Iran comparison at the end makes little sense to me. It’s like saying, “Well we have no state funding for music, but we could live in 13th century England, when the local fiddle players had a hard time at it.” That type of comparison is meaningless and hardly serves as a vindication of the American system as it stands. Furthermore, it actually shows how deeply hallow our system is if we need to constantly compare ourselves to the least open societies to cultural freedom.

I don’t quite understand why the author thinks most musicians have a great opportunity to “make it” in the US. Seems like a hard thing to argue if you’ve ever known a musician. The underlying assumption that seems to be driving his logic here is that at the end of the day the market can be a fair arbiter of who is musically talented and who isn’t — the naked power of American music market still churns out good musicians despite the lack of any social safety nets. I beg anyone to turn on their radio or TV and then make this argument seriously. The market allocates money to musicians where it sees a possibility to turn a profit, not because of any particular objective musical value (however one would like to define it) – there is nothing necessarily egalitarian or meritocratic about the system…at all. Ironically, the only reason organizations like Pitchfork even exist and people like the author can write essays like this on their site is because of a massive backlash to the sad state of corporate rock by the end of the 1990s that produced the huge indie boom.

Rather than engage in silly arguments about how evil the state can be and enumerate the obstacles to allocating public money properly to aspiring musicians or labels (getting lost in the details so to speak is a tactic used to prevent more progressive thinking), we could just as well ask more simple questions about the type of society we want to be: one that values its ability to create culture more than say it’s ability to create violence and death? Swedes see it fit to use their collective wealth to support artists and musicians in their society (along with the bankers I might add – they are not a bunch of communists despite what FOX may say) because they believe that get something in return for the art that is produced by their collective investment, while we believe our collective wealth should go to supporting Wall St. and the socialized $700 billion dollar military-industrial machinery of death. What I’m suggesting here is that we strip bare the underlying questions that truly animate this debate, rather than weigh ourselves down with numbers and graphs about state funding for music.

At one point, Hogan quotes indie rock star, Ted Leo, “The dreamy anarchist utopia that I want to live in is not going to happen until we as a species evolve a little bit more, including myself.” First off, Ted Leo is in need of much less evolving than the rest of us – one can tell that from listening to his music. And second, dreamy anarchist utopias needn’t be such or discussed as such – as long as we conceive of a society in which its musicians and other artists living and making art free from constraints of the logic of the market (even in minor ways like receiving funding from the state) as utopian, then the goal will always remain out of reach – something that resides over yonder. Instead, we should begin to talk and speak about the society we want as if it’s possible and something within our reach just like the artists in our society do through their work (can you paint an enduring painting or write a beautiful love song by channeling a profit motive mindset or by pretending as if your art is the only thing matters in the entire universe?). And once we can taste it, like perhaps our Swedish friends can at times, then we should demand it be a reality, the only reality, not just for ourselves as Americans, but for everyone, including our brothers and sisters in Iran, who probably have some fantastic indie music themselves that I, for one, would love to hear.

Ted Leo – “Bomb, Repeat, Bomb”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 5:56 am

    Nice post! Thanks for taking the time to read the piece. I think you’re getting out of it what I hoped people would. I just went out of my way to avoid telling readers what to think and let them make up their own minds, is all– and it sounds like you did.

  2. April 24, 2010 4:54 pm

    Thank you for writing the piece! I found it well-written and though-provoking – otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the time to write this as you can guess. I’m glad Pitchfork is doing articles like yours that explore the political/music world nexus. I look forward to more pieces in this direction!

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