This Year Goes to Eleven
By now, 2010 is old news. Even as I write this, most other scribes are busy delving into right-wing assassination attempts in Arizona and uprisings in the north of Africa. Already the specters of yesteryear seem far, far away.
And yet, as we know from Orwell, it's impossible to know much about today without a balance sheet of the past. So it goes with music as much as anything else. In fact, it might be said that music was where the gap between have and have-not was most blatantly displayed.
The powers that be saw it fit to end 2010 by giving away one of the last bastions of cultural democracy to the money-grubbers. Net neutrality has been a buzzword for quite some time, the kind of thing one would expect to be done away with by the likes of a Reagan or Bush. It was Obama's FCC, however, that finally approved a neutrality rule so sweethearted it might have been written by Google and Comcast executives.
As Huffington Post's Timothy Karr wrote: "The rule is so riddled with loopholes that it's become clear that this FCC chairman crafted it with the sole purpose of winning the endorsement of AT&T and cable lobbyists, and not defending the interests of the tens of millions of Internet users." Some of these loopholes are big enough to drive a dump-truck of money through, but then, that's the point. Soon cable and phone companies will be able to charge for top search engine placement, in essence exiling those who can't afford under obscurity.
Anyone wondering whether this will have an influence on the music we listen to would do well to ask M.I.A. The most famous electro-rapper of the indie world has certainly seen her fair share of controversy during her career, but 2010 she practically had a target painted on her back. When her shocking video for "Born Free" hit the net, it was buried so deep as to be almost invisible for days.
That wasn't the end of it. Maya, the exciting, darkly subversive album featuring "Born Free" was just short of ridiculed by the press this year--most infamously in the New York Times Magazine hit-piece by Lynn Hirschberg.
No wonder why those in charge don't want this kind of brutal honesty coming out. The WikiLeaks fiasco in the final months of 2010 and the ensuing crackdown revealed just how deep the rabbit hole goes around the world. Keeping track of every single revelation to emerge via the cables borders on the impossible, but one of the many to get lost in the shuffle may say the most about what's in store for music in the coming months: the discovery of US meddling in Spain's own Internet laws.
Previously the Spanish government's attitude to peer-to-peer file sharing was relaxed, a live-and-let-live contrast to most of the western world's scorched-earth campaigns against "piracy." The new copyright law, however, is more in line with the US' own, and that's no accident. Turns out officials from the American Embassy in Madrid more or less wrote the thing themselves.
Says Spanish journalist Esperanza Hernandez, her own government "behaved in a way that was subservient in defending the interests of the United States to the detriment of the rights of Spanish citizens to access culture and knowledge through the Internet."
Welcome to the world of culture in the 21st century, one where arts and information are seen as mere commodities to be bought and sold rather than essential rights. But then, the Great Recession has shown that damn little of anything we hold dear is sacred when the question of profit arises.
As much as we would love an even-handed establishment in these troubled times, the fact is that these kinds of shameless handouts were the rule rather than exception this past year. Ticketmaster and Live Nation, two of the most notorious names in concert promotion, were allowed to effectively monopolize their market this year. What scraps still exist of accessible culture--like Chicago's free music summer music festivals--are now being handed over to the same ne'er-do-wells that got us into this mess in the first place.
But with the crack of austerity’s whip also comes the backlash of resistance--no matter how small. True, nothing to happen this side of the Atlantic reached the level of the evenements in France, and the student protests that radiated from the west coast was a fraction of what Paul Mason called the "dubstep rebellion" in Britain. But the cracks that formed in 2010 may very well prove to be a shadow of things to come.
As jobs continued to hemorrhage from America's urban centers, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, one of the world's most respected, hit the picket line against management's demand that the players give up a third of their pay.
Within days, the DSO had gained solidarity from Teamsters, factory workers and ordinary community members. At stake isn't just the DSO's well-being, but the basic right to quality music. Says cellist and spokesperson Haden McKay: "If they can make a major orchestra take this kind of pay cut--if they can open that door in Detroit--then you can be sure that when they go to the negotiating table in Baltimore or Dallas or Philadelphia or Denver, they're going to hear the same demands."
The players have been on strike since October, performing free concerts to drum up support--and the willingness of ordinary folks to provide them with that may be what makes or breaks their strike in 2011.
This past year was also one when just about anyone from outside the US had a target painted on their back--in particular those of Latin and Arab origin. Arizona turned its immigrant population into criminals in the spring, not long before Tea Partiers and other sundry bigots raised their hue-and-cry about the "Ground Zero mosque."
So it was with great relief that an organization like the Sound Strike took root in April. Spearheaded by Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, it's gone on to gain the allegiance of a wide swath of artists refusing to play in Arizona until the draconian SB 1070 is struck down. Kanye West, Gogol Bordello, Tenacious D, Pitbull, Sonic Youth, Massive Attack, Los Tigres del Norte, Conor Oberst and several others have lent support, and the collective's strength shows no sign of dissipating.
Less publicized but as striking has been the refusal of artists to play in Israel in protest of the savage blockade of Gaza. Artists like Elvis Costello and Gil Scott Heron were some of the first to cancel gigs in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. But with Israel's brutal attack on ships bringing aid to Gaza, the revulsion only spread. The Klaxons got on board, so did the Pixies and Gorillaz, along with many others already supporting the Sound Strike and countless lesser known acts.
"It worked in South Africa" said Eoin Dillon of the band Kila, one of 150 Irish artists who in August pledged to not play in Israel. It's a telling parallel; taken together, the artistic boycotts of Arizona and Israel is the biggest musical protest against racism and oppression since Artists United Against Apartheid declared "I ain't gonna play Sun City" in the 1980s.
The indulgent concept of art for art's sake is an insidious one, and it shows no sign of extinction anytime soon. But the game has changed; illusions in the priorities of those in charge have eroded, and along with them the notion that artists have no role other to dance and sing. If 2010 is of any significance, then the sounds of rebellion may very well be the theme of 2011.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist in Chicago. He runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. He has also appeared in Z Magazine, SocialistWorker.org, New Politics and several other publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.