The Music Apparatus

Within the discussion of musicians defying labels is a push against a system. This system is more or less the music industry at large. We see this from basement recordings of punk bands on cassettes to Taylor Swift’s choice to take her music off of Spotify. Each is a conscious choice to not play into the momentum of the larger apparatus.

It can be contested whether these decisions make any difference at all. But, if we removed the veil of rebellion, could we see these actions as working with the larger apparatus than against it?

Vilém Flusser wrote about this in Towards a Philosophy on Photography. The content of a photograph was not a feeling or memory but the apparatus that created said photograph. In Wasting Time on the Internet, Kenneth Goldsmith elaborates on Flusser’s ideas:

“Flusser claimed that the content of any given photograph is actually the camera that produced it. He continued with a series of nested apparatuses: the content of the camera is the programming that makes it function; the content of the programming is the photographic industry that produces it…In Flusser’s view, the traditional content of the cultural artifact is completely subsumed by the apparatuses – technical, political, social, and industrial – surrounding, and thereby defining, it”.

This is antithetical to the content we think to be in music or any art. Any feelings or ideas the music might be conveying, what we think of as the message, are set aside. Instead, taking a turn of phrase from Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”.

It is the series of nested apparatuses that is under this veil of rebellion.

Take the punk band in the basement. Even if they are using an outdated means of distribution like cassettes, there is a series of apparatuses at play: the band records with technology from the music industry. Say that the blank cassettes also had to be bought from Amazon or Ebay. These distribution websites are also a part of the apparatus network. And what if these cassettes were sold on Bandcamp? Another link on the chain of apparatuses.

Flusser described rebellion against photography in this way. The results are still the same:

“A number of human beings are struggling against this automatic programming…attempting to create a space for human intention in a world dominated by apparatuses. However, the apparatuses themselves automatically assimilate these attempts at liberation and enrich their programs with them”.

This could also describe Taylor Swift taking her music off of Spotify. Even if she does remove her music, she is only strengthening her bond with the record company she works with. Not only that, but also with the means of distribution that she and the executives find acceptable (iTunes, Amazon, etc). To put a spin on what Flusser wrote, Swift’s attempt of liberation are assimilated into the system of apparatuses and are enriched because of it.

Flusser’s ideas can seem demystifying, defeating even. They do not obliterate passion and ideas though. Those are still present in music. But, if we think that is all that is going on in music, then Flusser would beg us to reconsider.


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