All music is being refitted by the updated requirements of digital existence, intimately linked to survival in the most competitive field musicians have ever faced. Old-timers like myself and most of the better-known players (many of whom since deceased) came into music and joined up with others under different circumstances than young players today. Almost accidentally we heard music we liked and pricked up our ears, listened to a few records with maybe the suggestion of a friend, got to know others doing the same thing where we lived and gradually got in motion and made commitments. We could be motivated by what was not wholly true, the belief that whether our music caught on with others and yielded success was not up to us, merely a matter of our music and other people’s (including critics’) taste. There was no possibility of working for success; even professionally-oriented music students weren’t trained for it. Today however to work for success is at the forefront of the most ambitious musician’s life, with more time spent working for it than actually playing—indeed it is more imperative. One must establish an online presence, invest oneself in social media, and prepare attractive promotional material, all of which are now subsumed under the technology of algorithms, links, and feedback. One explores musical ideas but in the context of the push to be accepted by as wide a group as possible.

This has a huge impact on the actual musical content, which is now played in the context of the numbers game—how many “friends”, “likes,” and “coming to the show,” which unlike the sales of recordings is immediately known and effective. It’s an improved system, but puts the nose closer to the grindstone. The content of what one does–what it means to the player–is sacrificed for what it means for others. That meaning is not registered in complex responses from listeners and peers but in yes/no zeros and ones. Anything messy in our relation to what we do, doubt and impulse, self-critique and caution thrown to the wind, is flattened out and cleaned up, meanwhile in the mythology these things are still believed to be inherent and expected in art.

Musicians and artists often feel that at least in their creative time they are immune to the pressures of society to produce something useful—that is still part of the attraction to doing this, a kind of passive resistance to the ways of the world. But that creative time has been penetrated, shot through with a new kind of internal repression that has quietly come to replace the old one of censorship and obscurity. It is harder than ever for artists to imagine what it might be like to feel truly alone in their work, the only boss of oneself –“autonomous” was the older term–when one sees over one’s shoulder the judge calculating one’s position in the hierarchy of numbers. True, as often cynically pointed out, we’re never alone, always imbibing a culture, yet here that culture has a foothold it didn’t have in the past. We have less choice of resisting our social membership than ever before–or so it appears, in the fear-filled survivalist atmosphere. And this is not something the kids do that they will grow out of and become more independent later. At least none of the elders seem to be urging them to stop playing this game and get back to making art that first of all satisfies ourselves.

There is a term borrowed from Marx that is useful here, distinguishing formal from real subsumption. The first refers to when someone hires laborers to work just as they always had, such as skilled work done by hand, with someone else providing raw materials and marketing the goods. With real subsumption laborers are hired regardless of skill, since they’re hired to work according to the technology and plan laid out by the owner. Applied to those who hope to play music in a venue in front of people, real subsumption would have as entrepreneur the music world (venues, funding agencies, curators, promoters), which now has digital tools it never had before to select who it will hire with unheard of accuracy. It is able to set the term, to shape the cultural content and providers according to its needs. It pressures musicians, all the more if they want to earn “real” money, to jump through the hoops it is enabled to set up, favoring music that is well-organized, accurately categorized, targeted to an audience prepared to accept it, and standardized—including so-called “avant-garde” and experimental music. Those who can’t or won’t play the game because they don’t get with the digital program will be automatically eliminated, and no one will notice.

The time spent exploring sound, learning instrumental technique, wondering what the hell we’re doing and why, can be considered labor that is at the player’s discretion, creating the musical skills we’ve chosen to bring with us, which yield a cultural product. All that activity is now overwhelmed by a powerful external, a judge the player did not previously have to deal with, certainly not from the very beginning of their musical experience. Young musicians, “digital natives” like their age peers, will be subject to “real” subsumption when they coordinate their activities with the social media, the promotional medium bar none, as the precondition of playing music in front of others. Busking could be an exception, but then one must develop the tricks of holding an audience ever ready to depart, hardly the focus of anything outside conventional entertainment. When in the 1940s Theodor Adorno critiqued “the culture industry” for commoditizing art he wasn’t aware of this further possibility, which gets to the heart of artists’ motivation and discipline.

This situation is part of the larger picture of how postmodern society has developed.

Gigs promising an audience of ten people  may seem small potatoes, but the same kind of machinery operates as for the name players. For capital to continue to expand it must subsume creative work according to the way it organizes all social relations, configuring encounters between musicians and listeners as opportunities for commodification, and relations of musicians as moments of competition even when no profit comes from the exchange. The perfection of the system is that unlike the high days of creative activity there is no hint of antagonism between them.

Not only is labor organized this way, as in Marx’s day, and beginning in the 20th century consumption as well, but now there is hardly a meaningful life activity that is free of the internalized demands of capital—not leisure, not Sunday painting and hobbies, not children’s playtime and sports, and not playing music. A few speak about resisting capitalist society, but they only propose projects they imagine can be taken seriously and possibly expand, such as experimental music, in the category of “making a difference.” An alternate list easier to attain, besides self-destructive vices, would include: working in self-indulgent isolation from the market, being carefree about “getting your stuff out there,” dancing and playing for the sheer pleasure of it rather than rehearsing, and goofing around–and doing these to excess. Sounds like a pretty good life!

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