Commodity fetishism for Karl Marx “is not laid to a subjectively errant consciousness, but objectively deduced from the social a priori, the exchange process.” Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 190. However, consciousness of that social exchange can spark real change, especially in the field of art. So let’s play with this and see where it goes.

Musicians now operate in a service and entrepreneurial economy. Those professionally oriented in the past were exchanging musical commodities for a livelihood. Today they have been reduced to exchanging service to the music world (funded venues, print publications, jazz radio, academia) for prestige and the stamp of authenticity, with a significant loss of livelihood. Musicians once treated as highly skilled workers are now middle class entrepreneurs selling their services to a monopoly.

Fifty years ago, prestige followed sales of the fetishized commodity to a significant degree. The buyers of jazz music in particular prided themselves on making their own judgments; they argued over relative musical value, even publicly taking the media critics to task for their judgments. Especially for the avant-garde musicians such as Sunny Murray, enough fans were active in advancing their cause to make a difference, though in the long run the support manifested in sales and poll figures wasn’t enough to pay the bills. Free Jazz was largely supported by media critics but defeated at the point of sales. Musicians blamed the record companies, but for reasons beyond their control their music lost its appeal, which was only resurrected later as a different kind of commodity.

The audience for an Eric Dolphy was too small, given his strangeness to most jazz ears, which forced him out of the American market. Those with more aggressive, proud personalities like Murray railed against the media for not boosting him enough, and against other musicians for copying his ideas and cheating him. (In his memory I recommend the 1965 interview, the first time Murray’s verbal sparks were flying, in 19+ Conversations with Jazz Musicians, conducted by Garth W. Caylor Jr.) The jazz avant-garde led the way for the entire music industry in attacking their bosses, and part of their prestige among audiences came from that boldness.

Today things have turned around almost 180 degrees. Sales of goods and ticket prices follow prestige, which is the work of the music world institutions and communicated through media attention. Ambitious musicians match their musical interest with the positions available and create an image as traditionalist or avant-gardist according to what they feel comfortable with and are capable of. Has anyone of the current generation taken the music world to task, as did Sunny Murray, much less get respected for it?

The docility of today’s name musicians is not considered a scandal, however, since audiences are left out of the picture and cannot imagine themselves bucking the system. The music world institutions are in agreement about who are to be given the most consistent attention and who are not; like the banks, the system is too big to fail. The recognized avant-garde is tagged as already radical, implicit in the musicians’ inclusion; to make it explicit, by challenging their bosses and audience taste, would be to violate their unspoken contract. To bite the hand that feeds them, as the British say, is just not done. But, thinking realistically and sympathetically, where would it get them?

The jazz and avant-garde audience of today does not have the institutional means to interfere and advance its own decisions contrary to what is offered. The judgments have already been made; to listen to music in hopes of having their heads turned around, to pay a decent price for something that is not a guaranteed pleasure, is not what they’re being asked to do. The proliferation of musicians and product that has flooded the market is to the great advantage of this system, as if to say, if you don’t like the names we’ve chosen, there’s thousands more, all equally unknown, for you to find by picking through the bin. As individuals, you will have no means to rally support for one name over another, and anyway, for us to pick up on your selection would break our tacit agreement with those who have already signed with us.

For musicians who have been willing to sell their name and have gotten official recognition in return, this is all a perfectly reasonable arrangement. By the same token, it should be no surprise that the thorny musicians of the past, often bitter and complaining publicly at their fate, do better in the market now than in the era of their greatest creative strength. To keep things running smoothly now, they are have been assigned to the avant-garde museum. Were a few Sunny Murrays to appear today, with fearless, openly proud personalities and a bold music to match, how would we ever hear of them?

Or just maybe the water needs testing from time to time. How long will musicians and audiences continue their defeatism?