Popular music has been suffering from some growing pains. Where artists once cast themselves as being against big business and the man, they now have to present themselves as budding entrepreneurs. Take Jack Garratt, for example. Q magazine has described him as being ‘part of a new breed of pop star, led by Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, who as well as making music see themselves as CEOs, team leaders, motivational speakers and HR departments of their own brand’. This is quite a change. When I was younger, bands would pose as rebellious outsiders. Stiff Little Fingers, for example, announced themselves by saying ‘we’re going to blow up in their face’. Here, in contrast, is how Garratt talks about his career: ‘it’s been a very natural and organic growth from being an unsigned, undeveloped artist then development through my management and then upstreaming onto a record label’.
Garratt’s language is hugely unappealing. And yet it could be argued that he is taking a stronger stand against the industry than punk bands ever did. He is building is own career and he is in control. The problem, as ever, is that such talk flies in the face of popular music’s romantic ideology. Romanticism, as Jon Stratton argued back in 1983, ‘expresses itself as contrary to all that capitalism stands for’. Artists aren’t supposed to be interested in business; they are supposed to recoil in horror from business.
The irony, as Stratton has pointed out, is that romanticism supports the capitalist practices of the record industry. This is because the individualism of the romantic artist ‘operates to counteract the “distancing” associated with the music’s commodification and substitute for it an essential unity between artist and consumer which elides the function – and existence – of the record companies and thus of the capitalist process which has called the music into being’. In other words, record companies differentiate their products by promoting the genius, sensitivity and anti-capitalist nature of their artists. This is how they turn rebellion into money.
Conversely, it is capitalism that supports, or even creates, romanticism. As art is commodified, it is ‘distanced, alienated, from the artist’. On the one hand, this enables creators to blame the cultural industries for the commercialisation of their art. On the other hand, it is this commodification that enables artists to present themselves as visionary outsiders. Stratton argues that ‘the creator/producer is only able to exist as an “artist” because of the ideological elaboration of the capitalist order, and because of the cash nexus which separates him/her from the consumers’. Ultimately, Stratton believes that the whole economic structure of the record industry is dependent on ‘the apparent conflict between art and capitalism’. Without art, capitalism would not prosper; and without capitalism, art would have nothing to fight against. They need each other to present themselves as special.
Jack Garratt, with his talk of upstreaming and branding, comes from a different place. And yet, despite the fact that we live in an utterly commercial age, and despite the fact that the cash nexus can now exist directly between artist and consumer, and despite the fact that the conflict between art and commerce was only ever ‘apparent’, his talk still feels uncomfortable. We are not ready to let go of romanticism just yet.