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ABOUT The World ...  

Par Claude Chastagner, professeur d'anglais à l'Université Paul Valéry à Montpellier.

Rock music, mass culture & the counter culture

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  In the U.S., rock music has benefited from the conjunction of various economic factors peculiar to consumer societies. The inner logic of capitalism demands that consumption should be freed from the guilt inherent in it, turned even into a civic duty justified by national economic imperatives. The contradiction between capitalism and consumption, which stemmed from the Protestant foundation of American society, died out. The overall process was amplified by the post-war baby boom. A new class of consumers emerged, the teenagers, freed from the work ethic and commanding a huge monetary mass these new customers were encouraged to spend rather than save. They were being educated to consume. To meet the demand, new products appeared, which fitted adolescent life style and tastes. Rock'n'roll was one of them, offering for a few cents unpretentious commentaries on everyday life topics (cars, school, parents, love etc.) over a pleasant musical background.

At this point, a word should be said of the consequences of the integration by capitalist economies of cultural products. If cultural production was to become a profit making niche, it required the implementation of a mass market. Now, cultural artefacts have no intrinsic worth, their use value is purely hypothetical. Their consumption depends on their symbolic value based, in rock music as in the motion pictures industry, on the star system which rationalized consumer demand. This is why, as David Buxton put it, "the consumer must be created alongside the product."3 Hence the setting up of various middlemen, "gate-keepers," such as critics, DJs or radio announcers whose task it is to launch new fashions and mold public taste. Such practices cannot of course but comfort in their opinion those for whom rock music is the soulless product of capitalist industry.

Today, rock is solidly established as a major component of mass culture. A few figures should make this clear. Since 1969, overall rock records sales have generated higher profits than the other sectors of the entertainment industry. From 1980 on, and despite fears of slumps and recessions, rock related sales (records, videos, concerts) have increased by an annual average of 13.2% (slightly less for rock shows alone, 8.2%), generating in 1993 a $13 billion turnover. Rock albums (including rap) make up 52.1% of the market, as compared to 4% for classical, and 3.3% for jazz. In 1993, 6 rock albums were certified multi-platinum, i.e., more than 2 million units sold in the year in the US. Some even reached 10 million units (the soundtrack of the film The Bodyguard). The same year, 33 albums were certified platinum (above 1 million units sold).4 Cumulated figures for the U.S. over several years are even more impressive; 14 million units fot the Eagles' Greatest Hits, 13 million for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, 43 for Michael Jackson's Thriller and more than a billion for Elvis Presley's complete recordings.

In the same time, the break-even point for a rock album jumped from 20,000 units sold to 100,000. (Significantly, a look at France's Top 20 sales for July 1994 reveals that only 7 foreign records had entered the charts, 4 of rock, 3 of dance music. Likewise, France accounts for only 6.7% of the world market for rock music, ranking 5th after the U.S., Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom). The profits generated by rock shows is also telling.

In a single concert at New York's Yankee Stadium on June 10th 1994, for instance, Pink Floyd grossed an astonishing $3,765,090.5 Another significant fact is the growing interdependence between rock and movies. Among the all time top-30 American films, 8 relied for their appeal on a rock soundtrack: Batman, Ghostbusters, Grease, The Exorcist, Pretty Woman, Rocky, Saturday Night Fever and Ghost. It is obviously difficult to determine in such cases which, the film or its music, drew the crowds; their interaction, most certainly. But choosing a well-kown artist or song increases the prospect of success.


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° Rubrique About The World