Freedom, Music and the RIAA: How the Recording Industry Association of America Shapes Culture by De-politicizing Music

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Virginia Tech


Since the development of widespread sound recording and distribution, the music industry has become increasingly consolidated among fewer companies. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno described how the commodifying forces of the music industry lead to a predictable formulaic music that lacks any critical approach to society in their groundbreaking book, first published in 1944, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972). Today, the patterns have not changed as there are now four major record labels known as the "Big Four" that produce commodified music with a business model that optimizes their profits at the expense of art, creativity and original style. Using the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) as its lobbying group and appointed vigilantly, the "Big Four" attempt to limit the access of independent artists and labels to music consumers.

This thesis argues that in the process through which the music industry works to co-opt and commodify genres of music, the music is (de)politicized to appeal to a larger audience. While technological advances in digital media and the internet would seem to bring a decentralized (even democratized) structure that diverts the costly music distribution system allowing for more artists and labels to compete, the RIAA has acted to prevent these technologies from developing their greatest potential. First, I demonstrate how music is commodified and marketed towards consumers. The second part of this thesis uses hip hop as an example to demonstrate how the music industry co-opts a genre of music to sell to the largest number of consumers and in the process changes the political significance of that genre. Finally, I argue that the RIAA's attack on file-sharers in the name of copyright protection is a technique for the "Big Four" to stop competition from independent artists and labels.



Music Industry, Politics, Critical Theory, Hip Hop, political science, adorno