Money For Nothing
is a documentary
about the music
industry produced by the Media Education Foundation
. It highlights the concentration of ownership and hypercommercialization within the industry, and the amoral and often illegal
corruption of the broadcast and distribution systems, showcasing the overall affect of this on the quality of the product available. Money For Nothing features interviews with media expert Robert McChesney
, recording artists such as Chuck D.
of Public Enemy
and Ani DiFranco
, several music journalists, and narration by Thurston Moore
of Sonic Youth
As a sort of Behind the Music meets Manufacturing Consent, Money For Nothing answers the charges of those who take the position "Yeah, the recording industry sucks, but they're just giving people what they want." In fact, as the movie shows, the music industry gives a small segment of the population, namely those most likely to participate in profitable marketing tie-ins, what they want, and then employs an illegal cartel system to keep the public from accessing competing products.
Most people are familiar with the way that the hypercommercialization and concentration of ownership that characterize the music industry leads to the boring low quality output that we are familiar with. Although Money For Nothing details this, I will not exposit on it further, other than to mention that the documentary can be cleverly amusing in the way it lampoons various vapid pop phenomena.
On the other hand, many people are not as informed about how the music industry illegally colludes to prevent any alternative from emerging, and IMHO this is where Money For Nothing is most enlightening. According to the documentary, the major recording labels essentially maintain their choke-hold over music through a cartel system (my phrase), whereby the major labels tightly control all channels of distribution. According to the documentary, there are four main outlets for distribution and they are controlled in the following way:
In the early 60's, the revelation that some radio DJs were being given perks or sometimes being directly paid by record companies was so shocking that it led to a congressional investigation of this so-called Payola 'scandal.' Today, the big recording labels much more openly and corruptly control the content of radio with nary a peep from the law. Record labels directly pay stations' owners to include songs in rotations, and often refuse to withhold promotional and other arrangements if stations do not comply with demands, which can include censoring competing 'independent' product. With three corporations controlling almost all of the commercial radio stations in all major markets, and corrupt FCC rules that continue to limit low power alternatives, radio as a gateway for music is essentially closed and entirely a puppet of major recording labels. Therefore they can claim to be satisfying market tastes while in reality they keep peddling the same highly profitable and boring product without allowing any access to innovation spurring competition.
In this section Money For Nothing features a great and ironic clip of a stogy 'square' Republicanish congressman from the Payola days saying 'The public airwaves are public property and the people have a right to expect integrity in those who broadcast on them.' Anyone saying that in today's economic ideology would of course be labeled a communist.
Money For Nothing calls the MTV of the past several years a 24-hour commercial. Anyone can see that the videos and programming are honed not to showcase music but to sell a lifestyle and with it products. As such, videos must conform to a certain style (this is obvious, watching MTV for a few minutes will confirm that all videos are essentially the same). Videos are selected based on how they fit in with MTV's overall marketing agenda, and even shows such as Total Request Live that supposedly measure popular taste are rigged. Only a very narrow range of music is allowed on MTV, and so, like radio, it is essentially closed, allowing only adolescent-oriented commercial material through.
Although the documentary does not explicitly mention it, I would point out that VH1 is somewhat similar in that it is also an advertising vehicle, albeit one aimed at the docile SUV class as opposed to the pre-teen set. As such, this gateway only permits the vapid fringe of 'adult-contemporary' through its particular filter.
A pure monopoly. All major concert venues are booked exclusively through Ticketmaster so there is no way to stage a live act without their consent, and their vastly inflated prices. Want to stage a large-scale free music festival to showcase your non-pop music? Sorry, you can't. It is the Ticketmaster monopoly that makes live music shows so expensive that they can't be attended on a 'check it out' sort of basis, which would be a way for non-major labels to circumvent the other distribution obstacles.
The overwhelming majority of album sales are at so called 'big box' retail chains. In fact, Wal-Mart alone accounts for 9% of all music sales in America. As such, they and the other national chains exert explicit control over the content of commercially released music. Major chains have in the past gotten lyrics changed, songs removed from albums, and cover art altered. In this way, they act as a filter against any non-mainstream content. When combined with their refusal to take a risk and stock product that may not sell well initially, this effectively keeps consumers in most markets from being able to purchase independent-label music.
The cartel system is poised to become even more rigid as media companies continue to consolidate and even the remaining lax ownership restrictions are repealed. The movie points to the Pop Stars reality TV series and related spin-offs as the wave of the future, as we see the lines of music, marketing, and journalism continue to blur. Here we have a reality TV show on the Warner Brothers television network that spawned a band, Eden's Crush, on Time-Warner's record label, which was then promoted via cover stories in Time Magazine, People, and Entertainment Weekly. The band's video was released first on AOL, while the group had tie-ins for themed rides at Six Flags amusement parks, and they may soon be featured in a movie produced at Warner Brothers studios. All of these media outlets, of course, are the same thing, appendages of AOL Time-Warner. The actual music itself has very little to do with this massive marketing-plex, and as such, the quality of the art is as expected. Then through the control of the distribution systems competing art cannot be disseminated. Sounds a lot like the way culture was disseminated in the Soviet Union to me.
The issues raised in Money For Nothing are long overdue for scrutiny by society, and therefore this is a very valuable documentary.
"Money For Nothing"
Behind the Business of Pop Music
Produced by Kembrew McLeod
Associate Producers: Thom Monahan annd Jeremy Smith
Edited by Jeremy Smith
Executive Producer: Sut Jhally
Copyright 2001, Media Education Foundation