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We Are Living in the New Soviet Union

Kyle Gann

This essay is reprinted with permission from here on Kyle Gann's website.

Day in and day out we are censored. No one calls it censorship because we have not yet adjusted to the paradigm shift that has taken place. We believe that only a government can censor. Today, however, new ideas are suppressed not by the government, but by corporations. This is referred to by a truly Orwellian euphemism: the "free market." What we will not admit to ourselves is that the corporations are now the government. The corporations are powerful far beyond any government control. The elected government, as our elected representatives, tries to break up Microsoft corporation, and Microsoft just laughs. What we think of as the government is only a buffer state, the puppets dangled in front of us by the corporations, the go-betweens who try to put a positive spin on the actions of their corporate sponsors if they can - and if not, not. Since the corporations are run by people not elected, and have interests opposed to those of the public, and since the will of the corporations is unassailable, we live in a corporate dictatorship.

The corporations determine the content of any widely dispersed information. During the 2000 election, newspapers owned by large corporations painted Al Gore as a liar, stating over and over again that he claimed to have invented the internet - which was an outright lie. The retiring head of the New York Times news bureau admitted that the press never gave Gore a fair deal. The energy companies used the media they owned to elect their own president against the will of the American people. They used the media to lie about the actual outcome of the election, refusing even after the votes were counted to admit that Gore actually won Florida and thus the electoral college. They use media to keep attention focused on the war against terrorism so that the public will remain passive, and all dissent will be silenced by popular opinion.

The corporations force the publishers they own to operate on a principle that focuses only on financial gain, with no long-term thought for the health of our culture. The publishing houses and recording companies, in turn, publish only what can be shown to return a profit. When you go to a publisher with a book idea, someone at the publishing house does a survey to see whether other books on the same subject sell well. If there are no other books already on the same subject, then publishing the book is out of the question. In other words, if the people do not already know about something, you are not allowed to tell them about it. This has long been true at the largest publishing houses, but as smaller and smaller publishers get bought up or forced out of business, it becomes true even at lower and more local levels.

We go on believing we have freedom of speech because no one explicitly tells us that we are not allowed to say something. If one publisher turns us down, we can always go to another - but what if five publishers in a row are all owned by the same corporation - Disney, or Time-Warner, or Viacom? We all know that large companies will take a temporary loss to put smaller ones out of business: Barnes & Noble will keep prices down to put the independent corner book store out of business, and in turn will operate at a loss to put Barnes & Noble out of business. The same with record companies, publishers, even musical instrument companies. But what happens when all the small companies are gone and all that's left is the large corporations, i.e., the state? "It is not to our economic advantage to publish your work," the corporation says, "but you can always take it to another company - if you can find one." "We can't profit from distributing your work, but you can find another distributor - if there is one." Meanwhile, these same corporations are intent on destroying our alternatives. At what point do we wake up and realize that the corporations are indeed explicitly telling us that we are not allowed to say something unless it will profit them?

New music poses a threat to corporations. On the one hand, it doesn't offer any immediate financial return, because it takes time to build up an audience. On the other hand, it offers audiences a true alternative to the lukewarm claptrap that the corporations peddle, and thus it threatens to siphon away money from the corporations. So the corporations offer up and publicize mediocrities of their own, like Disney commissioning works from Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Torke, to make sure that no true alternative arises. They can sell classical music more efficiently as a genre if it is a fixed, commoditized repertoire, not if its definitions begin to unravel. Even National Public Radio, ostensibly public but indebted to corporate funding, gives air time to Billy Joel's silly "classical piano" disc on the Sony megalabel, while turning down dozens of interesting young composers every month. (NPR was hardly more truthful in covering the Florida election than the daily papers were.) Journalists self-censor, looking for topics already well known enough to please the corporate bosses - I've been forced into this situation many times. The new music composer is in exactly the same position as the independent corner book store or record store - the corporate world has nothing to gain from him and something to lose, so they do their best to put him out of business.

Think about it: who were the last interesting composers to gain national attention? Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams. When did they become famous? In the late 1970s. When did the corporations gain enough power to control the flow of cultural information? During the Reagan years, in the early 1980s. Isn't it an interesting coincidence that the handing over of free rein to corporate America occurred simultaneously with the apparent end of our cultural history? It just so happens that no composers born after 1940 are good enough to become well-known. Or is that just what we've been led to believe?

And so the composer, not wanting to believe that he or she is a suppressed citizen of a corporate dictatorship, makes up excuses for his or her lack of fame. My music just isn't good enough. Young people aren't interested in classical music anymore. Television has lowered people's tastes, so there aren't enough people who can appreciate my work. Audiences are splintered. Art music was a European phenomenon anyway. And yet why, when I lecture and teach and play music by dozens of "commercially unviable" young composers - why do I find such positive audience response, such wide interest, such sudden enthusiasm? These people had no idea such music existed. And after I leave, they will search the record stores and book stores and conclude that, in fact, it doesn't exist.

Because it is being censored - by the de facto government.

We are living in the new Soviet Union. I maintain this web site in part to convey information around the censorship I run into on a weekly basis. The only effective action we have left in this context, for the moment, is self-publishing. Suppose you do manage to gain a following, and become well-known enough that your views and ideas interest people. If your work runs counter to the commercial mainstream, any publisher you turn it over to will bury it, tie up your copyright, and prevent your distribution under the mendacious excuse, "Well, this isn't going to sell well enough for us to waste money promoting it." If you truly represent a message alternative to the ruling corporate powers, then the bigger the publisher or record company you go to, the more your work will be hidden, neutralized, kept in boxes in a storehouse to diminish your threat to the status quo. If you want to have an impact, go to the smallest publisher, the smallest record company you can find, those few people left who do their jobs out of idealism and altruism with no regard for the "bottom line" or "professional concensus." Even better: publish your own books, make your own CDs. The fact that the internet and digital technology make this possible is our only immediate hope.

But do not internalize corporate rejection and begin to diminish the importance of your own work. Recognize that we are in an oppressive political situation, and that somehow we must fight back. Every one of us is Shostakovich, only it's Sony instead of Joseph Stalin telling us that our work doesn't correctly express the ethos of our time. In the old Soviet Union, if your music didn't further the wishes of the State, they could prevent you from having a professional life - what's different here? Our generation, and the generations that come after us, deserve to have our own representative artists, our own widely discussed ideas, our own collective artistic expression. It is cruel, inhuman, dishonest, immoral, and tyrannical for the corporate government to deny us this. It is tyranny that the unelected corporate government exists at all.

The Internet has done for millions of individuals what the player piano did for Conlon Nancarrow: empowered them to express themselves free from corporate and institutional censorship. It is the only hope we have for the continuing evolution of society through honest, realistic, relevant discourse. It has become, for now, the last remaining publishing house of democracy. Keep it free, unregulated, and outside the control of the corporations. But do not plan to settle for only this: from this base we must move back and regain our freedom.