What Do We Make?

What do we make in America? It’s rather an urgent question, and maybe better is to ask what do we sell in America? Beyond the making and selling of cars and houses – not doing all that well right now – we make and sell culture. And I do mean make and sell, as in manufacturing. What America made and sold from 1942 to 1989 almost literally conquered the globe. It was arguably the “Deuce-and-a-half” truck, more than any other single thing, that won Word War II, and the Cold War was won by Levis, Coca-Cola and Michael Jackson – maybe you see what I’m getting at.

What we make now and can’t sell, what we are choking on to some extent, are things that cost too much and do too much, and are worthless in their overwhelming abundance. We didn’t really need them, but we could have them, so why not? And now we can’t get rid of them. Not unlike our relationship to China – on the one hand, the Chinese own much of our present and future, on the other, there’s a group of well-known ignorant crazies who want to have a war with them. That’s some kind of recession in political and strategic thinking.

This all comes together with “Chinese Democracy,” and no, I’m not just being glib. To get the music out of the way – since I’m not writing about notes and sounds just now – I will express no opinion on the record. I’m not a fan of Guns n’ Roses. They do what they do well, and it doesn’t interest me, in part because the commerce can’t be separated from the music. Guns n’ Roses is a band making hard rock music, and they are selling the commodity of rebellion and anti-social swagger, while their product is produced and distributed by a conglomerate that, ultimately, owns the recordings – record companies have been using a modern plantation system for decades, which makes the amazing variety of American musical culture that’s been preserved a mind-boggling and bittersweet ray of light in an otherwise slowly unfolding tragedy. It’s not American unless it can be bought and sold, and if it couldn’t be bought and sold, we would not have it.

And so “Chinese Democracy” is a package of some 77 minutes of recorded music. It’s also seemingly an exceedingly small, modest result of an investment of almost 20 years and perhaps $13 million – the astonishing figure I see quoted most frequently. The package itself – a disc, booklet and case – is available only at Best Buy, for $11.99, which means it will take 1,100,000 units sold to recoup that cost. It’s an odd concept – something that Rose and Geffen hope will be massively popular available at only one outlet. It has to be massively popular as well, there’s too much money at stake. How is it that an album can cost so much? With every Mac OS loaded with Garageband, and with wonderful and popular music essentially being made at home, it points to an archaic method of thinking and working. Music is made with sound, with the voice and instruments, and can be preserved and spread through the ear or with paper and pencil. It’s hard to conceive that a musician would absolutely require that many years, those many millions, and a dozen recording studios and associated engineers and producers to make a record, because those appurtenances have nothing to do with music. But for someone with a very limited imagination, someone who sees everything as a product to be put in a package, someone who’s idea of innovation is bigger, bigger, always bigger, well, I can see how someone like that would think that’s what it takes to manufacture a big name record – to the CEO of a record company, the package itself is the product, and music has noting to do with it. Just as the car is something that more and more products are put into. And so we choke on their products, and they inevitably choke as well.

No one needs to choke, because “Chinese Democracy” is also available at iTunes, which is essentially a music store that resides in the home, and also a distributor for anyone who makes music in their home, without the producers and engineers and studios and millions of dollars in costs. Geffen and Axl Rose seem to be backhandedly accepting the obvious, which is that digital media is not only the future of commercial music but a great business benefit as well. It’s a different business though, and if you lack imagination, you can’t possibly see that something that is different than what is in your mind can be of any benefit, if you can see it at all. It’s like color blindness – manufacturing and selling CDs in cases is green, digital media is blue, but it doesn’t have any color at all if you can’t see it, which you can’t. The intriguing and unsettling part of digital music is that is has no physical content; the player exists but the music is just information. It has taken us technology to get us to realize what music has always been, just ephemeral information. This is a good thing even if it takes some getting used to. Some companies are seeing it already, though. It’s interesting that the same week “Chinese Democracy” is finally released brings news that one of the world’s largest record companies is now selling more music digitally than physically. That’s a color that’s difficult not to see, if you have any interest in knowing other colors exist.

One fruit of digital culture, I hope, will be that imagination will force itself onto American commerce, will abrade the dullness and opacity of thought and imagination. A great number of us are suffering the result of this lack of imagination, the inability to conceive that oil may be a limited resources, that housing prices may drop, that risk still exists, that success has many, many handmaidens. The gap between how things could be and how they are is measured by the idea that things can only be how they’ve always been; American society has been run by Abe Simpsons for quite awhile. That has now changed in one huge and painless way, which bodes well for the future. The rest of that change, though, the change in just what we make and what we sell, and how we do it, is going to happen, but it’s going to be a lot more painful, at least until Abe Simpson stops running it. Or ruining it.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.