The Occupy Movement: Music as Democracy or Music as Greed?


The Occupy Movement, which began with Occupy Wall Street, claims to represent the 99% against corporate greed. In the second part of our three-day discussion on artists and the movement, our panelists discuss the democratic potential of music, the legacy of the protest song, and the corporatization of the arts. If you missed yesterday’s Six Degrees Left conversation, our monthly dialogue on topics that matter, you can read it here.

Thanks to writers Myfanwy Collins, Katrina Gray, Jamie Iredell, Djelloul Marbrook and Marcus Speh, along with musician Bobby Strange, for sharing their time with us.


From the perspective of the artist, has art—film, writing, music, visual arts—become too corporatized? Are too many artists pushed to the marginalized edges of contemporary writing and music?

Jamie Iredell: I’m sure some feel that the arts have been co-opted by multimedia profiteering conglomerates. It’s an inevitability that art is business: people will pay for books, music, movies, etc. But, simply due to the sheer volume of humans, their productivity, and the present availability of media in free or relatively cheap formats, the arts couldn’t be flourishing more.

I can’t speak much about mediums other than literature, but I can say I haven’t bought an “album” in a long time–not even a full album download. I buy individual songs on iTunes, once in a while–and by that I mean I think I downloaded a song in 2009. And I know that it’s a relatively painless process for an indie band to list their albums and songs on iTunes, for example. In lit there are so many small presses publishing fantastic, challenging, interesting literature that I hardly ever buy books from “traditional” presses (or large, New York houses, or however you want to define the “Big Press”).

Due to productivity and the availability of media in free or relatively cheap formats, the arts couldn’t be flourishing more.

Even self-published authors can have their books listed on Amazon. The small presses obviously do not have the advertising clout that a “Big Press” has, but, those big presses aren’t forking out the cash to advertise books either, if you write something literary. If you’ve got a hot vampire in your book, you’re in good shape, though.

Myfanwy Collins: I don’t think more artists are necessarily being pushed to the fringes. My impression is that there are simply more writers and artists than ever, given that it is easier to get one’s art and words out to an audience. The benefit of more writers is that they are all (presumably) also reading. There are many more voices and many more people listening to those voices. There are exciting independent presses and publishers and new publishing models. It’s exciting to witness and be a part of. In fact, instead of feeling like I’m being pushed away from some big, corporate center, I feel like I’m being embraced by small, open-minded, risk-taking, independent publishers.

I feel like I’m being embraced by small, open-minded, risk-taking, independent publishers.

Marcus Speh: Rather than “corporatization”, the trend towards self-publishing and towards experimentation dominates my imagination. “We may be heading, with terrible slowness, towards new earthquakes of form”, said Roberto Bolaño. I believe the changes in art are triggering mighty changes in our economics of seeing, reading, and making. As a writer, I also feel more embraced by the system not less, like Myfanwy says.

I see the future of all arts in partnership rather than in opposition to the corporation. The reason for this loaded argument is that on this global spaceship of ours, we may only be able to survive if we all pull together. But as in all paradigm changes and revolutionary situations, society will only make it through the change if those who participate in the change give up some of the loyalty to their gods/muses in exchange for more mutuality.

Djelloul Marbrook: It seems to me that we’re taking to the streets because of the corporatization of our lives. We’re accepting dicta about the arts from a corporatized press. For example, David Orr recently said in The New York Times that poetry—he didn’t say it exactly like this—lives in the margins of our society. What on earth is the man talking about? He walks the streets of New York and hears the rappers, he hears country music, he knows how popular the Bible, the Qu’ran and Veda are, and yet he offers up this hoary chestnut.

Jamie Iredell: I’m gonna disagree with Djelloul here only a little and say that poetry is completely relegated to the small press. Specifically, my disagreement is one of semantics, in that I’m not thinking of the Bible, Koran, or rap as “poetry” (although I realize the poetry that these things are). When I think of poetry, I’m thinking Heather Christle, Dottie Lasky, Bob Hicok, Dean Young.

As a flower is
credit: Sarah Ross Photography

All this is not to say that some “Big Presses” aren’t willing to take risks in prose. Harper Perennial’s been publishing fantastic books for a few years now (Dennis Cooper, Blake Butler) and Bloomsbury has purchased Michael Kimball’s next novel. But, comparatively, if you’re a literary kind of reader (which I acknowledge is vague, and even if you look on, say, Simon and Schuster’s website, they’re publishing some good literary fiction and nonfiction; but they also published the novel “written” by Snooki ) you’re still going to find more interesting stuff coming out of “indie”, or college and university, presses.

Best seller lists are a measure of advertising clout, not literary merit.

I couldn’t even begin to list how many small presses publish great books. There’s no reason to go to Barnes & Noble, a statement literally true for me, since Atlanta is a desert for independent bookstores, although there are some great new/used bookstores, Like Eagle Eye, and Books Again for hardbound first editions, but A Cappella Books’ (probably Atlanta’s attempt at a cool indie bookstore) inventory is too small to find any true gems. Not to mention that–at least with my local bookstores–they still carry primarily books from the “Big Presses,” so I only order books online directly from the press or via Amazon, and will only buy a book at a store if shipping time’s an issue, which almost never happens.

Djelloul Marbrook: Poetry is immensely popular, but our popular definition, as defined by sales figures from publishers and vendors, is narrow and misleading. Or take the best seller list. It belongs on the business page, not the book review page. It’s a measure of advertising clout, not literary merit. So, yes, we are damaged by allowing corporations to define our culture. Their definition will always be about money. That is why we view art and literature in terms of horse races: who wins this prize, who’s ahead, who’s selling. It’s a damned-fool [way] to think of art.

Marcus Speh: According to Nietzsche, art is always dangerous to the artist. In Human All Too Human he talks about a “vehement antagonism” between the artist and all men of his age who don’t “play the game of youth and childhood” that the artist plays, who regresses as he matures: one imagines an artist who, at the end of his creative life, finally has come full circle—man and child at once. I say this because if Nietzsche is correct, there is a principal chasm between capitalism and creativity, which commercialization cannot cross, because if it did, it would also turn into a toddler. But business is serious business, not child’s play.

There is a principal chasm between capitalism and creativity, which commercialization cannot cross.

The corporation has no say on these eclectically Elysian fields of the serious artist. Not because the corporation isn’t serious also, but because business, at least in these post-modern times, is all about standards and automatization, and about doing what business does best at a low cost, ubiquitous and 24/7. Successful business is actually quite a lot like an art but usually totally unaware of this fact. Hence, it tends to fight the true artist, whom business sees as anarchic.


Is this an era for the rise of new protest songs? Think of those classic hymns of the times, in the 1960s during Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, for example. Is the free mp3 truly the only protest song that has political effect because of its timely ability to influence public opinion?

Katrina Gray: I think it’s idealistic to think that a free mp3 can do much of anything to change the idea of fairness in the United States. The most powerful forms of art I’ve seen during these protests have been body art and photography–individually-owned and -generated art. Protesters are showing that not everything can be bought or owned.

Bobby Strange: The music of the 60’s–the Dylans and Beatles, etc.–were able to be seriously “edgy” artists with serious cultural relevance working within the confines of the music labels. They did not have to do the sellout/compromise thing. The listeners wanted it and asked for it. It seemed there was a larger market for kids buying the “good stuff,” records that actually had a message. I’m not sure the “corporations” cared then, or now, about the content as long as they made the money.

Today, I’m not sure if the problem is that the few remaining record companies play it safe with a formula that works and makes money–currently, Lady GaGa/Beyonce stuff–or, I fear, there is just a smaller demand from the music buying public for music that means anything. It seems we have settled for getting “poke, poke, pokered in the face” and that is what we will get. The good news is that with the ability we now have in the digital world [means] we can make and distribute purely what we want. We can circumnavigate the corporations and directly hit the small, but loyal, group of independents who are always looking for new, cutting-edge music. So, the simplest answer may be we have really marginalized ourselves with what we demand, or lack thereof.

Katrina Gray: Not all protest songs are created equal. Somewhere between the mid-eighties and late nineties, cultural protest songs seemed to lose some sincerity and drive. I feel Bono’s pain in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” but Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten” wreaks of post-9/11 greed and faux-respect, and is ill-informed anyhow. New protest songs have some harsh competition–the screaming horns in Edwin Starr’s “War,” the ominous kick-drum on CSNY’s “Ohio,” the ironically upbeat melody of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sunshine,” the plaintive vocal on Supertramp’s “The Logical Song,” the distorted lead guitar on the Beatles’ “Revolution”–but the tendency these days is toward quieter, more personal protests in music, as in, say, Ani DiFranco’s lyrics. And that is how I think of Occupy Wall Street: as a powerfully honest protest stemming from individual hurt that happens to be shared. It is Tori Amos rather than U2.

The most admirable artist responses–to culture in general, not just this movement–I’ve seen have been Beavis and Butt-head, South Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy.

So far, the most admirable artist responses–to culture in general, not just this movement–I’ve seen have been Beavis and Butt-head, South Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy. The shows are smart, popular, and get people talking. They’re backed by corporations, but are so popular that the corporations think it’s a pretty good deal to trade artistic latitude for advertising dollars. Much of the audience understands that this irony exists, and they have a sense of humor about it. The shows had to earn the right to shout through the megaphone. They collected the type of audience that expects them to be vocal.


Is music a more democratic form of the arts? After all, literacy isn’t a factor to enjoying and appreciating music; one only has to listen, whether the music is bluegrass, rap, classical, or pop.

Bobby Strange: I think yes, at least on the art form itself. Music takes the least “effort” for the average Joe to connect with. All you have to do is turn the knob. The simple, concise three-minute story, if you will. No commitment necessary. Don’t dig it? Turn the knob again. One man, one vote.

Many folks tell me that there are songs that reach them with the music, others with the beat. I always hope it’s the lyric, but I’ll take any connection happily.

Protest Song?
credit: Garry Knight

Jamie Iredell: Music is as “democratic” as the literary arts and the visual arts. The least democratic of the arts would be the performance arts and film and television.

What I mean is that music, literature, and most of the visual arts are available for anyone to participate in and with on a regular basis. As Bobby mentioned, simply turn the knob on and up, or open your mouth and sing–or whatever–and you can participate with music. I agree that music is just as corporatized as any art, but the most interesting stuff musically isn’t coming out on the radio (except, certain stations). Most of it gets played by local bands, or can be found online.

Many museums (such as the Met in NYC) anyone can walk into for free. Most sculpture is public. I understand that many people have difficulty participating with the visual arts because they think there must be something they’re not “getting,” but that feels like a failure of our education system, and not the democracy of the art form.

Myfanwy Collins: Anyone who has ever worked even tangentially in the music industry would probably answer hell no in terms of the mainstream production of music. It is as much about corporate greed and productization as anything else.

With music, you really are not being allowed to choose so much as you are being fed what to choose.

If you listen to the radio, you are being fed someone else’s idea of what you should listen to. iTunes and e-music are offering you the music that comes to them through corporate channels. Record stores (are there any record stores anymore?) have the records that their distributors want you to have. So in that you only need listen and if you are in a room with a guy and his banjo, yes, sure, [music is] more democratic; but the second you move into the world of music that is pushed to you, you really are not being allowed to choose so much as you are being fed what to choose. Consider, too, that individual reading is a relatively new practice. Before books were mass produced, stories were shared through speech.

Jamie Iredell: As Myfanwy said, literature was (and I think still is) largely an oral art, and it’s only since the advent of the printing press that lit as we know it comes in book form. So, when we consider the history of humans, it hasn’t been that long since Gutenberg.

Bobby Strange: From an industry standpoint, I agree with Myfanwy. I think mainstream has become a “flavor of the day” probably even more than the other arts. Even if the music style is different–hard rock ,rap, country or whatever–it has become a stick-to-the-formula thing.

I personally enjoy film and TV work. There is more room to be creative. The need to be honest only to the screen more than a particular formula to stick to.

Jamie Iredell: Film and television cost money and lots of it. Not just anyone can make a film or television program or work of video art. It takes capital to have the equipment. Going to the movies is expensive and not everyone has a computer or a Netflix account. It costs money to see a play or ballet, or Broadway, etc. And it’s not like anyone can just break into acting. On top of this, film and television cater to the least common denominator and are the last places I look for intelligent artistic responses to cultural phenomena. It happens, but it’s rare.

Djelloul Marbrook: I think you could argue that [music] is a more democratic medium, but there again you run into definitions. I hardly ever buy a ticket to hear great music. I put my money in violin and trumpet cases on the street and I hear dazzling music on subway platforms and in front of the Metropolitan Museum. I thrill to this kind of democratic culture. I know many of those musicians would be on stage if our society hadn’t driven them mad. They feel safer under the sun and stars, and I patronize them as much as I can.

Marcus Speh: My experiences with music making are limited to modern classical music and musical improvisation. In this realm at least, literacy is just as much a factor for how music is received. It doesn’t lead to better, but certainly to different, listening. It’s a matter of mode and approach, not quality. Authors, music makers and performers all spend their lives improving their own approach to their art—it makes sense to me that performing for people who also invest serious time in art is a very different experience from performing for novices—in all arts.

To me, the reading experience is no different from the listening experience in the sense that both aren’t restricted to the individual: they take place in a “knowing field” that’s created by everyone around us, high and low; and by everything that we make, too: small and large, quiet or loud, visual or musical.

Bobby Strange: The depth of work that you writers put in amazes me. Sometimes years of research and writing for a single book. It’s a beautiful dichotomy between us. As a songwriter, I have to figure out how to say–what you use hundreds of pages to say–in a few verses and a chorus and try to paint the same captivating picture.

Katrina Gray: I agree with Marcus’s statement that music isn’t really separate from other art in this regard. And as the daughter of a country musician and songwriter, I have to say that the current music industry business practices squash any ideas of fairness in getting the music heard.

How deals went down in the ‘60s and ‘70s is a whole lot different than how they happen now. The business side of things used to be a democratic process, right down to the dee jays having the latitude to pick the records they liked rather than the ones they’re told to play because So-and-So Records donated a new sound booth to the station’s studio. Payola is still alive and well.

Music listeners are “consumers” now, rather than fans.

My father remembers hanging around the publishing houses on Music Row, where singers and writers would fingerpick tunes together. If you had a guitar and you were passing by, chances are, you’d get invited to join in. A person’s level of success didn’t matter; it was all about making music. His biggest hit was sold because he happened to be in the right place at the right time, and months later he’d bought a house and a new Mercury. No way could anything like that happen now. I drive down Music Row on the way to my kid’s preschool, and instead of seeing guys like my dad walking around, I see vacant real estate and slick suits yelling at people on their cell phones outside the GAC building. There are too many people along the way who want a cut of the action, so the artistry, the passion, are easily distorted by the time the music makes it to the radio. Listeners are “consumers” now, rather than fans.

Day one of our three-day discussion on the Occupy Movement examines whether writers, musicians, and artists have a moral obligation to social justice and social movements. The final segment on Wednesday discusses the success of the Occupy Movement and its potential for lasting, meaningful impact.


Six Degrees Left is a monthly conversation that pulls the plug on the respirator of partisan consensus and delivers oxygen through heated exchange. Six Degrees Left dismantles the walls of literary elitism through open and frank dialogue among leading writers, critics, and thinkers on topics that matter. Six Degrees Left needs your help in keeping our fingers on the pulse and beat of everyday culture. Leave a comment on this page or send in your questions or topic suggestions to laceyd [at] atticusbooks [dot] net.


Myfanwy Collins is the author of Echolocation (Engine Books, March 2012) and a collection of short fiction, I Am Holding Your Hand (PANK Little Books, August 2012). Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Potomac Review, PANK, and Quick Fiction, among others. She lives on Boston’s North Shore with her husband and child. You can follow her on Twitter @myfanwycollins.

Katrina Gray is a writer specializing in flash fiction and has been published in Blip, The Northville Review and Metazen, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Atticus Review. She lives in Nashville with her husband, the writer John Minichillo, and her son, and can be found on Twitter @Katrina_Gray.

Jamie Iredell is the author of Prose. Poems. a Novel. (Orange Alert Press), and The Book of Freaks (Future Tense Books), as well as three chapbooks: Before I Moved to Nevada (Publishing Genius Press), When I Moved to Nevada (The Greying Ghost Press), and Atlanta (Paper Hero Press). His poems, stories, interviews, and essays have appeared in, among other places, in The Chattahoochee Review, GSU Review, The Literary Review, Elysian Fields Quarterly, elimae, 3:AM, and PANK. As an editor, he co-founded New South, is the fiction editor of Atticus Review, and designs books for C&R Press.

Djelloul Marbrook, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is the author of the poetry collection Far From Algiers (2007) and a recent novel Artemisia’s Wolf. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Solstics, The American Poetry Review, and Istanbul Literary Review. He lives in mid-Hudson Valley and Manhattan with his wife, Marilyn.

Marcus Speh is a writer, ex-particle physicist, professor, executive coach, father, former fencer & paratrooper. His fiction has been published in > kill author, Mad Hatters Review, elimae, Metazen, Atticus Review and elsewhere. He serves as maitre d’ of Kaffe in Katmandu & can be found on Twitter @marcus_speh. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

Bobby Strange is a singer songwriter from Asbury Park, New Jersey. “On some nights he can be seen sharing the stage with the likes of Bruce Springsteen in front of two or three thousand people….on other nights he can be seen in some little coffee house on Cookman Avenue in front of two or three people…. He sounds the same either way….” – Asbury Press, 2010



image credits: Sarah Ross Photography, Garry Knight

3 thoughts on “The Occupy Movement: Music as Democracy or Music as Greed?”

  1. Pingback: The Occupy Movement: Morality in the Arts | Atticus Books

  2. Pingback: The Occupy Movement: Protests and Meaningful Social Change | Atticus Books

  3. It’s hard to think about such relations as there might be between music and democracy if you’re thinking about music as a type of object and not as the outcome of a process. If you shift to a more process-oriented view, then you’d think that forms which either leave space for an equalization of relations between composer and performers would be more democratic than would be the type of score-driven top-down micro-management preferred since, say, Beethoven. But that raises the question of what democracy might be, because any number of power relations can be made more horizontal in any number of political contexts…in other words, while (more) horizontal relations are characteristic of direct democracy, they are not in themselves necessarily democratic. Democracy is a deliberative form–so you could see in performance of a graphic composition or other hybrid form (an Anthony Braxton piece, for example) that require a preliminary discussion to establish a syntax a form of democratic music-making–but the democratic aspect would be in the process of fashioning the rules or constraints (and the prerogative of breaking them, clinamen as OuLiPo calls it)–so would not be the performance itself taken in isolation, and still less in a recording, in which all open-endedness is eliminated by the fixing in time/sequence of the sonic elements that are recorded. This raises the question of whether the democratic aspects of this sort of piece are available for an audience at all, which in turn raises the question of what relations obtain between democracy and spectatorship. If there are any. And I’m not at all sure there are. Folk would only be tricked into confusing types of horizontal relations with democracy if they didn’t think too much about what democracy entails. And raising this whole issue is, to my mind, one of the great things that the Occupation has already done.

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