The western music industry which has typically been anchored in the US, UK and other parts of western and central Europe is long past its glory days. In terms of both revenue and the ability of a record promoted in earnest by the music industry to become a social talking point, the age of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Dark Side of The Moon, Thriller and Nevermind seem to be relegated to a past era. Today, it is tech companies including Amazon, Spotify, Apple and the like which tend to be the domineering force in the recorded music industry while artists both young and old are increasingly relying on live performances, the sale of merchandise and digital self-distribution to make a living and to get their music heard.
While these trends will likely only become increasingly solidified in an age where more and more young artists are ditching compact disc’s in favour of downloads and the occasional vinyl LP which apart from audiophile classical and jazz records tend to be more of a novelty for the young and “trendy”, there is one political/activist movement that is getting people talking about pop artists in the age of reality Youtube and Donald Trump who himself (love him or hate him) is often more exciting than the average new pop single.
The movement in question is Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS). BDS is a cause supported by Palestinian civil activists and artists from around the world whose aim is to convince people to engage in an economic and cultural boycott of Israel until Palestine achieves its historic goal of peaceful statehood. Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters has become the most vocal proponent of BDS after a 2006 visit to Palestine led the always political and philosophical musician and poet to take on the cause of Palestinian justice in a highly public fashion.
While Roger Waters has stated that in the United States in particular there exists much pressure on artists not to support the cultural boycott of Israel, social media has proved that at minimum, an artist scheduled to perform in Israel gets people talking and more often than not it arouses more support for BDS than the other way around.
While veteran artists including Roger Waters, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno have expressed support for BDS, it is becoming increasingly interesting to see how young pop artists whose music tends not to be as politically or as philosophically driven as that of Waters, Gabriel and Eno confront the increasingly inevitable question of “how to address BDS?”
Earlier this year, the young New Zealand pop singer Lorde cancelled a previously booked performance in Tel Aviv after admitting that she did not understand the issues BDS has highlighted. After educating herself about these issues she decided that BDS supporters were correct and cancelled her gig accordingly. Today, the young American pop star Lana Del Rey has taken to social media to defend her decision to perform in Tel Aviv stating that because she and her music are apolitical, she does not consider her performance an endorsement of Israel’s policies towards Palestine and others.
More interesting than Del Rey’s statement are the comments on the statement. While to be sure there are many comments in support of her decision, the majority of comments are a combination of disdain filled condemnation and polite requests for Del Rey to reconsider her position with many making reference to Lorde’s recent reconsidering of being in the same position while many more have mentioned the cultural boycott of Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
What is more interesting yet is that the majority of comments arguing for Del Rey to cancel her Tel Aviv gig do not appear to be from Arabs but appear to be from her mostly white American fan base. This is interesting in and of itself as it demonstrates that perhaps for the first time since the anti-South African Apartheid drive of the 1980s among well known musicians or moreover the Vietnam War era, the otherwise apolitical demographic of white mostly middle class Americans in their teens and 20s are becoming engaged in a highly charged political matter and are taking the side of the Arab world, the wider Muslim world and the wider anti-imperialist activist community.
In 1992, Roger Waters released a concept album called Amused to Death which excoriated western audiences who had become fixated with mass media to the extent that images of war, death and human suffering had become the proverbial ‘background noise’ to one’s daily life. While much of what Waters sung about on Amused to Death still applies, the fact that artists who either play in Israel or boycott it are now part of the wider online discussion over BDS and the wider conflict in Palestine means that far from just amusing themselves to death, pop audiences are taking a stand on an issue that is of great consequence.
In this sense and almost certainly without trying, the music industry has made itself socially relevant again. The background noise that in my own view is much of the material output of the last remaining record labels in 2018 has now become a talking point about one of the major geopolitical conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries. Perhaps the music industry should donate to BDS as a gesture of thanks for turning the records into something more than a sideshow in an age where videos of cats on Youtube and Tweets by Donald Trump come as free and easy sources of amusement?