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The widespread perception of singers and musicians as free individuals doing enjoyable and fulfilling work obscures the realities of their occupation. In Unfree Masters Matt Stahl examines recording artists' labor in the music industry as a form of creative work. He begins by considering the television show American Idol and the 2004 rockumentary Dig!, tracing the ways that popular music making is narrativized in contemporary America and showing how such narratives highlight musicians' negotiations of the limits of freedom and autonomy in creative cultural-industrial work. Turning to struggles between recording artists and record companies over laws that govern their working and contractual relationships, he reveals further tensions and contradictions in this form of work. Stahl argues that media narratives of music making, as well as contract and copyright disputes between musicians and music industry executives, contribute to American socioeconomic discourse and expose a foundational tension between democratic principles of individual autonomy and responsibility and the power of employers to control labor and appropriate its products. Stahl asserts that the labor issues that he discloses in music can stimulate insights about the political-economic and imaginative challenges currently facing working people of all kinds.
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Matt Stahl is Assistant Professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario.Review:
“Here is a book that does several things at once. It explains the current status of recording artists, both as subordinated employees and as free entrepreneurs who license rights to intellectual property, namely their music compositions and recordings. It also shows how, from the standpoint of labour politics, these cultural workers are not so different from other workers in a neoliberal political economy: competing individually while dreaming of autonomy, and contractually tied to a record company that snaps up their creative output for exploitation and keeps them indebted while offering little security.” (Hillegonda Rietveld Times Higher Education)
“An important addition to the field of popular music studies and labor studies, Unfree Masters lucidly and bracingly documents the imbricated, contested working relationship between artists and labels...[the book] offers the most detailed and exhaustively researched writing to date on the contractual relationships between artists and record labels and on the political stratagems designed to codify these relationships and change the nature of labor relationships between ‘workers’ and ‘bosses’.” (John Dougan Labor)
“What Stahl’s fascinating study shows then, in sum, is that the creative labour of recording artists is like regular work in being conditioned by the inequality of the employment relation and by the spurious freedom of contract.” (Reviews in Cultural Theory)
“Matt Stahl provides an absorbing account of a pivotal period in the history of the recording industry in the United States.... [T]his text is sure to spark further debate and discourse and as such Unfree Masters is a valuable and timely contribution to the field of popular music studies.” (Kenny Barr Popular Music)
“Unfree Masters takes in an impressive range of materials and methods in shedding light on sites of ideological tension within recording industry work. It will be of interest not only to students of the music industry but also to those who seek a more general understanding of how neoliberal ideology plays out in everyday culture and politics." (Rob Drew International Journal of Communication)
"After reading this book one will understand well why major record companies are in trouble today—and will probably not be very sympathetic with their plight. Summing Up: Highly recommended." (R. J. Phillips Choice)
"Unfree Masters is an important book which ought to be widely read. It contributes not only to an enlightening turn towards cultural and musical labour in contemporary scholarship; it is also part of a renewal of radical critique in popular music studies." (Jason Toynbee Popular Music History)
"Unfree Masters makes an important contribution to the field of recording industry studies by providing a detailed overview of the landscape of labour in the North American popular music industries. The research and its implications can be applied beyond music and into other creative industries including film, television and media." (Natalie Lewandowski Perfect Beat 2015-01-01)
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