The political economy approach is definitely a useful tool for explaining how the media works, but it is extremely debatable as to whether it is the only or even the most suitable method of doing so. As Alan McKee states;
“…there is no such thing as ‘objective’ knowledge. We know that every methodology is partial, producing particular and quite limited kinds of information.”1
The assorted media texts that are produced by the recording industry don’t fall easily into set categories, and often appear through other mediums like television, internet, and the printed press. The idea that a political economy approach is the only way to look at the recording industry may have some merit in it, considering the way that the particular industry is heavily immersed in corporate structures and government regulations. However once one starts looking deeper at independent labels, D.I.Y. practises within the music community, and the support network of community radio and such, the approach breaks down.

The political economy approach stems from the late eighteenth century, witnessing the rise of industrial capitalism and of the concept of the nation-state. Like textual analysis and cultural studies, political economy is inherently Marxist in its ideals, focusing on power distribution between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. The approach is empirical in the way that it uses the simple communication model, but it also contains some theoretical aspects. There are three key dimensions to the political economy approach; the first examines how the different economic structures of the media, together with governmental policies and regulations influence the content of the media. The second key dimension examines the aforementioned power structure and how media content enforces, challenges and influences existing class and social relations, while the third is the ‘prescriptive mission’ of the political economy approach: The assumption that public good is not served by an untrammelled free market, that controls have to be in place.

In relation to the recording industry, the political economy approach looks at how the products and texts from the industry (everything from the CDs to advertising to legal rulings related to intellectual property) that reaches us as consumers are formed by government controls, ownership patterns, advertising, and the complex patterns of distribution and consumption. It is important to realise that the political economy approach doesn’t acknowledge that readers of texts make their own meaning in the same way cultural studies does (and in this respect it might be argued that cultural studies puts too much weight in audiences’ views when pertaining to industry), rather it utilises the U.S. scientific tradition of communication, where the meaning is static and unchangeable.

Political economy’s strength is that it deals not only with the big players in media, say for example Rupert Murdoch, but also a variety of smaller institutions as well as factors such as time and money constraints, and the need for profit and even the structure of various organisation. It has a strong belief in the ‘Liberal Theory of the Press’ – that the media should be out protecting the public from political untruths, and should help to construct an informed society. As mentioned before, the approach has Marxist ideals, and although critics of the liberal theory of the press like to point out that the press is not “free” at all – Curren states from his ‘Liberal Theory of the Press’ article:
“Radical critics generally attack this argument on the grounds that it masks the privileged position of capital in the seemingly open contest of the free market” 2
The political economy approach takes these criticisms into account, and in many ways is more realistic about the economic factors than the critical approach, and it believes that the dominant ideas are representative of culture, rather than strictly there to enforce the ruling class’s dominance over the proletariat. Political economy realises that society is not made up of a group of individuals who agree on common values of society, as in the pragmatic approach, and so is a better judge of the current political climate.

To determine whether the recording industry can be explained by a political economy approach, it is necessary to look at the industry itself. For one thing, the recording industry is always changing – the structures and organisations in place today are extremely different than those even a few decades ago. Largely, the reason for this seems to be a shift in the target demographic that the recording industry is trying to reach with the products. As recent as the nineteen-seventies artists such as Gang of Four, XTC, The Clash and Captain Beefheart could all be found on major labels (EMI, Virgin, CBS and A&M respectively). While they did not always last long on the labels, and in many cases actually fought the labels for control of their intellectual property, the fact of the matter is that major labels were willing to take a chance on artists that did not fit a popular music stereotype and which may or may not be successful. The bands were often against the labels they were signed to; in the words of The Clash from ‘Complete Control’:
They said; “release ‘Remote Control’”
But we didn’t want it on the label
They said; “fly to Amsterdam
The people laughed, but the press went mad
XTC fought with their label for a chance to be let out of their contract by going on strike for four years. Andy Partridge, guitarist, says
"We estimate Virgin made something like £30 million from us over the years - yet we never went into profit for the first 18 years of our career." 4
Though these instances are nothing out of the ordinary, and will continue to occur, it is still quite disturbing to think that what music artists produce is not subject to the same rules as other art;
"Do you ever hear of an actor who has to give up his first million dollars pay from a movie to get it made?" says music attorney Don Engel. "Yet all artists pay recording costs from their advances. It's counterproductive and unfair."
The law is quite clear on how contracts should be fulfilled and what should happen if they are not, there are little pre-existing organisations in place for the musicians, unless they organise themselves. In this respect, the political economy approach does not go all the way to explain the all important relationship of the recording industry with its artists.

What the political economy approach can tell us though, is how the industry is changing over time. As Hoynes and Croteau write in their book about the how the companies that release the top one hundred singles over various different labels:
“…the ratio of labels to firms changed dramatically, from less than two labels per firm in 1969 to approximately four labels per firm by 1990.” 6
What this means basically, is that the same companies are taking over the various labels. A chart in Cunningham and Turner’s ‘The Media and Communications in Australia’ shows that Ted Turner’s Time Warner company owns Atlantic Records, Big Bear, Rhino, Elektra, East West, Asylum, Elektra/Sire (formerly just ‘Sire’ prior to Time Warner’s purchase), Warner Bros Records, Reprise, Giant, and Columbia House (formerly ‘Columbia Records’)7. Typically one of the labels might be used specifically for showcasing new artists, one for reissuing old records, etc. This practise does not explain the ever increasing trend of music marketing though. Record companies, Instead of spreading out genre-wise and taking a chance on new or different artists, the recording industry main players are focusing more and more of their attention to amassing a selection of artists with very similar music and image. The norm for the recording industry seems to have changed from delivering a reasonably diverse range of music to people with varied tastes, to pandering the same type of music for a large amount of the population.

This is of course a good phenomenon for a political economy analysis. Assuming that the target audience for texts emanating from the industry are a faceless mass, it is possible to put texts such as the Australian Record Industry Association's yearly brief into perspective.
“2002 saw a 4.4% fall in volume in the Australian market and an overall 4.5% average wholesale price reduction…
The Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) cites this decrease as reflective of a number of factors including unsettled economic conditions and a tough retail environment, the widespread proliferation of unauthorized copying via CD burning and downloading, emerging competition from new leisure products such as DVD video, and continuing competition from mobile technologies and computer games.”
It should be noted that these statistics are only relevant to ARIA-affiliated companies, and can no way determine the true extent of Australia’s music industry – it doesn’t take into account independent labels, nor bands who produce their own music. It may also be true that the actual reality is much bleaker. The fictional movie ‘24 Hour Party People’ is based around the very real (now defunct) Factory Records, and features a scene where an offsider is talking to label boss Tony Wilson about the band New Order’s single ‘Blue Monday’:
“Here’s the new full mockup of the single… It’s going to be expensive… Have you costed it, ‘cause I have. We lose five pence on every record we sell.”9
“We’re going to sell fuck all, so it doesn’t matter”

Of course, the record was the top selling twelve inch single of all time, and eventually Factory Records dissolved into bankruptcy due to it’s unconventional business practises.

A large amount of texts referring to the industry don’t actually come from the industry. Constantly we are being bombarded by advertisements on television and radio, billboards and printed press. A critical or pragmatic approach would be best to analyse these individual texts, but even a political economy approach can not explain the full effect, in part due to it’s simple communications model. The landmark decision of Metallica and the Record Industry Association of America shook the music world and put a price on not intellectual property, but about loss of profits. This was one of the biggest events that the music industry has experienced recently, but the recording industry has being crying about lost profits since home audio cassette taping was invented. ARIA claims a total dollar value of six hundred and nine million dollars for 2002, down from six hundred and forty nine million for 2001, and blames this loss on the reasons above. These are merely the value that ARIA arrives at due to its own internal calculations, calculations that do not take into account any profits or losses made outside the corporations and political structures immediate to it. The political economy approach cannot make an accurate analysis of the entire industry; therefore it cannot make an accurate analysis of the media around it.

While the political economy is a good way of looking at the recording industry due to the way the industry relies heavily on statistics coupled with texts originating from political institutions, it can never encompass and explain the workings of the entire industry. Even coupled with a critical approach it still would not be possible to fully understand what goes on with the media that supports and influences this industry. There are constantly new outlets producing new texts, most of which we will never be aware of, but all which influence the Recording Industry.
1. McKee, A. "A Beginner's Guide to Textual Analysis" in Metro Magazine, No. 127/128, 2001, P. 138

2. Curran, J. “The Liberal Theory of the Press” in J. Curran and J. Seaton (eds), Power Without Responsibility, Routledge, London, 1997, p. 287

3. The Clash, Complete Control, CBS, 1977

4. Gritten, D. “And the Band Did Not Play On”, The Daily Telegraph, February 6, 1997 (accessed at on May 14, 2003

5. Ibid 6. Croteau, D & Hoynes, W. Media/Society: Industries, Images and Audiences, Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, California, 1997, p. 58

7. Homan, S. “Popular Music” in S. Cunningham and G. Turner (eds), The Media and Communications in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2002, P. 238

8. “News & Information”, (Released February 2001), (ARIA), Available: (Accessed: May 14, 2003)

9. Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People, United Artists, 2002

Don't know what the hell I'm talking about? Want to know more about Media Studies? Look at this: Critical and pragmatic approaches to Media Studies in Australia

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