Throughout its long history, art has been difficult, if not impossible, to separate from money. This is true both thematically and practically. In practical terms, there is the considerable influence and importance of patrons’ role in the development of art, both in the Renaissance and today. As a theme, art has tackled money in different ways. And money is inseparable from art, which can be seen on many antique coins – the stylised representations of animals on some of the coins in our museum spring to mind – and certain bank notes, such as the final run of 500 Belgian franc notes that featured Magritte. In this article, we look at money as viewed by the fourth art: music.
The music industry
From the beginning, modern popular music has been closely intertwined with money and the economy. This true right down to the format of music, which early on saw a “war of the speeds” between the two main record companies: Columbia with its 33 rpm vinyl and RCA with its 45 rpm vinyl. Another example is the massive development of record companies from the 1950s, which competed with each other to sign artists.
An important development in the music economy occurred in the 1970s, especially following the death of Elvis Presley in August 1977. Record sales surged, but even more importantly, a new market was born: merchandising souvenirs for fans. In addition, at times of recession in the music economy, record companies began to plan reissues of certain albums to keep themselves afloat. Albums would be reissued each time a new format gained popularity, such as cassettes or CDs in the 1980s. The CD reissues were again targeted at fans, featuring bonus tracks or boasting a “remastered version”. In addition, when different formats exist simultaneously, the record companies can attack different markets. The consummate example of this is Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1984, which was released on 45, maxi-single, picture disc, cassingle, CD single, etc.
Related industries sprang up around the music industry, such as the development of the Hard Rock Café chain starting in the 1970s, as well as merchandising, sometimes independent of the artist’s wishes, including clothing, patches, dishes and other items with musicians’ likenesses.
Some musicians rebelled against the major labels’ monopoly, either by starting independent labels or by working from within the major label system. The Clash, a punk band signed by CBS, was in constant conflict with its record company, notably about the price of its records. The band slashed its royalties in order to sell its triple LP, Sandinista!, at the price of a double LP.
Spurning either major or independent labels, some artists prefer to use crowdfunding sites, where contributors help finance a project, to produce their albums. This system lets individuals choose which artist they want to invest in in exchange for financial or more symbolic rewards, such as a “thank you” in the liner notes or a collector’s edition, etc.
Money as inspiration
Money has always been a source of inspiration for artists, who have approached the topic in a variety of ways. We discuss some of the major themes here. Money has provided inspiration not just for songs, but also band names. The UK group Dire Straits gets its name from an English expression for being penniless. The inspiration for US rapper Ca$h Out is clear, and the band name UB40 refers to the “Unemployment Benefit, Form 40” that the jobless must fill out to receive benefits in the UK. In Belgium, Halve Neuro is a reference to US rapper 50 Cent, whose name is not a direct reference to money, but rather to a New York criminal.
Songs about money can be categorised by theme. The first of these is money as an end in itself. For some, money is a goal to achieve at all costs, as 50 Cent drives home in his album Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Others see money as an unachievable goal, a far-off dream, as when ABBA sings “money must be funny” or Gwen Stefani sings “if I was a rich girl”, and in Gers Pardoel’s Morgen Ben Ik Rijk or, in a more humorous vein, Samson & Gert’s Tien miljoen.
Other artists have what we might call the “C.R.E.A.M. syndrome”, an anagram created by hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan to mean Cash Rules Everything Around Me. This small fringe of artists uses song to criticize the omnipresence of money, which they see as detrimental. Another example is Richard Wagner in his Der Ring Des Nibelungen, which condemns the power of money. That power is also the topic of Money Talks by ACDC, and the deleterious effects of that power are lamented in Suprême NTM’s L’argent pourrit les gens. Kinderen voor kinderen naively sings about money as superfluous in Geld is overbodig.
Some artists single out those they see as responsible for economic evils. One example is Tryo, whose G8 railed against the attitude of those countries’ leaders. A favourite target is the businessman, depicted as a man in a hurry in Noir Désir’s L’homme pressé. Alain Souchon decried the practice of golden parachutes in his Parachute Doré. The Beatles took on Harold Wilson’s progressive tax regime in Taxman in the 1960s, and Urbanus tackled the topic of taxes with humour in Belastingscontroleur.
The capitalist system is also frequently attacked by artists, such as The Clash in Magnificent Seven, which deals with consumerism and globalisation, and Téléphone in Argent trop cher.
Another sub-genre is songs of hard times. Examples include I Need A Dollar by Aloe Blacc and songs about “how to survive a crisis”, such as She Works Hard For The Money by Donna Summer, which tells the story of a woman working two jobs to get by, or the more recent Thrift Shop by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, which touts the appeal of second-hand stores.
Some songs are more anecdotal, depicting money in its different forms along the lines of Wim Sonneveld’s Poen. And lastly, there is Pascal by Hocus Pocus, which follows the story of a 500 French franc note from its creation to its destruction live on a television by a certain Serge Gainsbourg.
- Pirenne, Christophe, Une histoire musicale du rock, Paris, Fayard, 2011, p. 40, 363, 433.
- Gray, Marcus, The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town, 5th ed. Review, London, Helter Skelter, 2005, p. 349.
- Oldfield, M., Dire Straits. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1984, p. 42.
- Macdonald, Ian, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, 2nd ed., London, Pimlico, 2005, p. 200.