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Case Studies

Click on the tabs below to view each case study.

Flying Nun

The textbook mentions the ‘Dunedin Sound’ and the associated role of Flying Nun records (Chapter 11, p. 180).  As the label has recently reverted to its original founding owner, and is once again very active, it is worth giving a bit more information on its development.  Students can undertake similar studies of ‘indie’ labels. (See the discussion of independents in the book, pp. 17–18).

The Flying Nun (FN) label was begun in 1981, in Christchurch, New Zealand, by Roger Shepherd, inspired by punk rock’s DIY (do it yourself) ethic.  The southern city of Dunedin soon became most strongly associated with the label, and the term ‘Dunedin Sound’ was applied to bands such as The Chills and The Verlaines, who used four- or eight-track recording to produce a distinctive ‘homemade’ sound.  Chris Knox, also an artist on the label, provided cartoon graphics for the cover art and advertising flyers which became part of the label’s signature.  In 1981, FN’s second single release, ‘Tally Ho’ by The Clean, reached number 19 on the New Zealand singles charts, despite the label’s distribution relying on a network of personal friends.  Over the following decade, FN’s roster of local bands became more diverse and the FN/Dunedin Sound less cohesive.

In common with other indie labels of the period, FN initially operated in a very relaxed, laissez faire manner.  However, as the company developed a more international presence, it increasingly adopted the business arrangements and practices of the mainstream music industry. In 1987, Flying Nun (UK) was established, along with Flying Nun Europe, a joint venture with the German label, Normal.  Several licensing arrangements were also made with independent labels in the United States. 

In 1987, Shepherd made a ‘production and distribution’ deal with WEA, and FN shifted its two-person office operation north to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest urban centre.  In 1990, a deal was made with the powerful Australian independent label, Mushroom records, forming Flying Nun Australia and providing the more substantial recording and promotional budgets that would allow leading FN bands such as Straightjacket Fits, The Bats, and Headless Chickens to realize their more global musical ambitions.

Recognition for the company’s increasing overseas profile and international success won it a New Zealand government Export Award in 1995.  By 1995, when FN celebrated its 15th anniversary, the label had released 430 recordings. For many listeners, especially the overseas followers of alternative/indie music, Flying Nun became a metonym for New Zealand music as a whole.

In 1996, Shepherd moved to London to run FN’s now extensive northern hemisphere activities, but left the label in 1999, disillusioned with the music business.  Warner Music took over FN; the label was less active in the following decade, although it continued to release a broader range of New Zealand artists. In 2006 a retrospective box set was released, ‘Flying Nun 25 years’, with music chosen by Shepherd.  With 83 tracks across four CDs, arranged roughly in chronological order, the set chronicled the breadth of the label’s roster; it was commercially and critically successful, and revived interest in FN.

In 2009, Roger Shepherd regained ownership of FN from Warner Music, who now became the exclusive distribution partner.  He saw selling the back catalogue in digital and physical formats as important for the next phase of the label, in addition to redeveloping the label’s website.  In 2011, Flying Nun celebrated its 30th anniversary with a series of press retrospectives (e.g. Sunday Star-Times) of concerts in New Zealand.

Further Reading

‘Flying Nun 25 years’, box set, Flying Nun, 2006.

Sunday Star-Times, October 30, 2011, Sunday Magazine: ‘Flying Nun’s 30th’, guest edited by Shayne Carter.

Flying Nun records: www.flyingnun.co.nz/

Frank Zappa: cult status and authorship

Auteur status is not always dependent on chart success; indeed, the absence of ‘significant market volume’ is sometimes almost a necessary corollary of cult status and critical recognition. Frank Zappa, who died in 1993, is an example of such a cult figure. Zappa was a rock iconoclast whose career comprised over 50 albums (including many double and triple sets), three feature films, three feature length videos and numerous side projects, including record labels and a merchandizing operation. Zappa self-consciously played with a variety of musical traditions, mutating them into something unique, often with ‘weird’ and not easily accessible results. Although best known for his guitar playing, he was proficient on a range of instruments.

In the mid-1960s, with his group the Mothers of Invention, Zappa developed a musical style that was musically wildly eclectic and thematically weighted to political debate and satire. His subsequent work included many milestones in rock. Freak Out in 1966 was the first rock double album, one of the first concept LPs and an acknowledged influence on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Freak Out also introduced Zappa’s brand of political parody and social commentary, with songs like ‘Who Are the Brain Police?’ The album reached BillBoard’s Top 200 album chart, and established Zappa and the Mothers as ‘underground’ figures. Absolutely Free (1967) is a contender for the first rock opera, and carried on Zappa’s lampooning of American hypocrisy and conservatism: ‘Plastic People’ and ‘America Drinks and Goes Home’. In the same year, the album We’re Only In It For The Money satirized psychedelia and the hippy era, and sent up the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper.

In subsequent work, on solo albums and with the Mothers of Invention, Zappa continued to explore the same themes. He mixed satire and send-ups with ‘serious’ political commentary and dazzling musicianship, while milling a miscellany of musical genres and utilizing the talents of well-known musicians, including violinist and composer Jean Luc Ponty, Little Feat’s Lowell George, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaplan (both ex-Turtles, later Flo and Eddie) and guitar virtuoso Steve Vai. The breadth of this group of performers is indicative of Zappa’s range of musical interests. He formed his own labels, on which he recorded and promoted Alice Cooper (whose debut LP is on Straight), and Captain Beefheart, whose Trout Mask Replica Zappa also produced. Zappa’s score for rock group and orchestra, 200 Motels, was launched in 1970, while the London Symphony Orchestra recorded two albums of Zappa’s work in 1983.

The keystones of Zappa’s work were his control over this variety of projects, his composing skills and his mastery of production technology. In his autobiography, Zappa recounts the problems the Mothers of Invention had with their record company, MGM, and industry sharp practices such as pressing plant overruns: ‘We went through a major legal struggle with MGM over royalties on those first LPs. It took about eight years to resolve’. There were also problems caused by MGM censoring the Mothers’ lyrics without their knowledge or consent. By 1984, Zappa had sued two industry giants, CBS and Warners, and had learned a lot more about ‘creative accounting practices’ (Zappa 1990: 83). Such experiences led Zappa to emphasize retaining control over all facets of his work. Indeed, Zappa’s degree of control over the musicians in his bands, and the extent of his involvement in particular projects, became legendary.

Zappa was the most prominent rock musician to speak out against moves in the United States to censor rock. He argued for the basic right of free speech under the Constitution, seeing the PMRC (Parents’ Music Resource Center) proposals for record ratings as ‘ill-conceived nonsense’ based on totally false notions of the effects of popular music (Zappa 1990; and see Chapter 13 of the textbook). Zappa, as always, injected a sense of humour into a serious message: his subsequent 1986 Grammy award-winning Jazz From Hell carried a sticker warning against offensive lyrics; the album is purely instrumental!

Though seen primarily as a cult figure, receiving critical acclaim from music critics and his fellow musicians, Zappa also achieved some commercial success: his 1974 solo album Apostrophe (’) was certified gold in the US, making number 10 in the Billboard chart, while the single from it, ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’, was Zappa’s first in Billboard’s Hot 100 (even if only reaching number 86). His classical compositions, particularly The Perfect Stranger and Other Works, and his electronic recordings sold well. Interest in his work remained steady, even after his death in December 1993, as indicated by the current availability of the bulk of his albums on CD and the success of the compilation Strictly Commercial (1995). But commercialism is not what Zappa was primarily about. At times, he almost deliberately eschewed success by opting for ‘bad taste’ and its attendant lack of airplay. Rather he fulfilled the criteria of the genuinely creative artist – conceding the ultimate subjectivity and social construction of ‘creativity’ – and was concerned with exploring and extending the dimensions of the ‘rock’ form. Accordingly, although his output was variable in quality, Zappa’s talent and auteur status in popular music is widely recognized.

Further Reading

Miles, B. (2004) Frank Zappa: A Biography, London: Atlantic.

Zappa, F. (1990) The Real Frank Zappa Book, London: Pan Books.

Strictly Commercial. The Best of Frank Zappa, Ryodisc, 1995 (compilation CD).

Official web site: www.zappa.com

Music on stamps

A brief case study, with reference to the United Kingdom.

This topic can be developed further by students, especially in relation to the related issues from their own country.

Music on your mail

Postage stamps have been widely used since the penny black was issued by Great Britain in 1840. Many states use the issues of their postage stamps as a form of publicity or propaganda (as with Germany during the Third Reich). Stamps are also an important way of documenting a country’s history, nature and culture.  Stamp collecting is one of the world’s leading hobbies.

Music and musicians have regularly featured on stamp issues, especially more recently with the proliferation of commemorative sets in many countries. Often these appear on attractive first day covers, or in illustrated presentation packs, with many covers featuring special postmarks associated with the event or figure commemorated. As might be anticipated, most early music on stamps issues were of classical composers, with countries such as Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany issuing commemoratives of their historically significant composers.

The United Kingdom

In the UK, there were a few music-themed stamps issued as part of wider sets, such as the 1972 Anniversaries issue, which featured composer and conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams on the 9d value.  The first issue devoted entirely to music was, I think, the 1980 British Conductors set of four stamps.  Later, an attractive 1985 Europe Music Year issue of four stamps featured Handel, Holst, Delius and Edward Elgar.  In 1992, a set of five stamps commemorated the 150th birth anniversary of composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas (The Pirates of Penzance; The Mikado, etc). More recently, issues have begun to feature musicians from pop and rock, most notably the Beatles (in 2007). The Beatles issue commemorated the first meeting of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, in 1957.  The six stamps each depicted a Beatles album cover; there was also a four stamp miniature sheet, showing some of the memorabilia produced for fans of the band and their first single, ‘Love Me Do’. The issue proved hugely popular in the UK; it also sold well overseas, especially in countries such as Australia and New Zealand where the Beatles had toured and there remained a strong fan following for the iconic band.  With the Rolling Stones celebrating 50 years since their first gig, is a stamp issue likely?

A set of eight stamps issued on 24 February 2011 looked back at more than seven decades of popular stage musicals, which had all enjoyed long runs in London’s West End.  The set included We Will Rock You based on the songs of Queen, written by Ben Elton in collaboration with group members Brain May and Roger Taylor; The Rocky Horror Picture Show, written by Richard O’Brien; and Billy Elliot, a show based on the hit film, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall..

For current UK issues:  www.royalmail.com/stamps


Other stamps to feature popular music include the United States issues for The Year of The Blues (2003); their Elvis Presley commemorative stamp (1992), reportedly still the biggest selling stamp issued by the US postal service; and The legends of American Music series: the country and western issue includes Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Patsy Cline and Bob Wills.  Australian Post has put out stamps featuring local 1950s rock’n’roll performers, and New Zealand also commemorated the local advent of rock’n’roll.

Such is the number of music stamps, that there are several special catalogues listing them, and several major collections can be seen on the web: e.g. Jascha Heifetz specialized collection of music on stamps [covers only classical music]: www.postalmuseum.si.edu/

Activities; questions for investigation:

  1. Who (and how) decides which events, figures, topics etc. are to be featured on your country’s stamps?
  2. Choosing which artists and musical genres to celebrate represents a form of canonization.  The particular image of Elvis Presley used for the 1992 US issue was decided by public vote between pictures of the ‘young’ and the ‘old’ singer: see The Smithsonian Postal Museum: www.posatlmuseum.si.edu/
  3. What do you think of the decision to modify the picture used of Robert Johnson? (Textbook, Chapter 4, p. 66).
  4. Find out which artists feature on other issues in the American Music series (Rock’n’Roll; Jazz; Popular Singers, etc); do you agree with the choices made?  Can a case be made for other artists?

Why 1955?

While the textbook makes some reference to several of the developments sketched here, they can be fruitfully brought together and expanded as an instructive example of debates around causality in popular music history, and the convergence of various factors at a specific time.

For full references, see the textbook.

Explaining rock and roll: Why 1955?

Rock and roll was the genre of popular music that emerged when black rhythm and blues songs began to get airplay on radio stations aiming at a wider, predominantly white audience, and when white artists began rerecording black R&B songs. R&B, American country music and 1940s and '50s boogie-woogie music are all elements of early rock 'n' roll.  Some writers conflate the genre with rock, which became the more general label for the various musical styles which followed in the 1960s. Alan Freed, a Cleveland disc jockey, is usually given credit for coining the phrase 'rock'n’roll’ in the early 1950s.  However, as Tosches (1984) documents, the style had been evolving well prior to this, and the term with its sexual connotations was popularized in the music of the 1920s.  In 1922, blues singer Trixie Smith recorded ‘My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)’ for Black Swan Records, and various lyrical elaborations followed from other artists through the 1930s and 1940s. In April 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets made ‘Rock Around the Clock’.  The record was a hit in America, then worldwide; eventually selling 15 million copies.  Along with the success of the film which featured the song on its soundtrack, the record represented a critical symbol in the popularization of the new musical form.

Explanations as to why rock and roll emerged in the mid-1950s include the importance of individual creative figures in popularizing the genre (especially Elvis Presley); situating it against the significance of the emergent post-war baby boom; and a ‘production of culture’ approach, situating rock and roll in relation to changes in the organization of broadcasting and the music industry, especially the role of independent labels.

Emphasis is often placed on the role of creative individuals who are seen to have virtually created the genre and revitalized popular music in the process: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. At one level, the impact of these performers is undisputed, even though they were adapting existing styles and forms, they were clearly innovative (Gillet, 1983). But as Curtis observes, ‘all popular performers come along at the right time’ and ‘to explain the success of a given act, you need to make the social and cultural context of that success as specific as possible’ (Curtis, 1987: 5).  Accordingly, other writers have paid greater attention to the social, economic and demographic situation in the US and the UK in the early 1950s, producing rather different accounts.

In the United States,  the post war baby boom was ‘a crucial condition of the re-articulation of the formations of popular culture after the Second World War and the Korean War’; there were 77 million babies born between 1946 and 1964, and by 1964, 40 per cent of the population of the United States was under 20  (Grossberg, 1992: 172).  The baby boom and the emergence of a youth market made the young a desirable target audience for the cultural industries: ‘post-1945 American teenagers enjoyed an unprecedented level of affluence.  Their tastes in films, music, literature and entertainment were backed by enormous purchasing power, which record producers and film-makers were quick to cater to’ (Welsh, 1990:3).

American suburbia, where the baby boomers were concentrated, neither represented nor catered for the desires of American youth.  As Grossberg (1992: 179) puts it: ‘Rock emerged as a way of mapping the specific structures of youth's affective alienation on the geographies of everyday life.’  This is to emphasize the point that the social category of youth ‘is an affective identity stitched onto a generational history’ (ibid: 183); the particular configuration of circumstances in the 1950s forged an alliance of 'youth' and rock music and that particular age cohort of young people.  Authenticity, in Grossberg's sense of the term, is equated here with the ability of rock to resonate with youth's common desires, feelings and experiences in a shared public language.  In the 1960s, the now teenage baby boomers elevated youth to a new level of social, political and economic visibility, and clearly the emergence and vitality of any cultural form is dependent on the existence of an audience for it.   However we must not over privilege such  'audience explanations' for the emergence of new genres of popular music: audiences are selecting their cultural/leisure texts from what is available to them, and the nature of the market is determined by much more than the constitutive qualities of its potential audience.

The production of culture

Following Peterson (1990), a ‘production of culture’ perspective can be utilized to better explain the emergence of ‘the rock aesthetic’ in American popular music in the brief span between 1954 and 1956.  His approach examines the historical development and nature of the recording industry through a number of interrelated factors: law and regulation, technology, industry structure, organizational structure, occupational career, and market. I have adopted Peterson’s account here, supplementing his discussion with reference to more detailed examinations of this historical process (Ennis, 1992; Sanjek, 1988).


Copyright law, patent law and the Federal Government regulation of radio station broadcasting licenses were an important influence on the advent of rock and roll, ‘though in ways completely unintended and unanticipated as well’ (Peterson, 1990: 99).

The development of sound recording raised the question of whether the publishers of recorded and sheet music could claim the same rights as literary publishers.  British and American legislation differed on this, with the former being more restrictive in its approach. The first US copyright statute was enacted in 1909, and protected the owners of musical compositions from unauthorized copying (pirating), while making a song into a commodity product that could be bought and sold in the market place. ‘With copyright protection, the aggressive New York sheet-music writer–publishers could afford to spend a great deal of money promoting a new song because other printers could not pirate the valuable properties thus created.  Their activity fostered a quick succession of innovations in music and popular dancing, most notably in ragtime and jazz’ (ibid).  Similar legislation was enacted in Britain in 1911. 


Copyright laws provided no mechanism for collecting the royalties from the public performance of music.  In 1914, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers – ASCAP – was formed to issue licenses and to collect all due royalties from three sources: the performance of songs, with recording artists receiving income based on the revenue made from the sale of their records; the sale of original music to publishers, and subsequent performance royalties; and money paid to the publishers for their share of the sales and performances, usually split 50-50 between composers and publishers (Eliot, 1989: 21–2).  ASCAP's initial efforts to build its membership and implement the collection of royalties met with only limited success, but its role was confirmed by a Supreme Court decision in 1917 validating the organization's right to issue membership licences and collect performance royalties.

Though, in effect, ‘mandating that only ASCAP licenced music could be played in Broadway musicals, performed on the radio and incorporated into movies, by the 1930s it effectively controlled access to exposing new music to the public’ (Peterson, 1990: 99).

However, broadcasters resisted all ASCAP's attempts to collect royalties for music played on the radio, and went so far as to create their own organization to break what they claimed were ASCAP's monopolistic tactics, establishing Broadcast Music Inc. – BMI – in 1939. In successfully challenging the ASCAP monopoly, BMI also undermined the dominance of a particular type of popular music, ‘an aesthetics which accentuated well-crafted, abstract love themes, strong melodies and muted jazz rhythms and harmonies’ (ibid). Other genres, predominantly the work of black musicians, were systematically excluded from access to a wider audience.  BMI, contesting ASCAP’s stranglehold, was unable to lure many songwriters and publishers from their rival, so it turned to those who were not members of ASCAP.  This included many working within jazz, rhythm and blues and country music. In 1940, when the long running dispute between ASCAP and radio over user fees still remained unresolved, all ASCAP-licensed songs were excluded from radio airplay.  This left the way open for BMI’s members to create a space for themselves in the public consciousness.  While ASCAP soon came to terms with the radio stations, the genres represented by BMI continued to receive airplay.  The dominant aesthetic of swing and crooner music remained secure, but ‘for the first time it became possible to make a living as a songwriter or publisher in these alternative genres that in fusing formed the foundations of the rock aesthetic’ (Peterson, 1990: 100).


Developments in patent law were another factor in shifting the nature of the music industry towards a position conducive to the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s. The major American phonograph companies, Colombia (established in 1889) and RCA (established in 1929, incorporating Victor formed in 1901), were joined by Decca (established in 1934 in the United States), had been engaged from the inception of the industry in a battle over alternative recording and reproducing technologies.  At stake was the all important market share.  The ten-inch 78 rpm shellac disc emerged as the standard by the 1930s, but experimentation and research continued.  Not only was sound quality a consideration, arguably even more important was the amount of music that could be placed on a record, offering the consumer 'more value for money'.  In the early post-war years, Columbia developed a long-playing hi-fidelity record using the newly developed vinyl.  In 1948 Columbia released its 12 inch 33 and a third rpm LP.  Refusing to establish a common industry standard, RCA responded by developing a seven inch vinyl record, with a large hole in the middle, that played at 45 rpm.  After several years of competition between the two speeds, the companies pooled their talents and agreed to produce in both formats.  By 1952, the LP had become the major format for classical music and the 45 the format for single records for popular radio airplay, jukeboxes and retail sales (Sanjek, 1988). The 45 was a significant change in format because it was virtually unbreakable, compared with the delicate 78s, making it easier for smaller distribution companies to enter the national market and compete with the established national distribution systems of the majors.  This enabled the emerging independent record labels to distribute across the country and have national hits, and to mail promotional copies of new releases to radio stations.

Radio licensing

The part played by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which licensed broadcasting stations throughout the United States, was also significant in influencing the timing of the advent of rock and roll.  During the peak of radio in the 1930s, when virtually every American home had a radio set, the FCC restricted the number of stations licensed to each regional market to between three and five.  The major networks (NBC, CBS and Mutual) accounted for the majority of these licenses, and lobbied successfully to maintain the status quo. While numerous applications for new stations were submitted, these were denied or deferred.  This situation changed dramatically in 1947 when the networks, concerned at the threat posed by the emergence of television, withdrew their former objections.  The FCC was now able to gradually approve the backlog of applications with the result that in the next four years the number of radio stations in most markets doubled.

A growing symbiotic relationship between record producers and commercial radio station owners also contributed to the flowering of rock and roll in the 1950s.  Radio broadcasting in 1948 was dominated by four competing national networks, each trying to increase their share of the total American radio-listening audience.  This meant that they had essentially similar programmes, schedules and playlists.  In contrast, the newly emergent independent radio stations varied widely in their programming, in several cases playing records aimed at black buyers.  The recording industry in 1948 was similarly highly concentrated: four firms – RCA, Columbia (CBS), Capitol and American Decca (MCA) – released 81 per cent of all records making the top 10 in the charts during that year.  These few firms were able to effectively dominate the recorded music market through controlling three key aspects of the hit making process: (1) getting creative people on long-term contracts and establishing them as ‘names’ in the eyes of the public; (2) monopolizing record distribution; and (3) maintaining close ties with network radio programmes.

This situation changed dramatically, as both radio and the record industry were transformed in the years 1954–1958.  In radio, what had effectively been one single national market with four competing networks, fractured into upwards of one hundred autonomous local markets, each with eight to a dozen or more radio stations competing with each other.  The old radio networks, financed by national advertisers, could afford expensive dramatic programmes, comedy shows and live music.  This format was beyond the resources of the proliferating independent radio stations, which turned to playing records as their staple form of programming.  From a situation of direct competition, radio and the recording industry shifted to one of symbiosis.  Radio increasingly depended on the industry for programme content, while the recording companies rapidly came to appreciate the value of radio exposure for commercial success.  Competition between the numerous radio stations, now focused at the local rather than the national level, encouraged greater programming differentiation through the playing of different kinds of records.  The aim became the capture of a local market segment rather than a slice of a homogeneous national audience.

The rise of the independents

The cultural upshot of all this was a marked expansion of the aesthetic range of records played on the air by the mid-1950s. The majors were slow to shift their focus from the established crooner and swing aesthetic, leaving the way open for a number of recently started record companies.  Sun records, Atlantic Records, Stax, Chess, Vee Jay, Dot, Coral and Imperial were prominent among those able to successfully compete in the national market, promoting the genres neglected by the major labels: ‘The 1950s decade was the golden era for small independents, which embraced blues, gospel, modern jazz, country, R&B., and rock’n’roll’.  From 1948 to 1954, about 1000 new record labels were formed in the United States, and for many of these ‘it came down to what music could be recorded most cheaply’ (Kennedy and McNutt, 1999: xvii).  Radio stations sought new, attention-grabbing material regardless of its source.  The independents developed new talent – Presley on Sun is the best known example – and the majors no longer dominated distribution.  In 1951, leading industry magazine Billboard recognized the broadened appeal of black music by changing its ‘race’ chart to the R&B chart.

The bureaucratically organized major record companies of 1948 were well-suited to efficiently producing a large number of standard products, but proved slow to adjust to the demand for more varied recordings.  In the face of the successful challenge by the independents, the majors lost three quarters of the market share. (However, they were able to gradually recapture their dominant position by becoming finance and distributing companies for a series of divisions that were, in effect, allowed to operate as independent firms).

New careers

The nature and relative balance of general career patterns in radio and the music industry changed dramatically in the mid-1950s.  In radio, the most conspicuous change was the transformation of the functionary position ‘radio announcer’ into the showman-entreprenuer DJ.  Exemplified by Alan Freed, this new approach became termed in the industry as ‘personality radio’.  This promotional role, including the controversial issue of ‘payola’ (paying DJs to play records, sometimes by giving co-credit for songwriting), enabled many artists on small labels to receive airplay. In the recording industry, the emergence of new style producers, initially in the newer independents, was also important for the marketing of new artists and styles.  These producers sought out promising singers and groups, helping them to find or develop appropriate songs, and facilitated the recording process through using studio musicians and house bands.  They also saw that the record, once released, got promotional support (Peterson, 1999: 111).  Examples included the Chess brothers in Chicago, and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic in New York.

Peterson’s production of culture perspective omits consideration of several other significant aspects of the music scene in the early 1950s, notably the role of emergent television and the operation of the live music sector.  However, on the whole, his case is a compelling one: in sum, these various developments saw an industry geared to maintaining a ‘steady state’ situation and to managing the slow evolution of new styles, shifting to an industry able to facilitate and respond to the emergence of rock and roll in 1955–1956.  The constraints on the operation of the music industry had changed at the contextual level enabling change at the cultural level.

Further Reading

Peterson, R. (1990) ‘Why 1955? Explaining the Advent of Rock Music’, Popular Music, 9, 1: 97–116.

Cloonan, M. (2009) ‘The production of English rock and roll stardom in the 1950s’, Popular Music History, 4, 3: 271–87. Cloonan draws on Peterson, to make an interesting comparison with developments in the UK.

Additional Case Studies

Minogue; Springsteen

These are really sketches, to be followed up by teachers and their students. They are not intended to give a full biographical overview, as these are readily accessible through official and fan web sites, numerous biographies, and, of course, Wikipedia.

Kylie Minogue

The Australian pop singer is an example of

  • debates around authorship
  • longevity and celebrity
  • the commodification of a star.

Australian singer Kylie Minogue has had to fight for serious recognition, beginning her music career to almost universal critical disapproval.

Minogue’s first record and chart success, initially in Australia, was a cover of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s song ‘Locomotion’ (1987; on album Kylie, 1988), a hit for Little Eva in 1961.  The song’s up-tempo dance beat was maintained, along with what became the characteristic formula of Kylie’s records: verve, bounce and an effective and inoffensive singing voice.  This firmly located her in the dance pop/disco genre, and she was accordingly considered by most critics as ephemeral chart pop, regarded as lacking authenticity in male-dominated ‘rock’ discourse and musical canons.  The early criticism of Minogue was also based on a perception of her not having ‘paid her dues’ in terms of the dominant ‘Oz Rock’ performance tradition in Australia, with its emphasis on live performance.  Linked to this, was a view of Kylie as a manufactured pop star, who had capitalised on her bankable image as a star in the successful Australian television soap Neighbours (1986–88).  Critics also pointed to the role of producers Stock, Aitken, Waterman, who wrote – with the exception of ‘Locomotion’ – produced and arranged all the tracks on Minogue’s first album. The album sold over seven million copies world-wide.

Kylie’s role in Neighbours, which had considerable success in the United Kingdom and New Zealand in addition to Australia, helped establish her face and name, and certainly assisted her subsequent move into pop music.  In her role as Charlene, Minogue was ‘the girl next door’ whose world was a fun place which appealed to and resonated with the television show’s largely teenage audience.  Her ability as a consummate camera performer, a result of her grooming in television, was central to the successful use of music video to promote her music throughout her career. The star process created Kylie as authorized to ‘speak’ for her youthful television constituency, giving her a popular cultural authority transferable from the television screen to the dance pop record.

The singer later admitted that: ‘I was very much a puppet in the beginning. I was blinkered by my record company. I was unable to look left or right.’ (Q  interview, October 1992).  In 1992, she left Stock , Aitken, Waterman.  Through the 1990s, the singer reinvented her public image, with her performance in the film The Delinquents (which included her character in a brief nude scene and was given a 15 age rating), a sensual vamp style stage act and a much published relationship with Michael Hutchence, singer with INXS.  She also increasingly began to write, or co-write, material for her albums.

By the 2000s, Kylie Minogue was an established and enduring pop star, winning a number of industry awards and having on-going chart success.  She has been increasingly recognized to be an astute business woman, and by 2003 her net worth was calculated to be £34 million.   In addition to income from record sales, concerts and royalties, she has developed her own lingerie line, generated considerable income from endorsement deals and written a best-selling children’s book.  Her stage costumes featured in a very popular exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and she also became a feature at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Her 2008–9 world tour produced £2.8 million profit. The singer’s celebrity status was demonstrated by the considerable coverage and sympathy for her fight with breast cancer in 2005–6.

Official web site: www.kylie.com

Bruce Springsteen: authenticity and music as cultural politics

Bruce Springsteen is an example of a performer who enjoys both star and auteur status, widely regarded as an articulate, committed artist, who is an outstanding songwriter and performer. Initially something of a cult figure, by 1985, with the huge success of his album Born in the USA (1984) ‘the Boss’ as he is known to his fans, was the most successful white rock star since Elvis.

Here, I want to briefly indicate the significance of Bruce Springsteen as a political artist, in the broader sense of the term ‘political’.  His work can be followed up through his official web site.

At a general level, Springsteen’s success and standing in ‘rock culture’ is founded on authenticity: ‘If you want an artist whose work, both on record and onstage, compels a compassionate understanding of people’s lives – their emotions and imaginings, their jobs and their play – you have nowhere to go to in the realm of rock and roll but to Bruce Springsteen’ (Anthony DeCurtis, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, London: Plexus, 1992: 619). This judgement is echoed in much of the literature on Springsteen since DeCurtis wrote.

Throughout his career, Springsteen has used his position as a performer to support causes he shares. During his 1980s tours he promoted food banks and community groups, as well as frequently personally donating to these. He also supported the Vietnam Veterans of America, played at the 1979 No Nukes concert,and in 1988 headlined an Amnesty International Human Rights Tour; the last generated some 200,000 new members  in the US alone for the organization dedicated to helping political prisoners.  While some saw the singer as helping to rejuvenate American populism, Springsteen firmly rejected President Reagan’s attempts to harness the star’s popularity to his 1984 re-election campaign (see the discussion of ‘Born in the USA’, in the textbook).

During the past 20 years, Springsteen’s songs have continued to paint lyrical images of America. The characters in his early albums were socially marginalised – drifters, hustlers and outlaws.  His focus then moved to factory workers and mainstream working-class figures, but the spirit of the songs has remained the same. His work continues to run the gamut from nostalgia and melancholy to headlong idealism.

Further Reading

Kenneth Womack, Jerry Zolten and Mark Bernhard (eds) (2012), Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies and the Runaway American Dream. Fanham:  Ashgate.


The Rising, Columbia, 2002.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Columbia, 2006.

Wrecking Ball, Columbia, 2012. (see textbook, chapter 12, p. 188).

Official web site:  www.brucespringsteen.net/

This contains extensive audio and video links.