The Power of Music: Amplified Messages

Music, the perennial time capsule of culture

has historically been a partner of social change. The freedom for musical artists to express their support or disdain for current or past social circumstances has allowed for increased circulation and acknowledgment of a variety of perspectives, even if unusually progressive or radical for their temporal context.

Mass mobilizations such as the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War Movement demonstrated how the power of music, through politically-charged anthems like “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Bob Dylan, could unite the masses through a common thought and a common sound. Today’s music has no less of a potential to make a revolutionary change.

The ever-increasing acceptance for taboo topics that would have been hushed just a handful of decades ago, such as mental health, police brutality, and gender equality, has allowed for even greater commentary and protest than in the past. While the profitability of music, especially with respect to widespread violation of intellectual property laws and the advent of music streaming, has in some ways recently become disputed, the money-making opportunities for artists—especially those who articulate political positions and express struggles which resonate with a wide swath of listeners—have transformed dramatically since the 60s and 70s. Today, full-blown music festivals such as Coachella, Hangout Fest, Lollapalooza, and Governor’s Ball have created opportunities for additional exposure and profitability which differentiate them from older concepts such as the Monterey Pop Festival, The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, and the legendary Woodstock.

Music was the language through which advocacy was communicated

The anthems that accompanied activism during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960 ’s were largely uplifting, optimistic, and proudly Black even as they articulated many of the common struggles felt by African-Americans across the United States. The positivity of many of these powerful ballads often struck a poignant contrast with the pain expressed in their words; for example, “A Change Is Gonna Come” discusses the current state of living under an oppressive society while expressing the hope and determination of African Americans and their power to rise above the fray. From a business perspective, Motown Records was a huge facilitator of these messages gaining credibility. Having a Black-owned record company behind the scenes of the operation meant that the music behind the Civil Rights Movement was self-contained and fully dedicated to the cause at hand. The venues where these songs were performed were often hand-picked and revolved around events of social importance. At the March on Washington, artists like Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, and Bob Dylan performed for the sole purpose of supporting a common cause. Attendees were in the audience for that exact same cause: music was the language through which advocacy was communicated. Principles of accessibility were central to the spirit of the March on Washington, and its music was no exception. If you could physically get yourself to Washington, D.C., you too could be a part of history and hear from the most prominent Black artists yourself.

The lyrics of the music were inseparable from the messages of the social movement

Another undeniable demonstration of the power of music can be found at Woodstock, which tapped into the nonconforming passions of the late 60s-70s. Widespread anti-war critiques of the era’s Presidential administrations and anxieties about the war’s seemingly endless perpetuation were woven into anthems like “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish which energized their listeners. Similar to the Civil Rights Movement, the lyrics of the music were inseparable from the messages of the social movement. Prominent artists such as John Lennon, Jimmy Cliff, and Edwin Starr were transformed into quasi-activists who championed protests through their chart-topping pieces. There also existed remarkably little concern, among artists and organizers of protest events, about profiting off of the entertaining aspects of social change. The creators of Woodstock were actually indebted after hosting the event. This “music-first” mentality showed just how central to the purpose the artists and their messages were.

Though today’s music festivals are not as politically-charged as their predecessors, they have the ability to democratize access to the music industry—and thus to a life-changing platform for social change—like never before.

Fast-forward to the music festivals of today. The conglomeration of artists at these extremely popular events is astounding. Here, the organizers of the concerts capitalize on Instagram-ready images of carefree times, where music fans from all over can hear vastly different artists in one place. In a Huffington Post article, writer Pete Mason states that the 2010s festival culture represents “a calculated approach by large scale promoters and music industry corporations that results in [cutbacks] to the community aspect and familial quality of festivals and increases marketability while ticket prices [rise] year after year.” While Mason’s critique touches upon an obvious disadvantage to festival attendees, it begs the question of whether or not this is simply a result of rational, loss-avoiding strategy or of the intense demand and relatively little supply of space at the events. Although pricey for the consumer, these festivals have an egalitarian element, as they can have a huge impact on lesser-known artists’ careers. While many festival-goers might be at a high-profile festival to see Childish Gambino, they could easily find themselves wandering into a set with much less exposure, like Vulfpeck or Riz La Vie. In this situation, just landing a spot as a performer at one of these events can be a jumping off point for many. In this sense, though today’s music festivals are not as politically-charged as their predecessors, they have the ability to democratize access to the music industry—and thus to a life-changing platform for social change—like never before.

The evolution of the way we engage with music is forever changing. Not only do streaming services make for on-demand listening experiences, but live concerts are also not as “once in a lifetime” as they used to be. While this has certainly evoked some disdain in the music community that yearns for a more nostalgic appreciation for the role music has played, the ability to spread messages and influence minds is as vibrant as ever. As accessibility continues to become more and more prevalent, perhaps the ability of music to transform individuals into activists has now become more transferable between artists and fans than ever.