Unfree Masters

Popular Music and the Politics of Work

Unfree Masters

Refiguring American Music

More about this series

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: Published: November 2012

Author: Matt Stahl

Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Music

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.


“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

“Stahl makes a timely, elegant, and ambitious theoretical contribution. The challenge facing all workers is to demystify the power of unfree masters. What recording artists have to teach us is notthat we should behave more like artists, but that we must argue more effectively for reducing subordination and creating more democratic relations in flexible work ensembles.” — Catherine Murray, Labour/Le Travail

“Stahl offers a perceptive and engaging history of the contemporary conditions of labor in the recording industry that draws its strength precisely from this focus on textual material. Importantly, the book provides insight into the mechanisms through which the legislation is drafted—mechanisms which are often obscured in discussions of the legal framework for musicians. By also considering the economic and political contexts within which these negotiations are framed, the author offers a valuable and timely contribution to the emerging multidisciplinary conversations that have become necessary for those concerned with the creative industries.” — Ananay Aguilar, Journal of Popular Music Studies

"...Unfree Masters provides a crucial example of how detailed inquiry into debates over legislation and contracts—areas that many music scholars are unwilling to approach—can add to our understandings of the present moment for social worlds of music-making." — Kariann Goldschmitt, Ethnomusicology

"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

"Unfree Masters is an informative, intellectually engaging book. What really impressed me is how much I learned about copyright law, recording contracts, and music industry labor practices—subjects I thought I already knew a great deal about." — Kembrew McLeod, coauthor of Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling

"What makes Unfree Masters so significant is the fact that public struggles between musicians and the recording industry play out in less visible ways across all fields of employment. This is not simply a work of popular music studies. It is a major critique of the dominant relations between labor and capital in a postindustrial economy." — Barry Shank, coeditor of The Popular Music Studies Reader


Availability: In stock
Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Matt Stahl is Assistant Professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Popular Music and (Creative) Labor 1

Part I: Representation 31

1. American Idol and Narratives of Meritocracy 36

2. Rockumentary and the New Model Worker 64

Part II: Regulation 101

3. Carving Out Recording Artists from California's Seven-Year Rule 105

4. Freedom, Unfreedom, and the Rhetoric of the Recording Contract 143

5. Recordings Artists, Work for Hire, Employment, and Appropriation 182

Conclusion: "I'm Free!" 226

Notes 235

Bibliography 269

Index 283
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2013 International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) First Book Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5343-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5328-7
Publicity material