Orchestra Corporate By Robert Fink

Now that’s more like it. It is the music that makes the difference, a musical backdrop that effortlessly creates a sense of testosterone-fueled urgency combined with business-like purpose. The track is called “Market Report”; it is one of the “powerful, impressive, dynamic themes” that appear on a CD whose title is Orchestral Corporate. Orchestral Corporate is a prototypical example of what is called in the business “production music”: music composed expressly for use in corporate presentations, sales meetings, videos, and trade shows.

Production music seems to me to present a rich field for musical and cultural interpretation, and my goal in what, contrary to that high-pressure opening, is a very provisional overview of the topic, is to convince you of this by sketching out how production music can shed light on two thorny musicological issues. First, hermeneutics. I want to consider production music as a signifying system. Outlandishly specific titles like “Market Report” (or “Power Structure” or “Arbitrage”) are common, as are elaborate narrative/expressive descriptions of the musical content of individual tracks; libraries of production music are sold fully indexed, with the promise of what will seem to most music scholars impossible levels of semiotic control.

Secondly, sexual politics. I will ask how the specific genre of production music just demonstrated, the driving, heavily-scored motivational style generically known as “industrial,” constructs masculine identity within the most aggressively “macho” precincts of American business. As the article’s opening animation dramatizes, “orchestral”-sounding music is integral to the presentation of a paradigmatically masterful masculine self within the corporate world. How does this process work? Can we link it to specific cultural and historical constructions of masculinity?

“The Literature and Music of Corporate Culture”


The function of orchestral music within corporate culture has largely escaped investigation, for reasons encapsulated by this cartoon. It has been easy and comforting to assume that, though the denizens of the corporate world may have money and power, they live in an artistic wasteland. Academics are quite ready to believe that corporations produce and commodify music, and that they use commodified music (or rather, Mu-zak) to control consumer and worker behavior. But the idea that the experience of being in a corporation is itself mediated by music—that there is a Music of Business, and not just a Business of Music—has never, to my knowledge, been seriously discussed. In fact, no self-respecting computer operating system today boots up with the kind of uninspiring “beep” parodied in that graphic. The Power Macintosh greets you with a deep rich major triad—the basic building block of classical tonal music—and Windows has always serenaded its end users with small, but fully worked-out musical compositions upon system start up. (In order to evoke aurally the clean and simple joys of computer work, Microsoft’s Windows 95 employed subtle sounds created by avant-garde pop musician Brian Eno, instantly making him the most extensively performed composer in the world.)


It’s worth pointing out that there is a tradition of large corporations commissioning music, and not just for image ads or the quasi-civic pomp of a World’s Fair. Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, was famous for his company songbook; but not many people know he actually ordered up an “IBM symphony” in 1936. Michael Eisner recently did the same, commissioning a “Millennium Symphony” to be played at all Disney theme parks during the year 2000. Sometimes, a corporation, like a Renaissance principality, will arrange for a topical stage work as part of the festivities commemorating an important marriage—or in this case, a birth. This excerpt does not come from a commercial—it was a number from the fully-staged musical that the Xerox Corporation hired Broadway composer Wilson Stone to write for an internal company event: the rollout to the national sales force of its new copier, the 813, on September 16, 1963.


But it is only the largest corporations that can afford to play the Medici, hiring skilled artisans to custom-design musical expressions of their corporate culture. In the day-to-day world of business communications, music is not commissioned—it is bought and sold in bulk, as a commodity.

Ever since Adorno formulated his critique of the music business as a “culture industry,” popular music scholars have had to contend with his vision of its most absolute evil: “the reification of music, its naked commodity character.”1 Even outside the Frankfurt School, commodification is hardly a nice word to throw around, either in the recording studio or the seminar room. (“It’s just product, man!” and so on.) But to enter the domain of production music is to enter a strange para-aesthetic realm where music is unashamedly “product,” and where all the supposed evils of the mass-produced commodity form—reification, standardization, interchangeability of parts, planned obsolescence—are everyday virtues.


Production music gets its name from the producers who use it to score a wide range of corporate communications. It is ubiquitous: Network Music, Inc., purveyor of one of the largest production music libraries, licenses its tracks for use in “slide shows, radio and television programming, films, web sites, commercials, promos, multimedia presentations, documentaries, training videos, music-on-hold, in-flight services, and computer programs.”

In material form, a production music library is a collection of CDs, constantly updated, usually by subscription. Each CD contains about a dozen thematically organized tracks. Production music, like any useful mass-produced commodity, comes in all shapes and sizes, conveniently packaged. You get full-length musical themes (2:00-4:00), plus 60- or 30-second edits for use in broadcast commercials; some of the cuts have been decomposed further into detachable stings and fanfares. Several tracks will appear—with instrumentation reduced and prominent melodic lines excised—as underscores, suitable for voice-overs. Many houses offer a classical music library; there is usually a sound effects library; and some companies offer production elements libraries, which allow you to construct your own sonic punctuation by piling up Glides, Sweeps, Drones, Winds, Jets, Flybys, Lasers, Zaps, Bursts, Sprays, Snarls, Missiles, Guitars, Explosions, Hits, and Kickers. (Your least favorite top-40 station undoubtedly owns one of these collections.)

In effect, what is being sold is the sonic equivalent of clip art; and, just as with clip art, indexing is key. The need for a powerful indexing system is much more acute in the aural realm than in the visual: the eye can scan dozens of images at once, while music must be listened to and through in real time. Unlike visual images, which are “naturally” organized by their manifest representational content, music, especially instrumental (abstract) music, provides us with no obvious hooks upon which to hang our categories.

Production music companies have thus recognized indexing and retrieval as the challenge for large music libraries; semiotic clarity is now a key selling point. A 1998 demo clip from the Network Music web site makes the value proposition persuasively explicit.

The sales pitch assures us blithly that we can “link a precise image, nuance, and feeling with just the right Network theme…” This is a powerful semiotic claim—perhaps, in the minds of many music aestheticians, an incredible one. Consult the list of over 300 keywords

Explore TrakFinder’s
Production Music Library

used in Network Music’s TrakFinder™; then see the software in action. Keywords like “desolate,” “sensual,” and “bold” call up lists of evocatively named tracks—Margin of Victory; Cold Sweat; Body Talk.These names are supplemented with pithy descriptive sentences. Here are three excerpts from the Network Music Production Library, along with their descriptions, to help calibrate your music-semiotic ear: Aftermath; Inner Strength; Common Vision.


Let’s stop for a moment to ponder the structural implications of all this. The Trakfinder database, literally thousands of paired musical themes and expressive descriptions, looks for all the world like a systematic linking of signifiers (music) and signifieds (description). In other words, a language in the Saussure-ian sense(Another production music company touts its software, Music Finder, as “…a simple language, which has been designed professionally to, as closely as possible, relate words to music.”) This would explain one of the most oddly attractive things about production music: its hermeneutic panache. Unlike academic musicology, production music houses seem completely uninvested in a discourse of musical autonomy. (It doesn’t sell.) They take musical semantics for granted.

The initial excitement quickly sours, however. A glance back at Orchestral Corporate makes the problem painfully clear: the same adjectives recur again and again, and there is thus no one-to-one correspondence of signifier and signified, no real différence. (What’s the difference between an “optimistic confident theme” and an “optimistic prestigious building theme”?) Trakfinder’s keywords are sledgehammers, not scalpels. Many of the 300+ terms overlap: bold, dynamic, assertive, aspiring, competition all dredge up pretty much the same set of tracks.

This is not really a language of musical expression; it is something interestingly less, something more in keeping with the radically commodified nature of production music: a system of musical objects. The System of Objects was the title of Jean Baudrillard’s first book, an investigation of the signifying power of commodities in consumer society. Baudrillard was impatient with apologists for advertising who spoke idly of branded objects as a “language.” Yes, he admits, we all classify people by the make and model of car they drive, and think we can thereby deduce their personalities; but this is “a system of classification and not a language.” Lacking syntax, and endowed with only a semi-coherent lexicon, the system of objects is “merely a range of distinguishing marks more or less arbitrarily keyed to a range of stereotyped personalities … a set of pigeonholes.”2

A system of musical objects arises when music stops trying to be—or trying not to be—a language, and accepts its “naked commodity character”; we get the Trakfinder, in which a range of distinguishing musical marks is more or less arbitrarily keyed to a range of stereotyped expressive contents.

More or less arbitrarily—but it undoubtedly works. (One hardly imagines the average TV watcher springing up during the nightly news and exclaiming something like, “That is just not correct musical underscoring for a school shooting!” I thought not.) Both the classical musician and the rock star have taken for granted that music’s significance ends where its commodification begins; but the pragmatics of production music argue the opposite, and point the way towards a post-aesthetic discourse of musical meaning. Music may or may not be a language; but in late-capitalist society it is always a commodity, and thus is always part of a (signifying) system.


I want to turn now to my second main line of argument. How do the semiotics of production music help construct a normative masculine self in the business world? Remember the “effect of masculinity” that ECHO’s multimedia savvy helped me to produce at the beginning of this article? The track I used, “Market Report,” though labeled “orchestral corporate” by its publisher, Bruton, would be instantly recognized in the Network Music system of musical objects as “Industrial.” Industrial is a broad category within production music; about all one can really count on is that if a track is labeled “industrial,” it will give the effect of a symphonic orchestration with prominent brass and string lines (whether real or synthesized). But—and this is the kind of syntactic incoherence typical in a system of commodity-objects—there is a sense that the same term, “industrial,” refers to a more specific musical construction of subjectivity, especially when it is linked with words like “bold,” and “power.” To put it more poetically than its creators perhaps might, “bold” industrial is the sound of the male corporate self looking at itself in an acoustic mirror of commodified, stereotyped musical topoi. Let’s look over his shoulder, and try to see what he sees; I’ll defer once more to the inimitable Network Music announcer and a powerful descriptive demonstration of the “industrial” sound from the company’s website.

Consider four absolutely characteristic Network music themes of the “bold industrial” type. I think you will agree that there is a coherent phenomenology of the “bold industrial” sound. It is based on motoric, 4/4 rhythmic ostinatos, usually given to the strings, often with an explicit rock backbeat. Over this driving background soars a very particular type of melodic line, usually carried by horns, trumpets, and/or massed strings. It features wide-ranging, mostly diatonic intervals and a particular intonational mannerism, in which a flurry of shorter notes leads to a strong downbeat accent, a dramatic leap or run up or down, and the deliberate prolongation for several beats of the agogically-accented pitch. (Call it the Indiana Jones paradigm.) The last piece of the pattern is the most distinctive: the straight 4/4 accompaniment is invariably activated by a distinctive, driving pattern of offbeat accents, often the simple hemiola 3 + 3 + 2, but also more complex patterns like (3 + 3 + 3) + (3 + 2 +2).

This “range of distinguishing marks” or “brand” is quite reliably associated with a narrow range of idealized corporate attitudes and behavior. Network Music’s descriptions of these “bold industrial” tracks evoke alternatively an anthropomorphized corporate self (“today’s aggressive corporation”) or the way one’s own self is to be experienced within the corporation (“the quest to achieve one’s personal goals”)—both associated with what is almost a parody of the instrumental rational mindset of advanced capitalism (energetic, aggressive, bold, ambitious, dynamic, persistent, determined, etc.).

The musical correlation is strong: all the tracks have that distinctive combination of expansive diatonic melody, relentless motor rhythm, and (especially) stabbing offbeat accents, as in Symbols (CD 112/9, 1992). The pattern has been remarkably stable over the entire history of Network Music, from the relatively low-rent production of Industrial Revolution (CD 6/5, 1980) to the full-blown effect of Strength of Character (CD 191/3, 1998). One can even discern a transformational syntax in operation: to convert today’s aggressive corporation into tomorrow’s aggressive hi-tech corporation, simply clear out the bass register, and move the ostinato string accompaniment up high, where it can pulsate in a mildly-dissonant mimesis of cyberspace. (Information Highway, CD 129/4, 1996). But leave that bass drum hemiola in—how else can we achieve our personal goals?


It’s interesting that abstract instrumental music scored for large orchestra helps men construct and then present a normatively “masterful” masculine persona to their colleagues in the corporate world. Historical musicology might well take note as it seeks to understand the cultural function of its own canon of “powerful, impressive, dynamic” orchestral themes. But I want to dig a little deeper. What are the precise cultural antecedents and referents of this masculine persona? Can music help us get inside the corporate male ego-ideal?

First we need to establish the cultural referents of the musical style. Network claims to have largely invented the industrial sound—but surely they didn’t invent it out of whole cloth. Listening to track after track of “bold industrial” (there are over 300 in the library), I found myself with a nagging sense that I had heard that loping hemiola gait before. And then—it hit me. Let me formally present my candidate for musical antecedent of industrial: The score for the 1960 Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven has a big leaping diatonic tune and driving rhythmic accompaniment. Most importantly, Elmer Bernstein’s shameless Copland pastiche features what is perhaps the most famously galloping hemiola pattern in all film music. As the music map at the left shows, Copland’s musical vocabulary has a venerable pedigree; his thundering and virile representations of the frontier stand on the musical shoulders of such men’s men as Strauss, Wagner, and Beethoven. And John Williams, in his turn, has through even more shameless pastiche of Bernstein, Korngold, Copland, Strauss, and Wagner disseminated this particularly American take on European orchestral masculinity deep into the collective musical unconsciousness. His myriad of award-winning film scores, Olympic fanfares, and nightly news themes ring a seemingly endless series of changes that we can now recognize as the “bold industrial” sound of the American Western.

The creators of industrial appear to have solved the problem of how to represent American corporate masculinity in music by using what T.S. Eliot would have called an “objective correlative”: the musical image of the cowboy, as transmitted through the soundtracks of innumerable Westerns. When today’s business male looks into the musical mirror, he is, evidently, supposed to feel himself, if only subliminally, on a horse—a lineal descendent of the gunslinging heroes of the Old West.


Recognizing that a key ingredient of the musical construction of production music maleness is “gunfighter music” opens a fascinating hermeneutic window on corporate culture. The “gunslinger” or “cowboy” archetype appears repeatedly in American business folklore, usually associated with the most macho, high-risk sectors of the financial world (currency and stock speculation, real estate), and with the high-pressure worlds of sales and marketing. The tendency for businessmen to see themselves as Wild West figures is most intense when the economy is booming. The late 1960s saw Wall Street overrun by so-called “go-go gunslingers”—stockbrokers who displayed a “steady hand” and an “iron nerve” when picking high-risk investments. But the true heyday of cowboy capitalism was ushered in by the rise of Texas oil money and the ascension to power of Ronald Reagan, the paradigmatic “man on horseback,” in 1980—the same year the first industrial tracks began appearing in the production music library of a new company called Network Music.

One example can stand in for literally hundreds. (Search the business publications in the Lexis-Nexis database back through the 1980s with the keywords “cowboy” and “gunslinger” and you can read for weeks.)

Russ Fraser chain-smokes Marlboros. He keeps a cactus plant in his Wall Street office and quarterhorses on his Wyoming dude ranch. Most days, he wears Western riding boots under his suit pants and sports a brass-buckled gunslinger’s belt.

“I guess there’s a pattern here,” Mr. Fraser says, between drags on his cigarette. “I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy.” Truth be told, the 48-year-old president of Fitch Investors Service Inc. bears little resemblance to John Wayne or William Bonney. But if cowboys are measured by their bravado, neither the Duke nor Billy the Kid can hold a candle to Mr. Fraser.

As head of an investor group that took over 76-year-old Fitch in April, the tough-talking executive boasts that he can turn the sleepy Manhattan company into the country’s dominant bond-rating agency.3

It is not immediately obvious why a man who rates bonds for a living should play the desperado with such desperate urgency. As Marshall McLuhan complained in 1951, at the height of the Western’s popularity, “The public has never been home on the range, and the frontier disappeared before this generation was born. It lives in a crowded, peppy, optimistic world of bustle and systematic change. Why should it be obsessed with an archaic past in which there was no commerce, no routine, no change?”4 That the cowboy, an itinerant laborer in a pre-, even anti-capitalist milieu, should become an avatar of go-go American capitalism, is an irony noted by many cultural historians.

But as McLuhan goes on to point out, the class position of the historical cowboy is of little import; what is important is the lessons in masculine deportment taught by his celluloid reflection:

Even a casual glance at horse-opera heroes suggests that they share with the ideal businessman and the athlete certain qualities of muscular asceticism and harshness. The puritanical rigor of the celluloid frontier appeals to those who have espoused other kinds of rigor in their business and social lives. So the cowboy is as non-erotic as the hard-driving executive.5

McLuhan’s insight has become the dominant mode for reading Westerns as cultural practice. Jane Tompkins, in her key feminist study of the genre, West of Everything, puts it categorically: “what is most interesting about Westerns … is their relation to gender, and especially the way they create a model for men who came of age in the twentieth century.”6 If Western movies are, as Lee Clark Mitchell argues, fundamentally about the process of “making the man,” then when a producer grabs a Network Music industrial track that captures the feel of a Hollywood Western, the muscular sound of men becoming men, and when he slaps it into a business presentation, is he just producing another slide show? Or does he have a hand in the larger and ongoing project of producing and reproducing the masculine subject?


This is, admittedly, pretty speculative stuff. Does the fact that “industrial,” the musical style which represents business to itself, shares key features with the soundtrack of a famous Western film really imply that the men who deliver and listen to business presentations that incorporate industrial tracks are somehow seeing themselves as heroes in a Western? Well, luckily enough, I can show you that at least one popular guide to effective business presentation makes the connection almost spookily explicit.

Consider this cartoon: Harold, a mild-mannered software salesman, is being coached by Sally, a communication expert, through the preparations for a crucial presentation. She needs him to understand that every business presentation must use what she calls the “Win-Story Format,” in which “a heroic figure, with a little help, overcomes enormous odds.” (View cartoon) She’s able to get him clued in by asking him to recall his favorite movie, which is, of course, The Magnificent Seven. Harold is ready to go, ready to present himself, inspire others, and make the sale, as soon as he realizes that all business presentations must have the structure of The Magnificent Seven: they must tell the tale of the (masculine) hero. (Sally’s attempt to argue The Wizard of Oz as a female “hero-story” is a clever piece of political correctness, but ultimately unconvincing.)

Is there any question as to what kind of music Harold will need to underscore his corporate swagger? With musical compadres like Williams, Bernstein, Copland, Korngold, and Strauss, the corporate cowboy can ride tall in the saddle all the way to the last industrial roundup.  Move ’em out!

Robert Fink
University of California, Los Angeles