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The Pirate’s Dilemma?

The Pirate’s Dilemma – How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism – Matt Mason, Free Press 2008

The subject of politics, as they say in college, is history with the work taken out, and history is politics with the brains taken out. While I wanted this book to be an analysis of the political, if not economic strata of Internet-age capitalism, it is in fact little more than a pleasant wind through the recent history of “underground” music, with some loose observations about how people make money along the way.

Mason’s thesis is that art, and in particular the art of making money, progresses by internalising marginal forms. Despite the fact that this should come as a surprise to nobody, we spend most of the book being persuaded. The potted histories he provides are on the whole well summarised: how Richard Hell founded the punk styles that came to be sold into the mainstream via VICE Magazine; how a teenager from London became a millionaire without having a record deal or any commercial airplay; how hip-hop came to be the ultimate commercialised youth culture by maintaining a lucrative stasis of “being real” while managing to funnel large amounts of money to a small amount of people, and so on. Nor does Mason seem to mind losing his way in this. At one point, an entire chapter (“Real Talk”) takes a detour into the biographies of assorted hip-hop artists, lapsing at times into simple hagiography. He treats us to various titbits along the way: step-by-step instructions on how to create a remix is doubtless informative, but leaves one wondering exactly how this helps us to understand the “reinvention of capitalism.”
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