Consider his most recent book, Nice Work if You Can Get It. Here Ross examines how paying attention to questions of labor can change the way we perceive culture. In explaining the rise of digital music, Ross writes, “As a devotee of these electronic genres, I could certainly count myself among those who believed that their inventive use of drum machines, samplers, and sequences ushered in a quantum leap in musical progress.” This is the old language of the cult stud—imagining consumers appropriating cultural shards for their own, invariably progressive purposes. “Yet,” he goes on,
whenever I asked no-name working musicians who depended on live club and bar bookings what they thought of ‘DJ music,’ I was guaranteed an earful. There was no question in their minds that owners of live venues welcomed and encouraged a DJ-based economy of pre-recordings or musical acts because it cut their overheads and labor costs by eliminating drummers, keyboard players, guitarists, and vocalists. Killing off live music may have been sold to fans as a worthy crusade against the pretensions to authenticity of the rock aristocracy, but it was also a serious labor problem.
Once the fake populist posturing of the cult stud gives way to matters economic, the callow characterization of performing musicians as an “aristocracy” becomes instantly unsupportable.
Indeed, Ross’s broader engagement with labor relations has pushed him steadily away from cult-stud truisms and the New Economy boosterism they often resembled. Recall how the management theorists of the nineties championed the economy of the “free agent”? It was a simple matter, back in that heady age, to join the language of the empowered consumer to a celebration of free agents in the workplace, who had supposedly liberated themselves from stodgy corporate structures.