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HomeVideoLost in the Mainstream: The Commercialization of Music

Lost in the Mainstream: The Commercialization of Music

American Experience presents a virtual PAST FORWARD conversation exploring how music is commodified and what is lost in the process. This conversation is inspired by our new film The War on Disco, premiering MON, OCT 30 @ 9/8c on PBS, and then available to stream on our website and on the PBS app.

Panelists will discuss what is meant by “mainstream” culture, how an art form can move from its original context to a space of “broader” appeal, and the changes that the art form undergoes in this process. They will also explore the emotional and expressive importance of music to different cultures and individuals, and the sense of identity listeners invest in various styles and genres of music. The panel will examine whether music and art forms like it ultimately lose their authenticity and resonance when they enter into the mainstream.


Jefferson Cowie is the James G. Stahlman Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. Cowie’s work in social and political history focuses on how class, race, and labor shape American politics and culture. His latest book, Freedom’s Dominion, won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2023. In addition to his scholarship, Cowie’s essays and opinion pieces have also appeared in the New York Times, TIME magazine, NPR Music, Foreign Affairs, Chronicle of Higher Ed, American Prospect, Politico, Democracy, The New Republic, Inside Higher Ed, Dissent, and other popular outlets. The recipient of several fellowships, he has also appeared in a variety of media outlets including CNN’s The Seventies, C‐Span’s Booknotes, NPR’s Weekend Edition, as well as documentaries, podcasts, and radio broadcasts.

Ayana Contreras is a cultural historian, memory worker, radio DJ and archivist. An avid collector with over 8000 vintage vinyl records, she hosts the Reclaimed Soul program on WBEZ and Vocalo Radio in Chicago. She is also a columnist for DownBeat magazine, and her writings have been published in The New York Times, Chicago Review, Oxford American and Bandcamp Daily among other publications. Her book on Post-Civil Rights Era cultural history, titled Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago, was published December 2021 through University of Illinois Press.

The conversation will be moderated by Timothy D. Taylor. Taylor is a professor in the Departments of Ethnomusicology, Anthropology, and Musicology at UCLA. He is the author of over 50 articles and chapters, and many books, most recently, Working Musicians: Labor and Creativity in Film and Television Production (Duke University Press, 2023), an ethnographic study of film and television musicians in Los Angeles.