Clearly, the intent of projects like these is to use popular and folk music to humanize the U.S. government and armed forces, and to draw attention away from the material impact of military interventions. Like the musical “Hamilton,” these groups take a popular artform, and repurpose it to whitewash history and reaffirm false ideas of American unity and virtue.
These types of music were born out of working-class communities, most with distinctly Black roots and histories full of radical responses to domination. The U.S. government claiming ownership over these forms of music, rebranding them as patriotically American, and using them to justify imperialist violence, is an affront to the spirit in which they were created, and very often a crass exploitation of Black trauma. Powerful artistic tools for expressions of rage and yearning towards self-determination have been integrated as yet another weapon in the arsenal of the state.
Another way the military uses its musicians is similar to the purpose served by any orchestra or professional music ensemble in the private sector: as a class signifier. Music performed at a high level, especially classical music, allows individuals and institutions to broadcast their wealth, sophistication, and membership in a higher echelon of society. Military bands often function as state-sponsored ways for service members and government officials to do just that. Generally, low-ranked service members have a single bugler play at their funeral, or just a recording of a bugler, while funerals for higher-ranking officers have a full military band perform.
Military bands can even demonstrate status for elected officials outside of the military. According to Representative Betty McCullum, a Minnesota Congresswoman who has criticized government spending on military bands, “They were doing general P.R., and often the events weren’t even open to the public. A lot of it was community events where a member of Congress could call up and say send us a military band.”6 These bands act as personal class signifiers on hand for legislators who increase military spending.
Meanwhile, symphonic orchestras in the private sector are drastically underfunded. In 2017, orchestra spending totaled $2.1 billion, covering 1,600 orchestras and 160,000 musicians across the country.7 This comes to an average of $1,312,500 per orchestra and a paltry $13,125 per musician, about a third of the mean annual spending for military bands and musicians. Two thirds of orchestras in the U.S. have a budget of $300,000 or less. Even if 100% of this were to go into musicians’ paychecks, this would not be nearly enough to give each member a living wage for two months.
Many orchestras have had to reduce the number of weeks of guaranteed work for musicians. Even among the most well-funded, top-tier institutions, only a precious few offer full-year contracts. Musicians used to be able to get through the dry seasons for orchestras and live performance gigs by relying on residuals from recordings. However, these days, recording work is becoming more scarce, and large studios like Disney are paying musicians far beneath their share of residuals on streaming content.8
There are, of course, class distinctions among musicians themselves. Classical music is an expensive hobby, and seriously pursuing a career playing a classical instrument generally requires years of support from wealthy parents, generous patrons, huge scholarships, tremendous debt-levels or some combination thereof. Somebody has to pay for instruments, lessons, music school, travel to auditions, etc. Some musicians are able to continue practicing and honing their skills until they win an audition for one of the rare, coveted positions in a top orchestra. However, for musicians without abundant resources and luck, or those whose resources have been completely exhausted by the time they have finished their studies, any job playing their instrument can look very enticing. Thus the manufactured appeal of so many military bands.
For the majority of military bands, members are technically regular recruits, although they will likely only fulfill their service playing music. This means that most musicians recruited by the military go through basic training and could possibly be called into combat while serving. Although it isn’t common for musicians to be required to fight, this is a reserve of additional troops the military has up its sleeve and could use at any time. Due to meager non-military state funding, many musicians struggle to find steady work, let alone a job with a decent salary, housing, and good benefits. It is unsurprising then that many are willing to take risks associated with recruitment, even if they wouldn’t join up under different circumstances.9
As one of the only games in town, military music is set up as an effective marketing and recruiting tool for US imperialism and nationalism at every level. The music itself acts as propaganda to inspire non-musicians to sign up. In addition, the massively funded ensembles promise solid compensation and job security to musicians without many other opportunities. Military officers, government officials, and others in similar positions of power are incentivized to siphon more tax money into military bands, and away from other forms of public arts funding, because they can personally use these bands to solidify and express their own class status. Finally, the military uses large reserves of talented, well-paid musicians to fortify its own facade of legitimacy with the aesthetics of patriotism.