[Column and Essays]

McMusicTherapy McMarketing: Reflections Upon the Promotion of Music Therapy Services in an Increasingly Commercial Economic Climate

By Brian Abrams

As an undergraduate student at Vassar College in the 1980s, I discovered an affinity for the study of sociology—not as a major (my official major was Cognitive Science, while my “unofficial” major was music), but definitely as an elective area of great fascination to me. In the course of surveying the European history of sociology, I found myself drawn to Max Weber’s critical theory of rationalization—specifically, the dimension of his theory asserting how the growing influence of socio-economic systemization (marked, in part, by the industrial revolution, the latter half of which aligned with Weber’s lifespan) simultaneously advanced and dehumanized our society (Kim, 2012). For Weber, the price of new levels of societal productivity was its own disenchantment, or the loss of its relational, value-centered foundations, in exchange for its developments in material and organizational realms (and, here, I am not referring to any specific value traditions—some of which have, arguably, done great damage to humanity in terms of justice, equality, etc., and should be subject to critical discourse as part of a value-centered community; rather, I am referring to value-centeredness as a larger, general construct). This was a disturbing duality for me, because it implied that civilization might only be capable of growing at the expense of its own humanity.

As I searched for evidence of rationalization and disenchantment in my late 20th Century world—even in the absence of much of the everyday technology we now wield—I encountered it everywhere. Most prevalently, I saw it in the intensification of product mass marketing, within the emergence of a hyper-commercialized economy that seemed to place product before person. I witnessed this ascendance of commercialism unfolding within the collective anxieties stemming from the tapering Soviet-American Cold War, oddly giving way to a new era of organized greed, in which patriotic nationalism became associated with the private business sector, and in which public services came under greater criticism than ever before during my lifetime—even to the extent that their proponents were critically labeled “Anti-American.” I can honestly say that, as someone with a strong belief in the sociocultural value of public resources, I often found myself on the receiving end of that labeling.

During this same time frame, I attended a guest lecture at Vassar delivered by George Ritzer, a social theorist whose work at the time featured a contemporary expansion upon Weber’s rationalization that Ritzer (1993) termed the McDonaldization of society. Ritzer spoke to the human impact of the then present-day economy, understood according to the metaphor of the fast food industry—specifically, in terms of its characteristic efficiency (rapid and inexpensive), calculability (quantitative standardization), predictability (uniformity of delivery of goods and services in ways consistent with consumer expectations), and control (internal, regulatory mechanisms). These commercial “benefits” (at least from a profit perspective), while attractive to the consuming public on numerous levels, simultaneously minimized (or even virtually eliminated) the relational, human encounters otherwise intrinsic to economic transaction. Within such a highly systematized world of mass marketing, mass-production, and mass-consumption, both consumer and provider were—to some extent—alienated from their own humanity. This resonated deeply with my own consternations about the many ways I experienced rationalization and disenchantment manifesting in the world.

Over the next several years, I gradually came to the realization that I was best suited for a professional life rooted in music, as well as human services, each in some capacity. After exploring the possibility of music education, I discovered music therapy as a vocational option that aligned particularly well with what I valued about both music and persons. Among the numerous virtues of music therapy, as I perceived them, was a values-oriented core as an arts-centered, relationship-based discipline. To me, this core appeared relatively intact, in spite of the prevailing forces of societal rationalization and disenchantment. Music therapy offered me a way to serve as a collaborator within creative, relational, health-promoting experiences, as opposed to a purveyor of a commoditized product. While I had no qualms about the industrial realm, per se, nor about those for whom it was a good fit as a vocation, I knew it simply was not for me, and that in which—were I to attempt to work within that realm—my insufficient motivation would probably lead me to fail. Essentially, while I had little confidence in my capacity to “sell” anything, I had quite a bit of confidence that I would be effective as an advocate for a profession that would afford the public opportunities for resources as engaged on a fully participatory, human level—even in the midst of a largely commercialized economic climate.

With the passage of time, moving into the 21st Century, I observed the economic and political structures of the United States (and elsewhere) demonstrating a continued trend toward greater and greater privatization of human services. I witnessed ever-shrinking margins of public funding for services leading to a growing “marketplace mentality” among human service providers, who were compelled to adopt corporate business models, and to employ increasingly commercialistic branding and advertisement strategies in order to compete for a consumer base. For me, now a music therapy clinician and educator, this corporatization most significantly impacted the human service areas of music (Gilbert, 2012), healthcare (Rosenthal, 2013), and education (Ritzer, 2013), each of which were no longer seen primarily as collective resources available to common stakeholders of a shared community, but rather as reified, monetized commodities, to be “sold” to a “customer base.”

In response to the increasingly commercial climate of human service marketing, many members of the music therapy profession have responded in kind, and in ways that embody increasing expressions of the efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control found in general commercialization. Part of this means an emphasis in music therapy marketing upon a positivist evidence base demonstrating music therapy’s cost-effective, quantifiable, deterministic (based upon a statistical probability that x will yield y, independently of “intervening” variables of human agency), and consistent (via controlled conditions research, and standardized/manualized interventions in practice) virtues. Not only does this type of evidence base serve as a monetizing “language” compatible with the transaction of services for capital, but it demonstrates to clients how they, as consumers, can “bank” on certain outcomes in exchange for their money. Another part of this mean that, stylistically, music therapy service provider organizations have begun to carry “flashy” names, slogans, logos, consumer-oriented sound bites, compelling photos and/or videos, testimonials and success anecdotes, and prospective client incentives (free trial consults, etc.). The language in the advertisement of some services today utilizes constructions parallel to those of material sales pitches (e.g., “Want to Experience How Music Therapy can change your Life? Call for an appointment today!”). Branded pens, drink cups, hats, and other promotional items are often made available as a standard component of service advertisement. As workshops on music therapy marketing have been appearing with increasing frequency at professional conferences, on social media, etc., members of the profession are afforded more regular access to “marketing tools” as resources.

As a witness to this general trajectory toward a more corporate, monetized concept of music therapy marketing, I have found myself struggling with my own identity as a member of the professional music therapy community. In fact, on occasion, I have experienced a sense of social alienation, in my unwillingness to “buy into” (pun intended) the prevailing paradigm shift. This has included implications that I may be doing the public and the profession a disservice by “clinging” to antiquated values and economic models of human services. After all, once a member of the public pays for services, she or he has become my employer—my boss—and I am ethically obligated to promote and deliver the services and outcomes they expect to receive on a predictable, uniform basis. Their monetary “generosity” holds transactional primacy, perhaps even beyond whatever I believe to be my own professional judgment and autonomy, and I now “owe” them a debt of gratitude in the form of courteous, pleasing customer service, equivalent to what one might expect of any commercial industry. While musical preferences, enjoyment, play, “fun,” etc., can, at times, be clinically indicated and/or a natural part of the music therapy process, I have witnessed a trend toward contextualizing the hedonic response to music as part of what music therapy clients receive for their dollars—not entirely unlike the manner in which the fatty, salty products on many menus found in the mass-marketed fast food industry are meant to deliver experiences of superficial pleasure that customers expect for their purchase, and that bring them back again and again, as part of a sustained, predictable economic transaction.

While I fully acknowledge the necessity of marketing music therapy services, and how adopting a more commercialized model of music therapy marketing can be understood as an expression of adaptation and survival on the one hand, I remain concerned about impacts upon the integrity of the field on the other. Yet, I have often found that any of my own critiques along these lines have been met with antipathetic counter-critiques, reminiscent of the “Anti-American” implications I encountered in response to my critique of hyper-privatization during the 1980s. It is as if, on a certain level, just as I was expected to buy into the new economy in order to show my patriotic loyalty, I am now expected to but into the commercialization of music therapy in order to show my professional loyalty.

But there is another side to the ethical implications, here. As Zoloth-Dorfman and Rubin (1995) noted nearly 20 years ago, a health care industry that increasingly views its consumers as objectified commodities, whose care resource decisions have been entrusted to corporate management forces, inherently places those consumers at risk of human marginalization:

The need for management is a function of how healthcare delivery is organized--relying on the intervention of a host of strangers, and, to some extent, the cooperation of a large industrialized state. Strangers must agree on the parameters of care that will address any given expressed need. Even the embodied experience of the patient is named, defined, and categorized not by the patient, but by a stranger, who then, by evaluating the patient's pain, treatment, and outcome, becomes part of the management and narrative of the case. Who owns the instruments, regulates the drugs, and pays the fees will be a critical factor in who sets the parameters and limits in healthcare. What makes the reality of management a subject of ethical discourse is the issue of power, the problem of the marketplace relationships that exist simultaneously, and the norms that ought to guide stranger-to-stranger interaction in a just social order. (n.p.)

Commercial standards for advertising services may be consistent within a framework of commoditized clients, but when applied to human services—particularly those concerned with the client’s health and basic human welfare, they remain ethically questionable. From the perspective specifically of music therapy, it is notable that the American Music Therapy Association’s Code of Ethics (AMTA, 2014), under section 10.0, Announcing Services, first sentence of item 10.1, states: “The MT will adhere to professional rather than commercial standards in making known his or her availability for professional services.” Of course, it is natural to wonder: Where, exactly, is the line of distinction between “professional” and “commercial”? Clearly, there is no absolute answer and, like most instances of ethical discourse, it remains a relative matter of situated values, inter-subjective consensus, and shifting contexts. On the other hand, I would contend that the music therapy community must retain some semblance of critical self-regulation on its own approaches to marketing, beyond an “anything goes” standard.

The Mission of the American Music Therapy Association is “to advance public awareness of the benefits of music therapy and increase access to quality music therapy services in a rapidly changing world.” (AMTA, 2013). Given these rapid world changes indeed include the general proliferation of commercialized human services that exhibit the characteristics of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, then the line between “professional” and “commercial” may well become increasingly blurred and gray. As an alternate scenario, perhaps these developments will engender a renewed effort to refine the distinction and help prompt the assertion of a re-enchanted, humanized approach to music therapy marketing. I am certain there are additional scenarios and perspectives as well and—as someone not only invested in the future health of the music therapy profession but also as someone who has maintained an interest in sociology since taking that Vassar College elective course long ago—I would welcome the opportunity to dialogue about any or all of them.


American Music Therapy Association (2013). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.musictherapy.org/about/ethics/

Gilbert, J. (2012). Capitalism, creativity and the crisis in the music industry. Retrieved June 21, 2014 from http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/jeremy-gilbert/capitalism-creativity-and-crisis-in-music-industry

Kim, S. H. (2012). “Max Weber.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 ed.). N. Zalta (Ed.). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/weber/

Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ritzer, G. (2013). MOOCs and the McDonaldization of education. Retrieved from http://georgeritzer.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/moocs-and-the-mcdonaldization-of-education/

Rosenthal, E. R. (2013). Treat health care as a social need, not a commodity. The Journal News (July 25, 2013) Retrieved from http://www.pnhp.org/news/2013/july/treat-health-care-as-a-social-need-not-a-commodity

Zoloth-Dorfman, L., & Rubin, S. (1995). The patient as commodity: Managed care and the question of ethics. Journal of Clinical Ethics, 6 (4), 339-357.