July 29, 2008

Greetings from Hooverville

Here's a bit of intellectual mischief concerning a flanking maneuver in the Complexity Wars (which I'm late to, in part, because I was at Tanglewood listening to a week's worth of Elliott Carter—there has to be a joke in there somewhere, in the "boy, are my arms tired" category). It starts with this whole notion of "the audience" as something that you can make generalizations about. Criticized for promulgating such a view (in large part, in service of the opinion that spirit-of-Copland populism is always going to resonate with a larger audience than complex modernism), Kyle Gann didn't take things very kindly:
"There's no such thing as 'the audience.' Each musical exchange is a private one between a performer and a listener, and everyone listens differently. You can't generalize about musical experiences."

OK - there's no such thing as "The Nazis," either. Some Nazis shot Jews in the head with apparent unconcern, others felt quite anxious and guilty doing it, and still others managed to get themselves confined to clerical work. You can't generalize about the Nazis, because each one was an individual who acted and felt differently.
Given that I have never, ever seen a generalization about "the audience" that didn't disenfranchise a huge swath of my own preferences as an audience member, I found that dubious choice of analogy to be, at best, ironic. Besides, it's not even that valid—of course you can generalize about the Nazis, because they were a specific organization, with stated goals and policies; either you were a member or you weren't, and if you were, it's an acceptable assumption that you bought into said goals and policies, however reluctantly. "The audience," by contrast, is such a mass of conflicting motivations and needs that any generalization is on shaky ground to begin with. I agree that it's hard to talk about the world without making generalizations—in fact, I generalize often and with great enthusiasm. The problem, though, with generalizations about "the audience" isn't the generalizing itself, but that what results almost invariably isn't really saying what it seems to be saying.

Take this statement about "the audience":
Audiences prefer simple music to complex music
(Yes, we're assuming you can make a clean distinction between the two.) Well, how do you know that to be true? Did you take a poll? Kind of.
Audiences, in terms of tickets and recordings, buy more simple music than complex music
One could argue that the larger availability of simple music makes that pretty much a foregone conclusion. So find the causality for that imbalance of availability:
It's easier to get a majority of the audience to buy simple music than complex music
I don't think that's a particularly controversial statement. But notice: it's a statement about marketing, not the artistic worth or communicative efficacy of complex music vis-à-vis simple music. You might think that, given the mechanism of the free market, that such a marketing bias does reflect what audiences really do want, that the market for music evolves to a point where it becomes a collective reflection of individual desires. You'd be wrong.

The historian Paul Starr, in his book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, demonstrates how each new communicative medium—newspapers, the telegraph, the telephone, &c.—has its own constitutive moment, a period of time where the standards and business models for the medium come into being, laying down a track for the industry to follow. Starr's main point is that such moments almost always have more to do with contemporary political exigencies than with market forces. Broadcasting, for example—where most people got most of their music in the 20th century—had its constitutive moment in the 1920s. The landscape for mass broadcast media was largely determined by the way the radio industry was shaped after World War I. And the process was dominated by one man: Herbert Hoover.

Hoover became Secretary of Commerce in 1921 and promptly set about regulating radio, even though he had no specific mandate to do so. Up until that point, radio was largely limited to military use, but with the nationwide radio announcement of the election of Warren Harding to the presidency in 1920—reports that scooped newspapers by several hours—the civilian possibilities of the medium became apparent. Hoover was determined to create a regulatory environment for radio that hewed to his own pro-business views—he saw his job as using governmental power to shape industries in order to maximize the opportunity for private profit.

Hoover set about licensing portions of the radio spectrum to private, non-governmental actors. Hoover lacked explicit authority at first, but most of his actions were given retroactive legality by the Radio Act of 1927, which established the Federal Radio Commission to regulate licensing and standards. The FRC provided a veneer of independence, but then-President Coolidge gave Hoover a free hand in picking commissioners, which continued when Hoover himself moved into the White House in 1929.

The FRC was biased towards clear channels—frequencies reserved nationwide for a single licensee—and high-power transmission, on the grounds that they a) provided better reception, and b) provided better penetration into rural areas. In practice, the policies favored corporate broadcasters, who could afford high-power transmitters and network hook-ups. And corporate broadcasters were steadily embracing an advertising-based business model.

Lest you think that to be a natural evolution, keep in mind that, at the same time, Britain was building its own standards around broadcasting in the form of the BBC, a government-owned monopoly public-service network, supported by taxes and license fees. That too was largely the work of one man—John Reith—and not a response to free market pressures. I'm not saying that the BBC model was, or is, preferable—Reith's unapologetically elitist bent towards highbrow and educational programming correspondingly ignored popular culture, and the network's quasi-governmental status resulted in an enforced political neutrality that, as Starr points out, diminished the diversity of broadcast political opinion. But it does show that the American broadcasting regime was hardly inevitable or necessary, that it was the result of arbitrary decisions based on arbitrary assumptions as to what would best serve the public interest—assumptions that, even at the time, were demonstrably incorrect.

In the early 1920s, polled public opinion was overwhelmingly against advertising on the radio, what was then called "toll broadcasting." Nevertheless, as private industry gravitated towards an advertising-based model—how else were they to make money?—Hoover and the various regulatory agencies did nothing to prevent it. The result? By the early 1930s, public opinion was overwhelmingly for advertising, as opposed to a BBC-style tax or fee; the industry didn't respond to what audiences wanted, the audiences got used to what the industry was providing. Not that there wasn't dissent—educational, religious, and labor groups clamored for Congress to set aside a portion of the spectrum devoted to public-interest programming. It went nowhere: when Congress revisited the issue soon after Franklin Roosevelt took office (changing the FRC to today's FCC), it largely left the 1927 structure intact. Why? Because FDR, who saw radio as a pro-Democratic bulwark against the mostly pro-Republican newspaper industry, needed to keep the broadcasters on his side. Again: short-term political considerations with long-term effects.

The advertising-based model soon resulted in advertisers themselves taking over much of the programming, producing and packaging their own sponsored programs for the networks. (Note that this is why the Met broadcasts, underwritten by Texaco and, for all practical purposes, produced by the Met itself, gained such a radio foothold, while something like Toscanini's NBC orchestra was a short-lived anomaly.) When the dramas and sitcoms and variety and quiz shows moved to television in the late 1940s, rather than go back to producing shows themselves, radio stations instead turned to other prepackaged programming in the form of recorded music—programming that soon came to favor short, popular numbers as an ideal vehicle for spot advertising.

This whole stroll down memory lane is to show that, when it comes to talking about "the audience" as a collective entity, the more you scratch the surface, the more factors turn up that pull the audience's behavior away from a basic causality of want/don't-want and towards reasons of convenience, availability, and routine, reasons that, while at first glance may seem to be the result of the free market's alleged efficiency, in fact turn out to have more to do with patterns of consumption laid down in grooves so old that we're not even aware of them. Had the structure of broadcasting in this country somehow been fashioned to initially favor music of modernist complexity, would the general public now prefer it? Probably—pace radio advertising, audiences prefer what they're used to, a bias that only increases over time. That whopper of a contrafactual raises the question of motivation—modernist complexity was, after all, not being created in a largely welcoming world, but in the face of a mass audience conditioned towards a very different kind of musical discourse. Would it have seemed as expressive, as audacious, if it was being widely consumed? Maybe not. But at the same time, composers and critics that celebrate simplicity should pause to consider that the apparent greater communicative power of such music, at least as measured in audience numbers, might owe as much to Herbert Hoover as it does to human nature. Not much is as simple as it seems.

10 comments:

Sator Arepo said...

1) Fascinating post. Your analysis of "audience" vis-a-vis the history of radio was very cool.

2) Is Mahler "simple" or "complex"? How about versus, say...Webern? Arguably simpler?...Beethoven? Strauss? Hm.

Just trying to clarify the point that I think you've already raised.

Matthew said...

Well, exactly. I was making a "simple/complex" division just for the fun of argument, but the majority of that landscape is solid gray area, at least in my mind. And then there's the whole problem of means vs. ends—Satie, for example: simple means, but often highly ambiguous effects. Plus there's the idea that, because of the rather philosophically slippery nature of music, almost any piece can be argued to be as simple or as complex as one wants. I mean, Carter's Piano Concerto can be heard through a pretty simple lens of individual vs. collective struggle; at the same time, it can be quite an extensive adventure to try and drill down and figure out just how a Strauss waltz works the way it does.

rootlesscosmo said...

Excellent, enlightening post--thanks. Re this

When the dramas and sitcoms and variety and quiz shows moved to television in the late 1940s, rather than go back to producing shows themselves, radio stations instead turned to other prepackaged programming in the form of recorded music—programming that soon came to favor short, popular numbers as an ideal vehicle for spot advertising.

didn't the physical limits imposed by 78rpm recording also contribute to the dominance of the short selection? (Secondary question: to what extent is the standard bebop quintet lineup a function of there being only enough room in a three-minute side for the head, two or three 32-bar solos, and the out chorus?)

DJA said...

Had the structure of broadcasting in this country somehow been fashioned to initially favor music of modernist complexity, would the general public now prefer it? Probably

Whoa, whoa, just a minute, my friend. There's some chance you might need to show your work between those two statements.

Matthew said...

Cosmo: The 78 format probably factors into that, but LPs turn up around '48, which, given how tardy the American broadcasting industry was in getting to TV, is right around when the changeover begins to take hold. (The BBC, by comparison, was doing regular TV broadcasts in the 30s.)

Darcy: I was riffing on the turnaround in opinion about advertising (and I definitely didn't mean to imply that we'd be living in a pop-free world), but I'm not so sure my "probably" isn't that far out of bounds. I mean, ten years, and public opinion is completely reversed, merely by having the previously unwanted advertising model dumped in the public's lap? (And I mean reversed—Starr quotes advertising trade magazines editorializing to keep radio ad-free in the early 20s.) I'm more and more of the opinion that people prefer what they come to get used to—consider that the relatively more equitable distribution of classical, jazz, and pop in the recording marketplace in the 40s and 50s was a holdover of listening habits formed pre-radio, and that all the "death of classical music" business (death of jazz, too—some people just like rubbing tombstones, I guess) only starts after an entire generation that's consumed music almost exclusively through (pop-heavy) radio and TV. (Consider also the effect of state-run broadcasting outside the US—the Glock era at the BBC, for example—which didn't result in modernism supplanting pop by any means, but definitely increased its local market share.)

Matthew said...

Darcy: one more tangent on that audience-getting-used-to-it thing—I realize that my faith in such a causality is based in large part on my own experience, and my own preference. Basically, I am an average audience member, or at least I was at some point, and the main reason I became a fan of the crazy modernism is mainly because I had a chance to hear it. I always raise an eyebrow at "I like it, but the general audience won't" sorts of arguments or predictions; I've always thought that, if I can get into this stuff, armed with only a few years of basic piano lessons, then anybody can.

DJA said...

Hi Matthew,

I know what you were going for but I don't think a shift in public opinion on the question of whether radio should be financed by taxes and license fees or advertising is remotely like, say, the shift in public preference towards British Invasion bands.

What you say about exposure makes sense, but only to a point. You can definitely cultivate the audience's taste for modernist complexity, but (I would argue) only among that subset of listeners who are predisposed to be receptive to complexity. Also, human beings are human beings, not blank slates. Our tastes are diverse, but they are not infinitely variable. You could have been brought up in a culture where the only kind of music to be broadcast for 50 years was static. Most people raised in that enivronment would still overwhelmingly prefer "Baby One More Time" to static.

Doens't everyone consider their personal tastes representative of the "average" audience member? I know I do. I mean, a lot of my likes and dislikes w/r/t pop music are somewhat similar to those of most people of my age and background. I just happen to listen to a bunch of other stuff on top of what most of my peers do. But I also think the things I most respond to in music don't depend on genre.

Henry Holland said...

Well, I've long given up hope that Birtwistle's glorious Earth Dances or Reimann's Lear are going to displace Pachabel's Canon in the classical Top 40, but what gets me is

a) the hostility towards people who do like modernist complexity, usually in the form of [South Park voice] "You killed classical music, you bastards"!

b) how it escapes some people that some of us actually *like* this kind of music, that it's not a snobby pose or a way to look superior or anything

c) that being depressing, brutal, cold, angry, sad, hopeless and all the other pejoratives thrown at the MC school are valid responses; not all of us look to music for spiritual uplift or to make us feel good. I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel on the inside as one sage crooned in the 80's.

What a mess that David Byrne entry on Die Soldaten is; the prelude sounds like Atmospheres? Well, OK, they both have notes, I guess that's a start, but otherwise, NO.

Christopher Culver said...

"how it escapes some people that some of us actually *like* this kind of music, that it's not a snobby pose or a way to look superior or anything"

If you make that argument, the conservatives then respond that we are poor fools duped by the emperor's new clothes. There's just no way to win in direct debate with them. I no longer try to defend modern repertoire to such people. Instead, I just defend the welfare state, which will at least keep a variety of niche art like ours alive.

OTOH said...

'"how it escapes some people that some of us actually *like* this kind of music, that it's not a snobby pose or a way to look superior or anything"

If you make that argument, the conservatives then respond that we are poor fools duped by the emperor's new clothes. There's just no way to win in direct debate with them.'

Sure you can - you simply point out that just as there are people who like being put into dog collars while naked and made to eat dogfood from a dog bowl while on all fours, there are people who really do sincerely like ugly concert music. This, if said in a sort of eager tone that implies that you are quite willing to provide more information on the subject, will usually scare your conservative debater away. But if not, you might at least end up having a good time on someone's linoleum.