The Dangers of Secondhand Music
There’s a lot of blame to spread around for our music appreciation downgrade, but I think there’s a single phenomenon that’s working harder than all the others: the constant bombardment of music functioning as an aspect of an environment.
Like secondhand smoke, the consistent exposure to music everywhere has resulted in a slow poisoning: the invalidation of music as a uniquely singular event. If there’s one topic of conversation that dominates my circle of composers, recording artists, and musicians, it’s the new ways people listen—or don’t listen, as often turns out to be the case—to music today.
There’s a lot of blame to spread around for our music appreciation downgrade: illegal downloads, corporate record companies missing the digital curve, overly compressed music resulting in fatigue and “digititus,” and the low-res quality of mp3 files, to name only a few factors. All of these things contribute to the devaluing of music as a distinct primary experience. But I think there’s a single phenomenon that’s working harder than all the others: The constant bombardment of music functioning as an aspect of an environment, in spaces from restaurants to government offices to bars to shopping malls, reducing music to just so much sonic wallpaper.
This in turn gives rise to a kind of environmental tinnitus, where all sound—including music—becomes a background to be ignored. Having the familiar (baby boomer hits and their inevitable offspring) almost constantly served up in an over exposed context (mostly radio) was a great way to grow up in 1950s and ‘60s, but now, a half a century later, the notion of “all music, all the time” is complete. And if—as Helen Caldicott, the founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, observed—it takes a generation or two to fully manifest and absorb the ramifications of the introduction of a new paradigm into a system, it seems to me the results are in. And the verdict isn’t good.
It’s arguable that over-saturation has been with us always, and that the only question is of degree. But degrees count, as does context. Back in the ‘60s, according to the ostensibly with-it zeitgeist of the counterculture, advertising was lame and phony, and the rock of the ‘60s was a direct affront to it, considered by its makers to be unassimilable to the needs of consumerism. What we got as aural environment in its stead was Muzak.
Who remembers Muzak (also known as piped music, weather music and/or lift music)? Founded in 1934, the Muzak Holdings Corporation distributed background music to retail stores and was the predominant playlist in elevators and public spaces. Meant to be unoffending and innocuous, it was deemed an assault to the senses and sensibilities of ostensibly serious music lovers. But it had its place, as they say.
While Erik Satie’s concept of “furniture music” (musique d’ameublement—or, more precisely, background music) gave both the composer and the music lover something to ponder in terms of rethinking ambient music sources, I’m not sure anyone could have envisioned that, as Muzak was phased out and pop, New Age, and ostensibly “light” classical were increasingly fed into the places where Muzak once reigned, that all music might be transformed into background music. Since 1997, the Muzak Holding Corporation has used original artists for its music sources, except on its Environmental channel. This may have rid the world of bland and boring arrangements of current popular tunes (which was the effect of Muzak’s generic orchestrations), but it also sped up the process of making the original source music itself into background chatter.
Of course, there’s advertising. There’s always advertising. And as hipster corporate gurus like Malcolm Gladwell (“I like advertising. I think it’s cool.”) realigned our relationship to advertising, the floodgates opened. Once advertisers got wise to the potentially positive effect of a licensed pop song rather than a bland underscore, record companies, managers, and indie bands were all trying to place their songs in the next car commercial. This may have created a licensing boon in the short term, but as new web media outlets like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix began to displace primetime TV’s market share, the revenues for song and music placements started to dwindle. But not before they contributed to the overall saturation effect.
Copyright and fair use have become hot catchwords with the advent of new technologies. And many pundits wonder if the Copyright Act of 1976 should be amended or completely scrapped given the new media landscape. But I would argue once again that it’s not just the march of technology that’s creating this new look at copyright. Could it also be that the dissemination of music everywhere makes it harder for bar owners, restaurant managers, and club owners to understand the importance and complexity of copyright law? In other words, the complete and successful infiltration of music everywhere has created its own parallel universe: Music is everywhere. Why should I have to pay for it?
The forced incorporation of music into every conceivable context is taking turns into the realm of the absurd. Even the ancient practice of yoga isn’t safe, with “power yoga” classes (which could only have arisen in Power America) pumping out playlists to match increasingly aggressive yoga postures. And it begs the question: are people uncomfortable with, or just plain unaccustomed to, being alone with their thoughts?
Although there are as many variants in yoga techniques as there are American Idol contestants, the original purpose of yoga or tao yin, in the classic Indian hatha and Taoist traditions, is to prepare the mind for meditation. It’s hard to imagine one person’s playlist would fit all needs of meditation and contemplation. And indeed, on some such playlists I’ve heard, the connotation of “meaning” never seems to have occurred to the compiler. While Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” is certainly an innovative jam, relaxing and meditative it is not, and indeed it might yield bad connotations to folks averse to a beat, pop music, or—quite possibly—even gold diggers. (Get down girl, go ahead, get down.)
And that’s the whole point. It’s the arrogant corporate presumption that we’re all interested in hearing the same thing, not to mention that we’re desirous of hearing anything at all in that given space and point in time. Of course, one can compare this onslaught of sound to the general media diffusion we face every day. I would make a similar argument about media dispersion affecting our relationship with movies and other modern forms of entertainment. There are some bright spots in the acknowledgement of this media juggernaut, like the billboard ban in São Paulo and the bans on advertising to children on cell phones in France.
I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit I’d found some inspiration in this new noise floor. As most folks utilize iPods and mp3 players to “tune out” their environment, I’ve been viewing these mobile devices as collaboration between the public and the private. Inspired by my work with Merce Cunningham and iPods (in 2006 I realized a score for Cunningham, International Cloud Atlas, that incorporated iPods set to shuffle so that each audience member had a unique version of the score), I recorded Recess, a collection of field recordings, and then orchestrated those sounds with multiple voices and instruments. The field recordings reflect every imaginable sound, from a couple’s quarrel in a New York City park to cicadas in my native Missouri. Recordings of random conversations are vocally doubled and harmonized to enhance and heighten their meaning. The experience of listening to Recess on a mobile device while walking through a city environment is a new kind of 3D mobile listening experience, so much so that I almost put a warning label on the CD.
But as I read over this article, I realize that much of what I wrote here sounds like I’m an advocate for a change in our collective behavior. Ultimately there’s little to be accomplished by railing against the march of history and I’m not sure I would or even could offer a solution to this social version of natural selection. Most folks view evolution as an upward progression. However, evolution is just that: evolving into different forms regardless of consequence. Maybe I just miss silence or maybe just the memory that at one time, recorded music held a grip on our social and political psyche.
I like to take dinner out with a good read. This has become all but impossible in New York City. When I ask patrons about the constant dining soundtrack, they often say they didn’t even notice the music. This is also evident when observing people in these environments. This din of sound has become the new level of silence. And speaking of dining out, I was thinking the other day about how much I used to love Thai food. Now there are ten Thai restaurants within a three-block radius of my Hell’s Kitchen studio. I haven’t had Thai food since 2011.