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Jostein Gripsrud, Marseille (180x300)Music in the public sphere


One of the highlights of MIC’s Bergen conference in late May was undoubtedly Professor and Head of Department at the Department of Information and Media at the University of Bergen Jostein Gripsrud’s fascinating talk on the subject of "Music in the pubic sphere". Says Gripsrud: "...speaking about music in the public sphere- in whatever sense of the term – is to speak of its role in democratic societies, in direct or highly indirect relation to politically relevant processes. I thing music in certain ways can be used as an indicator of the overall health condition of the public sphere and thus of democracy."

By Jostein Gripsrud - Professor and Head of Department at the Department of Information and Media at the University of Bergen

Notes from the author: Originally intended for oral presentation only. Not to be quoted without permission from the author.

1. About ”the public sphere”

The title of this talk, ”Music in the public sphere”, suggests not only a topic within or related to the sociology of music. It more specifically indicates that I am expected to speak about the role of music in democracy. This is because the term “the public sphere” is very much tied to the historical work and political philosophy of the German scholar Jürgen Habermas. “Music in public space”, not to speak of “Music in public places”, would have meant something else.

In Habermas’ history of democracy, the “public sphere” is a social area that develops with market economy and the so-called bourgeois society, an area which is neither part of the state nor of the ‘private’ space for economic activities and households. The public sphere is a social area that Habermas claims first developed from, or in connection with, activities in the family or household, which he calls ‘the sphere of intimacy’. The arts were central here, since music, poetry and so on were central in the bourgeoisie’s ideal socialization of individuals. The embryonic forms of the modern public sphere were thus phenomena such as salons, social gatherings where art and, not least, reflection and discussions of art were central. What Habermas called the ‘literary’ public sphere was what people like myself now call the cultural public sphere. And I have to quote Habermas’ wonderfully German-philosophical formulation of what it was all about: He says the bourgeoisie “formed the public sphere of a rational-critical debate […] within which the subjectivity originating in the interiority of the conjugal family, by communicating with itself, attained clarity about itself.” (Eng. Ed. 1989:51) In other words: people’s subjectivity was fundamentally shaped in the family but only became consciously and critically aware of itself in and through activities in the public sphere.

The cultural public sphere was later followed by the political public sphere and the institutions of modern democracies. Nowadays, it is often assumed that the notion of a ‘public sphere’ is only about the directly political domain. But as I have just tried to show, the cultural public sphere was there first, and it continues to exist. Importantly, it is, moreover, possible to imagine that the public sphere as a whole has other vital functions within democracies than merely that of being the locus of political deliberation. Ideas about the public sphere formulated, for instance, by the German-American philosopher Hanna Arendt, suggest that the public sphere is also an existentially – and socially - necessary component in our lives. It is an arena for self-realization as well as experiences of collectivity. It is what makes us more deeply aware that we live in and are parts of a society.

I think the latter dimensions of or perspectives on the public sphere have been overlooked too much for too long and that an emphasis on them will bring the fundamental importance of art and culture in the widest sense to the fore in new and highly interesting ways. But my main point is, finally, that speaking about music in the public sphere- in whatever sense of the term - is to speak of its role in democratic societies, in direct or highly indirect relation to politically relevant processes. I think music in certain ways can be used as an indicator of the overall health condition of the public sphere and thus of democracy. When treating it as such, we are interested in two things: Diversity and quality. Is there a real diversity of music available to citizens, supporting their everyday lives, their imagination, creativity and so on? Is the technical and artistic quality of the available music at an acceptable or higher level? But then again we also, particularly in the context of democratic ideals, should ask for whom diversity and quality is actually available. Is it a class privilege? Is it possible to intervene politically, so that cleavages in terms of ‘musical resources’ are diminished?

2. The power of music
One way of starting a discussion of these questions, is to consider music’s relations to political, social and cultural power. But I actually think an even better starting point is the fact that music itself is powerful. It is in many ways the most powerful of the arts. And this is why it is so important socially and politically: It is a force many would like to put to use for their purposes.

This is so, even if music is also known as the most ‘abstract’ of arts, a form of expression which does not have definite, easily identifiable ‘meanings’ in the lexical sense of the word. This remains true in spite of, say, Smetana’s attempt at representing the Moldau, and Grieg’s attempt to capture the characteristics of Norway’s springtime. Instead of conveying clearcut lexical meanings, music appears as meaningful to most of us because it is experienced by way of a complex set of cultural codes that is picked up and internalised from a very early age.

These codes will of course vary geographically, historically, socially etc. But at the same time, there is a non-negligible degree of universalism in this area which is possibly tied to the fact that we not only experience music through the ‘filters’ of our culture’s codes, we also experience it directly through our bodies: Very rarely have men been called to war by the sound of accoustic string instruments. Drums and horns have been considered better fit for this sort of task just about anywhere.

Both body and brain may thus contribute to our experience of meaning in music. Still, it does retain a considerable degree of semantic openness. It is in other words also open to our individual projections of ‘meaning’, emotions, memories or whatever. A certain piece of music may thus have very different affective and intellectual meanings for different individuals. In other words, music’s semantic openness is part of what makes it intensely personal to each an every one of us and yet at the same time supremely flexible and transportable both in space and in terms of function. It is therefore also a factor that at least in part accounts for the ubiquitous presence of music in our societies, i.e. in our everyday lives.

The fact that music is constantly available to us, with or without our consent, means, of course, that its effects on us are not limited to specific sorts of contexts, as is the case for example with moving images. The power of music is a considerable one, even if it is routinely overlooked when social scientists try to study and describe Power in today’s world.

If you will allow me to be a little bit personal, I’ll give you an example from my own daily life.

An interesting thing sometimes happens on my way to work: I am transformed into a sort of person I have often despised. This is interesting, at least to me, since I am normally on pretty good terms with myself. What happens is that I turn up the volume of my car radio so much I end up appearing to outsiders as one of those idiots with enormous stereo systems in their cars who just have to bother everybody else with their lousy taste in music. This is not the sort of thing you normally associate with university professors who have turned fifty. But I just can’t help it: certain melodies, solo performances, voices, beats or whatever simply demand to be turned up loud so that they can perform their welcome massage of my body and soul better.

My use of the word ‘massage’ here was spontaneous. This begs the following question: Is such normally short, but still rather intense, experiences of musical pleasure as a form of mental and bodily massage an experience of art? The answer could be “yes” or “no” according to which definition of “art” one chooses to rely on. I for my part will here and now say that it does not really matter, the point is that music may have this sort of effect: It may be relaxing or energizing or both at the same time, without actually generating any particular intellectual activity. And I think this sort of effect is one of the primary reasons for the immense need for music in modern societies. Music simply has a considerable therapeutic potential in relation to everyday ills such as stress or even deeper troubles such as various anxieties and depressive tendencies, feelings of loss and lack of fulfilment or whatever. Music can smoothen life’s rough edges.

3. Music and the cultural industry thesis
Music’s energizing and therapeutic power may appear positive but it is also linked to more suspect potentials. That it can ‘smoothen life’s rough edges’ is to me reminiscent of what some would hold is its most fundamental function in films: music is used to cover up the fact that any film is made up of bits and pieces put together one after another, so that our identification with the movie in question is not disturbed. It is, moreover, reminiscent of the functions that music has when it becomes muzak and accompanies us in a variety of what we could call commercially oriented environments.

Muzak is, as you may know, a US based company that on its website says it is “CEO Bill Boyd and about 2000 other believers. Believers in what, you might ask? Believers in the emotional and persuasive power of music.” They have for about 80 years, since “a two-star general's desire to appease his employees with song” led to the establishment of the company, been in the business of “soothing minds’ of people by way of background music or what they now prefer to call “audio architecture”. Muzak is composed on a basis of psychological research into just how certain sounds, beats, keys etc affect most human beings. It has historically been used to make skyscraper elevators less frightening and to increase productivity in factories and sales in department stores.

In other words, what I basically consider very pleasant, energizing experiences in my car, also demonstrate the possibility of using music to manipulate people, make people do what they otherwise wouldn’t. A major difference between me and the workers ‘appeased’ by Muzak, however, is that I more or less choose the music I want to listen to, I myself decide when and how to make use of the ‘emotional and persuasive powers’ of music. Practically all 80 million Muzak listeners at the company’s 250 000 subscribers are forced to listen to the ‘audio architecture’, the purposes of which have been decided by others – i.e. their bosses. I am active, Muzak audiences (or victims?) are passive is one simple way of putting it.

A potential problem for my self-esteem here is, however, that some people have questioned my freedom or independence in relation to the music I think I myself choose to listen to. If I am playing a CD record or listening to radio is not very important here. For those who choose what the radio is playing are only playing what the music industry has chosen to make available, and the same applies to me when I make a choice un the record store. Especially as long as we are talking about popular music, the differences between different pieces of music are only pseudo differences anyway. At least if we are to believe the sociologist and philosopher Theodore Adorno, who is commonly regarded as the one who back in the mid-1940s formulated the strongest critique ever of what he called the culture industry, an industry which he perceived as being all about “mass deception”. All branches of this huge industry – the production of jazz and related popular music was just one of them – had as a common goal, consciously or not, to make people’s heads as mechanical and controlled as their work at assembly lines or in offices. The Culture Industry was to be perceived as a giant Muzak company: It was all about ‘appeasing’ working people, controlling their minds, preventing opposition.

Thoughts along these lines are, if not quite as simplistic as I have now, with a touch of bad conscience, made Adorno’s critique appear, still quite widespread among some sorts of intellectuals and people who take serious art seriously. For Adorno himself, it took an empirical study of a royal wedding in Belgium to discover that people’s minds are actually so complex and contradictory that any total takeover by any sinister System will be unsuccessful: The royal wedding was followed with playful interest, while people when interviewed said they of course knew it was all a game and had nothing to do with their real everyday life. Their consciousness would never be ‘totalized’. I do not think, however, that he ever realized that his term “the culture industry’ in fact rested on an untenable idea, namely that the production of jazz and other popular music records – just as, say, the production of popular movies - was directly comparable to a factory’s production of, say, electrical ovens. Of course, the production of identical copies of a particular recording at a factory is pretty much the same as the production of identical copies of the original prototype electrical oven. The point is, however, that the production, or creation, of the original piece of music, the tune or the song, with or without lyrics, is not at all adequately described as assembly line work. Never was, never will be. Adorno, and critics who followed him, radically overestimated the formulaic nature of culture industry products and radically underestimated the formulaic nature of serious music and other officially recognised forms of art.

What I have tried to do here, is of course to defend myself. While I do think that employees and, to some extent, customers in businesses that subscribe to Muzak’s audio architecture are unwitting victims of manipulation by way of music’s specific emotional and persuasive power, I do not think that I can reasonably be seen as such a victim when I find music to my liking on my car radio and turn it up loud so as to make its massage of body and soul more efficient. This distinction can furthermore be supported by the, actually, corresponding distinction between the private and the public spheres. Muzak’s manipulative audio architecture can only be possible in privately owned and controlled areas. In contrast, the public sphere appears as an area or a space of freedom, since I myself choose what to listen to from a variety of sources – different radio channels, an enormous variety of CD records.

But what if Adorno and consorts in a way were right in terms of the long term, historical trend? In other words: What if the variety of music available to us were shrinking, in terms of live musical performances, in terms of offerings in the market for recorded music and in terms of the music available through broadcasting – because of the way market forces work?

4. Music and market forces
There is this textbook example in marketing (stemming from the economist Hotelling in the 1920s) about the sale of ice cream on a beach that may illustrate the basic principle of how market forces, i.e. an interest in maximizing profits, works. Imagine a nice, sandy beach on a beautiful summer day, full of people, and about a kilometre long, or should I say wide? Now, if you arrive there with the intention of setting up a stand from where you will sell ice cream to people, you will of course try to open shop near the middle of the beach and not in one of the two ends. You want to minimize the walking distance for a maximum number of potential customers.

This is what commercial radio and television channels do when they are simply aiming for as large an audience as possible, when the sheer number of listeners or viewers you deliver to advertisers is what counts. But at least in larger markets numbers are not necessarily the most important. This has been so ever since the US broadcasting company CBS some thirty or forty years ago discovered that the audience for their longest running western series, Gunsmoke, mostly consisted of elderly people with modest income and a long drive to the nearest supermarket. Around 1980 refined audience research informed the major US broadcasting companies that well-educated and socially educated people with above average income hardly watched any television at all. This led to what a British colleague of mine called ‘Showdown at Culture Gulch’, i.e. a number of programs aiming for these economically and socially attractive, but also culturally demanding customers. From the early to mid 1980s US television was marked by a series of innovative programs, marked by self-reflexivity and other fancy imports from high art modernism – and financed by ads for Mercedes and BMW, accompanied by classical music, of course. A US television show could now survive even with relatively modest audience numbers if the improved, more specified counting of viewer heads could report that the social composition of this audience was good.

In other words, an understanding of ‘the audience’ as something diverse led to a more diverse and even qualitatively improved output of television programs. At the other end of the socio-cultural spectrum, you would find cable channels concentrating on other audience segments, offering for example ‘rock and wrestling’ shows with Hulk Hogan and thundering guitars.

Now the point here, is that the size of the market largely decides what is offered – if the market alone is to decide, that is. With large markets, chances are that even quite special interests have sufficient buying power to sustain commercially oriented production. In small markets, production for special interests will need to be subsidised. And what is small and large is of course also relative to how capital-intensive the production in question is. An opera house needs a larger population base than a rock club if it is to be anywhere near economic viability.

What are the consequences of these factors for the totality of music on offer for audiences, in the market place as well as in the public sphere? What can we say about the diversity of today’s musical environment?

5. Better or worse?

Looking back on the last four or five decades, I think it is obvious that the variety of music available in a city like Bergen in a country like Norway has never been greater than it is today, whether in live performances, record stores or radio channels. In addition, we now have the Internet, where one can find practically any imaginable variety of music. And I think it is beyond doubt that the technical and artistic quality of music in any genre is better, and even far better, than ever.

Importantly, this very positive situation is not the outcome of the free play of market forces. On the contrary, it is rather the outcome of determined political and civic interventions aiming to curb certain tendencies inherent in market driven developments – while also allowing some of the dynamics of markets – locally, nationally and internationally – to function. If you will allow me to continue the use of Norwegian examples, I would say that public investment in the offering of musical education in principle to all children has been extremely important as have many of the varied forms of support for musical activites of all kinds, across genre boundaries. Defending the institution of public broadcasting is itself important, and the same goes for a small but growing support for the production of CD records in this country. These and other measures all help to ensure that we will never have to accept the ice cream stand at the middle of the beach as our only source of music.

So what about the ways in which music is talked about and understood? How have public discourses about music developed over the last forty to fifty years? I have for some time led the work of a European team of researchers looking at the developments of European media since 1960, and two colleagues have specifically looked at how the coverage of music in leading newspapers – the major popular and the major ‘quality’ newspaper in each country - has been changing. In Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 1960 there was competent criticism and other coverage of classical music and no other genres. Bild Zeitung wrote only about pop music, but very little. In Norway they found that there was competent and a bit teacher-like criticism and other coverage of classical music, nothing about jazz and next-to-nothing about pop music. The same goes for Sweden and Denmark, except pop took up a bit more space here. In the United Kingdom, however, at the entrance to the Swinging Sixties, the Daily Mirror wrote extensively about popular music while The Times had competent coverage of both classical and jazz music while also in fact writing a bit about jazz. It seems, thus, as if Britain was already culturally prepared for the revolutionary changes in popular music that took place there during the 1960s, in which a central role was played by public art schools and their generously supported students who mostly were social misfits from working and middle class backgrounds.

What has happened since then is to some extent that the UK situation in 1960 has become the norm all over Europe. Even Le Monde now covers certain parts of popular music. The coverage of classical or serious music is still competent and probably at much the same level in terms of volume as it was in 1960. Jazz criticism and coverage appears relatively weak still, while the totally overwhelming change is the radically expanded coverage of popular music. This coverage is so voluminous it may seem as if the coverage of other musical forms has been shrinking, but that is most probably not the case. Popular music criticism is often competent nowadays, clearly based in extensive knowledge of the musical traditions in question. On the other hand, all the celebrity coverage, gossip etc that make up significant parts of the total coverage is certainly less valuable as musical information – and it does influence also the coverage of other forms of music as well.

Very important here is also the fact that popular music now is radically different from what it was in 1960. It includes a mind-boggling variety of genres and styles, plus the extremely heterogeneous field of so-called ‘world music’, non existent outside of Miriam Makeba in the 1960s. I do not have time here to go into the complex questions arising from cultural globalisation, but I do wish to say that so far globalisation processes have contributed significantly to the rich, dynamic complexity of today’s music scene both in Europe and elsewhere.

And this is also where one very important function of music from a democratic point of view is particularly apparent: The overwhelming majority of young people in today’s Western societies are anti racist in a very determined and conscious way not least because they love to listen to music of non-Western origins or with a background in African-American culture or immigrant communities in European countries. Music is of particularly great importance as a defining factor in young people’s struggles over who they are, and the wide variety of musical forms and styles that they are exposed to is helpful in establishing identities that are compatible with a multicultural situation.

Music and multiculturalism is also related in another interesting way, if we are to believe US social scientists Peterson and Kern (1996), who have studied changes in musical tastes over time. Their key finding is that members of the cultural elite are no longer snobs , they are omnivores.

Peterson and Kern compared national surveys of musical texts done in 1982 and 1992. They found that the number of ‘perfect snobs’, defined as people who say they only like classical music and opera and none of the low- or middlebrow genres, had become even more microscopic over these ten years: Out of more than 11 000 respondents there were ten perfect snobs in 1982 and three in 1992. Ordinary highbrow people were of course a lot more numerous. This category was defined as those who claimed to like both classical music and opera and then choose one of these as their favourite. This definition was successful in the sense that therer was a very clear correspondence between belonging to this category and a high level of activity in other fields of art. But Peterson and Kern’s key finding was then that these highbrow people on average liked more of the listed lowbrow genres in 1992 than in 1982 and that they moreover even had more positive attitudes toward middle brow genres.

Extremely few of them said they like all the genres listed, so it is not as if all critical sense has been taken away from them. But their openness toward previously despised genres was striking, so that the term ‘omnivores’ seemed fitting. And the link between this reduction of class cleavages in terms of musical tastes on the one hand and the increasingly multicultural situation in the Western world, is that tolerance and a positive interest in the culture of ‘the Other’ is part of the image of a well-educated person today. On the basis of this principle, an open, more positive and curious attitude also toward, say, working class forms and tastes in music has also become culturally ‘correct’. I can see class society still operating in this, but I would still regard it as a positive change of norms from the prejudiced snobbery of time gone by.

5. Summing up

It may appear as if I think everything is just about perfect the way things are at the moment. And it is true that I think there are many reasons to be quite happy with the situation and to acknowledge that we can in many ways actually speak of historical progress in this area. But we still need to defend what has been achieved and there are things to worry over. In particular, I think, attention must be paid to ensure that the social distribution of musical (as well as other cultural) resources is kept or made as egalitarian as possible, Strong forces operate in ways that tend to reinforce rather than transcend and reduce cultural barriers between classes and ethnicities: Segmenting markets along such lines is part of almost all modern marketing methods.

And, finally, this is the area where I see perhaps the most important role for the music information agencies you, or most of you, represent. Good luck!

Related events:

Music Information Beyond Politics, Market, and Media

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MIC conference summary

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