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.