The Dangers of Secondhand Music

The Dangers of Secondhand Music


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.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

22 thoughts on “The Dangers of Secondhand Music

  1. Kyle Gann

    It was always interesting talking to, and reading the early writings of, composers of Cage’s and Nancarrow’s generation who were young adults when Muzak started gaining ground. They were horrified by it, and foresaw what was coming. (I’m convinced that was the real motivation behind 4’33”.) It’s a shame we’ve grown up so accustomed to it we can’t even imagine protesting it. Sometimes I stand in my local grocery store and get furious that some corporate hacks get to decide that I still have to listen to lousy “hits” from the 1960s that I didn’t like the first time around while I’m doing my shopping. At the risk of going over the top, it is some kind of auditory and musical fascism.

  2. Michael Robinson

    I certainly share many of these sentiments. It was never my intention in the least to visit or live there, but events have led me to spend a good deal of time in remote parts of Hawaii, and two of my favorite “silent sounds” have been a truly black sky at night, adorned with innumerable pearl-like stars, and the glint of sunlight and moonlight on palm tree fronds. One wonders what effect pristine air and water, in addition to “pristine sounds” had on musics of the relatively distant past, along with the converse.

  3. Glenn Stallcop

    This is a very thoughtful cultural summary, especially in its implications for music professionals and artists. However, I believe there is more to this phenomenon than merely over-saturation. One also must factor in the shortened attention span and increased hyperactivity evident in people’s voracious appetite for information stimulation. A recent study found that 3/4 of men and 1/4 of women would rather administer a painful shock to themselves rather than sit with their own thoughts for ten minutes. ( There seems to be an aggressive human component to this as well. I remember thinking it was funny when my kids were texting each other from across the room. There is not only an exposure but a commitment to and desire for technological stimulus. The resulting impatience is palpable. I notice it in myself. I rarely listen all the way through anything I hear online. I remember laughing just a few years ago at comment I read on YouTube, “You mean I have to listen to this for nine minutes just to tell whether I like it or not!” Now I find myself doing the same thing. I have no solutions or suggestions, really, but it has reached the point where any effort to resist this trend must be deliberate, disciplined, and practically counter-culture.

  4. rick nance

    It’s Kundera’s character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that after being told that the other diners _like_ the muzak she just asked to be turned off, replies with, “How can they eat food while they listen to sh¡t?” (can I say that here? It’s a quote)

  5. Stuart Chalmers

    An interesting read and as far as music saturation is concerned I’m not sure if you are wrong or right. I have a few thoughts though …

    I suspect that people do filter out stuff they don’t want to listen to so I’m not convinced that musical furniture has dimmed the love of music. I think people who actively listen to music target what they listen to. Certainly in my world many people actively listen to music and more people are making music than ever.

    The music industry for a long time profited heavily from music by overcharging Joe Public, underpaying many of their artists and under appreciating most artists except the big winners. They may still treat their artists badly but the playing field is more level than it used to be.

    I think the old remuneration model is pretty shot and better ways need to be found. PRS covers some of this and live performance some. I quite like the subscription licensing model so perhaps we just need something equating to a license or tax. Remuneration can be linked to the number of plays as it is already in some places and other models. Maybe some other clever more encapsulating system can be figured out, whatever, something!

    There has always been a lot of musical fluff and I don’t think it is any worse now than before, to a point it’s just a matter of opinion. Many people just like a “nice tune” and don’t care about the quality. For example and just picking on one genre, I find the majority of rap tedious and samey with the odd real gem thrown in. it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that the standard is low and to a point limited by itself. However rap is big, really big so a lot of people clearly like it.

    One thing that really does need to be addressed is the quality. Large, less or uncompressed formats like flac would be better and DAC’s that really pour out the quality. These are present and recently I have seen more movement in this area now that we can more easily afford large amounts of storage. Not long now until affordable 1tb flash memory stick type devices are available.

  6. Mikel Rpuse

    I’m grateful for these extremely thoughtful responses. And I agree with Glenn about the issue of folks not being comfortable alone with their thoughts (hence the yoga references in the article). I’m also reminded of the Louie CK quote about why he wants his kids to ‘experience’ sadness rather than switch on a device whenever they have an uncomfortable feeling. I guess in the end it’s about choice. I’d wish for us all to have a little more choice in the environment that surrounds us.

  7. Hoseph Holbrooke

    We are still in the early stages of adjusting to abundance. Think what’s happened with food. As soon as a days worth of calories became available for just a few minutes worth of work a whole new movement emerged with concerns about the environment, labor, health, flavor, etc. Same is true with transportation. After decades of sprawl people are moving back to cities and biking, walking, and taking public transit to work. Vinyl record sales are growing for the same reasons. People are realizing that a little focus on something a little nicer is fundamentally better than more of everything all the time. It just takes a little time (a few generations maybe) and some discipline (self and collective) to get used to the incredible new opportunities and traps we now face.

  8. James Bisset

    Enconters with unrequested choices of music are part and parcel of life. From social and commerce to entertainment and manufacturing environments it is likely that listening to music not of your own choosing is unavoidable unless you exercise a choice to remove yourself from the superposition. It is possible that someone has never revisited a friend, family member, place of commercial activity and co. due to an encounter with the un-listenable but life would be rather limited if we all adopted that response. I wouldn’t stop visiting a friends house or café if they changed the ‘visual ambience’ in a way not to my taste. (Tho’ I might if they played extremely loud music or content of questionable lyrical content that insults more than my taste.) All premises in the UK are required to pay for a licence enabling them to play music or radio content of their choosing. Some large commercial establishments have their own ‘radio stations’ which will have PRS returns or more likely a blanket licensing deal. Playlists from a web music source, radio or tracks on a CD, hopefully generating some useful royalties for the IP owner or their estate, will unlikely appeal to everyone’s taste and therefore your un-intended immersion in the sonic soup presents a dilema; leave, choose to hear but not listen, filter out by being absorbed in your primary intention or engage with the experience at a neutral or positive level. Brian Eno has the perfect non-sequitur… “In the end Ambient Music must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” BRIAN ENO September 1978.

  9. Steven Swartz

    Much to contemplate here, Mikel, and you’ve expressed it eloquently. One small glimmer of hope is the proliferation of the more than 800 Make Music festivals that take place each year on June 21, bringing participatory music making to public spaces in communities around the globe. (Full disclosure, I’m one of the founders of Make Music New York.) Witnessing and taking part in live music performance may be the best antidote to the devaluation of the medium.

    1. aj guinto

      i find this to be extremely true about live music its honestly made me appreciate music even more because on recordings its always the same but with a live band there are more emotions and expression put into said music. every time ive gone to a show or festival or concert this past summer it made me remember that theres actually good music still around instead of what we hear on the radio all day everyday

  10. Neil McGowan

    We can’t go back in time.
    But if we could, we would find an C18th where only the rich could afford fine music. The poor had to make do with a fiddler in the street, scraping out the melody-line from popular comic operas.

    Trying to get people to pay for music which is all around them, is like asking them to pay for air. Why should they?

  11. noni daniels

    I remember 20 years ago in the highlands of Bali, also visiting Java, before so many chemicals and the onslaught of huge numbers of tourists who cared little. There I remember thinking how much the gamelan sounded like the rain and forest. The forest was so noisy at night, full of geckoes, crickets and frogs which made me realise we all must have evolved in very noisy and beautiful backdrops that were intriguing! Much later about 5 years ago I was in the Australian bushland in a protected forest in summer. The noise from the cicadas was almost deafening. Can you imagine how much bird song once existed? I used to listen to iTunes but found it blocked my experience of the world we live in and blocked the complete experience of inhabiting that world, traffic and all. I know what you mean though and I truly enjoy live music, who can even come close to emulating the live sounds and vibrations of a piano?

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  14. Tyler Coe

    I agree with his point that music is everywhere, and I agree that there are times when, as much as I love music, I just want silence. It upsets me that corporations and even the record companies are using it more as an advertising tool than an art form. For someone who is deeply passionate about the music I love, and is also a musician, I find it rather offensive. The kind of idea that if they put the newest Lady Gaga song in a product advertisement, people will buy it for the sole reason the song has been associated with the product. Sad thing is, it works. In a sense we’re almost being brainwashed, for lack of a better term, by the constant bombardment of music in advertising and other aspects of society. The question of whether people are uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts is also very insightful and an intriguing idea.

  15. Sara Burdick

    For someone who loves music, I found this interesting. The kind of idea that if they put popular songs in a commercial about a product, people will buy it. In a way we are being brainwashed. Encounters with unrequested choices of music are parts of life. Some large commercial establishments have their own radio stations.

  16. billy schad

    I agree with the message of this article, however, I think that its wrong belittle digital and modern music. Music is not limited, it is allowed to have many different sounds and unique differences. a song should never sound the same as another song. I agree some things in music have gone down hill maybe due to lack of effort, but I believe that if the right amount of time is put into a song , no matter the age, genre, or it will sound amazing.

  17. Morgan Roy

    In the article “The Dangers of Second Hand Music” there is a comparison to the sensuous plane of music and secondhand smoke. It specifies how people today abuse the way they listen to music by going into restaurants, parties, clubs bars etc. We all listen to music in a sense as background noise and that is not how we listened in the past. In paragraph ten, it talks about how yoga was a form of meditation but thats hard to believe now that pop music is played in those locations. I agree with the article on how people today don’t even notice half the time of what music their listening too and this shows background music is the new form of silence. My favorite quote in this whole passage was “The forced incorporation of music into every conceivable context is taking turns into the realm of the absurd” (paragraph 9). This is true because people today are doing just that, listening to music everywhere they go and not paying that much attention to it. Music now is an obsession that we use to help with all our problems instead of in the past when it had meaning in our own lives.

  18. aj guinto

    the dangers of second hand music are real, like when im driving in my car and i forgot my aux cord the radio will be on and i wont have the slightest clue what just played for the last 30 minutes. sometimes i wont even remember music playing at all. although on the other hand if you are in a situation where music is playing in the background and there is something in the song that catches your ear you are more likely to start actually hearing it for the first time so the over saturation of music can be good and bad. something they didn’t touch in the article i thought of could be another reason people aren’t listening and that’s because 99.9%(just an estimate not real percentage) of pop songs on the radio deemed “fit for the public” or “generally popular” in the public ear sound extremely similar as if they were made with a template, so really it might not even be the over saturation of music but instead a lack of originality in the music being composed today, most follow a four chord pattern which you can see explained in a humorous way in this video but in my opinion since the music lacks flavor and soul people subconsciously dont even bother with it. i know for a fact that i dont really enjoy anything on the radio in my town because every song sounds the same to me, but if this were the days of bach or mozart you wouldnt have all this music and the only way youd hear any music is if it was being performed in front of you so it was more of a treat instead of something taken for granted in our everyday lives. so with that being said maybe its because there is so much music out there that takes away the feeling and originality which in turn causes us to tune out and not really pay attention

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