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Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Music Plague

The English critic and composer Constant Lambert, writing in his book on music ”Music Ho” in 1934, devoted an entire chapter to what he called ‘the appalling availability of music’. He was bemoaning the popularity of the radio and what he saw as its role in cheapening music by allowing it to invade everyday life, thereby degrading it and creating a ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ scenario.

Well if Lambert was alive today he’d turn in his grave, as the mangled saying goes. I was in Grafton Street in Dublin this morning, and accompanying my wife into a clothes shop, (though i’m sure they’d prefer to be called a ‘boutique’), called ‘River Island’ was assaulted by pounding music the minute I stepped over the threshold. No surprise there of course, if you step into a clothes shop you can pretty much budget for this kind of aural abuse, and that’s been true for a long time. Clothes shops seem to feel that unless they have what they consider to be cool music thundering from the speakers, then the customers won’t recognize just how cool the clothes they sell are. Strange but true.

But this kind of thing is much more widespread than being something that merely lurks in clothes shops – it’s pretty much everywhere. It’s spread to such an extent that most people don’t even notice it any more. As I was standing there trying to ignore the racket, I began thinking about how rampant this kind of thing now is, you can find it in almost any kind of shop. As an experiment I decided to enter a few different shops immediately adjacent to River Island and see what was happening on the in-store music front there. The results were as follows:

Burger King: Tinny pop music being played through cheap speakers

Shoe Shop: Bass-heavy techno-crap

Marks and Spencers: Madonna-esque pop

Bus Stop (newsagents): MOR pop music from a radio station interspersed with inane jabber from a DJ speaking a grotesque approximation of an American accent

I should also mention that as I criss-crossed the street between these shops I was assailed each time by the noise from a busker playing heavy metal style guitar noodling, blasting through a battery powered amp. The whole thing, as I moved quickly between shops and across the street, was like a musical nightmare – in a space of about 10 square metres, loud and completely unrelated music blasting at you from every quarter. The one exception to this was in Weir’s jewellers, they obviously not feeling that background music was required, and I have to say that stepping into the silence of Weir’s after the cacophony of the other shops was like having an aural bath.

Sometimes you have to take a step back to see just how bad this curse of inescapable music has become. It’s not only shops that spew out mindless background noise – restaurants too have fallen victim to it, hotel foyers, supermarkets (pioneers in the field in fact), doctor’s waiting rooms, elevators (also pioneers), being put on hold on the phone etc. etc.

There are two awful aspects to this – one is the fact that we have become a society for which silence is some kind of terrifying condition which must be avoided at any cost. We go from home to work to leisure surrounded by a meaningless musical porridge without which we feel exposed – God forbid we should have to hear the sound of our own voices or those of others without the aural anaesthetic provided by cheap music.

And the other awful aspect to this relates to music itself. Music has become cheapened and degraded by its use as aural wallpaper to accompany every aspect of daily life. People have become desensitized to it and can enter a place like River Island, have loud music pumped at them, and not even notice it. If we go back to the early 20th Century, to the period just before the widespread use of music dissemination devices like the radio and record player, we go back to how music used to be. Up to that point in human history the only way to hear music was to have someone play it for you live, or to play it yourself. In such an environment, what a special place music must have had in people’s lives, what an event it must have been to hear music played! And what a contrast to now – where music is everywhere – cheap, ubiquitous, degraded and demoted to the position of a commodity used to enhance the selling of other commodities.

And not much to be done about it either unfortunately – the plague is too widespread and most people are so used to it they’re not even aware of its presence. For myself, even I tune it out most of the time, with occasional eruptions of awareness and exasperation like this morning. I do make a point of asking that music be turned down in restaurants if I feel it’s necessary – usually evoking a polite response from the staff who doubtless privately (or sometimes not so privately), think I’m a crank. One time in Anthony Bourdain’s restaurant in New York I think a waiter actually turned the music UP in response to my request to turn it down – doubtless just to teach me a lesson! A friend of mine, the great French violinist Dominique Pifarely told me that he includes a clause in his contracts that no music is to be played before his concerts, or during the intermission because he believes that when the musicians play it should be an event, and should be the first music heard by the audience – not just the continuation of something that was coming from the speakers as the audience comes in. And he’s right!

A few years ago here there was a little controversy because the Irish Music Rights Organisation insisted that commercial premises that play music must pay for a licence to do so. And the shops resisted it but thankfully IMRO prevailed and made them pay. But not enough in my opinion, they should double, triple or even quadruple the charge to the bastards for the role they’ve played in the spreading of this plague of aural pollution and the cheapening and degrading of the gift of music.


  1. I can dig it. I was once in a restaurant where a defective CD was stuck for over 20 minutes. Nobody even noticed (apart from me). A result of having music universally piped into public spaces like poison gas.

  2. Alan Clare - a fine English pianist, now deceased, told a story about playing in a restaurant and a woman suddenly turned around, looked at him, raised her eyebrows and said 'oh, I thought you were a tape!'