“As a performer, however, it’s seductive to think that I can gain instant credibility with ordinary listeners by dropping some phat 808s. It’s natural to want to please an audience; is it unethical to take advantage of their ignorance (in the most nonjudgmental sense) and cultural conditioning (in the most judgmental sense) to do so?”

This is a quote from the end of Colin Holter’s latest at NewMusicBox.  He’s discussing the fact that many audience members are substantially more likely to enjoy a piece, or even to consider it music, if it has a rock-style drum beat or other regular pulse element.  It’s an interesting question, and has garnered some excellent discussion in the comments over there – it’s worth reading the whole essay and the comments thread below it.

His question is really a corollary to the old question “how do I decide what kind of music to write, given the preferences of the audience, my desire to be loved, and my aesthetic preferences.”  The short, easy answer to that question is that you should write whatever the heck you want to write and be happy with what ever audience happens to like it.  (This is the part of “Who Cares If You Listen” that Babbitt got right but which he rarely gets credit for.)  The question then becomes “is it ethical to deviate from your personal aesthetic preferences in order to appeal to a larger segment of the public,” and that question has nothing to do with “taking advantage” of anybody’s “ignorance.”  My answer to that question is that it’s a personal choice.  If you feel that it would be wrong for you to do it, it’s wrong for you to do it, but if you’re comfortable with it you should go ahead.  Appealing to the audience is a valid artistic goal.  Appealing to a massive popular audience is a valid artistic goal.  Making money is a valid artistic goal.  (I’m serious.  The fetishization of art as superior to economic concerns is nonsense.  Difficult or impossible to integrate with economic concerns, sure, but not because of some sort of spiritual transcendence hogwash.)

Now we can get down to the issue of “taking advantage of their ignorance.”  The unstated premise behind this question is that there are valid and non-valid reasons for appreciating a given piece of art — that the “ignorant” audience can be tricked into liking (and possibly paying to hear) a piece that they otherwise wouldn’t like by the addition of an element that they are wrong to attach value to.  Why should you get to dictate the terms on which an audience is allowed and not allowed to appreciate a piece?  Aesthetics isn’t universal law, it’s personal preference.  Certainly one might add a rock beat to a piece and thereby make it more appealing to a general audience while at the same time not effecting (or even undermining) the things that the composer values about the piece, but the audience should be permitted to have its own tastes.  If you don’t want anybody to like your piece for the “wrong” reasons, don’t include those elements.  But if you do include them, the only unethical act would be to presume that your aesthetic values are superior to somebody else’s.

It’s worth noting that adding a rock beat isn’t the only way in which composers can cater to the tastes of their audience.  A short list of other strategies might include: writing tonally, writing atonally, adding dissonance to your tonal music, adding consonance to your atonal music, writing for more traditional instruments, writing for more obscure instruments, writing for film, refusing to write for film, writing in older styles, writing in modern styles, using simple rhythm, using complex rhythm, etc.  Whether it’s pandering depends on whether the composer is compromising his or her preferred technique.  (And as I said, whether pandering is “wrong” depends on whether the composer feels bad about it.)  The next question would be this: Should we draw a philosophical distinction between the composer who compromises his preferred style and the composer who has been successfully brainwashed by some element of the culture to prefer to write in a given style?  Cuz we all fall into the latter category. . .

18 Responses to “How To Pander Ethically”
  1. Elaine Fine says:

    Pardon my ignorance, but what are 808s?

  2. Adam Baratz says:

    The TR-808 is a drum machine with a characteristic sound.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland_TR-808

  3. Tom Izzo says:

    The funny thing about this fetishization is that I find it to be more prevalent within the audience itself. A ridiculous case I point:

    I’m in an acoustic duo where in order to pay the bills, I play all the std. pop stuff that probably should be taken out of circulation as it’s been done to death. Anyhow, during a gig a few weeks ago, a gentleman approaches us and asks that we play some Lynyrd Skynyrd, (specifically “Free Bird”—I swear it’s true!) as opposed to “that commercial stuff like Bon Jovi”…

    Beside the fact that his righteous artistic standards gave me a good laugh, it also illustrated how deeply this idea of “selling out” has permeated the consciousness of listeners.

    I feel that the act of composing should be a source of personal investigation. If that honestly leads one to write an album of dance music than so be it. It’s when the balance shifts from creating a personal aesthetic to creating a business plan when things get dicey.

  4. Tom Izzo says:

    This is the fetishism I’m referring to…

    The fetishization of art as superior to economic concerns is nonsense. Difficult or impossible to integrate with economic concerns, sure, but not because of some sort of spiritual transcendence hogwash.)

  5. Evan Johnson says:

    Making money is a valid artistic goal. (I’m serious.

    I find it hard to believe that you’re serious. In any case, what is the function of the adjective ‘artistic’ in that sentence?

  6. corey dargel says:

    I play all the std. pop stuff

    Pardon my ignorance, but what is an STD?

  7. Evan–
    Let me see if I can unpack that claim a bit; here’s what I was getting at: Different art is successful at different things, and a piece can be tailored to different purposes. That process of that tailoring is an artistic process, which is to say that its solutions lie in making certain types of artistic choices. The “problems” one might be trying to solve include things like appealing to a particular niche audience, appealing to the broadest possible audience, writing idiomatically to a certain instrument, serving a particular kind of social function, serving the dramatic action of a film, and being highly commercially viable. Maximizing profitability suggests different artistic choices than, say, maximizing appeal to the classical orchestra audience.

    Music propagates memetically, and the viability of memes is not dependant on some sort of universal transcendant standard of quality — in fact no such quality of “objective goodness” exists — but on how it relates functionally to the ecosystem into which it is introduced. Any given standard for “objective goodness” is in fact a combination of personal aesthetic preferences and beliefs about the nature of “objective goodness” that are themselves products of memetic (and to a certain extent genetic) evolution — the artistic problem of maximizing memetic viability in the ecosystem of percieved objective goodness is not fundamentally different from maximizing viability in any of the other ecosystems, it just feels different.

    So the definition of “artistic” that I was using had to do with the heuristic for making aesthetic compositional choices. I’m specifically opposed to using the word “art” as a way of drawing a distinction based on what constituency the work is designed to appeal to, since applying that word to the categorization has moral and “objective quality” connotations. Additionally, one of my unstated premises is that music is amoral and that making money and appealing to the tastes of certain populations are also both amoral. (Which isn’t to say that these things can’t be used in immoral ways. You can use Wagner to make people happy, or to prop up your genocidal Nazi war machine.) So I see no reason to make a moral distinction between maximizing profitability, maximizing appeal to a given audience, and maximizing appeal to societally accepted beliefs about objective goodness. None of which is to say that individuals shouldn’t have their own standards of behavior for themselves — if maximizing profitability feels wrong for you I support you in not doing it. But I see no reason to tar people who feel differently. Thus, making money is a valid artistic goal.

    Tom–
    You’re absolutely correct that the audience engages in a tremendous amount of fetishization of art as transcending or even morally opposing economics.

  8. Corey –

    Pop STDs are the horrible diseases you can contract if you listen to that slutty music that’s willing to appeal to _anybody_.

    Actually, I think he meant it as an abbreviation for “standard.”

  9. Matthew says:

    So I see no reason to make a moral distinction between maximizing profitability, maximizing appeal to a given audience, and maximizing appeal to societally accepted beliefs about objective goodness. Maybe not a moral distinction, but there’s plenty of reason to make an aesthetic distinction. Taking the audience’s money is not a valid artistic goal, not because it’s not a valid goal in and of itself, but because, except in very particular Warholian performance-art sorts of situations, there’s nothing artistic about it. If your own aesthetic largely falls within the sphere of popular music, your bottom line may be a useful barometer of your artistic success, but the true measure of success is the music’s effect on the listener’s worldview, not their wallet. Your aesthetic is what you decide you, as the creator, want that effect to be.It’s not that aesthetics should be anti-economic (although, again, depending on the aesthetic goal, that might be a useful indicator), it’s that economics shouldn’t impact aesthetics at all. There’s always an economic component to any real-world realization of a given aesthetic, but that shouldn’t be the criterion for making artistic decisions. It might just sound like semantics, but I think there’s a necessary compartmentalization there to avoid a certain commoditization.And I don’t think it’s a question of pandering vs. brainwashing. We all choose certain styles, vocabularies, strategies, etc., based on how that particular music makes us feel. Once we cross over from listener to composer, though, the responsibility goes up. It’s not enough to go by feel or intuition alone; part of the composer’s work is to fully think through his or her aesthetic goals, then choose, modify, or outright invent techniques to communicate those goals to an audience. I don’t assume that my aesthetic is superior to the audience’s, but I do assume that, for the duration of the piece, it’s my aesthetic that the audience should be experiencing. (They can accept or reject it, but they shouldn’t be experiencing it as something it’s not.) And part of that is to consider very seriously whether portions of the resulting vocabulary—consonances, dissonances, backbeats, what have you—are liable to distract the listener from my artistic goals, even if the distraction is the result of cultural conditioning that I have no control over. The audience is permitted to have its own tastes, but I think that if those tastes are resulting in my own compositional aesthetic being obscured, then I haven’t done my job. This isn’t just a egoist Romantic holdover—it’s an issue for all composers/creators, regardless of the level of notational control. It’s just as possible for a fully improvised performance to communicate a complete, individual aesthetic viewpoint, and it’s those performances that, even when I ultimately reject the aesthetic, I find to be the most artistically satisfying.

  10. Matthew says:

    I was going to complain about WordPress not recognizing tags, but now that I see it, I actually like the “On the Road”-typescript effect.

  11. Matthew–
    You make a number of good and interesting points, but let me come at this from a slighly different angle to see if I can clarify something. I don’t mean to be talking about the aesthetic properties of making money, although as you say it’s possible to do that in a sort of performance art sense (I claimed a month or two ago that’s one of the things going on in the 4’33″ ringtone), but rather about having money be a valid reason for making certain aesthetic choices in composition. I need to work out a better way to make that distinction clear.

    Every time a composer sits down to write he or she is writing for a constituency. Perhaps in a very few cases it’s really true that the only constituency is the self, but I suspect that even most composers who would make that claim are mistaken. And even in those very few cases, that self is largely created and influenced by external cultural forces. The compositional choices I make are going to be influenced by my beliefs about what that constituency will like, which is to say that I am writing music which I want to appeal to the aesthetic preferences of my constituents (which certainly does include me). Given that I’m writing for a constituency, one way or another I am choosing the makeup of that constituency, and the question is what criteria to use to make that choice.

    If some constituencies had aesthetic preferences that were more “correct” than others, we might reasonably say that it’s more “artistic” to cater to the tastes of the constituencies that hold more “correct” aesthetic preferences. But no particular set of tastes is objectively any more correct than any other (lots of peope disagree with that statement, and my whole argument depends on it). Given that no constituency is more correct than any other, it doesn’t matter which constituency you choose. So what’s wrong with catering to the aesthetic preferences of the people who are the most likely to give you money? My “artistic goals” are my goals for writing music that will be maximally aesthetically pleasing for my selected constituency. I should add that maximizing the revenue potential of a composition is a pretty challenging aesthetic problem — writing a hit pop song is very difficult and requires serious artistic chops.

    A few responses to specific things you say:
    “the true measure of success is the music’s effect on the listener’s worldview, not their wallet”
    The depends on your definition of success — if your goal is to appeal to the constituency that is the most likely to give you money, effectig their worldview is a means to an end. Saying that such an end is not valid is a moral claim.

    “part of the composer’s work is to fully think through his or her aesthetic goals, then choose, modify, or outright invent techniques to communicate those goals to an audience.”
    True. But there’s no reason not to choose a wealthy audience and no reason why the aesthetic goals can’t be chose for the sake of their viability with that wealthy audience.

    “it’s my aesthetic that the audience should be experiencing”
    That’s a moral claim. At the same time, you’re welcome to cater to an audience who happens to agree with you and is interested in hearing your aesthetic.

    “And part of that is to consider very seriously whether portions of the resulting vocabulary. . .are liable to distract the listener from my artistic goals”
    I completely agree — except I also think that making a pile of money is a valid artistic goal and that following this advice is also a smart strategy in pursuing that goal.

    “I think that if those tastes are resulting in my own compositional aesthetic being obscured, then I haven’t done my job”
    If your goal is to make have the audience hear your aesthetic, that’s true. But if you want to say that it’s _everybody’s_ job you’re making a moral claim.

    “It’s just as possible for a fully improvised performance to communicate a complete, individual aesthetic viewpoint, and it’s those performances that, even when I ultimately reject the aesthetic, I find to be the most artistically satisfying. ”
    I think what you’re really saying here is that you have a few different types of aesthetic preferences, and that “artistically satisfying” is a way of describing your aesthetic appreciation for pieces which “communicate a complete, individual aesthetic viewpoint.” I have a similar aesthetic preference myself, saying that everybody else should feel similarly is another moral claim.

    Needless to say, the things that I’ve labeled as “moral claims” are not problematic simply because they are moral claims but because I don’t they they hold up under scrutiny.

    One final caveat — I’m not personally particularly interested in writing maximally commercially viable music, I’m merely defending it as a valid choice which doesn’t make someone any less of an artist.

  12. Evan Johnson says:

    But no particular set of tastes is objectively any more correct than any other (lots of peope disagree with that statement, and my whole argument depends on it). Given that no constituency is more correct than any other, it doesn’t matter which constituency you choose.

    I don’t care about “objective correctness.” It’s a red herring. It’s your second statement that is problematic. What do you mean, “it doesn’t matter”? To whom doesn’t it matter? It certainly matters to the one choosing the “constituency”; and people choose “constituences” for reasons, and the fact that reasons may not be related to universal absolutes about what is Right or Wrong doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t have them, and it doesn’t mean that nobody has the right to pass judgement on anyone else.

    I think that writing music with an eye towards maximizing profit is bad. There, I said it. I also think that writing music with an eye towards maximizing your audience is bad, although less so. Are these UNIVERSAL TRUTHS? No, but neither is your absolutist relativism.

    But there’s no reason not to choose a wealthy audience

    Sure there is: because wealth is not a musical attribute. It makes no more artistic sense than trying to appeal to people who wear blue shirts. It makes commercial sense, but it doesn’t make artistic sense; and no, one is not a subset of the other. Trying to appeal to as large an audience as possible is, on the other hand, in some sense, a musical claim. Hence its “less badness.”

    I also don’t understand why you keep repeating that “XYZ is a moral claim,” with the implication that some sort of boom is being lowered on anyone who would proffer such a thing. What sort of scrutiny don’t they hold up under? That which proceeds from the assumption that anything anyone does is as valid as anything else? Well, no, but that’s called circular reasoning.

  13. Matthew says:

    Look, at some point you have to stake your claim. If the point of writing a piece and publicly performing it isn’t to communicate your own particular aesthetic viewpoint to the audience, why bother? It’s not a moral stand, it’s the nature of the transaction. I’m not fooling people, I’m not intimidating people, I’m providing them with the opportunity to experience my own view of what art should be. That’s why we do it. Maybe you could come up with an artistic experience that would simultaneously validate all aesthetic viewpoints simultaneously. That in itself would be an aesthetic statement—and a rather deliberately and intricately constructed one, I would imagine.

    Every time you write or play a note, you’re making an aesthetic decision that, in your opinion, renders one event more valuable than another to a hypothetical listener. (Even with chance operations: it’s still one particular note that goes into the score, and not another.) At the time of performance, communication is a one-way street between performer/composer and audience, and what’s being communicated is up to the performer/composer. That doesn’t mean the audience has to like it, that doesn’t mean they can’t give feedback, that doesn’t mean they can’t, if they so choose, critique your aesthetic by creating a work of art that communicates their own. (Maybe you could have a piece where real-time audience feedback affects the structure and message of the work, but how you would decide to incorporate that feedback would be, again, an aesthetic decision.) It doesn’t put the performer/composer in a morally superior position vis-à-vis the sudience. But the audience, by showing up, is giving their permission to temporarily cede the floor to the performer/composer.

    I should have been clearer on why making money isn’t a valid artistic goal. The exchange of money is a secondary effect—you’re trying to generate an emotional response in the listener that will encourage them to fork over their cash. It’s the emotional response that’s the artistic goal. Pointing a gun at someone and demanding their wallet—probably not art.

  14. Jon says:

    I have a problem with this idea that we must consciously choose our aesthetic and then communicate it to the audience. If it’s that simple, why bother writing music at all, why not just write your aesthetic down in words, then you’ll know everybody’s clear about it. The beauty of music is that it is too abstract and mysterious to be capable of communicating a single aesthetic idea, and the best music (and art in general) is aesthetically ambiguous, conveying multiple, sometimes even conflicting meanings and worldviews, and transcending the ability not only of the listeners but of the composer him/herself to fully understand it. Yes, the composer ought to think carefully about the choices he/she makes, but there’s nothing worse than over-thought music, music that is trying only to make a certain point or to “prove” an idea. I would hope that every piece contains at least some choices that were made not based on careful thought, but rather on feel, ear, whimsy, gut feeling, etc.
    It’s not that I’m anti-intellectual at all. But composing music is a pretty ineffective way to communicate intellectual ideas. Because music is so vague and abstract, you have very little control over how the audience will react to and interpret it; it doesn’t matter what YOU the composer thinks the piece means, the piece takes on a life of its own, and it may mean something different to every listener. If what you really want to do is convey your aesthetic stance and your personal worldview, don’t write a piece of music, write an essay.

  15. Matthew says:

    Jon—I don’t think most people consciously choose their aesthetic like they’re buying clothes. But “feel, ear, whimsy, gut feeling,” etc., all those are going to be built up over time based on what we like and don’t like—in other words, what our aesthetic viewpoint is. Compositional decisions are almost all intuitive, but intuition is just decision-making that’s become reflexive: we’ve been in that situation enough that we don’t have to think about what we want anymore, we just do it. And you’re right, composing music is a bad way to communicate ideas that are better expressed in words, but there are plenty of intellectual ideas that are too complex or subtle for written or spoken language. That’s where music comes in. The charitable assumption is that composers don’t have aesthetic agendas (my own artistic goals change from piece to piece, and I’m sure most other composers’ do, too), but that their aesthetic ideas can only be realized via music.

    I just think this notion that composition should be this frictionless process where the music springs pure and honest from some aesthetic blank slate is a) an illusion—all creators are operating with an aesthetic viewpoint whether they like it or not; and b) artistically counterproductive—my idea of art is that it should inspire the viewer/listener to be able to consider the condition of existing as a human being in a way they haven’t considered before. If you pretend that the human element of composition—the inspiration, the process, the decision-making—isn’t there, then there’s less opportunity for the audience to have their own view of human experience challenged and enriched.

  16. JS says:

    Galen –

    Any given standard for “objective goodness” is in fact a combination of personal aesthetic preferences and beliefs about the nature of “objective goodness” that are themselves products of memetic (and to a certain extent genetic) evolution

    Supposing that this is true, I would posit that “it is wrong to base aesthetic choices on economic factors” is such a successful meme that it might as well be empirically true. After all, aren’t all the things we think of as empirically true memetic in some degree? (Take math. If you have an apple, and then I give you an apple, do you have two apples? Well, no… you have an apple, and you have another apple. They’re not really equivalent, except in that our language has a concept called “apple” which can be applied to both of them.) Obviously, the idea that “selling out is bad” isn’t AS close to empirical as math is, but I still think that it’s pretty deeply ingrained. Deeply ingrained enough that arguing against it is useful only as an intellectual exercise.

    Oddly enough, although it’s almost hardwired into our culture that selling out is bad, we don’t usually think it’s really bad. I’ve never talked to someone who didn’t agree that artistic integrity was a good thing*, but most rate selling out somewhere between littering and jaywalking. Occasionally you’ll meet someone who really wants to hit Andrew Lloyd Webber in the face with a tire iron, but then you meet people who feel that way about litterbugs too.

    * I have met several people who were arguing, as you are, that musical integrity’s value was a social construct. However, they all admitted that they, themselves, preferred more “authentic” music, even though they knew it wasn’t objectively better. And I assume you prefer it too, since you’re writing classical music instead of Black Eyed Peas songs.

  17. JS says:

    On second thought, I should change “useful only as an intellectual exercise” to “useful only as an intellectual exercise OR to convince someone to stop insulting other people’s musical taste.” Because that seems like a worthwhile goal.

  18. T.D. Lake says:

    As a composer, I’m concerned with communicating something to an audience. Since this is my goal, I first have to have an audience to communicate to, and second need to write something that will communicate my “message” to the audience effectively. In my case, I write for the contemporary chamber music orchestra and ensemble. It’s a small audience. People come expecting to hear something challenging, and I’ve chosen this audience because my message is challenging.

    So there’s my way of working. Now, are other ways of writing music valid? For sure. There’s everything from Prince Albert Hall to the local pub to write music for, and they are all valid venues. People need to get over thinking they’re Beethoven and just write music for an audience they find suitable. If you find the local pub suitable, who’s to judge? You can make a good income doing that. I know people that do.

  19.