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Monday, April 25, 2005


A free market in easy listening

Never mind who'll win the general election. Here's the poll that really matters. What are the "All Time Top 200 songs"?

In my home county of Lincolnshire, the listeners of the local commercial radio station Lincs FM think they know the answer. They have voted "in their thousands" in this annual poll and the results make for some
grim reading.

It is unfair to pick on Lincolnshire, since a similar opinion survey in any other part of provincial Britain would probably yield similar results (as
Nick Barlow recently pointed out). Rather than quibble about the specific choices (tempting though that is), the point here is that this list of 200 songs illustrates some fundamental problems with commercial radio and the music business, which have consequences for the extent of available choice and the range of popular taste.

Inevitably, Lincs FM's list is dominated by safe and familiar choices. First on the list is - you've guessed it - Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, the automatic choice of just about everybody too lazy to give the question much thought. There are 200 better songs by Queen, never mind by anyone else.

The list continues in predictable form. Second is Angels by Robbie Williams, third comes Bat Out Of Hell by Meatloaf, then in fourth and fifth places are a couple of songs by Bryan Adams. And so on.

Apart from its obvious predictability, the first thing that struck me about this list is the realisation that rock music has become the new easy listening. Not any old rock music, but 'AOR' (adult-oriented rock), particularly the so-called 'power ballads' that first appeared in the late 70s, a genre set in aspic when bands such as REO Speedwagon, Aerosmith, Toto and Foreigner laid down the rules over 25 years ago. It is formulaic, corporate rock from an anachronistic world of mullet hairstyles, mic-stand wielding singers and lighter-waving audiences.

'Easy listening' once meant the sort of light orchestral music that dominated the BBC Light Programme of 60s childhood memory. More recently, the term has become associated with the sort of light jazz plugged by Michael Parkinson (Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, et al.). Presumably this is too subtle for Lincs FM's listeners, who clearly prefer some rocktastic bombast with their pipe and slippers.

These listeners know what they like and like what they know. Another striking thing about the list is its narrow range. Most major popular genres are notable by their absence - jazz, blues, country, folk, soul and world music (none of them esoteric). It is also a very white list - the highest placed black artist is Tina Turner at no.40, with the execrable The Best (which I doubt any black person has ever bought). And it is a measure of the strength of the corporate hold on our culture that there is no music on the list with any local connections.

For a list claiming to be "All Time", the historical perspective is remarkably stunted. There are very few songs dating from before the mid-70s and, while there are a few recent songs, this remains a list with its heart in the 1980s.

The influential building blocks of popular music - post-war R&B, 50s rock'n'roll and 60s soul - might as well never have existed. The greatest rock band of "all time", the Beatles, merits only three songs. The first does not appear till no.26 (Hey Jude), then one must wait until Let It Be at no.118 and Yesterday at no.188.

The greatest rock'n'roller of them all, Elvis Presley, fares even worse with just two songs, Suspicious Minds at no.68 and the mawkish Wonder Of You at no.87. There is no trace of Elvis's groundbreaking hits from the mid-50s, which made his name and changed the world.

As for Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones - forget it.

This narrow and unimaginative choice reflects the typical output of local commercial radio stations such as Lincs FM. The situation in Britain increasingly mirrors that in the USA. While there are hundreds of these stations in Britain, most are owned by a handful of large corporations, whose central bureaucrats homogenize the output by imposing playlists and circulating tapes of syndicated programmes. The only thing that's still 'local' about these stations is the traffic reports.

You would think that such a restrictive music broadcasting policy would infuriate the music industry, anxious to sell CDs by a variety of artists. Far from it. This situation suits the record industry, now dominated by four major global corporations, which would much rather consumers bought CDs by a relatively small number of lowest common denominator mainstream artists. It's harder for these companies to achieve economies of scale or make higher profits if a myriad of choice or unpredictable changes in fashion cause volatility in the market.

There's another group that benefits from this sorry situation, and that is those opinion formers who claim that any criticism of mass public taste is 'élitist'. These assorted critics and commentators believe it is 'judgmental' to say there is 'good' or 'bad', or that there are right or wrong choices. In this spirit of bogus democracy, we must 'give them what they want'.

This argument misses the point. One can argue whether a particular song is good or bad until the cows come home. It is less a question of criticising other people's specific tastes, more of recognising that no-one can hope to develop fully their musical tastes unless they are exposed to a wide variety of music. If you restrict what people can hear, they'll vote for a restricted choice.

Paradoxically, if you want more choice on British radio, you must turn to the publicly-owned BBC rather than the 'free market' commercial stations. The BBC's nationwide music stations
Radios 1, 2, 3 and 6 offer a variety of music you won't find anywhere in the private sector. This paradox is something that laissez-faire ideologues simply cannot grasp. In their eagerness to privatise the BBC, or expose it to the stifling demands of advertisers, they would give radio listeners less real choice for the sake of an abstract political doctrine.

This reminds me of a brilliant satirical sketch on A Bit of Fry and Laurie about fifteen years ago. Set in a restaurant, it featured a customer (a government minister) being served by a waiter (played by Stephen Fry). The waiter removed the minister's silver cutlery and emptied a large sack of disposable white plastic coffee stirrers onto his table. When the minister complained, the waiter replied that this was providing more 'choice'.

The value of public broadcasting in general and the BBC in particular is demonstrated when radio stations, rather than 'giving them what they want', give people what they didn't know they might like. This stretches and liberates people rather than panders to prejudices, and helps stimulate a more vibrant and varied culture.

Britain's commercial radio stations, on the other hand, are like a sack of plastic coffee stirrers - cheap, mass-produced and identical. In this instance, the 'choice' is bogus. It is a good illustration of the Liberal view that we should judge economic structures by their outcomes rather than express a doctrinal preference for the public or private sector.

Can't agree, I'm afraid, Simon. The BBC is a great service for which I would happily pay more than the cost of the licence fee. But it is clearly wrong that people who do want to watch the BBC should have to pay for it.

Also, the BBC does not equal public service broadcasting. The sad thing is that the commercial channels - principally ITV and Channel 4 - cannot afford in this tough multi-channel age to subsidise good quality programmes as they did in the past. This means only the BBC can afford to be in the elite market - and monopolies are nearly always a bad thing.

The only solution is to have some form of National Endowment of the Arts (cf America) which funds programmes not broadcasting organisations.
Stephen - Are you seriously suggesting that we model our broadcasting on the system in the USA? How would this improve broadcasting output? If your proposal is "the only solution", then we're in big trouble.

The BBC (which has not been a "monopoly" since 1955, by the way) is not perfect but I wait to hear anyone suggest an alternative system that would deliver an improved quality and real choice of programming.

Your suggestion would lead to the ghetto-isation of quality broadcasting and I fail to see who could possibly gain from this situation apart from Rupert Murdoch.

You seem to be placing free market ideology before the interests of quality broadcasting. This is what I meant in my original posting about outcomes rather than doctrine.
Apologies - just re-read my third sentence, which shd read: "But it is clearly wrong that people who do *not* want to watch the BBC should have to pay for it." Personally, I don't think it's a question of free market economics, but of social justice. To conscript the public into culture because it's good for them is, in my view, utterly illiberal. Many studies have also pointed out that those in jail for licence fee evasion are the poorest in society. Those of us who believe in markets are not necessarily heartless bastards!

FWIW, I've written more at www.stephentall.org.uk/articles/17.html.

As for alternatives, try http://media.guardian.co.uk/mediaguardian/story/0,7558,1169233,00.html written by PSB broadcasters working in the commercial sector who fear for the future of PSB which is left to the BBC as a monopoly (which it now is de facto).

cheers, stephen
Thanks for the link to your interesting article. (The Guardian link is accessible only to subscribers, by the way).

I feel we are arguing at cross-purposes, since it seems that you are primarily concerned with process whereas my main concern is outcome.

My concern as a Liberal (in all fields, not just this one) is that we have outcomes in which people are liberated rather than oppressed. The BBC provides quality and a range of choice that the private sector tends not to. True, Channel 4 can and does rival the best of the BBC's TV output, but then Channel 4, though private, was originally set up with a public service remit.

I agree that there never was a 'golden age' of broadcasting and the debate should not be conducted in that false context.

I don't accept your premise that there is a dichotomy between quality broadcasting and mass appeal. Quality broadcasting is not necessarily elitist. For example, the new series of 'Doctor Who' shows that you can produce quality drama with mass appeal. Or look at the plethora of specialist music programmes broadcast by Radio 2 in the evenings, which attract mass audiences.

You argue that, with the proliferation of channels (through satellite, cable and the internet), the case for retaining the BBC is diminished. I would argue the opposite - that this greater profusion risks a situation in which no single broadcaster has the critical mass to produce quality programming, and we end up relying on cheap formats or American imports.

The BBC has that critical mass. The licence fee is not a perfect funding system but no-one has come up with a better alternative. The vast majority of British people continue to use it (despite the fact that they now have many more channels to choose from) and I see nothing wrong in principle with this form of taxation. I do not use NHS hospitals, am not in school and am not a parent of children who are, but I do not resent payment of taxation for those services. In short, the BBC is what economists call a 'public good' and I see nothing wrong with that. That is 'social justice' in my book.

The licence fee system means that the BBC will always have to steer a difficult path between satisfying the need for broad appeal and the need for a distinctive output. At times, it gets the balance wrong and there will always be complaints.

But if the BBC were taken away and replaced with a system of ad hoc grants to individual programme makers, would people feel more liberated? Would the quality of people's lives be improved?

There would be more choice only in terms of quantity rather than quality. I feel no more liberated if I have access to a hundred shopping channels as opposed to fifty. I do feel more liberated if I know that there are at least a few channels that can be relied upon to supply quality.

Finally, you ignore the important global role of the BBC. It manages an unrivalled global news-gathering and reporting service. It also supplies a global shop window for British culture, through both its broadcast and online services.

We risk a situation in which all the world's culture comes from one place and it would be madness to dismantle the one organisation we have that is able to stand up to the homogenizing power of Hollywood.

My original posting was intended to demonstrate this point. The private sector now has hundreds of commercial radio stations in Britain and what does it do? It churns out identical, formulaic broadcasting that offers no real choice.

If, according to your preferred method, a programme maker can apply for a government grant to make the odd quality show that goes out on a commercial station at midnight, that would be no substitute for the BBC.
There's also the issue of how commercial radio stations are increasingly losing their individuality with more and more programming being provided from a central base with just the odd bit of local colour added in to try and pretend it's only going out on that station and not across the entire country. We've not quite reached the level of standardisation achieved by Clear Channel stations in the US - some of who's only presence in the locality they transmit to is their transmitter - but we're heading there.
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