The passive music defence

Freedom is a funny thing. We all like to be free to do what we want, but it usually comes with the rider 'provided it doesn't harm/distress/etc other people.' Possibly even 'As long as it doesn't scare the horses.'

The classic example is the smoking ban in public buildings. Some smokers still moan about this, but the fact is it was foul for the non-smoking majority who had to suffer smoke-filled pubs, restaurants and the like. I don't care how much people moan about how it was better in the good old days - it wasn't. They wanted to do what they liked in public, and it caused the rest of us discomfort, distress and quite possibly harm.

The smoking ban is not, as some have suggested, the nanny state, it is a matter of freedom - freedom for the non-smoking majority to go to a pub or restaurant without an accompanying smog and stink.

I was drawn to an interesting parallel listening to whinging buskers on the radio yesterday. They were saying how terrible it was that many towns and cities require them to have some sort of permit to perform in public places. Some towns even have the temerity to ask them to audition, which they found outrageous. Well, I'm sorry, but I'm all in favour of getting rid of horrendous noises from the street, underpass and Tube. The passers-by are subjected to a cacophony from some buskers, just so they can, in effect, beg for money with a horrible noise to attract the attention. Audition them within an inch of their lives, I say.

If I'm honest, I don't like any passive music. Even a virtuso violinist or a superb singer irritates me. If I want to listen to music, I'll choose what and when. I don't want to be bombarded with musical graffiti as I go down the street. I appreciate I'm probably in the minority in this, but I'd do away with the whole concept. If they want to perform, they can put on a concert where people can choose to listen or not to. Don't force it on me. Why does their right to perform trump my right to peace?

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  1. Ha. I don't often find myself disagreeing with you, but I guess I do here. Actually, I love the surprise of turning the corner or coming up the escalator to find music suddenly all around me. Ok. Some of it is rubbish. But much of it is surprisingly wonderful, and it takes me from feeling like another rat running in a crowd from place to place to well....delightfully human. I know some places require an audition or some sort of license, and I think that's fine. But it's so hard to make any money as an artist these days that if this is a way for real committed musicians to legally earn some cash, I'm all for it.

  2. I didn't expect many people would, Sue. I understand the principle of why people find it attractive... but I don't. It genuinely makes me feel uncomfortable.

    What it comes down to for me is this matter of freedom of choice. I wouldn't mind buskers if I could choose whether or not to hear them, but I don't want them forced on me.

  3. A right to peace? In a public space?

    As you concede that you're in a minority, I presume you also concede that it would be unfair to have your desires enacted as legislation.

    But I'm interested in how it could happen that a member of the human species could arrive at the point where they disliked unexpected music.

    I'm not attacking you, I just find it curious. I can understand a hatred of recorded background music, in shops and other public spaces, but live music is different. Look throughout the world and you will see the importance of live music in social settings, affirming how essential it is to everyday life. That is, it is a degraded form of musical enjoyment to parcel it up into exclusive areas of life (if I want music I'll go to a concert, etc.) and fenced-off private pastimes.

    I'm a fan of Western civilization but I wonder if your attitude - which I am aware is shared by a substantial number of people - isn't a terrible indictment of our society.

  4. No, live music isn't different. That's a canard - it's still background music, just because it's cranked out on a portable keyboard rather than by a professional orchestra doesn't make it any better.

    I love music - I make it and I listen to it. But I'd still prefer to have the choice. You seem to be saying I shouldn't be allowed a choice. Isn't that totalitarian? And certainly a terrible indictment of the society you seem to be proposing.

    Would you also be happy if advertisers could shout their adverts in our face as we walk down the street, a la Minority Report etc? What's the difference?

  5. I can respect your personal preference. I shouldn't have disparaged it so much, though I do find it surprising and uncharitable to your fellow musicians.

    I would be totalitarian if I forced you to visit public places; to listen to the rousing martial music at my latest political rally, for example.

    But in a public place we have to put up with other people. We might not like to see men wearing socks with sandals - in fact we might find it downright offensive to normal standards of taste - but we don't accuse those who defend the right to wear socks with sandals as "totalitarian".

    And the free unregulated expression of music is, by any measure, a far more valuable right in a civilized society than the right to wear socks with sandals - though doubtless my father would disagree.

    Live music certainly is different, for the reasons I mentioned, and I can't imagine anything but affected self-righteousness and meanness to lie at the root of a dislike of it.

    But I'm not accusing you of those things. I can see you're not. But as a maker and listener to music I'm just saying that I cannot begin to empathize or understand. But, there again, I have bugbears that mystify my friends.

    Regarding advertising, we may not suffer the indignities of the citizens in Minority Report, but it's not that different.

  6. Alistair -
    Thanks for the step back there.

    I think part of my problem is that I'm basically a country person. When I go to the city I want to get from A to B, get the job done, and get out with maximum efficiency. I don't want to admire street art or listen to music. I appreciate it may be different for city dwellers.

    The other reason I think I don't like busking (apart from the fact that so much of it is so VERY bad) is that it feeds both the 'music snippet' and the 'background music' culture. Perhaps because I predate the Walkman and the iPod, I don't expect every action in my life to be accompanied by music.

    Similarly, if I listen to a piece of music, I want to give it my attention and listen to it from the beginning through the middle and to the end. I would rather not hear it all than just have a snippet of it. Yet that's almost always what you get from a busker as you pass by.

    As you say, we all have our personal bugbears. Life would be boring if we all appreciated/disliked exactly the same things.

  7. I'm not just trying to get the last word here but...

    "Yet that's almost always what you get from a busker as you pass by"

    But the immediacy and novelty of live music actually makes people stop and listen closely. It awakens their senses, where television and iPods deaden them. Stopping to listen to a busker is a positive act that engages with the performer.

    I was with my 5-year-old niece recently in Glasgow when we turned a corner to see a guitarist. She probably hadn't experienced such a thing before, and she was enthralled. Brought up with a TV constantly on, she was having a qualitatively different experience. A higher, more enriching one, I would think.

    So I think that busking resists the shallow culture that we both deride. It is an escape from that. At least that's how I see it.

    However, I would be tempted to endorse a ban of all acoustic guitarists singing Oasis songs.


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