On multiple occasions, I have toyed with the idea that it is unethical to play music in public places. It’s an idea that is difficult to take seriously, because it’s just so contrary to the culture we currently live in. Current norms surrounding public music seem to work just fine, so why try to fix what ain’t broken? And yet, it’s difficult for me to say exactly why the status quo is okay.
What follows is my argument as to why playing music in public spaces might be wrong. The goal is not to persuade you of the argument’s conclusion, especially when it’s a conclusion I don’t believe myself, but to persuade you that it’s a nontrivial question.
The fact of the matter is that different kinds of people like different kinds of music. This is something that everyone understands on an intellectual level, and yet it’s just so easy to ignore it in our everyday life. That’s because there is large body of music, which I dub “popular music” or just “pop”, that almost everybody finds acceptable.
But even when it comes to popular music, not everyone enjoys it. For example, there is a famous quote by Merzbow:
If by noise you mean uncomfortable sound, then pop music is noise to me.
The joke is that if you’ve ever listened to Merzbow, you know that his music is extremely noisy, and many people would describe it as uncomfortable.
It’s not just Merzbow. Many people have declared their distaste for pop. While there are certainly performative aspects to such a public declaration, I don’t think we can write it off as pure snobbishness. We ought to take seriously the idea that some people just don’t like pop, in the same way that some people just don’t like Merzbow.
And even among people who otherwise have “popular” tastes in music, there are many situations when they too might be annoyed with public music. For example, even if you generally like pop, you might still dislike this one pop song. Or perhaps you’re trying to listen to music on your own mp3 player, and the public music is interfering with that. There’s also the annual phenomenon of complaining about Christmas music, sometimes jokingly suggesting it should be banned. For some reason come January, people always forget about the ban proposal, even though it could arguably apply to all kinds of music year round.
So if some people are enjoying the music, and other people are not, why is the music acceptable? For the most part, we seem to operate according to a utilitarian principle, preferring music that we think most people would like or at least find acceptable. In private settings, such as in a car, the passengers often negotiate what music to listen to based on how strongly their desires seem to be. In retail, stores want music that puts people in the right “mood” to buy things, or at least music that doesn’t scare customers away.
Many readers might be willing to accept the utilitarian answer without question. And then perhaps the question of music in public spaces looks easy to resolve. However, I note that this touches upon one of the big philosophical critiques of utilitarianism. Is it truly ethical to force a small number of people to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of everyone else? There is an uncomfortable similarity to The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a story about a utopia that relies on the misery of a small child.
In general, we seem to have additional ethical principles regarding sacrifice that go beyond the simplistic version of utilitarianism: we believe in fairness, autonomy, and consent. But for some reason we fail to apply these principles to music, instead adhering to simplistic utilitarianism because it’s convenient.
An aside: You could defend public music on the grounds that it’s not really “public”, and is often played by private business owners. You could say that by patronizing their business you are implicitly consenting to the music. This argument isn’t entirely satisfactory to me though, because we frown upon businesses discriminating against minority groups. In this case, the minority group is people who don’t like pop.
If we’re trying to apply utilitarianism to public music, then there are a few ways that we’re doing it wrong. In order to satisfy the preferences of the most people, it’s important that we know what those preferences are. It’s important that people can freely express their preference. And yet, when people express their dislike of pop, we often dismiss it as performative snobbery. There is dislike of people who dislike pop. If it’s impossible to find music that will satisfy everyone, is it really the fault of people who dislike pop, or are they just the bearers of bad news?
And on the other side, we can complain about the discourse of people who express a dislike of pop. If the music that most people like is not music that you like, is that really the fault of people who like pop, or are they just the bearers of bad news? In general, it feels like the discourse around pop is less about negotiating the kind of music that will satisfy the most people, and more about playing a power game where people fight to have their opinions represented.
There’s an experience I would recommend you have, if only it were something that you could deliberately seek out. It is this: find some music that you like, that hardly anybody else could like. Enjoy some music that would be utterly implausible to ever play in a public space. This may help you find peace with the fact that no music can ever satisfy everyone.