When record producers listen to music, how do they listen to it? In Performing Rites, Simon Frith suggests that they have an ‘imputed audience’ in mind; they are obsessively worrying ‘what does the listener want?’ Frith writes about the people who do this successfully and repeatedly, broadening out his scope to include other record company personnel, such as the staff from A&R and marketing:
There is a touching faith in the industry in anyone who can claim to read the audience, to be in tune with public taste (the usual measure of which is a previous success); such people carry a special authority in in-house arguments; they have a “good ear,” and it takes many failures to offset the original success.
In America, such people used to be known as ‘record men’ (women, apparently, did not have great ears). Back in the 1970s, to have this sense and to use it well was a criterion for helming a record label. Mo Ostin at Warner Bros., Clive Davis at Columbia, Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and David Geffen at Asylum were all record men. Ertegun explained their particular talent:
You have to develop a second ear. The first ear is your private taste, which is what moves you personally. The second ear is one that, when you listen to a piece of music and you personally think it’s terrible but it’s a hit commercially – the second ear has to say, ‘This is great!’
Is this the heart of the popular music process? Record company bosses and producers aren’t interested in art; they are instead trying to predict the debased tastes of the public. Frith suggests that this is one of the reasons why the ‘industry’ is frowned upon. Obsessed with hits, these people are seen to ‘“interfere” in the proper communication of musician and audience’. Music is meddled with as it is mediated. It loses its initial sense of contact and meaning.
Frith doesn't buy this line of reasoning. He suggests, instead, that it is the ‘record men’ of the industry who make communication between performers and audiences possible. I would go further than this. I believe that popular music is mediated music. Music doesn’t exist in a pure state at one end of a process, waiting to go through the wringer of the record business before it reaches the audience. It is created with production processes in mind. Virtually all artists will have first experienced popular music via its mediation. They encounter it through recordings and through broadcasts of those recordings. And they will create their own music with recordings and broadcasts in mind.
But what about audiences? They’re not blind to mediation either. In fact, it can excite them just as much as performance can. Audiences imagine themselves in a number of situations. They picture themselves in direct communication with artists. They also picture themselves as artists: the air guitar might well be the most widely-played instrument. But they also place themselves at the heart of the mediation process. They imagine what it feels like to be in a studio as a record is mixed. They also listen to music with the ears of a ‘record man’. Industry bosses aren’t the only people with second ears, and they aren’t the only ones to get excited by terrible records either. There’s a little part of each of us that thinks we can predict a hit. And this is one of the reasons why we admire one when we hear one. Not all of our popular music pleasures are centred on music that moves our hearts and our minds. We also enjoy being a part of the game.