I got momentarily excited the other day when I saw a reference to a “licensed DJ.” I knew I'd tricked myself into thinking the impossible – that getting the licence meant that the DJ had to go through a rigorous training program and pass a gruelling final exam – but I went with the fantasy anyway. Imagine if they were regulated, too! Oh, the (completely unrealistic) possibilities: No more cheesy dance hits (e.g., "Macarena," "Chicken Dance") at the party's drunken apex, only one AC/DC track per night, and if you use the same set list at different events in the same week, you get a letter in your permanent record (and you'd have a permanent record). Of course, the reality was unsurprisingly bland. Licensed meant an AVLA licence, AVLA being a music rights society for record labels (because DJs make and use copies of music for their work and the labels want their pound of flesh).
Very boring, and it goes mundanely downhill from there: liability insurance, SOCAN licences for clients, WPIC certification (yeah, that was new to me, too), and professional associations. Note the plural. First, there's the CDJA - “the longest running nationally chaptered DJ association in the world.” Then there's the CPDJA - "Canada's largest and most recognised disc jockey assocation." Clearly, the association with the most superlative qualifiers in their motto wins.
While I have some misgivings about DJs, they do have a role to play and obviously there's widespread demand for their services. A huge part of what they offer is, or at least should be, their personality and MCing abilities. This is what largely sets them apart from music stylists.
Yes, music stylists. From the narrow, murky gap between DJs and background music companies, the music stylist emerged as an occcupation. Or if that's too grandiose a term (profession certainly is), perhaps 'job title' is a better choice. Either way, according to this 2008 New York Times article, music stylist came to fruition somewhere around 2003 when "a handful of music consultants, mostly in New York and London, [began] to specialize in creating custom domestic soundtracks."** This customisation is not, however, built up from clients' existing music collection or preferences, but instead is designed "to match their clients’ décor."
Here the NYT states that "Muzak has for decades created what it calls 'audio architecture' for commercial environments" whilst casting the targeting of the domestic space as done by music stylists as something new and recent. This is wrong. When the delivery system for what later became Muzak was first being patented in the 1920s, it was intended to be a service mainly for domestic consumption along with some retail. Radio at that time was still an unreliable and somewhat expensive technology, so Muzak's early proponents believed the company would succeed on the basis of being a technologically stable and affordable way of getting music into the home via a monthly subscription. But by the 1930s, radio had made adequate technological advances and the price for a receiver came down which led to radio's dominance in the home; it was at this point that Muzak began aggressively marketing to businesses.
A more important point missed by the Times is that Muzak and other background music companies based their services on psychological rather than visual data. No one from Muzak Holdings would ever "visit clients’ homes or look at photographs of them to assess their decorating styles and to understand layouts." One might be able to say that these music stylists are still indirectly using psychology by taking such cues from the interior design. However, if, as the article also implies, the decorating, furnishings, etc. of these wealthy clients were put together by yet another stylist, don't we really have a production circle where stylists are producing for other stylists? Does the individual who's actually inhabiting this space ever have any input?
The answer would seem to be "no, not really," because apparently if the clients didn't have such crap taste to begin with, they wouldn't need to hire a music stylist -- at least that's the message I get when see that music consultant Angus Gibson has said that "some of [the music his clients already have] is truly awful stuff" along the lines of "'love and moonlight' soundtracks from Meg Ryan movies." Then there's Coleman Feltes impeccable logic: "When clients hire me, they are buying into the Coleman brand of taste.” Now we're getting closer to the truth -- this isn't about audio-interior-decorating, it's about coolness capital, which makes me wonder again if this is in fact a case of stylists designing for other stylists -- or even for themselves. Your clueless clients won't seem to know the difference, anyway.
**Note: Even though the NYT uses “music stylist” and “music consultant” interchangeably, I'm going to stick with the former term because I think it's the better label for this type of domestic boutique work. The latter term, on the other hand, has been around longer and used more specifically to refer to people who advise on commercial uses of music such films, live productions, or in public spaces such malls, airports, and stores – even if they are “bespoke.” Maybe stylist and consultant are both part of the same spectrum of music supplying services and I'm needlessly splitting hairs here, but split they are, nonetheless.
A while ago I got a hold of about one year's worth of back issues of RPM, the Canadian music industry trade magazine which ran from 1964 to 2000. These days, RPM is perhaps most known for giving Canada the Juno Awards (trivia: founded in 1964 and originally called the Gold Leaf Awards, the name-change occurred in 1971 as an homage to Pierre Juneau, the CRTC chair who brought in the CanCon regulations.), but as a record of the development of the music industry in Canada, its prevailing attitudes, and its points of contention, RPM is a rich source.
And, if you go back far enough, it's also a source for a lot quirky news items. Like a lot of old news articles and advertisements, these tidbits were probably not seen as oddities at the time, but can be re-cast as such due to the 30 to 40 year+ gap in perspectives as well as touches of historical amnesia. In other words, they're kinda weird because we're taking them out-of-context. Of course, news agencies have long had an 'off-beat' section or column, but that's a different and deliberate method.
Take a little article I came across titled 'Halifax using positive programming' in the 27 February, 1971 edition. Reporter Joseph Edwards writes that 'radio station CHNS is going all out to fight pessimism with a new positive approach to all its programming called “Have a Happy Day”. The new idea behind the theme is to help listeners get relief from the tense, difficult, and troubled times of today's world'. This was an apparently comprehensive approach as it involved 'all kinds of programs and community activities to help listeners have a happy day'.
Okay, so far, it's not that strange, although it does make me wonder if the post-60s hangover known as the 70s really got so bleak and depressing so quickly that a radio station felt compelled to devote itself entirely to an Optimists' Club format. Then again, this was only four months after the October Crisis and the successor of the War Measures Act was in effect until April 1971, so calling the prevailing mood at the time 'tense, difficult, and troubled' as Edwards does seems reasonable enough. Maybe the bleakness came later?
Moving on, we're given a summary of CHNS's take on contemporary popular music: 'There are so few happy songs around, since most of the recent compositions seem to reflect a sad or dramatic theme of broken marriages, unhappy love, or divorce, etc., especially in the country and western field.'
I guess the now well-worn stereotype of country hadn't evolved yet – or at least it hadn't made its way to Canada, but no matter. What these excerpts mainly conjure up for me is the brand identity of every 'easy listening' music radio station I've ever encountered (usually in waiting rooms and malls), with tag lines promising to give the listener a break, speed up the work day, and play all your favourite 'lite' hits.
Easy listening as an identified category with a specific genre label came about in the 1960s and thus was still relatively new at the time of CHNS's format shift in 1971. This would explain why the station was so detailed in the branding of its novel format and is part of what, for me, makes this article stand out in a funny (ironic and ha-ha) way. But the genre of easy listening also has close ties with 'middle-of-the-road' (MOR) and 'adult contemporary' (aka 'music-of-today', MOT), which in turn are linked with 'beautiful music' aka 'mood music' aka 'muzak' or 'elevator music' – genres (or perhaps more accurately 'services'?) that were designed primarily not for individual, personal consumption, but for use as a backdrop in a retail or other professional setting (hold music, offices, stores). These could be provided by being directly 'piped in' (as with the Muzak company), or they could have been broadcast via normal over-the-air FM frequencies, but both types of services and associated musical styles go back farther than the 1960s.
Of course, the progression from the audio wallpaper of elevator music radio to the easy listening stations as we would now recognise them didn't happen in one fell swoop; there was likely a lot of messing around with the formats, and while I need to investigate all of this in much greater detail, for now I'm just going to go ahead and place CHNS's 'positive programming' in the hazy area of growing pains on the way to the solidified easy listening format. Maybe in time I'll find answers to questions such as when and why was there a clear, significant shift from 'mood music' radio as mostly unobtrusive background filler to the current and rather ostentatious sound image of easy listening stations as purveyors of 'hot but not heavy' hits?; was it an extension of belief in the Muzak sales pitch that certain types of music could be used to increase worker productivity, boost sales, or diffuse awkward situations?; or was it more tied to the growing tendency in radio to target niche markets rather than a wide, general audience? There's a lot I need to learn about the history of radio.
Before we finally ditch CHNS, I have to relate one last bit from Edwards' report. As a result of the alleged dearth of 'happy songs',** CHNS had a new theme song written up. The tune 'Have a Happy Day', 'which can only be heard on CHNS would be, according to musicologists, near or at the top of the hit parade charts if released commercially'. Really? Musicologists as hit parade prophets? Maybe even taste makers? I suppose the '-ology' does make it sound like there's some complex scientific formula we could use to predict such things, but I'm afraid the reality is much less spectacular
** I tried to get a sense of how justified this claim was by taking the very exacting approach of spending an hour skimming RPM singles and CanCon charts for the six months leading up to this article. Saying there were 'so few happy songs' is an exaggeration, as popular tunes such as 'As the Years Go By' (Mashmakhan), 'I Believe in Sunshine' (Madrigal), 'Higher and Higher' (covered here by Canada Goose), and 'We've Only Just Begun' (The Carpenters) would indicate. However, there were also some pretty successful 'downer' tunes such as 'Big Yellow Taxi' (Joni Mitchell), 'Snowbird' (Anne Murray), 'If You Could Read My Mind' (Gordon Lightfoot), ' I Hear You Knocking' (Dave Edmunds); and, for good measure, there's just plain old creepy in 'Knock Three Times' (Dawn; just look up the lyrics). Anyone interested in trying to objectively quantify the number of 'happy' versus 'sad' songs themselves can access the digital archive of over 10,000 RPM charts here.