Is music policed and controlled?

A new course in music policy starting at the University of Edinburgh this month aims to open students' eyes to the politics of sound, teaching them about who is allowed to make music, and who is allowed to hear it, and why. The course – the first of its kind – will encourage third- and fourth-year music students to think about how music is patronised and policed, and what motivates the people and organisations behind it.

"'Music policy' can refer to an explicit exercise of power – for example, the Taliban's prohibition of instruments," says the course's devisor, Richard Witts, who also teaches sociology and music and aspects of 20th-century music at Edinburgh. "There are European Union policies on music provision and British government plans for school music. The BBC has music policies just like the British Council and Arts Council England. It covers issues from local-government regulation of venues to the downloading debate."

Witts's life in music has been diverse: a classically trained percussionist, he played in the Hallé Orchestra before establishing the Manchester Musicians' Collective with the composer Trevor Wishart. In 1978, he formed post-punk group The Passage, influenced as much by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage as the Sex Pistols and Joy Division.

But his experience of British cultural institutions has also shaped the course. While in The Passage, Witts was the Merseyside Arts Association's music and dance officer, before taking over from Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records, to present Granada TV's What's On, then securing an arts slot on BBC2's music programme the Oxford Road Show.

He moved into teaching in 2000, after Goldsmiths invited him to lecture on Stravinsky. Now, after seven years, he has developed his "completely unique" course, which aims to teach students about the set-up of local and national organisations that govern music – their structures and aims – and to explore the reasons behind their law-making, and funding and licensing decisions.

"People who patronise music tend to lead it in a certain direction," says Witts. "People who have power tend to support certain types of music and not support other styles. That's my main focus."

An example is Brighton & Hove Council's ban on music said to advocate the murder of gay men. In 2006, the Brighton venue Concorde 2 was forced to cancel a performance by the controversial reggae artist Buju Banton after the council threatened to withdraw its live-music licence, a precedent that led to its subsequent decision to refuse a licence to any venues that played the offending music. Some attacked the council's "censorship", but Witts wants his students to think beyond the freedom-of-speech debate, considering instead the extent to which such bans can remedy the causes of social problems.

"Brighton & Hove Council believed they were doing something good – supporting those confronting homophobia in the lyrics of certain artists. The argument is that you're simply inhibiting a symptom and not really dealing with homophobia. That's the sort of thing I want to explore," says Witts.

The "murder-music" case highlighted the role that music, particularly popular music with lyrics, can play in forming its listeners' opinions, and the resultant feeling by government bodies that they need to police it, he says. "It's a practical issue: policy penetrates every institution, particularly the BBC, with a set policy for every radio station." He says that every venue, from a pub to the Barbican, is policed in licensing and health and safety, and they are the settings in which music is allowed or not allowed to take place.

He believes this social control of sound occurs at every level of British society, from the presence of the "mosquito" (a device placed in public spaces that emits a high-pitched sound only audible to under-25s, intended to discourage loitering) to the class and race of those involved with the Last Night of the Proms (the Proms' lack of racial diversity was recently criticised by Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Culture, Creative Industries & Tourism).

This is an issue that Witts has confronted in the past. At Merseyside Arts Association, he convinced the Arts Council and the Royal Ballet to confront racism at the Royal Ballet School.

This institutional regulation goes beyond modern Britain, says Witts. The Taliban banned all musical activity except the singing of certain religious songs and pro-Taliban chants. This followed 14 years of stringent censorship by Afghanistan's Communist government. The roots of such control, though, pre-date political ideologies, and even the Christian and Islamic faiths: they can be found in ancient Greek philosophy.

"Plato suggested that music had a tremendous power that should be contained," says Witts. Plato thought one type of music in particular was too effeminate to be played to men.

Witts put his grasp of music theory into practice in The Passage. The group's best-known song, "XOYO", applied John Cage's notion of aleatoric composition to pop music, with the band improvising within the song's structure rather than having every note fixed during rehearsal. How, though, will his students be able to put the theories he imparts to a practical use?

"If you understand music policy and local government regulations, it's more likely to lead to a job than other music studies," he says, suggesting that such understanding will not only enable students to enter such institutions with confidence, but to succeed within them.

And maybe even change them: Witts' study of the Arts Council, Artist Unknown: An Alternative History of the Arts Council, led to changes in the way the Arts Council was organised. "I think it is of fundamental importance for students to understand how music exists in society," he says.

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