Monday, September 20, 2010

Explorers and Couch Potatoes

Minnesota State University currently offers a course entitled, "Explorers and Couch Potatoes: Active and Passive Media." The class seems to be geared towards media writing majors, and it provides an in-depth analysis of the two major types of audiences in the world of contemporary media: the active audience and the passive (the explorers and the couch potatoes). The course description makes it clear that modern media writers must approach these two audiences in very different ways, and it defines the gulf that separates the two audiences in very clear terms (see the chart below).

For me, one of the most provocative points that Levine makes in Chapter 3 of Highbrow/Lowbrow deals with classical music's shift from cultivating an active audience to demanding a passive one. Levine writes: "To make art possible, performers and audiences had to submit to creators and become mere instruments of the will, mere auditors of the productions of the artist." He goes on to explain that, by the turn of the century, classical music no longer belonged to the performers and their audiences; instead, it belonged to an immortalized classical canon. Symphonies and operas had become gallery artworks, meant to be accepted according to a set of criteria established by music critics. Audiences no longer attended concerts of classical music with the idea that they themselves would be expected to pass judgement. They no longer threw tomatoes when disgruntled or shouted raucously for encores. Instead, they came with the proper attire (no three-foot hats allowed!) and the proper mindset, sitting passively and accepting whatever type of "art" was offered. Classical music had become a mode of one-way, rather than two-way, communication.

The gulf between explorers and couch potatoes was widened even further by the advent of film. In a movie theater, audiences were removed from the performers by much more than just a curtain and a spotlight. In fact, nothing at all was required of such an audience; nothing spectators could say or do would alter the performance to any degree.

Read the description of active and passive audiences below, and tell me what you think about 21st-century music and the type of audience it demands. Does contemporary classical music cater to an active or a passive audience? What about aleatoric music? Popular forms? Should we be trying (as modern composers and performers) to reach out to an active audience, a passive one, or both? Is there a way to approach passive audiences on their own terms and re-teach them to be active listeners? (If the text below gets cut off for some reason, you can visit the original site here:

Active (Newspapers, Magazines
& the Internet)
Passive (Television & Radio)
About half of all American adults read a newspaper daily (readership is weighted toward greater age, education and affluence; somewhat stronger in suburban and rural settings)About two-thirds of all American adults watch TV news (consistent across all ages, education levels, incomes and other demographic data)
Active audience seeks out information of interest ("pull" strategy)Passive audience receives information with little focused effort
Newspapers reach mass audience limited by geography. Magazines may appeal to general or specialized interests. Internet sites may serve either.Generally broadcast to mass audiences, limited by extent of signal. Cable TV has introduced more specialized targeting. Radio formats also permit some degree of "narrowcasting."
Readers are usually fully engaged in the act of readingViewers/listeners are often distracted ... their attention must be captured first
Readers must be literate in English Literacy isn't a factor — commonly used by children, non-native English speakers and others who get little from the printed word
Substantial cost factor (subscriptions, newsstand purchase, computer & Internet access) — though library users can access at no personal costLittle cost for access to local stations beyond buying the TV or radio — though cost is a factor in access to cable or satellite services
Audience has greater interest in public affairs — usually well-versed in our cultureBroader audience whose interest in public affairs can't be assumed. Often serves as introduction to our culture
Nonlinear or "random access" format — reader can easily pick and choose material of personal interestLinear (sequential) presentation of information — audience can’t skip around or go back
Time element is wide open, depending on reader's needsBroadcast and viewed in "real time" (though TV programs can be taped for later viewing or references)
Text media are well-suited to provide in-depth material including details and background informationBroadcasts provide generally weak format for providing details and background; usually focus on summaries and overviews
Relies mostly on words to portray emotion, action, drama, humor. Strong format for presenting emotional, dramatic and humorous content (visuals and sounds)
Audience is primarily seeking informationAudience is seeking a combination of entertainment, relaxation and information


Jaunter said...

I feel that out of the entire list, the last of the list says it best. The active audience is seeking information where the passive one is seeking entertainment and relaxation as well. It was very clear that today we live in a passive world in this sense. Even when people do appreciate classical music they usually say it's because it's "relaxing" or "calming". I remember once practicing a particularly disturbing harmonically excerpt of Hindemith with a strange character to it. It short it's not a pretty passage, and yet those around me complimented the music for being relaxing! Either I played much more beautifully than intended or the people listening assumed that all classical music is to be relaxing. When I play for my father he declares anything other quartet equals 96 to be boring, thus looking for entertainment. As others have already said I feel that we need to somehow convey to the audience variety of emotion or ideas the music we play can represent and that there is no right answer, only their answer which will always be right as long as they believe in it.

Dave B. said...

I think we're onto something here: this argument relates to the question of whether music should be entertaining or educational (or both)? Jaunter, it sounds like you believe that music should be educational, or at the very least emotionally stimulating. I think many of us in this class would agree with that statement.

However, Levine's book makes it pretty clear that early-to-mid 19th century audiences were interested primarily in entertainment, not education. The interesting thing is that they derived this entertainment from Shakespeare, Italian opera, Beethoven symphonies, etc. So, in a sense the audience's expectations haven't changed between the early 19th century and today, but the source of their entertainment has.

Not really sure where this is leading, but I thought it was interesting. Comments?