Live Music Exchange Blog

Simon Frith and Politics: An Interview


In March 2012 Live Music Exchange supremos Martin Cloonan and Simon Frith got together to chat about music and politics in the context of Simon’s academic career. Here we present an edited transcript of the interview.

MC: Can you tell me when you first started writing about Popular Music?

SF: My very first piece of writing about popular music was when I was a student at Oxford.  I was already intrigued by what was happening to pop and (with my then girl friend) I thought that it would be good to interview some of the people who particularly interested me.   Isis, which was the University magazine, had very little interest in popular music at that time [mid-1960s] so we had a clear field.

My original interest, the person I first wanted to interview, was Andrew Loog Oldham – even at that time I was interested in how the business was evolving.  I can’t remember how I made contact but I must have worked out how to call him. Anyway we arranged to meet him in his office as I thought but when we arrived there was no sign of him until, eventually, two people who looked vaguely familiar came in and I realised – not immediately I have to say – that they were Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. And so I said, “Oh actually I don’t want to interview you, I want to interview Andrew Loog Oldham” and they weren’t very happy and said, “He doesn’t do interviews”.

Anyway we interviewed them and it was quite an interesting interview in terms of the research we’re doing now (on live music), because they were in the classic position of having a year earlier booked to do an Oxford ball, which I think meant that they even had to come back from the States – certainly they were losing money on the night and weren’t very happy to be speaking to an Oxford undergraduate. Afterwards I remember going down in the lift and Mick was already entwined with a glamorous black star – Patti Labelle, maybe.

After that was published in Isis, I decided that what I could do (not having got access to the business) was something on the relationship of rock and jazz and this again is interesting for later research – rock at that time was clearly connected to jazz in certain ways [something that comes out in the first volume of our live music history].  And because there was a significantly good jazz writer on Isis in those days [Chris Sheridan], who could get stuff published and went on to be a professional jazz critic, I thought this might be a way we could get to do some rock stuff.

So I arranged to interview The Animals and Manfred Mann about the relationship between what they did and jazz.  I agreed to interview The Animals in some drinking club in Soho. They were all there and I couldn’t understand a word they said because they were speaking in broad Geordie, whereas Manfred Mann was a very nicely spoken young man. He was originally from South Africa and I went to his house in somewhere like Barnes. The interviews were published as an article about rock and jazz.

But that was the last thing I did. Oxford at that time was not particularly rock orientated. And so I didn’t do anything after that.

Then I went to Berkeley [as a postgrad] and towards the end of my time there, through a friend of a friend who was a graduate student in Politics rather than Sociology, I met Greil Marcus. He was involved in the founding of Rolling Stone and when I came back to Britain he asked if I would write for them – we’d obviously got on just talking about music. He got me to write reviews first of Gene Vincent and then the Small Faces.

Live Reviews?

Records – before he lost his job as reviews editor. The thing about that which was significant was that it gave me the confidence that I could do it.

I was by then doing my PhD research [on 19th century education] in Keighley in Yorkshire. (Also the place I did some of the youth and music research later published as part of The Sociology of Rock).

I saw this new magazine in a shop in Leeds called Cream. And I wrote a piece on “Why aren’t there any women in rock?” or on what happened to women when they were in rock. I sent it in completely on spec and didn’t hear anything back at all. The next time I picked an issue of Cream in the shop there was my article on very prominent display. But I still had no letter from them, they didn’t come back to me with any reference to payment or anything!

As a result of that piece, though, Charlie Gillett, who was Cream’s reviews editor, contacted me and asked if I’d like to do reviews. That was my way in to the London network of music writers – Dave Laing was another key Cream writer. So after that I got to know other London-based critics.

At about the same time, I can’t quite remember the exact timing of all this, Greil left Rolling Stone and that generation of US rock critics started gravitating to some extent to the Michigan-based US magazine, Creem. Dave Marsh was editor at the time and he commissioned me to start writing a monthly column called Letter from Britain about what was happening in British rock.

That started in ’72 and got me in to the American critics network [Lester Bangs succeeded Dave as my editor and when the Creem gig came to an end I took the column to Robert Christgau’s music section in the Village Voice] . So I was well connected by the time I got my first academic job [in Sociology at Warwick University] even though I didn’t really know anybody, I was never based in London, which was unusual.

And when did you start teaching Popular Music

When I came to Scotland in 1987, no, not even immediately then. Probably 1988.

Colin MacCabe had become Professor of English at Strathclyde after he got laid off by Cambridge. And he started the John Logie Baird Centre which was a research centre for film and television, which was a joint venture with Glasgow University and involved John Caughie.

I don’t know quite know when the JLB was launched but I met Colin when I went to one of the big Marxist jamborees in the USA organised by Larry Grossberg. And Colin was interested in my popular music connections and decided that I could access money. And as he was leaving Strathclyde at that point he asked me if I’d be willing to take over as Director of the John Logie Baird Centre.  I said “yes”, but then he found out there wasn’t any money for that!

It was an interesting time in Britain, however, and Colin managed to get two years worth of funding from Channel 4’s research department to pay for me so I took leave of absence from Warwick. And my initial job was to add popular music to the Centre’s research remit – Colin’s idea was that I would raise money from the music industry to do this.

I did have an interesting meeting with Bruce Findlay (then manager of Simple Minds) about this where I tried to persuade him to fund a Simple Minds Professor of Music. He was equally enthusiastic about the title but explained that the rhythm of Simple Minds’ earnings made such an endowment impossible.  They made good money after a record was released but their income then declined until the next release

It quickly became clear that the music industry didn’t have the sort of person who could put significant funds into higher education [the Ertegun bequest to Oxford was still in the far future] and the Channel 4 money was coming to an end. Warwick said I had to make a decision about whether I was going back or not. I liked Scotland better than I liked England. And for various reasons to do with Strathclyde’s academic politics, in 1989 I was able to switch over to being Professor of English (as well as JLB Director) for which I had no qualifications whatsoever. This meant I was properly funded and not dependent on Channel 4 any more.

Some time in that period between 1987 and 1989 John Caughie and I developed a Masters in Media Culture. I taught an option on Popular Music, so that was the first time I did it.

So you didn’t do any Popular Music teaching at Warwick?

At Warwick I didn’t do any Popular Music teaching as such. I was appointed because of my PhD in Historical Sociology to teach a joint course with the History Department. And then I developed into sociology straight, though I didn’t really do any teaching even on the sociology of youth, although I did research on it.

The key development for me was Richard Dyer’s arrival into Warwick’s Film Studies department. With Terry Lovell, a colleague in Sociology, Richard and I developed a joint class in Sociology and Film, initially on the 1930s and then on the 1950s, and within that was some reference to popular music, although this was more to do with film musicals and then music on TV. I did get to a session of Gracie Fields but I wasn’t really teaching popular music as such.

I didn’t realise that you started teaching Pop so late


Going back before that, can you recall the reaction to The Sociology of Rock? How was that received?

Well that was interesting because it was commissioned by a respected Sociologist, Jeremy Tunstall for a series on the Sociology of Communication. And by that time I’d also begun to attend seminars at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies and do some work with them.

This meant my work was placed not so much in Music or even Sociology as in Communications, Cultural Studies, that area.   The book got well-enough reviewed in the places it got reviewed but I don’t think it particularly interested Sociologists outside those fields.

What I do remember is that when I applied for promotion at Warwick it was turned down. My then Head of Department said it would be more sensible for me to concentrate on what I originally did, the Sociology of Education, than on the Sociology of Pop Music. I was so outraged that I wrote to Ronnie Frankenburg, Professor of Sociology at Keele. I didn’t know him but I liked his work (he was essentially a social anthropologist) and knew that he had supported work on popular music as editor of Sociology Review. I don’t think he knew my work but I was sure he’d approve of the fact that I did it. I asked him if I could I use him as a referee if I applied for promotion again and he said “absolutely”.

So at least I knew that there was someone in Sociology who was going to say that this was a good thing to do.

What about Musicology?

Musicology I had no dealings with at all at that point.

Had things changed by the time Sound Effects came out?

Well Sound Effects was rather different because… The reason why Sound Effects happened was because Sociology of Rock was sent around American publishers to see if they wanted to publish it in America. And rather unexpectedly a person who became a friend, Wendy Wolf, who worked for Pantheon, which was an independent leftie publisher, decided that it was a good topic. And she wanted to publish it, but said that if so it couldn’t be an academic book, it had to be written for the mainstream market, for culturally informed but not academic readers. So she basically told me I had to rewrite it from beginning to end, not simply to de-academise it or to Americanise it, but just to write it better. It was the first time I’ve been edited academically by somebody who went through what I wrote with a toothcomb and said “this doesn’t really make sense” or “this might be shorter”.

When Sound Effects came out in the States it was marketed very differently from Sociology of Rock in Britain. It wasn’t sold as an academic book. It was reviewed in all the mainstream newspapers and it was part of the rock writing scene in the US context.

And then Constable in Britain, because it was a better book in some ways (though not in others), did a reissue and the second edition of Sociology of Rock became Sound Effects. And that got reviewed rather differently in Britain too. It moved me out of Sociology formally and into Cultural Studies. So it had a much bigger impact but not in Sociology. That’s when Colin MacCabe came in and it made good sense for me to change my academic base.

IASPM (the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) forms in 1981. What are your memories of that and what are your views on how IASPM subsequently develops?

Well, IASPM! This is kind of interesting. This is where I first came into contact with Musicology. My sense of dates is a little unclear but I guess because of my journalistic presence and Sociology of Rock and Sound Effects I was invited to a small popular music conference at Keele that was in the Music Department. The key figure there, I think, was Peter Dickinson, the first chair of Music at Keele, who had established a centre for the study of American music, including American popular music (though this was not his field) and my memory is that  the Keele people there were Americanists. I can’t remember how popular music  was defined in advance but the person I most remember from the actual meeting was Philip Tagg, partly because I’d been at school with him and hadn’t seen him since and partly because (as you know) Philip is the sort who pulls things together. Although I don’t think it was his meeting, we were all soon being driven by his notion that we ought to be making a much more radical attack on academic Musicology and developing a new field of Popular Music Studies.

Whether he’d already had this idea and was just feeding into the Keele gathering or whether Keele encouraged him to take it further I’ve no idea, but for me the decision to organise the meeting in Amsterdam at which IASPM was set up seemed to follow naturally from the Keele discussions. In Britain the key people – and again I have no idea how these contacts were made because I haven’t asked – were David Horn and Richard Middleton.

David was a librarian and an American specialist; Richard’s PhD had been on the blues but he also belonged to a pioneering group of popular musicologists who were starting to appear from Wilfrid Mellers’ department in York (Richard, John Shepherd, Graham Vulliamy). These were the first musicologists I met and approached popular music very differently than media scholars I knew, such as  Graham Murdock at Leicester’s Centre for Mass Communication Research, who’d done stuff on youth and music, or the cultural studies people at Birmingham.

From my perspective, then, IASPM was from the start a kind of musicological enterprise. The people I remember as being significant at the Amsterdam meeting were Charles Hamm, who was known for his musicological work on American popular song, and European musicians and music teachers who Philip knew, including people who’d worked with my brother, like Franco Fabbri, radical rock people.

I also met Stan Rijven, who became a good friend, who was a journalist and Roger Wallis who was based in Sweden and I guess knew Philip from there. He and Stan were certainly interested in the music industry but as much as practitioners as academics.  So the early IASPM was a funny mixture of people but that’s certainly where Musicology came in.

What are you views on the subsequent on the development of IASPM?

My views are certainly distorted by the fact that I haven’t been to an IASPM meeting for some time. When IASPM started it had, well, it was obviously politically very radical and it was very much European based. It was not particularly centred in the academy. And it had quite a strong commitment to working with people within the music business and musicians and so on.

And because a lot of it was European-based, in a lot of small European countries the gap between those people is not very big, they are often the same people. So certainly for all the time I was active in IASPM, say for the first 15 years, it was kind of ad hoc, there was a sense of a loose musical community, that was kind of radical and certainly rock-orientated and in some ways, academic – but academic in a rather eccentric sort of way.

I think it developed in the States from much earlier on as a type of professional organisation because of the way the US academy works – there seemed to be less input there from people who weren’t academics. And the academics, in turn, were more likely to see IASPM as an organisation that was good for careers and networking and everything else. So there was quite a tension between the US and Europeans. And there was also to some extent a tension between people who were very much rock focused and other people who’d come out of studying other types of music and then drifted away, again.

But having said all that IASPM was remarkably productive and the IASPM Conference was the only academic gathering I ever liked going to. And it was always supportive. I mean there were some fraught meetings (Berlin, in particular) but they were always open; there wasn’t a clear hierarchy between the established scholars and new people coming in; there weren’t any particular canonical texts, or notions of how you should do it, or required methodologies or anything else. I think that in the way it developed some of the tensions remained, particularly over language, American-centricism, rockism, all that sort of stuff but, on the whole, it’s become pretty much an enjoyable but quite orthodox academic conference.

For me IASPM events became somewhat bland, nice socially, but intellectually not particularly stimulating. There are some sorts of scholarship in IASPM which I don’t have much time for but that’s neither here nor there. It’s more that I think it’s… I think one thing IASPM failed to do was to really keep connections with other ways in which Popular Music was being studied, worked on, analysed outside the academy. In terms of politics, IASPM is not a body that’s made any significant statements about copyright extension or ticketing or other policy issues. It seems to have lost connection with that world.

On the other hand, and I’ve written about this, IASPM never really made any proper connections with Jazz Studies or with ethnomusicology which is where some of the most interesting academic work on popular music can be found. It’s as if IASPM froze ‘Popular Music Studies’ into a particular shape. What’s gone is IASPM’s original sense of complete confusion!

You mentioned Politics and my argument is that throughout its existence Popular Music Studies has always been covertly political. Is that something you could agree with?

Yes. I think it’s one of the reasons why… I mean I think its politics is quite complicated and don’t necessarily have all good effects. If you think institutionally I suppose – if I can separate out for one moment, journalism, on the one hand, and academia,on the other – journalism has been important in Popular Music Studies because a lot of the early writers on popular music theoretically were actually journalists and they were engaged therefore in communicating to a different audience. But they became quite significant in establishing how people thought about it.

So, for example, Charlie Gillett’s Sound of The City, which remains a great book, was extremely influential on how people think about the relationship between independents, locality, the majors and everything else. But because it was not academic it never got engaged in the debates that an academic might have staged (about methodology, for example), which is interesting – I don’t think it happens like that in other academic fields. In popular music studies concepts got absorbed without necessarily being questioned.

Now I think within journalism it’s not insignificant that rock as a particular field of popular music encourages a particular sort of theorization – a concern for the machinations of industry and commerce, for politics, which you wouldn’t find… which you do find to some extent in Jazz Studies, but you certainly wouldn’t find in the history of people writing about light music. If you read journalists in the 1930s writing about dance hall trios or any other sort of music for entertainment they wouldn’t have been particularly concerned about the sorts of questions that rock journalists were concerned about.

I think that’s partly due to the earliest rock journalists needing to find places to write. One of the things that really struck me when I met people like Charlie Gillett was that if you were a young writer wanting to write about popular music the sorts of places you could write were effectively at that time underground magazines or in Britain – I don’t know enough about other countries – various kinds of leftie papers. Dave Laing would be good on this. For him to become a professional music journalist, which I didn’t but he did, a lot of his writing in the 1970s time had to be for magazines that were one way or another politically orientated and therefore what his readership was interested in and the sorts of ways you interviewed musicians, all those sorts of things, were political. It didn’t really matter if you were political or not yourself, you were anyway drawn into a political discourse. And you can see that kind of echoing down through the 1980s and into the 1990s so that even in the heyday of, say, NME, in punk times, it still had a political edge. When I was writing for Melody Maker regularly it was perfectly possible for me to write and get away with writing stuff both about the music industry, because that was still interesting to people, and about Rock Against Racism, which was seen as part of what MM  was about.

So there was a strand of being political which was just part of the material context of all that music. And that was true of people in the academy too, but in the academy it was also tied up with the kind of radicalism there was around the universities in those days. I mean when was it when you first went to university?

Mid 80s.

Yeah you were probably just after.

We did have a miners’ strike!

Well that was probably the culmination in some ways of … I mean when I went to Warwick, Marxism, Capital reading groups, recruiting drives from various Trot sects and so on were a kind of norm (this was probably when the SWP was at its height in academic membership terms. It was kind of taken for granted that if you were a young academic (at least in the social sciences but probably in the humanities too) you would be involved in thinking about what effects Marxism and all subsequent Marxist theoretical stuff had had on your field. If you were writing about popular music you could not not deal with Adorno, just because you had to think about the culture industry. You had to think about those things.

So I think Popular Music Studies was necessarily political just because of the times in which it was developed and because it was seen as developing against the grain of all the other disciplines people were involved in.

Now I think that went within 20 years (ie by the mid-1990s). I think, going back to what you were saying earlier, I think that if you look at most people teaching Popular Music now they are not doing it in that 1970s/1980s context. They are mostly doing it in a context in which they are having to pretend that they are providing a vocational education so that their university can attract students. It’s a very, very, different model and understanding of what you’re doing Popular Music Studies for.

At the beginning we were in very political times, inevitably, and that had an effect on how rock got treated which led to a lot of problems later on.

How would you describe your own politics at that point?

I guess intellectually I’ve always thought Marx made better sense of the world than anyone else because of his kind of materialism and because my PhD was on the history of education and thinking about changing class structure in the nineteenth century and the relationship between culture and class has therefore always been central to the work I’ve done. And Marx still makes best sense of that. So in that sense I would still regard myself as what was once upon a time called a Marxist and still would be except that the term means so many different things now.

I wasn’t particularly sympathetic to all the kind of high theory that came along in the 1970s that seemed to me to kind of take Marxism away from the original materialistic stuff.

In terms of political organisation, again I think this is very generational. As a teenager I was at a school, a Methodist boarding school in Cambridge, at which there was enough local presence of a kind of CND-type radicalism that that it fed significantly into how I rebelled against the school ethos. The Bomb seemed a very significant and necessary thing to be thinking about in the 60s. So I went on CND marches. One of the more terrifying memories of my life is hitch-hiking to Glasgow when I was 15 or 16 to take part in anti-Polaris submarine demonstrations and for the first time in my life coming across Glasgow anarchists who really did hate the police, stopping to throw bricks at them (laughs). Which was not quite what a nice middle class boy did, even on a CND march.

And then in York where I was living I went to the folk club in a pub until we all got expelled for being a Trotskyist front organisation. I didn’t know what a Trotskyist was, I thought that I was in the Young Socialists.

The Labour Party Young Socialists?

Yes, I was in the Labour Party Young Socialists and then I was in the Labour Party. And when I went to Oxford in my first term was the 1964 election, so I campaigned. I spent a lot of evenings walking round the estates of Oxford handing out Labour Party things and knocking on people’s doors and stuff. And I went on being Labour active like that for that election and the next one.

And then when I was in California there was all sorts of demonstrations — I was  threatened suspension by the University for speaking (just my name!) at a free speech event. So there was a kind of politics that was essentially generational. I mean even the Rolling Stones had to sing about it!

I was never drawn to the discipline of the various sorts of Trotskyist party. So I never joined any of those and wasn’t particularly impressed by the people who did. I wasn’t impressed by that sort of dogma. I was always much… later on in the late 60s and 70s the things I got involved in were much more to do either with the Communist Party   – which in the Martin Jacques stage was having much more interesting debates – or with some peculiar communitarian organisations which, I guess, were not exactly Trots, like Big Flame and some of the more… Because a lot of the writing I did was for leftie magazines because I was asked to write something and the sort of political stuff I would do I have no idea how it would read today. For example I can remember writing about Wham’s, whatever their big hit was…

Wham Rap?

Yeah Wham Rap, in terms of celebrating the fact that working class youth refused to work! You know, we shouldn’t be obsessing ourselves with, we shouldn’t be obsessing ourselves with job creating schemes, we should be thinking about this new ideology of resisting proletarianisation and all that sort of stuff. So I was much more interested in that sort of slightly more communitarian self-organizational stuff.

In terms of the debates at the time Dave Harker would certainly have regarded me as a complete bourgeois layabout which is probably true.

So my involvement tended to be… I would always, you know, get involved in campaigns and write for all sorts of leftie journals, but not particularly have a line that I thought you had to write, I just wrote what I wrote and sometimes the pieces wouldn’t get published.

[As a footnote to the above it’s probably worth noting that the early IASPM was more engaged with the politics of the Communist Party than with Trotskyism, reflecting its European concerns and particularly its engagement with Eastern Bloc countries, which had IASPM members from early on. Music for Socialism was a significant organisation which seems to have been written out of British rock history.]

The other line I tried to put forward was that you’ve been more overtly – or publicly – political in recent years through involvement in policy issues. Is that a story you recognise?

Yes and I think that’s interesting. Then again I think my engagement has a longer history than you have it …

I mean this is a really interesting aspect of the history of Popular Music Studies. It’s partly to do with the way in which popular music became part of a policy agenda which changed the way in which you could be political. And that happened for me while I was still at Warwick. And I can’t quite remember how… but when I was at Warwick I got funding, because I was still interested in youth culture I got some youth research funding – and I have absolutely no idea how this happened, I can’t remember at all how this happened – but I got research funding to do a study of youth culture in Coventry and how young people were making the transition to work in that time of high unemployment and the particular significance of drugs and musical culture and so forth. And there was was enough money to employ a full time research worker and a part time research worker so it must have been quite a big grant, must have been from some local Coventry youth charity.

Now as a result of that I got much more interested in the kind of everyday life of policy around youth. I became interested because the leftie social-worker type policy people who were working in Coventry at the time were beginning to develop new ideas and arguments around municipal policy more generally. This was partly a response to the decline of municipal Labourism and the problems of maintaining a local industrial policy in the face of Thatcherism. This new concern for what would become known as cultural industries was completely different from previous local political concerns – you know, in Coventry the SWP was still outside the car factories (which were closing down), there was the miners’ strike you talked about, but there was also the collapse of the car industry and all that stuff but I was becoming much more engaged with what youth clubs should be doing or what local policy should be on city centre night spots (just the sort of thing we’re researching now!)

And some of these Coventry people, some of the people involved in that project who were quite dynamic social workers, moved to Sheffield, got jobs in Sheffield and started developing what became the Cultural Industries quarter. And because I knew them I got involved in that for a while… And then through stuff I was writing I got friendly with people like Simon Emerson  from the National Union of School Students who were in the Young Communists at that time, a lot of whom were music people trying to change CP policy on pop, discos, etc. Some of the people I met there were involved in local music projects and I helped them set up a federation of music projects, so that all the music projects around the country could meet and compare notes, which we did, in Sheffield.

So that was a kind of long draw in local music policy issues and then through that I also got invited to Labour Party meetings in London. I can’t remember when the GLC was abolished but at some point Nick Garnham and people around him began to discuss new kinds of Labour policy for the creative industries. There was this sort of music industry committee in London, which included Phil Hardy, who I knew from the old Marxist rock writing circle, and people like Pete Jenner and John Preston, lefties within the music industry.

When punk started I also got to know people like Geoff Travis… that aspect of political punk which was about Do It Yourself music making (rather than the Trotskyite Rock Against Racism stuff, which was significant but not particularly interested in the music industry, far from it).

So I guess in that sense the policy stuff started then.

And then when I came to Scotland I was astonished that in Scotland you could, as an academic, be involved in music policy making in a much more direct way… I mean in England it was all very much local policy enclaves which had nothing to do with my academic life whatsoever. And I guess quite soon after that I met you and that was quite an inspiration as well just ‘cos you had the energy to do it.

I always have to tell people that I wouldn’t have got any of these grants if you hadn’t said “Why aren’t you writing the fucking application?”


Yes I always thought my role was to push you on to do things that I wasn’t good enough to do!

It was funny when I came to Scotland… this is the other thing I think that’s interesting about how IASPM has changed. One of the things I was concerned about when I was active in in IASPM UK was that we should do more local activities that engaged with non-academic people… I don’t know if you remember, probably before your time, we had a series of little pamphlets which were designed for public interest – we wrote one about Live Aid and there were other things.

And when I was at Warwick, we started local meetings in Birmingham which were deliberately designed to bring together academics and other interested people. I can remember organising a meeting – and this was really through people in Birmingham I knew in the local music scene – about punk. I remember very vividly having a meeting where we went to a venue where a punk band was performing that evening and the sound crew were there and we all sat round as academics, or people from IASPM, watching the sound check and then asked them questions about why they kept mixing down the girl’s voice. One of the mixers said, “Well she can’t sing, you can’t have it that loud” and somebody in the audience said, “Well, that’s the whole point of this sort of music!”

You know, it was really interesting and so we did several things like that. So when I came to Scotland I wanted to go on doing that and I organised an event in Strathclyde University on “What is Scottish Popular Music?” which had Pat Kane and various other people and somehow along the line, I can’t remember how it happened, I met John [Williamson – Glasgow based journalist and later manager of Bis and Belle and Sebastian] and Craig [Tannock – Glasgow social entrepreneur], I was approached by Craig and John and Tam (Coyle – Glasgow based DJ and band manager) to get involved with them for stuff they were doing around Glasgow City of Culture. So that again got me involved in kind of local stuff that was happening.

Was that 5 Day Weekend?

Well, it was before 5 Day Weekend. It was a New Music Seminar we had which brought up Tony Wilson for, which was a mixture of gigs and discussions… and that was my first insight in to the fact that you could go to the local council and say, “Can you give us a guarantee against loss?”. And if you got all of that you didn’t have to worry about trying to make a profit.

That was interesting. That engaged me locally — you couldn’t avoid people as energetic as Craig and Tam… So I suppose I never stopped doing that and that’s the sort of thing that IASPM UK doesn’t really engage with anymore. I mean that’s why SPAN [the Scottish Pop Academic Network] … when you started that, was much more like what IASPM used to be like.

Do you have any reflections about the role of academics in formulating music policy or perhaps your own role in particular?

Well much of what I think here has been influenced by working with you. So I certainly have a much clearer notion now that an academic’s basic job is to be absolutely clear about methodology and evidence and to be very aware that their job if anything is to make sure that what they produce is correct rather than convenient. And that makes the politics of it quite difficult, as we’ve experienced.

On the other hand, I also think – this is what I’ve always thought — is that as an academic the one freedom you’ve got is that you’re not actually beholden to anybody. That doesn’t mean you can just make it up as you go along. But it does mean that you have some sort of public responsibility and that that’s what should drive you. And that can be problematic when you have your own political beliefs which encourage you not to mention certain things (laughs) if you know what I mean. In other words, you can’t not be political. So there are certain things you have to be careful about when you take on research if you know what it is that you would very much like to be able to prove.

I remember realising when we were doing our Coventry youth research – that things weren’t all wonderful but there was kind of a temptation to say that they were.

I was struck by Dai Griffith’s comment that he sees Popular Music Studies as a certain literature of the left and I guess that you would too?

Yes, I do think that’s true in some ways. It would be an interesting exercise for somebody – as with any other canon – to ask “Who as a result of this is being left out of the story?”. That’s probably different for each generation but for me the most interesting person – because I got involved in correspondence with her – was Bernice Martin, who wrote a book called The Sociology of Social Change. She was married to a relatively right wing sociologist of religion called David Martin and she was writing about popular music around the same time that I started from a very different political perspective. Her book was challenging. I didn’t particularly like it, mainly because it was coming out of a kind of religious sociology and I wasn’t particularly into that sort of stuff, but I thought it was important. But you would never see her book on reading lists now and I think that’s a pity because she did that sort of thing a lot better than other people have done it since.

Later I was approached by a guy called Michael Haralambos (who wrote a really good book about soul music but was a teacher of sociology in schools and had become a text book publisher). He got me to write a chapter on youth culture in a basic text book, which made me more money than anything else I’ve written before or since, and after that to write a little book on the Sociology of Youth.

At that time there was a sort of right wing sociology of youth, people like David Marsland, and rather to my surprise they kind of liked my book because they thought it was… they didn’t agree with the arguments but they thought it was properly evidenced if you see what I mean. Again I was involved in correspondence with some of these people and again they got written out the history youth/music studies because they were the kind of opposite of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies youth stuff.

So my feeling is that while Dai is quite right that popular music writing can be considered as a literature of the left, we also need to think about “Well who does that leave out… Does that mean that the people who weren’t left… that we can’t regard what they did as being part of Popular Music Studies?” Which is an interesting question.

I’ve always seen the right as thinking that popular music is aesthetically uninteresting or that it’s just a chance to make money so you don’t really need to pontificate about it

Yeah. I agree with you … I agree with the first half of what you said there, I agree that the right starts from the premise that popular music is not interesting as music and therefore they don’t need to have any interest in it. Which means that when they do write about popular music they don’t actually know much about it. And so an intelligent writer like Roger Scruton – who I’m pretty sure was a reader for Performing Rites for Oxford University Press, a first draft of it – was actually kind of irritated at having to take on arguments he’d never thought about but was not as rude as he might have been once he had, though some of the stuff he has written himself on popular music does seem based on the ignorance caused by disdain.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your own interaction of music and politics? Have I missed anything?

I suppose for me the big problem which, again, is something I partly learned with you following the work we’ve done and partly something I’ve thought about for a long time because I’ve been a journalist, the big problem nowadays with writing about music lies not in the academy but with journalism. The problem is that there is now a received wisdom within the media and an effective lobbying process which means that there are very few journalists who are capable of taking on the arguments that the industry want the public to accept. It’s a problem you’ve experienced directly in your little campaign to uncover the truth of the industry statistics journalists uncritically report about the value of seized pirated CDs or the local economic contribution of music festivals… I can’t think of any journalist who now writes about such things intelligently.

If you think about the issues we’re now interested in with Live Music Exchange, such as secondary ticketing, do you know of any journalist who’d be able to write about this properly, who’s got the time or the nous to understand what’s going on? No wonder the media almost always take the industry line.

Take the example of The Guardian and copyright: the most interesting piece written there about the extension of the copyright term was by Bob Stanley, a musician. It wasn’t written by one of their music journalists. And economic journalists who could understand the issue are not interested in the music industry and never have been.

What about Naughton at the Observer?

Yeah, he’s good but he’s not a music person, he’s a digital technologies person. So he’s good on that, I agree. He’s an academic as well, he is (or was) a professor at the Open University.

Having said all that, there actually was a good story in The Guardian today about One Direction being the first British group to go straight into the American album charts at number one which was, it seems, attributable to social networking (an argument that was, I’m sure, taken from the group’s press release). The Guardian report has a good quote from Eamon Forde, who points out that actually One Direction did it by the absolutely traditional method of blanket tours of radio stations and huge promotional budgets and Simon Cowell’s backing and so forth. A good thing to say but striking that the paper had to go to Eamon for this obvious enough point — it wasn’t part of journalist common sense.

In short my view is that there’s always been an element of what we do in Popular Music Studies which is about challenging the music industry’s account of itself. Once upon a time this was part of what journalists did too, even if only with an “all commerce is bad” sort of notion; these days this doesn’t seem to happen.

One of the things I most enjoyed doing journalistically, though it didn’t last very long, was a gossip column about the music business Jon Savage and I wrote for The Observer, which was a way of smuggling in arguments that what the music industry was doing was not quite what it seemed. Unfortunately there came along a new arts editor who clearly couldn’t understand why on earth we were filling her pages with stuff about the industry…

Because I think that journalism does or should inform I think that that has had knock-on consequences for Popular Music Studies. I mean I don’t know how many people who now go to IASPM meetings, how many people there really understand the industry. And I often think that a good test would be to say to people “How often do you actually read Music Week?”

I don’t know about that!

OK the problem with Music Week now is that it’s not particularly significant but I mean how many academic people actually know what secondary ticketing is? Or how Viagogo works or whatever? I mean I’m not nearly as in touch as I used to be when I was a journalist but even when I was a journalist I was amazed by how many journalists weren’t interested in the way the industry worked.

I suppose that if I reflect on it the kind of work that we do, the sort of political economy of the music industries, is a kind of minor interest within IASPM.


There’s some stuff about audiences, but that tends to be kind of over-celebratory.

Yeah. The  Cultural Studies-y tradition or the text based tradition.

It’s almost as if you read Adorno in the first year of your studies…

And then put it aside! (laughs) Yes, exactly.

And then someone tells you on a course that Adorno’s out of date now, so you don’t have to worry about political economy at all! (laughs).

I think that’s because it’s harder.

Well it’s harder. You have to keep up to date. It doesn’t fit with the academic notion of going to the library and reading books. You know, it’s difficult. It’s difficult to teach.

It’s why I’ve always liked Philip Tagg’s line about all these vocational courses: people can only teach what they know about which usually starts off by being ten years out of date and then ends up by being twenty years out of date.

But I think particularly in Scotland I can’t think of … one of the reasons I think that Scottish independence is very problematic is because the Scottish media is so feeble. I mean if you think of that thing we did with Creative Scotland (serving on the steering group of a project reviewing the Scottish music sector), which is certainly not uninteresting, I can’t think of a single Scottish journalist who I would trust to do anything with any report that is produced.

It’s partly not their fault it’s because they have no time or resources to research any of this stuff now.

Anything else?

No. I mean there are lots of gaps that are problematic in work that I’ve done and in Popular Music Studies generally… dance music has been very poorly studied, just in terms of industry terms. And I’m in the wrong generation to have really understood that properly.

I mean a lot of the dance stuff, it goes back to what you were saying about adulation of audiences. Alot of the academic dance stuff is very uninteresting for that reason.

I’ll be interested to see the work that comes out of Jason [Toynbee]’s project (on black jazz in  Britain) – I think the whole relationship of race and music in Britain is very under-researched and is very poorly represented in Popular Music Studies.

IASPM in the UK does remain overwhelmingly white

Yeah. I’m sure it does in teaching courses and things as well. Some of the East London ones might be different.

One of the things that has come out of the HEA study (which Martin conducted on the provision of undergraduate popular music courses in the UK) is that most of those people are pretty disconnected from the IASPM world.

I’m sure you’re right about that.

On that other hand we asked questions about dissertations and there’s obviously a lot of work going on out there which sort of vanishes.

I know and some of it’s probably pretty good.

I think that will probably do.


Thank you very much.






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