Address on the State of the Association

(3rd IASPM international conference, Montréal 1985)

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Philip Tagg

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This is not an official history of IASPM. It is a personal view of its conception, development and future. I will try to give personal insights into some of the 'hows' and 'whys' of this unique association rather than a list of its 'whats' and 'whens'. I feel this is specially important when IASPM is growing at such a rate and when popular music studies are developing so rapidly. In dynamic situations like this it is salutary to view events from some historical or ideological distance. If any of the ideas spawned below of any use in contributing to such perspectives, even through what the reader may view as their sheer nonsense value, I shall be happy!

The best way to start this off is to ask why IASPM exists at all. I mean, there's and International Musicological Association, an International Council for Traditional Music, an International Jazz Federation, an Internationales Musikzentrum (in Vienna), an International Music Council (UNESCO), and International Federation of Phonogram Industries and many other such non-governmental international bodies. Why do we need an International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) as well? It's impossible to answer this question without giving a short background to its existence.


Until very recently, the serious study of popular music could be considered, if considered at all, as rather an exotic, perhaps even absurd and definitely marginal, undertaking. In the realms of higher education popular music had no official seal of aesthetic approval of the type that comes from being part of a culture sufficiently far away (traditional music) or long ago (e.g. European 'classical' music). Incredulous opposition to the serious study of popular music came also from certain journalists who, as self-styled gatekeepers of the Realm of Fun and Entertainment, were loath to accord the subject their own official seal of populist aesthetic approval. Academics, they argued, would parasitically wring the corporeal must out of popular music. 'Fun is fun and serious is serious and never the twain shall meet' was the adage of the day: conservative academe and conservative populism both seemed to agree.

This dual taboo seemed schizophrenic to those of us who were both educated in traditional seats of learning and deeply involved in various forms of music excluded from our education. Why, we wondered, should not the music we made as musicians or listened to as fans outside the curriculum be taken as seriously as that included in it? After all, we were all only individuals (-indivisibles?) and saw no good reason why our own musical experience should be separated off into tidy compartments of Fun and Serious, as though these aspects of our being and of our society and culture had little or nothing to do with each other.

Moreover, since the advent of transistors, vinyl, cassettes, the youth audience, etc., more money and time had been spent on music by more people than ever before. Empirical surveys had been conducted in various countries documenting this trend in no uncertain terms. Bearing this in mind, it was difficult to see why 'today's music' could really be studied and understood properly if it were either regarded as more or less unfit for aesthetic perusal or enshrined in mass culture's inner sanctum of 'leisure'. Surely music was far too widespread and powerful a phenomenon to be treated so frivolously by one side, so different in its forms of conception, production, distribution and use to be evaluated according to the aesthetic norms of the other?

We were of course not the first to ask such leading questions. However, this is not the time or place to write the history of popular music studies in general — this important task has yet to be undertaken — and I will restrict this to the subject of IASPM.

From my own horizon as ex-church organist, ex-rock musician and music teacher, the most immediate forerunner to IASPM is the music education crisis which hit Northern Europe during the sixties. I am referring to the situation in which pupils spent more time with various forms of music outside school than with practically any other kind of activity (it had obviously become something highly important to many of them) while viewing it as one of the least important subjects in school. This was of course not the fault of individual music teachers but rather of our society's strangely restricted notion of what knowledge and skills are about and of how these can or cannot be taught, learnt and evaluated (more about that another time!).

During my time teaching the 'popular' section of music history and theory at an experimental music teacher's training college in Göteborg (Sweden, 1971-78), I frequently ran up against perfectly fair but embarrassingly difficult questions posed by my students. They would ask things like: 'OK, so now we know what chords, which instruments, what lyrics are used and also how much all this music sells and is heard. But why is this music so important? What does it do to people and why do they listen to it?'. How could I answer such clearly multidisciplinary questions? In no way except by speculation and inspired guesswork.

Top of documentThe birth of IASPM

Gerard Kempers, Dutch friend and colleague, ex-conservatory percussionist and rock/jazz drummer was also deeply involved in music education throughout the seventies. He and I found ourselves in a similar predicament. Our students and pupils (not to mention ourselves) would remain blissfully ignorant unless we could find some substantial answers to the sort of questions posed above. During the seventies we just turned unsystematically to anyone we thought might know part of the answer to part of a question. We turned to musicians, journalists, teachers, people working in the media, to sociologists, linguists, anthropologists and other experts we just happened to know (or know about) at the time. We were often referred to other experts and enthusiasts. After some years it became clear that many people were involved in popular music studies in different nations, disciplines and professions. Very few of these people had any knowledge of others active in their field of interest.

Towards the end of the seventies, two important pennies finally dropped: (i) it would be more efficient if people who knew a lot about the same sort of thing also knew about each other and about each other's work: this would the unnecessary duplication of work and lead to better communication; (ii) the structuring of such communication would require some sort of organisation. How all this organisation should be managed practically was another matter!

Nevertheless, if there were to be any such organisation, it would have to have three clear traits. It would need to be:

A timely visit to the Open University (UK) in the spring of 1980 led to contacts with Richard Middleton and David Horn who were then preparing the first issue of the journal Popular Music (Cambridge University Press). As a parallel venture to this journal and with the encouragement of Richard Middleton, we (Gerard Kempers, David Horn and myself) decided to risk staging a first 'International Conference on Popular Music Research'.

Thanks to Gerard's and his colleagues' hard work and to the generosity of various funding bodies in the Netherlands, this conference actually took place in Amsterdam in June 1981.2 On a shoestring budget and without any prior knowledge about what might happen, we sent out a call for papers rather like a letter to Father Christmas, hoping that all our favourite authors, as well as hitherto unknown authorities on popular music would and could be there. We were delighted when people like Charles Hamm, Simon Frith, Paul Oliver, Günther Mayer and most of the other invitees not only showed up but also took part with great enthusiasm. It was a bit like turning your umbrella upside down, waiting to see what would rain into it and finding it full of valuables!

We had prepared in advance a short document proposing that more permanent arrangements be made for enabling those interested in popular music studies to meet, correspond, exchange information, etc. A small group of people was elected by the Amsterdam conference to put this idea into practice. Most of these persons were present at the meeting in Kassel in the autumn of 1981,3 as a result of which IASPM was duly baptised and constituted. IASPM has since then been registered as a non-profit-making organisation according to Swedish and international law.

Top of documentWhy a separate organisation: IASPM?

Perhaps some of the reasons for not becoming part of an existing international music organisation can be gathered from what I have written so far. However, the following points, constituting a process of elimination, should clarify the issue further.

Top of documentSince IASPM

When Gerard Kempers, David Horn and I met over fish and chips and beer in a Lancaster pub at Christmas 1980, we had no idea that IASPM would exist five years later, let alone that it would have several hundred members in around thirty different nations. None of us are born administrators or politicians and we certainly never saw ourselves as empire builders either. How can one then account for such an explosive development?

One obvious answer is that IASPM is needed. More people have joined IASPM in a very short time than we ever thought possible. More and more universities and colleges open departments of mass media studies, communication studies, cultural studies and so on, while existing disciplines such as sociology, musicology, anthropology and psychology take an interest in our field of study. Even schools and colleges of music now include certain types of popular music on their curriculum.

These institutional developments are probably symptomatic of some of the observations made above. More and more people passing through our systems of higher education seek to understand their own life and times on the basis of the subjects they choose. How they are to acquire such insights without understanding the nature of such a ubiquitous phenomenon as popular music is difficult to understand. However, where are these teachers, students, librarians, journalists, etc. to turn if they want to pursue their line of inquiry?

The same sort of rhetorical question can be asked on behalf of many musicians who seek alternatives to the restraints of musical management, be it 'private' (commercial, capitalist), as is usually the case, or public. Where are they to turn if they want to find out about the workings of music in society? Where can they compare and learn more about producing and administering their music?

So far there is not really anywhere to turn except to IASPM and IASPM cannot provide all that many answers. Various projects are nevertheless now under way. DOPMUS (Documentation of Popular Music Studies) has mounted a database so far containing 2000 titles and will publish its first working edition including 5000 titles at the end of 1986. Work on EPMOW (Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World) has just been started and negotiations for issuing records on a IASPM label are also under way.4 Moreover, since the Amsterdam conference there have been several important meetings where members have been able to meet and exchange ideas. Here we should mention IASPM's second International Conference in Reggio Emilia (Italy) in 1983,5 as well as events organised by the US, British, Canadian, West German, Italian and Asian branches. However, despite all this activity, IASPM is still in its early days and has yet to develop the sort of service which will make answering 'all those questions' a lot easier.

Of course it would be unrealistic to expect instant answers and impeccable service of an organisation which, for reasons already mentioned, wants to remain independent, simply because such independence means finding your own resources in terms of money, time and personnel. All of these critical factors are restricted in IASPM. No-one gets paid for anything. Be warned: you actually lose both money and time if you get landed with a IASPM brief or with a seat on the IASPM executive!

Strangely enough, this non-profit-making aspect of IASPM is, I think, another important reason for the association's explosive development. So far it is difficult to work for IASPM for motives of career and impossible to do so for profit. This means that anyone in the association, be they elected officers or not, puts in a tremendous amount of work because of their interest in the subject we are dealing with: music that is set in motion by and which moves the people. If we are part of the people and deeply interested in both music and people, there are few better opportunities to cultivate and further those interests than working for IASPM. Since this interest has so far been the only conceivable motivation for work in IASPM, the work has been enthusiastic. When work is enthusiastic it often contains certain dynamic qualities which have also presumably played their part in the association's rapid development.

Top of documentIASPM outlook

If IASPM develops its activities and resources, and if it consolidates and expands its membership, it will soon become a force to consider. As IASPM becomes more powerful, more established, it will face new difficulties. In this context I would like to point to a few danger zones as I see them.


As an ex-Brit living in a non-English speaking country,6 I am constantly reminded that most mass culture, including music, uses my mother tongue. It has therefore presumably passed through the machinery of US or UK commercial media companies before being consumed by young and old alike all over the world via satellite, video, cassette, radio, film and TV. 'The Media are American' (= US- American), wrote Jeremy Tunstall in 1977 and the music media are definitely dominated by UK and US interests.7

At the same time, large amounts of popular music processed for mass distribution through US and British music and media enterprises in fact originate from either outside the Anglo-Saxon world or from minority cultures far from the media corporation's board room inside the UK and USA. This matter of cultural politics directly relates to the 'I', 'P' and 'M' parts of IASPM. It not only concerns relations between different nations and their musics ('I' for International and 'M' for Music) but also implies relations in music production and use between people in these different nations. This in turn implies that when dealing with popular music it is necessary to remember that words like popular, populus, demos and democratic are all etymologically interrelated with the people ('P' as in Popular) and to be clear about our notions of cultural justice and democracy. If we say we are interested in popular music, do we not then have a special responsibility towards those cultures who provide the business with new trends (e.g. salsa, highlife, reggae), or are we content to take the reactionary view of 'M' as in Music and thereby ignore the more far-reaching implications of 'P' as in Popular?

If we opt for the first of these alternatives, it is difficult to see how we will have any success unless we take special steps to involve people from the 'third' world in IASPM. If we really want to know more or to spread information about popular music in Africa or Latin America (for example, how much of what we view as 'ours' is originally 'theirs'?), we shall have to find funds in proportion to the degree of our 'first' world's exploitation of their 'third' one. Charitable thoughts and naive goodwill may make us feel better but will never buy an air ticket in US dollars for a Bolivian colleague, nor finance distribution of Tanzanian jazz, nor pay for a conference in Ghana or for seminars on Indian film music. We should also bear in mind that if we multiply our own difficulties with a factor of 100, we might arrive at an understanding of the problems facing colleagues — musicians, intellectuals, journalists, teachers, students — in those parts of the world. The day-to-day running of IASPM and the recruitment of members from 'safe' nations must never overshadow this truly international aspect of IASPM's business.

Another important de-ethnocentrification task is to improve contacts with the socialist countries. Here we should consider radical differences between the capitalist and socialist institutionalisation of culture, remembering two points in particular. (1) We cannot regard the overt and explicit regulation of culture under socialism as more restricting than its covert and implicit regulation under capitalism (often with the illusion of 'freedom' and 'deregulation'). (2) We cannot expect the study of popular music in socialism to be organised in accordance with IASPM under capitalist conditions. Here it is important to develop contacts with institutions such as the Humboldt University's Centre for Popular Music Research (Berlin, GDR) so that a fruitful exchange of music and of knowledge about music can take place. This will hopefully lead to two-way traffic replacing the usual one-way flow of musical messages (from here to there) across that geopolitical dividing line.

Finally, we should make serious efforts to include all those cultures representing around half the world's population in our allegedly international association. I am thinking here of nations like China, Japan, the Arab countries, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan, and so on, none of whom are represented in IASPM.

These three points are of course all tied in with ethical and political questions on a global scale, questions that IASPM must face if it wishes to call itself 'international', because we are at the moment more like the NATO Association for the Study of Popular Music! If you think I am exaggerating, just turn the matter upside down and ask if you honestly would want to join an association for the study of popular music which used the two major world languages Russian and Chinese and which chiefly consisted of Soviets, Czechs, some Chinese and a few North Koreans? Don't you think they should have included at least English or Spanish as one of their official languages? Neither Russian nor Chinese nor Spanish are official IASPM languages, and yet they are the mother tongues of six times as many people as learn English as their first language.

However, the de-ethnocentrification of IASPM is not just a question of representative democracy on a global scale. It also concerns solutions to our own problems. Our success in solving these will depend not only on how much we use our own cultural traditions of knowledge but on how these traditions can be developed and improved. One excellent way of bringing about such improvement is by using new perspectives on our own culture, such perspectives being most adequately provided for by those who do not belong to our culture. When IASPM is content to run its activities without taking the consequences of such simple humanist insights it is time to think seriously about dissolution.

Top of documentIASPM and the two establishments

The time will surely come, probably sooner than later and almost certainly without our realising it (in certain quarters we are already there!), when popular music studies become part of the proverbial establishment.

When discussing reasons for not affiliating with various types of institution, I alluded to two sorts of establishment. One was the establishment we all know so well, its musical guise being that of the conservatory, concert hall, opera house, symphony orchestra, university department of music, and so on. The other was the commercial establishment with its recording studios, marketing departments, board rooms, clubs, tours, television studios, photographers, pressing plants, rack-jobbers, compact disks, videocassettes and satellites. The first of these two establishments tends to be viewed as national and 'serious', the other as transnational and 'fun' ('popular'?). Many nation states and their official institutions, such as those just mentioned, are often painfully aware of the fact that their own, more easily identifiable, establishment is in fact far less well established and less powerful than the transnational commercial establishment.

The usual response to this dilemma on the part of national institutions under capitalism is typical of the 'mixed economy' so many of us now live under, i.e. to sell off certain parts of the public sector to private interests. Public influence thereby decreases and democratically accountable power is relinquished to the undemocratic forces of the commercial private sector, whose power and influence grow in inverse proportion. At the same time, as mentioned above, popular music, which has most frequently passed through the private commercial sphere of production and distribution, now finds its way into the public sector of education, often due to pressure from 'below' (remember my students' questions at the start of this piece!). The development of IASPM can therefore be seen as one small part of democratic processes contradicting the general trend in the opposite direction — the destruction of communal power and influence.

As various forms of popular music become integrated into the curricula of public institutions, they will inevitably have to be formalised in some way for those to whom the institution is accountable. In the final analysis this means being able to tell tax payers, students, parents and administrative authorities how their money is being spent. This accountability may well include such unpleasant duties as having to formulate norms for measuring student achievement and a whole host of menial administrative and bureaucratic chores. Demands, possibly short-sighted or counterproductive ones, will be made on the usefulness or relevance of work with students. Several colleges and departments of music in various countries are already in this position. Some turn out students for the diminishing public sector (teachers mostly) while others seem to think they can release their graduates straight into the commercial music business (mostly as musicians).

In other words, whichever way you look at it and whichever 'establishment' you choose to consider as such, studying popular music is either already or fast becoming part of that establishment. This of course means that it may already be possible to use IASPM for careerist purposes.

Now, as long as popular music studies are struggling for recognition as a serious filed of learning, such careerism may be useful and harnessed for progressive purposes. However, when popular music studies do become recognised, careerism may be detrimental, for it could then mean maintaining a status quo of privileges and positions of power. Such interests might easily come into direct confrontation with our field of study, since the music that interests us is in a constant dialectic with the society and culture of which it is a part and none but the very foolish believe that society can stand still or that history can end. Such a situation must never lead to scrapping the historical study of music ('popular' or 'unpopular') and to trailing after each new musical and social 'trend' like a predictably salivating dog, for that would mean replacing the ahistorical conservatism of one establishment (those dealing with 'historical' musics) with the ahistorical conservatism of the other. I for one remain unconvinced that the brave new world of the new establishment, with its 'feelies' and (literal or metaphorical) amphetamine (or valium) for the epsilons, is more desirable than the old establishment with its both elitist and potentially humanist norms of aesthetic evaluation.

In this context I see more reason for IASPM to be on its guard against the new ahistorical careerism than against careerism of the old familiar type. I see fit to issue this warning because many of us became involved in popular music studies as a reaction against those old familiar forms of musical institutionalisation and we can easily be tempted to believe, from some short-sighted subjective viewpoint, that no forms of institutionalisation can be worse than those we fought against. In fact some of us may have so much personal prestige at stake in this anti-authoritarian process that we are not even prepared to regard the new commercial establishment as the most powerful establishment of our times. In other words, if IASPM is not careful, it will find itself, with all its beautiful phrases about 'independence' and 'non-institutionalisation', caught up in a much more iniquitous kind of establishment that regulates, processes and controls most of those 'independent', 'non-institutionalised', 'anti-authoritarian', 'deregulated', 'non-intellectual' and 'nonverbal' currents and activities in our society through its own forms of (less readily visible) institution. We can, in short, become far more effectively institutionalised if we remain naively idealistic about our own process of de-institutionalisation.

Top of documentIASPM or IASM?

Of course, the problem goes deeper than the symptoms of ethnocentricity, careerism and institutionalisation. It has also to do with the sort of 'schizophrenia' I mentioned earlier, i.e. with the false division of human experience and activity into two conceptually distinct spheres, a split which in turn results from the alienation caused by the way labour is used in our society. (This is another matter about which far greater scholars have written far more adequately!)

Simplifying matters drastically, we might say that the division of music into the realms of 'art' and 'folk' on the one hand and 'popular' on the other, the former being the traditional territory of the old and the latter the territory of the new establishment, is one rather special symptom of the same schizophrenia. However, as we have seen, in 'mixed economies' (state corporatism), the borders between these supposedly exclusive areas of musical jurisdiction by the two establishments have been crossed on an increasing number of occasions as the two economies 'mix' more (become more corporate). In fact, it is highly likely that they will be crossed so many times in the near future that distinctions between the two will eventually become hypothetical rather than real. In such a situation it is doubtful whether the inclusion of 'P' (as in Popular) in 'IASPM' will be very relevant, unless of course we wish to prolong the myth of 'serious is serious and fun is fun and never the twain shall meet'. It is all a matter of where (in which historical position) IASPM is situated.

The development of new areas of study in the humanities and social sciences — this is how a lot of popular music studies, be they formally institutionalised or note, can be labelled — tend to go through several stages of development:

During the sixties we were at stage 1, while the seventies brought in stage 2. IASPM is now at stage 3. Stage 4 is immanent.

Our situation is in some ways analogous to that experienced by women researching their own culture and history. Studying 52% of mankind had to become a sort of appendage or alternative to studying men's (48%) culture and history. In order to establish their own perspectives and for fear of being engulfed in the tradition of learning they sought to improve upon, feminist scholars had to temporarily isolate themselves from the old male-dominated tradition. One of their most interesting discoveries seems to me to be that men have not properly written their own history either, omitting all sorts of aspects which only the serious study of women in history and culture could possibly reveal! In other words, it appears that many of these female colleagues are today already at stage 4.

If it seems absurd to have to become an 'alternative' or 'appendage' in order to put 52% of mankind on the map, it is all the more anachronistic to be obliged to become an appendage to find out about the music of the perhaps 85% of the world's population who use far more 'popular' than 'art' or 'folk' music in their daily lives! It is not our own fault that we must qualify the music we study as 'popular' when music departments dealing only with the classics and folk music still do not have to declare this severe restriction of musics studied, just as it is not feminism's fault that terms like 'women's history' had to be coined in relation to another hegemonic minority default.

The music we have chosen to deal with will also lead to discoveries about music and culture in general. The methods we develop to understand this music, which is so obviously and intimately tied up with day-to-day living in our own societies, are already seriously questioning a number of theoretical, methodological and ideological assumptions about the nature, uses and values of music in history. If we forever stay at stage 2 or 3 in our development, we shall never grow up but remain in an illusory and impotent state of 'Forever Young'. The idea is not to replace and outmoded elitism with a trendy and equally conservative populism but to make sure the people get the power. This includes getting rid of the 'P' we were forced to adopt when creating IASPM and ensuring that music by and/or for the people is thenceforth also unreservedly considered, along with all other music, as music, whatever its nature or function.

Making another political analogy to drive this point home, we could say that if an important goal of the African National Congress is to get rid of Apartheid in South Africa and to establish a regime where all, irrespective of the colour of their skin, shall have equal rights, then IASPM should fight for equal rights for all music to be included in our seats of learning on an equal basis. This will of course mean changing one or two things in those seats of learning, just as taking over power in South Africa will mean changing one of two things there! Similarly, if the goal of many female researchers is to work for the democratic aim of including their 52% of humanity on an equal basis in our tradition of learning, it should also be the ultimate aim of IASPM to make itself redundant.

Therefore, if IASPM still exists by the turn of the millennium, or if it has not changed its name to IASM (International Association for the Study of Music), then there is either something very wrong with this 'address' or something very wrong with IASPM. It would be much better if I were wrong in that case!

Top of documentEndnotes

1. For example, in the late seventies, I once needed to find out about pirate radio programming. I went to the University of Göteborg Humanities library who had nothing on their catalogues about the subject. They referred me to the Business School library who referred me to the library at Swedish Radio who referred me to the College of Technology who referred me back to the Humanities library. The logic of it seemed to be that since the topic was in everyone's ballpark it was the responsibility of none!

2. *Papers from that conference were published by IASPM in the volume Popular Music Perspectives , ed. P Tagg and D Horn, Göteborg and Exeter, 1982.

3. *Meeting organised by Helmut Rösing, then professor of music at the Hochschule des Landes Hessen at Kassel.

4. *In 1989 I finally managed to publish a draft version of DOPMUS music containing over 5000 titles. That collection of titles now forms the basis of the popular music bibliography shortly to be published by Cassell (London, 1987). This will be the first publication in the EPMOW series, taken on by Blackwell (Oxford) in 1991) and transferred to Cassell in 1995. Not much progress was made with EPMOW between 1985 and 1991 and the IASPM record label has yet to materialise (January 1997).

5. *A highly successful event organised by Franco Fabbri (Milan) and generously supported, both in terms of finance and personnel, by the City of Reggio Emilia (Assesorato alla Cultura).

6. *I was resident in Sweden from August 1966 until March 1991.

7. J Tunstall, The Media are American (London, 1977). See also R Wallis & K Malm, Big Sounds from Small Peoples (London, 1984).


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