Spare a thought for the music halls

Music halls were first constructed en masse in Victorian England. They played a central part of the cultural life of towns and cities for around a century, but nowadays, though many of the buildings survive, the very expression evokes a bygone era.

There are many explanations for the slow decline of the music hall, some of them technological, but it is worth noting one particular facet of their history. At the time they were built, there was no real way to record music. Live music was the only music.

The university pension strikes, which have been raging over the past few weeks in the UK, are not obviously connected to the legacy of the music hall. But they have unwittingly raised certain questions around recording technologies and the impact they might eventually have on another kind of hall with its own Victorian iconography: the lecture hall.

Some brief context. Over the course of the strikes, given that students are currently missing out on an education they have paid for (or will pay for, depending on how to frame it), there has been an understandable focus on the prospect of refunds.

This tangentially ties in with the existence of lecture recordings, which are now a normal part of educational proceedings across UK universities. To take one example, the University of Warwick, on its website, has this to say about the refund issue [with added emphasis]:

Academic departments will be supported to identify alternative ways to ensure required learning outcomes can be delivered if industrial action impacts the delivery of their usual teaching timetable. This may include: re-scheduling some teaching in the early part of the summer term where feasible; the involvement of alternative staff in delivery of some material and the use of lecture capture where there is content appropriate for the relevant programme of study. The University expects to be able to ensure that the necessary material can be delivered across its academic programmes. For this reason, it is not anticipated that refunds would need to be made.

Does this undermine the strikes? We asked the university about this, and it said:

Lecture capture recordings may be available for some lectures, but the recordings remain under the control of the staff who originally made them who can then also choose whether they are available or not.

Setting aside the strikes for a moment, the mere presence of recordings in this context captures something of the long-term and often overlooked technological challenges with which the educational industry is faced. It is very different to the advent of recorded music, but there are at least some echoes of how markets for entertainment have been reinvented over time.

One way of looking at the recording of a lecture is the duplication of, or storing of, a lecturer’s labour, which can subsequently be redeployed. No one is claiming that recorded lectures fully supplant the real thing. But to cite recordings as one reason to deny refunds necessarily brings the practice more clearly into the economic sphere, and thereby assigns to it an economic value.

This value is unlikely to go away once the strikes end. The question is how it might evolve, if the use of technology in the provision of educational services is extended further, and placed in the context of economic pressures on universities more broadly.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are one of the most commonly cited examples of education on the internet but there are other signs of digital lecturing gathering momentum. In the US, for example, a non-profit called Modern States pays prominent academics to record lectures, and then uses these recordings as free online educational materials for students seeking to gain additional college credits through exams (CLEP and AP).

These lectures can potentially reach a vast audience through a small amount of labour. Managers may therefore be tempted to reduce labour costs through recordings (as is accidentally illustrated by the above recourse to recordings during a strike) or other forms of digital communication. After all, universities are already engaged on a project of reducing their labour costs – this is precisely what the university strikes are about (given defined benefit pensions are simply deferred compensation for labour). And the UK government is already engaged in a project of opening them up to the forces of competitive markets, and potential failure, which places managers under additional pressure.

Beyond labour costs, some uses of recording technology directly appeal to the students – they are often cited as part of improving access for disabled students, for example. Modern States explicitly aims to respond to the spiraling costs of a college education in the US; the lectures aim to allow students to spend fewer years at college, and spend less money (or accumulate less debt). It is not just managers who want to cut costs.

Lectures are just one part of a higher education, but other aspects – classes, seminars and so on – are in their own ways vulnerable to the technology of the internet (the centrality of the library has already been quite profoundly undermined). In the case of lectures, there is a specific infrastructure already in place. Warwick’s Lecture Capture Policy points out that the university “has invested in the hardware, software and technology support to enable recordings to be easily scheduled and then accessed by students within an access-controlled environment”. Infrastructural developments tend not to result in things staying as they currently are.

Many aspects of higher education are, as you’d expect, completely incomparable with the phenomenon of the music hall, beyond the relevance of recording devices. But there are a few loose similarities. Music halls provided a singular location where people congregated to consume music. Recorded music did not kill the urge to share music in a single space, but it provided listeners with additional choices. A large part of the current university system, and the value of its real estate, is based on people congregating in one place to consume professional education. It is hard to imagine them doing otherwise, just as it was once, no doubt, hard to imagine with large-scale professional performances of music.

There was, by the way, a music hall strike in 1907, after performers reacted against rising pressures on their labour, especially for matinée performances, and the removal of benefits. The managers of the halls, without recourse to any recordings, tried to bring in washed up acts to replace the striking stars. But none of their replacements worked. The strikers emerged triumphant.

A few decades later, though, many of the buildings were refashioned. People stopped calling them music halls. They put up projectors, and called them cinemas instead.

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