What is wrong with the sound of silence?

The most profound sound is silence. I’ve heard it on a dead calm day in the Everglades, and I’ve heard it in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, but it has been many years since I’ve heard it around here.

What passes for silence in most places is a collection of petty sounds that don’t quite rise to the definition of noise, the rumble of traffic, a distant two-cycle engine, a jet plane beginning its approach, and hammers beating on new construction a couple of blocks away.

Older people usually prefer quiet. From there, one observes a gradient of noise appreciation, as each progressively younger generation increasingly immerses itself in the sea of racket. The youngest, who presumably represent the future of our species, seem to have somehow acquired a gene for earbuds. Their music relentlessly drives away thought.

So it’s clear society is changing. Years ago, people complained about background, or “elevator,” music, which sounded as though either it or you had been lobotomized. Today, no environment is apparently complete without it.

Consequently, the Downtown Naperville Alliance has, for the last five years, apparently been contemplating blanketing the area bounded by Benton Avenue, Washington Street, Jackson Avenue and Webster Street with an electronic sound system involving 18 individually controllable loudspeakers.

They were, I understand, delighted when an estimate for the first phase of this effort, to cover the retail area, came in at $66,000, less than half of what they thought it would be. At their June 17 meeting, the City Council will discuss whether the money can be found to begin the project this year.

A probable second phase would place more speakers around the restaurant/ bar district, while a possible third phase would bring background music to the entire Riverwalk. The speakers would be controlled from the DNA’s office.

Of more than passing interest, of course, is what these speakers would be playing, and that’s a more complex problem than you may think. You can’t just plug your iPod, or some old eight tracks, into the system because, while you own the recordings, you don’t own the songs.

Whether you are playing music in your store, restaurant or out into the street, you must pay a royalty to the composer and the publisher of that music each time you play it. You must pay that royalty, it turns out, even if some guy you don’t know wanders into your farmer’s market and plays a copyrighted song on his guitar. Nor can you play tracks from your personal Spotify or Pandora account. Their rules explicitly forbid it.

John Lennon once said, “Music is everybody’s possession. It’s only publishers who think that people own it.” Well, in fact they do and the courts agree. You must get a license through a performance-rights organization like ASCAP or BMI, who constantly investigate to see what you are playing. If you do not, they will sue you for truly breathtaking amounts of money. The licenses, which depend on the size of the audience, can be expensive.

Personally, nothing will drive me away from a restaurant or a store faster than background music. “Easy listening” may be easy for you, but as Senor Wences said, “for me ees very deeffeecult.” For people like me, most of the music that’s broadcast today works like one of those ultrasonic devices that keep pests out of your attic.

Before the city goes forward on this, I hope they find out if I’m the only guy in town who feels this way. Some music is enjoyable. Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” However, you will notice that he said “after silence.”

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