Rich and poor

Old photo of a large brick hall with covered veranda along the front

Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 1930 © National Museums Liverpool, Stewart Bale collection. Archive reference 8481

Cities are environments in which distinctions of social class and divisions between rich and poor are often highly visible. Such differences are often used to characterise music as a kind of shorthand. During the 1990s for example the record labels of the rock bands Blur and Oasis decided as a marketing ploy to release the bands' new singles on the same day. The ploy worked because it attracted the attention of the British media, which played upon the perceived rivalry between the two bands and presented it as a class struggle. Oasis were portrayed as gritty, northern and working class, whilst Blur were portrayed as arty, southern and middle class.

Certain styles of music have also been associated with social class and class division. In Britain, for example, 19th century styles such as music hall, brass bands and folk music have at various times been associated with the lower or working classes. This has also been the case with African-American blues music, US country music, especially so-called honky-tonk and Tex-Mex, Dominican bachta and South African marabi (Middleton, 2003). Moreover, popular music more generally is sometimes defined as being popular in the sense that is music of or for 'the masses'.

It is difficult however to relate music to class in a simplistic or clear-cut manner and class distinctions are often hard to draw. The Beatles are often characterised as 'working class' but the backgrounds of one or two members had strong middle class connections. In fact the making of popular music usually involves interaction between different groups of people and different musical styles and influences, and audiences for music also tend to be mixed.

This is illustrated by a study of amateur music-making in the English city of Milton Keynes carried out by the anthropologist Ruth Finnegan (1989). As part of that study she explored several musical worlds, including the worlds of western concert music, rock and country music. She discovered that in general they involved people from different social and class backgrounds, which challenged common assumptions about them. Similarly, a group of researchers in Buffalo, New York interviewed people in order to pose the question 'what does music mean to you?' They discovered that people's music tastes and activities were astonishingly eclectic and diverse, suggesting that music audiences cannot be neatly mapped onto existing marketing categories or class distinctions (Crafts et al, 1993).

In certain situations however, music has reflected and also underpinned class divisions. In 19th century Liverpool poor unskilled labourers lived in crowded and squalid conditions down by the docks, while up on the hill were the large sprawling mansions of the merchant traders and ship owners. The latter had the Embassy Rooms, built in 1815 to provide a grand, sumptuous setting for the dances, balls and parties of the Wellington Club. Nearby was the Philharmonic Hall, a grand concert hall that opened in 1849. Meanwhile, down the hill in the city centre, the workers had the Colosseum, one of Liverpool's cheapest music halls. The Colosseum burnt down in October 1878 with the loss of 37 lives, 34 of them working men over the age of 20. In 1862 an article in 'The Porcupine' described the sights and sounds of the area around the Colosseum and other theatres as "so offensive that hundreds of ladies are denied the pleasure of theatrical entertainments" (1862).

In fact music tastes and activities have often become markers of social status and have contributed to class divisions. For example, early studies of British music subcultures, such as 1960s mods and rockers, explained them as a form of resistance through style, a means through which working class youths could rebel against dominant or parent culture (Willis, Hebdige, 1979). In Brazil the development of the 'Carnaval' during the second half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century provided a vehicle for the expression of the working class identities of Black Brazilians and Brazilians of diverse heritage in opposition to elite, upper class interests. The upper classes sought to repress Carnaval through police action (Hahner, 1986: 214, cited in Shepherd and Manuel, 2003).