From Listening To Distribution: Nonofficial Music Practices In Hungary And Czechoslovakia From The 1960s To The 1980s

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This chapter presents an empirical case study of the wide variety of nonofficial settings and reinventions of music listening, recording, and distribution technology in Hungary and Czechoslovakia from the 1960s to the 1980s. [1] As much as possible we compare the two sites, but our main purpose is to use the data to discover how individuals used sounds and to consider the question of what those sounds, coupled with their uses, enabled these individuals to do. We also use the case study to think more abstractly about sound and music as a resource for collective agency and action. Here we are interested in how collective agency takes shape in relation to what we describe as “creative constriction”: the paradoxical situation whereby suppression and control generate new opportunities for creative action. We situate this creative constriction in terms of how its specific sound technologies — their construction, consumption, and appropriation — afforded alternative and socially important cultural practices that were informally learned via sonic/musical experience. These “lessons” in turn provided a springboard for nonofficial [2] modes of being that coalesced at individual and collective levels.
Forms of nonofficial listening, recording, and distribution practices in both countries during the Communist era examined here involve attention to radio broadcasts, listening to and trading LPs from the West, [3] and producing magnitizdat — self-made recordings. Musical experience, then, is understood as the intersection of sounds, music, technologies, and places. Music, in this understanding, is a flexible medium — a liminal space — one in which all of the fine shades of the actors’ lifeworld can be displayed. This display, we suggest, permitted music listeners to pursue — to varying degrees — alternative or independent ways of being and feeling, from dipping a toe in nonofficial waters to plunging in and never resurfacing. We use the term official to describe areas of society and culture that were defined and ordered by centralized powers of the state, manifested not only in institutions and agencies but also in everyday practice, as Jakubowicz puts it, “to achieve a commonality of enthusiastic commitment to building communism” (Jakubowicz 1994 , 271).

Central to our argument in understanding the liminality between official and nonofficial worlds is the (social) activity of making music and musical meaning, which Small calls “musicking” (Small 1998 , 8). We expand the concept of musicking to take on any number of forms, such as attending concerts, tuning in to the radio, practicing scales, humming, imagining music, singing along to an LP, making sound compilations, and bootlegging performances. The musicking we study provides and sustains a variety of moods, commitments to nonofficial culture, modes of attention to music, and emotional and knowledge structures, which we refer to as dispositions. This congruence of dispositions via musicking is the part of the collective formation of a liminal space that creates “a common shared world of time, space, gesture, and energy, which nevertheless allows diversity and unity” (Pavlicevic and Ansdell 2004 , 84).

Throughout, our aim is to consider the two Communist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in regard to control over music, youth policy, technology, and culture. Both “creative constriction” and “dipping into” are present in each country but take different forms. It is important to note that what follows is not intended to be a comprehensive history of sound technology and its uses in Hungary and Czechoslovakia or a fully comparative study as that is beyond the scope of this chapter. We chose to study Hungary and Czechoslovakia because the attitudes of their respective regime to popular music, the level of economic reform in each country, subsequent access to technology, and the lack of informal information exchange between music amateurs in these countries highlight some of the pathways to the creative constriction that we identify in nonofficial musical life between 1960 and 1990. In what follows, we address two areas common to both regimes, nonrecordable and rerecordable sound technology. In these nonofficial cultures, two particular modes of production and distribution were held in common:

Samizdat refers to self-published textual material that ranges from manuscripts to material that is typewritten and copied by hand, typewriter, or mimeographed. The existence, form, and context of samizdat, as well as the amount produced for dissemination, varied from country to country (Machovec 2009). Self-publications were created without the permission or consultation of the authorities in either country.
Magnitizdat refers to the recording and distribution of sonic material that was not available to the public, music that was banned or censored, sound that could be seen as potentially subversive, or music that was wanted immediately. Magnitizdat, in terms of distribution in the shadow economy or black market, was not necessarily subversive but instead filled a market gap in times of shortage (Smith 1984 ). In the Eastern-bloc countries, a certain amount of bricolage, or “situated experimentation,” was employed, of the type found in settings where resources are limited and speedy results are required (Büscher et al. 2001). For example, some of the earliest methods of magnitizdat arose from discarded X-rays in the Soviet Union in the 1950s: The emulsion on the X-ray was a material that one could engrave as one would a record (Ryback 1990 , 32– 33). The process of production and distribution was known as Roentgenizdat [playing the bones], and these old X-rays could be played at 78 rpm on a seven-inch record player .

Hungary’s “Goulash Communism” and Czechoslovakia’s “Normalization”

Following the de-Stalinization process in both countries during the 1950s, economic reforms were introduced in the 1960s, which allowed for an opening and a liberalization of the market, social rights, and relaxation of creative constriction. János Kádár, who took power following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, installed liberalizing mechanisms within Hungary’s economy — which remained a socialist-planned economy but contained elements of a market system, such as private businesses and enterprises (Kaufman 1997, 31). This new era of mixed economic models was brought about primarily through Hungary’s New Economic Mechanism (NEM).
The NEM also sought economic reform through deregulation, which, for example, granted more licenses to artisans and small businesses, thus reducing the state’s monopoly. In this atmosphere, there was added room for amateur musicians, and rock music was permitted to reach listeners via the mass media (Szemere 1983 , 123). While the NEM was supported within the Politburo, the Central Committee, and the General Secretariat, it was eventually halted as a result of hardliners’ efforts in the party, coupled with the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, demonstrating that the economic business of the satellite states, even after de-Stalinization, was still of much interest to Moscow. The goals of the NEM were thus stalled in the ’70s but eventually returned in practice in the early 1980s (Adair 2003).
These new reforms were characteristics of the Kádár regime’s “Goulash Communism” — a form of Communism peculiar to Hungary. It enabled the country to be one of the most reputable Eastern bloc states in which to live. Ultimately, Goulash Communism contributed to, as Adam Przeworksi (1991, 20) recalls:

“an implicit social pact in which the elites offered the prospect of material welfare in exchange for silence. And the tacit premise of this pact was that communism was no longer a model for a new future but an underdeveloped something else. . . As . . . Hungarian surveys showed, the outcome was a society that was materialistic, atomized, and cynical. It was a society in which people uttered formulae that they did not believe and that they did not expect anyone else to believe. Speech became a ritual.”

Similarly, Anna Titkow (1993 , 274) describes this condition as “cognitive dissonance,” which emerges in the gap between reality and the representations produced in the state media and official propaganda and the gap “between the ideals of socialism as preached by the propaganda apparatus and as practiced by the system itself” (Jakubowicz 1994 ).

During Kádár’s regime the second economy began to swell in Hungary — by 1982, more than 75 percent of the population relied on it to contribute extra income to their formal wage, not just supplementing it but in many cases amounting to a higher income in the second economy (Sampson 1987 , 126). The second, or “shadow economy,” manifested in a variety of ways, such as peasants on farms selling their produce, families renting out a room in their apartment, bribing a butcher for choice meat, prostitution, and so on (Sampson 1987, 121). In many parts of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union this second economy provided a “lubricating” function, but this was even more so the case in Hungary, where it was an integral part of the planned economy and helped stem shortages and production bottlenecks (Sampson 1987, 122).

Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, continued its post-1968, Moscow-approved path of social and economic normalization under Gustáv Husák. After consolidating power in 1970, [4] the Husák-dominated socialist state began the first political process of “normalizing“ Czech society, which lasted until the late 1980s. As Ulč characterized the situation in the 1970s, “[The] aim [of normalization was] the reinstitution of the status quo ante and expiration of the liberalizing heresies of the Prague Spring 1968. Prominent among the measures of normalization has been the introduction of thorough censorship” (Ulč 1978, 26). Although often considered a return to the Stalinist practices of Czechoslovakia during the 1950s, normalization was characterized not by overt coercion but by extrajudicial socioeconomic hardship. For example, if someone’s son or daughter was caught by the police distributing banned material, that person might be prohibited by the state from attending a university (Kreidl 2004 ) — often such nonofficial practices endangered networks of connections between friends and neighbors.

Along with these economic and political changes in both countries came adjustments to cultural policy. In Czechoslovakia, the reconfiguration of the rock music scene was achieved in part by keeping official rock bands in line with the minister of culture’s new policies, primarily by regulating hair length, limiting musical genres, instigating a “no English” policy, and editing lyrics (Ryback 1990, 143) — a dramatic turn from the thriving bigbít music scene in the latter part of the 1960s. At the center of this creative constriction were required “requalification exams” for musicians. These were taken every two years in order to obtain a license to play professionally or even as an amateur. As state-run institutions, the licensing agencies functioned as a “censorship mechanism.” They had the authority to determine which musicians were allowed to perform based not only on exams that tested their knowledge of musical theory but also on their familiarity with Marxism-Leninism, their presentation, the lyrical content of the music, and the length of their hair (Vaniček 1997, 33–37). Saxophonist and guitarist Mikoláš Chadima describes seven points that musicians had to abide by if they wanted to pass the exam:

“First, no English band names! Second, no long hair! Third, no English texts! Fourth, be properly dressed! Fifth, don’t play music which is “too wild”! Sixth, learn the rudiments of music theory! Seventh, don’t argue with the adjudicators and let them inflate their ego at your expense! (Vaniček 1997, 47)”

The agency tested these seven points in musical auditions, oral tests of political theory, and finally a written test of Western music theory (Vaniček 1997, 47–50). While exams to determine a musician’s ability to play music still existed in the 1960s, the new requalification exams also established a musician’s place in “normalized” Czech society, in that one could not pass the exam without an adequate knowledge of, for example, “the history of the worker’s party . . . who the Minister of Culture was . . . or their opinions on communism” (Vaniček 1997, 49). Efforts made by the Husák government from 1970 to 1973 to curb rock’s growing interest among the youth population culminated in the implementation of the exams in 1973, [5] which segregated musicians as “official” or “nonofficial” in Czechoslovakia for the remainder of the Communist era.

In Hungary the state institution for the National Management of Light Music also instigated practice licenses, defined performance fees, and employed musical proficiency tests (Szemere 1983, 131). However, responses to rock music were based on strategies of a modified form of commercial inclusion rather than on a division between official and nonofficial musicians or explicit repression of the latter. At its most visible, this inclusion took the form of giving bands recording contracts but not allowing them to record some of their most popular songs. Moreover, the release of an album could be delayed for years, long after the popularity of its pieces had waned. [6] The second economy, however, took care of this bottleneck through bootlegged, copied, and exchanged audio cassette tapes.

Regardless of the Hungarian regime’s restrictions, the situation was still enticing to some since being a rock musician in Hungary during the ’70s and ’80s permitted musicians to receive royalties and tour extensively not only throughout the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union itself but also in other parts of Europe and the United States if sponsored by the regime. In short, Hungarian musicians still had a degree of freedom relative to their Czech counterparts. The containment was less strictly enforced, and officially there was no censor. [7] As János Kobor of the official rock star group Omega attested, “There is no strong censor, but they are, you know, careful. When we made our last album, the record company asked us about the title. They said, this ‘Dark Side of Earth,’ does it refer to Hungary or does it refer to the socialist world? And then after we said no, then it’s all right, no problem.” [8]

The Hungarian form of control by inclusion also involved a method of tactical overexposure of musicians, which diluted their potential threat. One of Hungary’s first punk groups, Beatrice, was subsumed into the official music scene after a series of meetings with representatives of the official culture. This led to a TV spot to discuss punk music, competing in a song contest sponsored by Hungarian radio, and being offered a support-band role in a tour with the superstar groups Omega and Locomotive GT. Seen by fans as “selling out” and leaving their subversive message behind by playing with the establishment bands of Hungary, Beatrice was not helped when the state released a live concert album of the bands (Ryback 1990, 173–74). For the government it was doubly effective: overexposing a subversive band while also improving record purchases by the youth, illustrating the regime’s inclination to institutionalize commercial success.

Within Goulash Communism, Hungarian official cultural life had a loose categorization of bands called “the three Ts” (tu ̋rt, támogatott, tiltott [promote, permit, prohibit]): Certain bands, such as Omega, were promoted, while others were permitted to perform but not to record, and some were not allowed to play under any circumstances.

For both regimes, a key problem was not only how to address restrictions on musical practices but also how to assert policy and control in relation to sonic and technological areas. How, for example, were they to protect radio frequencies from unwanted broadcasts, and should they monitor and assess the ideological content of cultural products? These discussions over policy ebbed from the 1960s to the 1980s; however, restrictions remained in place in both countries until 1989. Moreover, technological innovation — particularly gadgets, sound, and video — themselves raised ideological questions across the bloc. Since such devices were invented and produced in the West, how could a regime import such objects without destabilizing the foundations of the Communist system (Kusin 1987)? Each regime met these issues in different ways, which in turn affected access to the latest technological and cultural products such as albums, films, literature, and clothes. The regimes thus became active participants in how music was experienced by their direct involvement with and control over sonic-related matters.

You can read the rest of this essay on the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC database by clicking here.