February 25

Dog Whistle Programming

Maybe 7 year ago or so, a bar manager for a bar in Columbus that I used to frequent, told me about how their dress code (no baggy pants, no baseball caps) was their way of excluding black clientele.  I was a bit surprised, not just because of the existence of the policy in the early 2010s, but because he stated it so directly to me, and he apparently figured that I was someone who understood where he was coming from.  For people that aren’t familiar with the concept of a dog whistle, the concept is the use of coded language that appears to mean one thing, but has an additional meaning.  In the case of the aforementioned bar, for instance, the dress code appears to bar the wearing of certain types of clothing, but actually is a code for discouraging a certain type of clientele.

Dog whistles can exist in a lot of forms outside of dress codes.  For instance, I’ve been to a number of open mics over the years which have explicitly stated “no rap”.  (A casual stroll through the internet reveals open mics that still state this).  A look at a recent open mic in New York City states that they don’t allow the use of pre-recorded tracks.  This isn’t a technological limitation, mind you, as the venue has sufficient sound equipment to play tracks into their PA system.  Another venue with a similar restriction even goes on to note that hip-hop is allowed – but hip-hop artists are encouraged to “get out of their comfort zone” by performing without tracks.  Because apparently the artistic choices that hip-hop artists make in crafting their tracks, are artistically inferior, and in need of expansion in a way that other music genres don’t.

I don’t think that all restrictive programming for open mics and similar events is dog whistle programming.  I get the idea that a bar or restaurant may develop a general theme, and desire to program its musical offerings in accordance with that concept.  However, this doesn’t appear to apply to most of the venues that employ these restrictions.  (Are hand-crafted cocktails more or less acoustic or hip-hop?)  However, I submit that at least *some* restrictive programming at open-mics is dog whistle programming – and you should engage your critical thinking skills when you see it.  My reasons for thinking it’s dog whistle programming is essentially the duplicitous nature of “acoustic only” or “no tracks” programming of such events.

Some venues will cite the programming restriction as an “artistic” limitation – but nevertheless have absolutely no problem allowing terrible acts, or having people play mostly covers.  So, the restriction is only nominally artistic – it’s actually that they only want certain kinds of music performed at the open-mic.  A recent venue that I patronized claimed that the issue had to do with having the right cables to plug into the sound system – only to be surprised that I had the right cables with me and was able to set up in no time flat.  Nevertheless, they later advised that the problem wasn’t really the cables issue, just that they wanted only certain types of music.  (i.e., no rap, no hip-hop).  Another venue suggested that the reason for the restriction was a noise level restriction – but when I asked them if it was okay to play music from a portable speaker (actually not as loud as an acoustic guitar), they resisted and said that they actually wanted to just have only acoustic guitar singer-songwriters.

No doubt, a look at many of these events have the curious property of being both deep in Bushwick but also a predominantly white clientele or artist lineup.  Even if the programming isn’t intended to exclude a certain clientele, it has the obvious effect of making the audience curiously predominantly white.  So, like discriminatory policies like Voter ID, even if the intent was one thing (to allegedly prevent fraudulent votes), the disparate impact is apparent – and in the case of such events, the disparate impact is really quite stark.  And of course, duplicitousness is the hallmark of dog whistles – the programming serves the function of hiding a deeper restriction that can sometimes be teased out with further questioning.  That’s what makes it a dog whistle.

Note, it’s understandable that a venue may program a particular event around a musical genre or theme, but generally they also program other events around other genres in a way that is, en total, non-exclusionary.  I don’t have a particular problem with a venue deciding on having an “acoustic music night” where a booker selects a handful of acoustic singer-songwriters to perform.  The issue is more with open-mic programming.  What makes it unnerving in the open-mic context is that open-mics are inherently about public participation, and so placing restrictions on participation which is intended to be open to the public is problematic in a similar way to placing restrictions on entrance to a place of public accommodation.  Open mics also have a kind of free speech history in that they allow for a speech to the public to made without significant restriction.  So to offer a purported open mic, but then to place effectively genre restrictions on content, feels wrong – especially when accompanied by apparently false reasons for the restriction.

I only bring up the concept, because I’m getting a sense that there’s been a resurgence in what I’ll call dog-whistle programming in New York City.  Whether a particular instance is or is not is probably a complicated question.  But the regularity of it is something worth thinking about – and if you see this type of programming in the city, it’s worth questioning the bookers and/or owners as to the purpose of the restriction.  If they claim the reasons are artistic/technical/volume, there are ways around all of these complications that don’t involve genre limitations.  And if they persist, then you might have an example of dog whistle programming.