Follow the money

Now and again, whenever I feel like my blood pressure’s not high enough, it’s fun to go read some of the blogs over at ArtsJournal. I haven’t been doing this on a regular basis, though, so it’s only now that I’ve caught up with Greg Sandow’s latest evangelizing for making classical music more like popular music. (There’s plenty more where this came from, all well-written and worth perusing.)

The germ of Sandow’s argument is that the future health of classical music depends on its maintaining a presence in popular consciousness. He thinks the best way to do this is to package and market it like popular music, encourage more crossover endeavors, and abandon the mindset that classical music is deeper and more artistically meaningful than popular music. I think he’s wrong.

Simply put, if you put classical music in competition with popular music on popular music’s turf, it loses every time. Popular music has become the prevalent musical culture of our time because there’s a lot of money to be made; nobody will ever get (comparatively) rich doing classical music. It’s become a commonplace argument that the “decline” of classical music in the second half of the 20th century happened because classical artists abandoned their audience via (take your pick) stuffy formality, over-intellectualization, non-communicative serial music, etc., etc. My own sense is that, outside of the popular media, there’s just as much classical music going on today as there was fifty years ago. Classical music isn’t on the wane, it’s just that popular culture has waxed to an unprecedented degree. And the reasons for that are economic.

Here’s my alternate narrative: popular music didn’t really become the cash cow it is now until the 1950’s—suddenly, post-WWII, teenagers had a lot of disposable income for the first time. They were spending it on popular music (as teenagers have always done), but now, the amount of money they were spending was large enough to attract the attention of individuals and companies who had no inherent interest in the artistic value of the music. They got into the business to make a buck, pure and simple, and that became the driving force in the industry.

In other words, up until the war, all types of music were on a relatively level playing field, financially speaking; there was money to be made, but a) not in a sufficiently unbalanced way to drive entrepreneurs into one type of music over another, and b) not in sufficient amounts to attract non-music-loving capitalists. But once the money became serious, popular music won out. The overhead is less (fewer players means fewer people to pay, as well as cheaper recording costs), the marketing is easier (3-minute blocks of music are an easier sell to advertising-based media than 20-minute blocks), and the possibility for economic exploitation is greater (a far greater emphasis on young, “entry-level” performers translates into a greater corporate share of the profits).

There’s also the fact that popular music has lyrics, which means that it’s far easier to write and talk about than instrumental classical music. Even today, the vast majority of rock and pop critics can’t write about the music in a particularly inspiring way, but they don’t have to—they just analyze the words. (I wouldn’t mind this if all lyrics were on a Dylan-esque level, but let’s face it, not even close.)

Sandow keeps saying that he doesn’t want classical music to “dumb down,” but all the virtues of classical music—subtlety, intricacy, intellectual engagement, and a grandeur that takes longer than three minutes to build and realize—are at odds with the lowest-common-denominator aesthetic that’s the holy grail of popular marketing. Sure, there’s popular-style music out there that has a lot of similar virtues, but, like classical music, it’s a niche market. And, taken collectively, I think classical music’s current niche market is probably larger.

I don’t underestimate the need for classical music organizations to market to younger audiences. (Let’s just say that the collective accumulated wisdom of a Friday-afternoon Boston Symphony audience is no doubt considerable.) And certainly younger demographics are more media-savvy consumers than classical marketers are used to. But that brings with it a need for the classical world to be that much more honest about what they’re offering; if you try and market classical music like popular music, that younger demographic is going to see right through it. At the same time, there’s the danger that, in pursuit of a pop-music-sized audience, classical organizations will cross the line between popular marketing and popular aesthetics. The problem with using the marketing trappings of popular culture is that it brings with it the tendency to measure success in the same way: quantity and profitability vs. quality and meaningfulness. Popular culture is beholden to the free market, and the free market is great for determining price, but it’s lousy at determining value.

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