Monday, May 18, 2009

Classical Music and Economics

As someone who was serious about classical violin in my teenage years, and who has occasionally revisited the field of classical music since (due to my father’s passionate love for all periods classical), I rarely think of my profession or indeed other fields of study as related to classical music at all. Recently, however, I read Jeffrey Sachs’ Common Wealth and Alan Beattie’s False Economies, both fresh looks at seemingly well-established economic truths. For some reason, I then wondered if a fresh look at classical music from an economic point of view would yield new insights.

So I did a quick Google search on recent articles on the economics of classical music. What I found was a bit disturbing: over the past 10 years, the common theme of commentators was that classical music now depended on the continued patronage of rich donors and governments; and that the income of top classical artists was limited by their visibility to a narrow, high-income classical-music audience as mediated by record-company executives and concert-hall bookers. The reason this was unsettling was that I had heard almost exactly the same analysis 50 years ago. In the 1990s, an oboist-turned-journalist wrote an autobiography-cum-analysis called Sex, Drugs, and Mozart, in which she argued that funneling money primarily to orchestras was creating an untenable situation in which too many musicians were chasing too few dollars via patron and government funding of orchestras. I conclude that neither revival nor disaster has happened; instead, classical music has reached a “steady state” in which a lot of children are classical music performers, and from college on attention ceases; for grown-ups, classical music becomes a “symbol of class” that otherwise takes up less and less of the world’s attention.

From my experience, the sense of distance in the audience is palpable. Parents who attend their kids’ concerts, or business people who dress up to go to an orchestra concert, typically have no idea of what is “good” or “bad”; so they try to react as they feel they are supposed to, by feeling moved. But take away the social imperative, and they have little urge to keep attending. I, on the other hand, like to go back, because I like to argue with how the piece is performed: do I like Heifetz better in this phrase, or Joshua Bell? Rubinstein or Yo-Yo Ma? De los Angeles or Britney Spears (or Jacques Brel)? Will I ever again hear the amazing subtleties of the Brahms Piano Trios done by Stern-Istomin-Rose? Is this the time when one of them will finally play the Bach Chaconne the way it could be played – by me, if I were a performer?

How is this different from other arts, or “entertainment” in general? Consider pop music, or jazz. The economics of jazz are dreadful; but the settings for performing are generally intimate, and many of the audience dream they could be as good as the performers. Rock is more often large-audience or recordings, but connection with the audience is usually just as important as with jazz, and the surgeon in House can fantasize he can play solo with the band – we would have to go back to the “retro” character Charles in M*A*S*H to find a comparable person who could imagine being a solo pianist.

Or, consider competitive sports. It is certainly true that very, very few ever make it to the big leagues; and yet the audience for them is large, and growing. The common thread, here, is that children who play and watch sports can believably imagine themselves in the place of the superstars. People learn from games, and they fantasize about them. Competition is not necessarily the most important part of sports: learning from the excellent, even if it is collecting stats or admiring the way they look, is important too.

Looking at various parts of the entertainment industry and leisure-time consumers, this seems to be a good way of distinguishing “growing” and “mature” segments. Knitting or pottery are potentially participatory; surgery and math problem solution are generally not, although both may require equal amounts of skill for the best performers.

What this says to me is that classical music, economically speaking, does not have to be a backwater. What is required is that a large number of adults can be attracted to spectating, because, as spectators, they can imagine themselves as the performers – and they can bring their own ideas to the show.

If this is true, then many of the ideas about how to “revive” classical music are subtly but dangerously wrong-headed. The economic need, it is asserted, is to economize by focusing on large, cost-effective groupings of musicians, like the orchestra or the opera – make it bigger and snazzier. But these distance a particular performer from a particular part of the audience, by creating a situation in which few of the audience understand the subtlety of the way a solo performance differs from every other repetition of a phrase, by physically and emotionally distancing performer(s) and audience(s), and by limiting audience rules of interaction and fantasy to “end of every half hour applaud.” Going out into the schools or giving free concerts of the latest classical compositions are effectively beside the point: the one simply reinforces a classical-music presence in the schools that will be lost in college anyway, and the other is focusing on moving the audience to “new” classical music rather than engaging their attention in any kind of classical music performance.

There are limits, of course. Maintaining the patronage of orchestras and opera singers is necessary to keep matters at a “steady state”. Cheering during a movement misses the vital element of softness or silence within a piece, just as laughing during a Jack Benny pause may ruin the punch line. But there should be questions asked, challenges made: “Here’s what I’m trying to do here; listen for it, and decide if you like it better;” “Who’s your favorite rock star? how would he/she do the melody here, and would it be better/worse?” “As you listen here, which part do you find most beautiful/moving? How would you change it if you sang it to yourself?” “There are two ways of playing this: deeper/sadder, and louder/angrier. Which do you feel should be the overall message of the piece? How would you imagine yourself conveying that message if you were me?”

We will know whether such an effort is successful when (whatever the copyright implications) tracks from lots of performers are being passed around because they are different from everyone else, and the listener likes to sing along. In that case, just as in rock, the performer and composer will be of equal importance, and old standards performed differently by new generations will become not only valid but expected. And the audience of consumers, continuing on after college, will become a growing market as classical music finally captures the “long tail.”

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