The Classical Convergence


Waking up from summer vacation…

Remember the car ad from a few years back? Special “Bob” lane on the highway and at the tolls, even a “No Parking – Except for Bob” sign. And the kicker – when “Bob” finally gets pulled over, the cop merely removes his sunglasses and says “Oh, it’s you Bob.” and lets our driver go.

There is a tale, perhaps apocryphal, that the “Bob” commercial was inspired by the legendary driving antics of Herbert von Karajan, who indeed had his own personal rules of the road (not to mention custom-built cars direct from the Porsche factory) during his salad days in Berlin. Of course, it meshed perfectly with von Karajan’s brilliantly-burnished reputation as the supremely talented, driven, impervious, willful, and accomplished Maestro to end all Maestros. Exceptional in all ways; a god among mortals. Now, fast-forward to 2007. Sir Simon Rattle, no slouch with the baton, is the kinder, gentler, face of the Berlin Philharmonic. But I doubt he has a “Singularly Simon” lane on the Autobahn. More to the point, the “Bob” ad comes to mind when I consider the changes – some would say crisis – wreaking havoc in the classical music world of today. It’s Topic A among any manager, agent, musician, administrator, (or even us hardy media producers) even remotely connected to the art form.

Earlier this summer the subject got a thorough going-over at Artsjournal.com with a “group blog” called Engaging Art: A Public Conversation, timed to coincide with the American Symphony Orchestral League (before they changed their name!) conference in Nashville, not to mention a new book called Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, edited by Steven Tepper and former NEA chief Bill Ivey.

As a public conversation, it’s pretty impressive stuff, with contributions from some of the industry’s heaviest hitters and deepest thinkers, offering opinions that range from brutally pessimistic to cautiously optimistic. It’s worth your time (and yes, it’ll TAKE time!) to read it all.

So what’s the verdict, and what does it have to with “Bob?” Reading through the anguish and the gallows humor, what emerges is that Age of Exceptionalism for classical music is over. The World (of music) Is Flat. Or, as the ever-salient Greg Sandow puts it, “..the arts don’t just represent art any more, since so much terrific art happens outside their boundaries. That makes the arts (as opposed to art) seem increasingly stale.”

Bingo! No more special lanes. No more customized parking spots….no more classical-music-only critics in Your Hometown Daily News for the 3 – 6 per cent of the population that attends classical music concerts. In the democratized world of iTunes, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms need to compete with Beyonce, Bjork and the Notorious B.I.G..

Classical music is, in short, entering what Henry Jenkins of the MIT Media Lab describes as today’s “convergence culture:”” a new territory where old and new media intersect, where grassroots and corporate media collide, where the power of the media producer and power of the consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it is, however, merely a game-changing, life-threatening disruption to the status quo. And while we’ve had our gaze upwards, watching what the ground tremors are doing to the mighty redwoods in
the forest, we haven’t looked closer to the ground, where there’s a riot of vitality, energy, and colorful new growth.

*Classical music accounts for 1-3% of sales in “traditional” stores: it’s 11% on iTunes.

*Just as an outsider – Apple & iTunes – re-shaped the recorded-music industry, MySpace (whose origins are far removed from the world of IMG and Columbia Artists) now has 3 million artist pages.

*The top “beach-listening podcasts” for the summer of 2007? Pat Conroy or Sue Grafton? Nuh-uh. Try “Pride and Prejudice” and a series called “The Classic Tales Podcast,” featuring works by Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy, on iTunes’s top 100 podcasts list. Who says intense listening to long-form artistic creations is dead?

*How about those 500-plus classical-music groups on Facebook?

*The record industry’s woes are well-documented, but what about the publishing industry? Last year ASCAP reported record revenues – and record royalty payments to its members, who divided up $680 million – a hefty 5 per cent increase.

*Finally, this vital statistic from the National Association of Music Manufacturers, who also reported record sales last year of musical gear, to the tune (sorry, couldn’t resist!) of $7.5 billion. The reason? According to their Harris-commissioned research, in 1997 about one in four Americans (24%) between the ages of 18-34 owned or played a musical instrument. In 2007, that number is now almost one in three – 32 percent!

What’s going on here? To be sure, this isn’t all due to the fact that kids putting down their Playstations and trudging over to the piano bench to learn Czerny etudes. But it does suggest that our commonly-taught and understood about the value, order, rank, and hierarchy of music – and music education – is being stood on its head. Henry Juszkiewicz, co-owner of Gibson Guitars, told the LA Times: “We are looking at the first creative generation,” “The cost of creative tools has gone down. And now you have the ability to share with other people your creation. These two fundamental, solid changes are allowing the younger generation to be actively creative .”

It could be argued, in fact that we are entering a new “Golden Age” of unprecedented access, discovery, and creation of music. Virtually the entire history of musical composition is only a few keystrokes away from the average American.

The dizzying pace of technological innovation has made the production and distribution of music similarly ubiquitous. “Mass Media” no longer means just mass consumption of content; it now represents mass creation.

So what about classical music, bent on teaching, preserving and showcasing starkly individual, timeless, and lofty musical ambitions? Will we be subjected to “Missa Solemnis Mashups?” That’s a scary thought to many. But we also have the potential now to perform a world-wide “Messiah meetup.” As it is today, people already line up around the block to do “Messiah sing-alongs.” Can you imagine staging a December event with Handel’s oratorio, arguably the most beloved (and certainly the most translated) work of Western music, using technology tools to make it truly a global mass-participation event? I can see the headlines now: “Handel Works Server Havoc: ‘Messiah’ Sing Meltdown.”

(Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

But this is not to minimize, or trivialize, the challenge before the classical-music community. Once the “special lanes” are removed (and we are surely witnessing that on the fundraising level as well), the symphony orchestra, in the form as we know it today, may not survive my generation. In other words, Beethoven will still be around, but the context in how we hear, perform, and present Beethoven will be fundamentally altered in ways that we are just just beginning to glimpse. Strap in and hang on, because it’s going to be an exciting (and terrifying!) ride.

Lots more to say on this subject (the whole blog, really) but more about what’s popping up in the classical underbrush in coming days and weeks…


Leave a Reply