Denny Crane

My recent online conversation with Sarah Cahill about what makes a piece of music classic got me thinking about an article I read a few years ago about the making of trends and the people who decide what they are. In every society, apparently, there are people who are the leaders of new trends and there are the followers of those movements. Who decides what is popular and what will sell?

This article, as I remember it, focused on a new business that was hiring people who had been identified as trendy by their peers. The company was then paying them to mention products to their friends to see if these new items would become hot commodities. At parties and other social gatherings, these “trend setters” would either wear these new fashions or mention these products repeatedly in conversation until they became popular. If they could sway their friends, it was believed that this was a good test of what the market would bear.

So, if you mention something often enough, does it become a part of the general consciousness? (Denny Crane) It really got me thinking about the way that we market classical music and who determines what is popular or what will get programmed on the next subscription series (Denny Crane). Who has the power? Maybe there are “trend setters” in the classical music world who can persuade others to pay attention to the new work of a promising composer? (Denny Crane) Maybe all these people have to do is simply mention a work or a composer over and over until everyone is talking about it? (Denny Crane)

Now, if you are a Boston Legal fan, you will know that Denny Crane is just a character on a TV show played by William Shatner. He makes himself a legend in the legal world by constantly mentioning his name (Denny Crane!). Even if you don’t already watch the show, I bet I’ve got you wondering….

22 thoughts on “Denny Crane

  1. cbgriffin

    Alpha Pup
    You remind ME of an article in the NYTimes several years back called “Alpha Pups.” A marketing firm went into the elementary schools of some Chicago suburbs and sussed out a sort of “cool pyramid.” They asked hundreds of kids, “Who’s the coolest kid you know?” Then they asked THOSE kids, “Who’s the coolest kid you know?” And so on, up the pyramid. When they got to the kids that essentially answered, “me,” they gave each of those kids five free hand-held video games. (The design of the game was such that you could play it independently, but if you were in the vicinity of a second hand-held, the two kids could play against each other.) It struck me as brilliant and insidious all at once. I’ve never seen Boston Legal. Does Denny Crane use his own name in the first- or third-person? Maybe I’ll start… Charlie Griffin!

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  2. pgblu

    The phenomenon you describe has a name: viral marketing. It has been around for well over a decade, and is a symptom of marketing strategists trying to cope with a diversifying media landscape. Whether that diversity is a real one of actual content or just a plurality of sources — i.e., not any kind of diversity at all — is a matter of hot debate. I’m a little more on the pessimistic side myself.

    In any case, it’s no different from traditional marketing in the sense that it aims to identify and promote the next “trend”. But recognizing trends is not the problem in music! The problem is the trend mentality itself!! How does music benefit from trend recognition when its strength, i.e. the reason why people appreciate it, is that there are as many different compositional styles and objectives as there are composers. Audiences can handle this, promoters and marketers can’t. Whom are we trying to please?

    Besides, viral marketing is a oaradoxical combination of insidiousness and ridiculousness. I guess we can take some comfort in the fact that it’s more “local” rather than “global” in comparison to traditional marketing, but I refuse to enthuse.

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  3. rtanaka

    How does music benefit from trend recognition when its strength, i.e. the reason why people appreciate it, is that there are as many different compositional styles and objectives as there are composers. Audiences can handle this, promoters and marketers can’t. Whom are we trying to please?

    Even in economics the question of who are we writing for inevitably ends up rearing its head — the idea that art should be somehow immune to market forces is/was pretty common among the avant-garde, but in my opinion they didn’t get very far with that idea since in recent years that idea of experimentalism in itself has become somewhat of a commodified idea. Marketing, ironically, the reason why we know about these people to begin with, why people attended their shows and why they were put into the history books. The money has to come from somewhere.

    I used to work as a assistant manager for a few music ensembles, but in order for these groups to survive they generally do need some form of revenue from advertising. So the classical music ensembles generally had ads from wine, fine dining, art classes…you know, the stuff generally associated with the “high class” image we have of that idiom. World music concerts a lot of the times have ads targeted towards an audience who might also appreciate that type of culture and such. Obviously these ads are way different than one you might see at rock concerts.

    Especially in this diversified marketplace now, I think it’s becoming really important for musicians to really know how to target their audience base. At least from what I’ve seen, the ball gets rolling once there’s a fairly distinct connection between the artist’s output and their audience. Once you have a following of some sort, then you can sort of figure out what sorts of sponsors might be interested in the event.

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  4. pgblu

    pack up and go
    Especially in this diversified marketplace now, I think it’s becoming really important for musicians to really know how to target their audience base. At least from what I’ve seen, the ball gets rolling once there’s a fairly distinct connection between the artist’s output and their audience. Once you have a following of some sort, then you can sort of figure out what sorts of sponsors might be interested in the event.

    You may be speaking the truth, Ryan, but it’s still very depressing, and I think it’s pretty short-sighted. This might be good advice for artists with the self-promotion gene, who somehow get a rise out of being their own PR firm. If this was true universally, though, then everybody who studies music would be required to take a marketing class.

    Imagine the entire class of 2011 at your conservatory subjecting their peers to some personally developed, individually tailored form of viral marketing. I’m sorry, but that’s depressing. And I guarantee that the quality of actual music making will suffer.

    Take Ryan’s advice and become a marketing expert, or take mine and channel that energy into doing what you believe in as well as you can do it. That’s hard enough!

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  5. sarahcahill

    marketing
    Give Ryan a break. I think when he and Teresa use the word “marketing,” they can be describing something as simple as understanding your audience. When you write your music, do you have an ideal listener in mind? Who would you like to have attend your performances? Or do you really write in a vacuum? “Marketing” doesn’t have to mean selling out to corporate sponsors, it can mean reaching out to your community and bringing them in to hear your work.

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  6. philmusic

    “Marketing” doesn’t have to mean selling out to corporate sponsors, it can mean reaching out to your community and bringing them in to hear your work.

    True, but in a commerical society the main point of marketing is to find out what the public wants and it seems that many musical institutions are getting awfully close to -”give the public what it wants”

    Not a very artistic approach.

    Phil’s page

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  7. philmusic

    “the idea that art should be somehow immune to market forces is/was pretty common among the avant-garde, but in my opinion they didn’t get very far with that idea since in recent years that idea of experimentalism in itself has become somewhat of a commodified idea. Marketing, ironically, the reason why we know about these people to begin with,”

    Very true. For example, even the New York Times notes that BAM performs the same composers over and over.

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  8. rtanaka

    In case I wasn’t being clear, I wasn’t implying that musicians should be engaging in a viral kind of marketing. But you do have to put in the effort, time and money to put the word out there, otherwise nobody will know!

    Generally speaking, being able to target your audience base is probably the most effective way to see returns on advertising investments — if you publicize in all of the right venues then it dramatically increases the chances of a crowd actually showing up. It works, and I haven’t really seen any evidence that classical or new music idioms are somehow exempt from this rule. But you do have to know who might be interested in the product itself, otherwise it’s like throwing money into a hole.

    As long as its done with good intension, I don’t think marketing compromises the integrity of the artwork either. Is it so bad to find an Indian food restaurant at an Indian music concert? More like, build the audience base first, then try to find sponsorship. I know in commercial markets the process isn’t so pure, but the money has to come from somewhere…

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  9. teresa

    “Viral marketing” is not necessarily a bad concept, and I’m not sure it’s a bad idea for new music either. Information that is repeated over and over again becomes imbedded in the public subconscious and influences how we think–especially if that information is repeated by someone with perceived influence or authority. Who gets that influence and authority is a different question…

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  10. pgblu

    questions
    When you write your music, do you have an ideal listener in mind? Who would you like to have attend your performances? Or do you really write in a vacuum?

    These sound like rhetorical questions. Are they? When I write music, I write exclusively what I want to write (or I try, which as I say is hard enough), but in the knowledge that my interests, if I express them well, are going to overlap with the interests of others, because I’m human and they are, too. Beyond that assumption, I make no efforts to look into some ideal listener’s soul, because I think it’s presumptuous, and in extreme cases, patronizing, to assume I know what anyone, besides me, really wants. Does that mean I “write in a vacuum”? Or can we find some less tendentious phrase for it?

    And I am not trying to be hard on Ryan; I like his postings, and I do know where he is coming from. Perhaps my responses come from a desire to see a better infrastructure that more effectively (if artificially) supports innovative talents and lets “the market” take care of those that are satisfied with rehashing expressive tropes — whose audience appeal no innovator can compete with. How many Anthony Braxtons are there in our generation who have simply given up because they can’t work 18 hour days on a white rice diet like he did? Shall we “promote” them by turning their names into a kind of mantra?

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  11. rtanaka

    Here’s a quote from John Dewey’s Art as Experience which might be relevant:

    Because of changes in industrial conditions the artist has been pushed to one side from the main streams of active interest. Industry has been mechanized and an artist cannot work mechanically for mass production. He is less integrated than formerly in the normal flow of social services. A peculiar esthetic betake themselves to their work as an isolated means of “self-expression”. In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, they often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to a point of eccentricity. Consequently artistic products take on to a still greater degree the air of something independent and esoteric.

    And this was written in the 30s, way before society became fully modernized, but I think that Dewey has some insights into why things are the way they are right now. I don’t really believe that audience finds it patronizing when the composer is speaking directly to them, I honestly don’t. At least when I go to concerts, it’s a nice feeling when your presence is acknowledged, even if you disagree with the aesthetic or message or whatever…I think is lacking in a lot of classical and new music concerts, which is why tend to turn to other mediums where they feel more at home.

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  12. pgblu

    Dewey? I think ‘e don’t.
    Again, the argument you’re presenting in the words of Dewey is a bit tendentious. I would generally be careful about taking statements at face value which refer to “the artist” in order to talk about a large category of people — he probably had a small handful of artists in mind whose work he found baffling. In any case, to attribute all their unaccustomed ideas to an effort to assert their independence and be eccentric does nothing to stimulate debate. Its primary purpose is to assure audiences that those works of art they didn’t much care for anyway need not be taken seriously. It is a way of deflecting attention away from the ideas of the artists themselves, who had specific aesthetic intentions with works or bodies of work that, in their best manifestations, represent an open invitation to the viewer to become involved in the “art as experience.” Dewey’s observation cannot be merely dismissed, of course, as the artists were ALSO victims of forces greater than themselves, but it cannot stand alone, either.

    Another point: I make a distinction between what you call “speaking directly to audiences” (what does that mean, exactly?) and “providing them with what they want.” I do not endorse any artist whose principal purpose is to speak over the audience’s heads or to speak to them indirectly (?). If the composer is emotionally/spiritually engaged with his or her material, the possibility is created that the listener will feel the same way. That is how I understand communication.

    You could say that I’m advocating for the ivory tower. I can’t tell how I’m coming across here… as a lone curmudgeon who is disgusted with popular culture? I’d like to see a cultural milieu that leaves room for many kinds of artistic utterances, including the ones I myself value most. I respect those composers most who aim to write music that has a self-sufficient logical consistency, and try to realize what is beautiful for them. The Dewey quote that says I’m being an eccentric just for the sake of it leaves me completely cold.

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  13. rtanaka

    “Esoteric” can be a good or bad thing depending on who you talk to. The drawback of this ultra-individualized approach, however, is that by disconnecting itself from its social consequence the artwork loses its tangibility with an audience base. I think this outcome is only logical, and it is also reflected in practice as well, considering how divisive new music had become during the 20th century. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Some people are content with writing for small audiences and I think this is a good thing since that’s probably how its going to be in the music world in the 21st century anyway, where everything has become so decentralized. But I think the mode of expression has to go beyond just the composer, otherwise the artwork only serves as an object and no longer becomes about the act of communication. The “target” audience doesn’t even have to be very large…just one person even. I’ve written works for individual people who were very important to me…well, the “message” didn’t always get across, but there’s something about the works that contains that yearning desire to be understood, which, at least in my opinion, is very powerful. The nice thing about having an audience in mind is that, it tends to eliminate a lot of compositional choices that would otherwise have to be decided arbitrarily.

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  14. pgblu

    I never used the word ‘esoteric’ and I never said I don’t think about the social consequences of art. I also don’t advocate making arbitrary decisions. We are talking right past each other.

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  15. rtanaka

    I mentioned the Dewey quote because he argues that the avoidance of economic issues on part of the artist is what leads to esotericness. (This is what we were talking about, I think?) I think he has a point because, well at least to me, this is what seems to be the state of new music today, which you have to admit is pretty esoteric. I’m a little tired of going to “insider” concerts where the audience predominantly consists of musicians.

    The individualistic, non-compromising attitude was (and still is, I guess) common among the avant-garde during the mid-20th century, but in my opinion they didn’t get very far because they also became part of the very system they were trying to avoid. If you look at the activities of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (whos presence coincides with modernism’s peak in influence) then it’s pretty clear that art can easily fall into prey of external interests if it doesn’t know how to defend itself against it.

    I guess my point was that artists now need to become responsible for their own promotion since the usual ways of making a living are drying up pretty quickly. Targeted marketing works, and I don’t really see how it takes away anything from the artistic process as long as its done with good intension. But music being a communicative medium it also implies that the product itself does appeal (or at least tries to appeal) to someone. Sometimes I write for an academic audience, sometimes broader, sometimes directly for the performers themselves…but at least knowing where it might go makes it a lot easier to find performers and venues who might be interested in that sort of thing. The benefits of doing so, at least for me, has been very immense.

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  16. pgblu

    Artist: Thank you for coming to the unveiling of my new triptych. It seeks to illustrate how…

    Ryan: Your work is eccentric and esoteric.

    Artist: Now, in the second panel, the cross-hatching represents…

    Ryan: Your art is funded by the CIA.

    Artist: Note how all these things sort of culminate in the third panel as the red squ…

    Ryan: You are a tool of the CIA.

    Artist: …of humanity as a whole. Are there any questions?

    Ryan: Yes, why are you so unresponsive to the needs of your audience?

    Yes, the Guggenheim foundation got money from the CIA. Does that mean the art made under those auspices is nothing but a tool of wrong-headed propaganda? Do you see how this serves as a convenient excuse for circumventing the discussion of art as experience?

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  17. rtanaka

    In light of these events (many of which are just coming out now), this may or may not take away from the achievements of the artists themselves, depending on who you talk to. Even Louis Armstrong was used by the CIA to put on a false front for the poor race relations which were happening in the United States at the time. Still, I don’t think anybody would accuse Armstrong of being a hack.

    But I think that it’s necessary to put our perspective in the context of what was happening during that period. I’m not accusing anybody of being untalented or being a hack. But lately I’ve been feeling that composers have a tendency to see the popularization or critical acclaim of certain musics as a triumph of aesthetics rather than considering the social and political reasons of why certain works come to the forefront of society. If anything, this shows that the arrogance of certain artists from that time period was completely unwarranted, and for a composer to treat their audience with such contempt and disregard now is almost comical.

    The fact of the matter is that many of the works as we know it were inflated artificially by the government because it served a political purpose for its time. Composers did not have to acknowledge the audience’s sensibilities because they were being funded on grounds other than what was being communicated to the people. This allowed for many of them to be completely self-indulgent and largely dismissive of their audience’s response to their works. Now that times have changed, the artist’s purpose also have to change, in my opinion. And there really is no choice for the artist in the 21st century, because government support for individual artists have been drying up very quickly.

    Like the article above suggests, the best way to support the arts seems to be to try to build local support from the community within, if the intension is to break free from Hollywood, government, or academic audiences. A lot of this is already happening with world and cross-cultural musics and it seems to work pretty well. But all of this requires an audience-base which the artist can target. Unless you have any better ideas — I don’t really have any at this point either.

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  18. pgblu

    I’d go along with a lot of that, in principle, though I don’t see why the community needs to necessarily be a local one (at least not literally). I do agree that a composer, whatever path they choose in life, should be realistic with themselves about their career prospects when creating innovative art.

    Still, I take continue to take issue with your claim that pursuing one’s own aesthetic as uncompromisingly as possible is equivalent to contempt or disregard for one’s audience. That is a gross generalization. We have some huge egos in the composition community, true, but the degree of arrogance is largely independent of the degree of mass appeal. Composers who have a real disdain for (and not just a phobia toward) the opinions of their listeners are shutting themselves off from a useful critical resource.

    Our disagreement boils down to this: are the musical concerns of the individual of necessity universal concerns? If not, do you really think that the “prestige” that comes with being an incomprehensible and generally despised/ignored composer is motivation enough to devote one’s life to the pursuit of personal aesthetic ideals?

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  19. rtanaka

    I agree with you about communities not needing to be localized…I guess a local community was just one example since it’s been around for so long. In the old days people didn’t move around too much, so the role of the artist and the placement of its product was fairly interconnected. Now that we have more options to travel and relocate ourselves, the function of the artist isn’t as clear as it used to be. Modernization brings materialistic wealth and all kinds of access to new information, but often with it, schizophrenia, indecision, internal conflict, and a sense of alienation. This is what, at least to me, gets “expressed” in a lot of the musics from that era.

    I think a lot of the modernists had very good ideas — they were obviously created by very intelligent people. But as everyone knows, music done in the high modernist style typically doesn’t connect well with non-musicians, even highly educated ones. I think the problem is more of a language barrier if anything, because in a lot of circles music has become so specialized that it can’t even be understood by intelligent layman.

    I know lots of people who are okay with this — of course you can’t please everyone but if they’re happy with a certain niche then I think that is OK. But generally I tend to think that its the composer’s job to reach out to people by utilizing the audience’s choice of language. And it’s perfectly possible to utilize the audience’s language without being compromising…it’s just language, after all, it doesn’t necessarily have to become an endorsement. (The sarcasm of Schostakovich, for example.

    I’m using English to write on this column right now, and it would be absurd for me to invent my own language and expect you to go way out of your way to decrypt it…yet, I’ve found that this attitude is fairly common among composers who think it’s okay to do this because it’s music and they place the burden of coherency on the audience rather than putting in the effort to be coherent themselves. Who has that kind of time, really?

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  20. pgblu

    I find analogies between music and language sometimes apropos, but often off the mark or misleading. The one you make is rather facile, since “language” carries meaning, and that meaning can be understood. The point of language is to be understood. Music, however, is meant to be enjoyed, which is very different from understanding. When people say they don’t “understand” my music, I often ask them “Well, which music DO you understand?”

    After further discussion it usually becomes clear that they use the word understand to mean “enjoy”. They just didn’t want to be rude. Perhaps this is the main problem with contemporary music and audiences: it is an unaccustomed sound world, and they equate unaccustomed with incomprehensible. And yet, there’s nothing new TO comprehend, there’s just something new to get used to.

    What’s really interesting is a phenomenon I’ve experienced that I’m sure is not only limited to people with musical expertise: the sense that repeated listenings to a piece convey an increased sense that I’ve understood absolutely nothing.

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  21. rtanaka

    I guess at this point we have to agree to disagree. I consider music to be a language in which meaning can be conveyed, and this is made possible by the fact that its form is something which arises collectively as a social phenomenon. There are many different social groups, but nonetheless, I don’t think music systems are something that is created by an individual mind.

    Others claim to enjoy music purely for the “experience” of it, which I’ve heard a lot of times talking with some other composers. I think a lot of the disagreement largely stems from whether or not we think music has the ability to be representational, which is very much a linguistic thing. Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is probably one of the clearest examples of representational music…each instrument represents something, and each gesture points to something that one can identify with. Sometimes it can be kitchy I admit, but the advantage of this approach is that the audience actually knows what’s going on, if you consider that to be a good thing. Elliot Carter’s music is much more complex, but it is also representational in the sense that the instrumental groups typically depict people and groups of people that he happened to encounter throughout his lifetime.

    Likewise, tonality’s harmonic and rhythmic hierarchical systems are, at least to me, representative of power relationships that exist within western society. Again, the utilization of this medium does not have to be an endorsement — jazz attempts to escape it through the use of syncopation, and a lot of the music in the 20th century attempted to delineate these structures by harmonic rotation. But it at least acknowledges the reality of the situation that were living in, instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist.

    Beethoven’s music I hear as part of the Napoleonic revolutions coupled with the rise of the merchant classes during that period. It is individualistic, capitalistic, and very arrogant, which and this is epitomized in his personality (cranky and money-grubbing) as well as his music, derived from the social environment of his time. Maybe not everyone hears it in this way, but when tied to the context of its given time period, it tends to make more sense beyond just the notes which are being played.

    Thanks for the discussion, either way. It was interesting.

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