Fuzzy Math

I rarely watch television, but since it’s faster to find out about the weather via TV than it is to load one of the pop-up ad-laden weather URLs, I usually tune into NY1 in the morning for their extremely convenient “Weather on the 1s” segment. Inevitably I wind up turning the TV on at, say, 8:03 a.m., so I’m subjected to hearing other kinds of news until the minute hand lands on a number ending in 1. Today I got sucked into hearing their TV critic’s review of a new sitcom called Back To You, which I’m pretty much convinced I’ll never watch, despite the rave it was given. The only reason I even remember this segment was because the critic mentioned that the program was not doing well with its ratings because it had only seven million viewers.

Seven million viewers is actually a failure! Did I hear that correctly?

With all our recent talk here about careers and success, how can anyone succeed when the bar is set that high? We already know at this point in history that the monetary cost for taking an orchestral composition from conceptualization to realization is unduly prohibitive. And to create a permanent document of a performance, e.g. a recording, comes with an even higher price tag. Opera raises the stakes higher still.

Yet all of those daunting numbers are miniscule compared to the advance monetary layouts and the projected returns in the commercial arena of popular culture. Think of the cost of maintaining a show on Broadway (with the current stagehands strike, it’s hard not to), producing a motion picture or—case above—a television show. Even a heavily promoted pop album has an astronomically high budget. But in order to justify any of the money spent, in all of these cases folks need to make a significant profit. And if they don’t, they can no longer afford to keep doing it.

In the final analysis, it’s a question of scale. How many people does your music reach? How many people do you want to reach with your music? How many people can be reached with your music? And ultimately, how people are there out there who will be interested in the particular niche your music fits into? Substitute music with dance, film, book, sweater, pasta sauce, you name it.

While once upon a time it seemed crass to equate artistic endeavors with commodities, now it seems crass to think of any commodity—or indeed any endeavor—as not having some intrinsic worth. You might not like everything there is out there, but somebody does and that’s why it exists. And in an age where markets are more and more fragmented, the notion of a mainstream seems quaint and outmoded. In fact, the notion of seven million people doing the exact same thing feels almost nostalgic. Remember when Elvis had 50 million fans who couldn’t be wrong? But even having that many fans has its limits in the market place. Earlier today a real estate developer bulldozed an historic hotel where Elvis had his Vegas debut; apparently more money can be made on larger, posher suites than on remembering the King.

So since it seems impossible to win no matter how high the numbers are, forget about the numbers. Find your audience and speak to it and hopefully you’ll be successful even if there aren’t that many people listening yet.

18 thoughts on “Fuzzy Math

  1. Somebody

    Marketing
    Wow, look everybody, it is a lesson in marketing. How do you get arts funding for this stuff? Perhaps we could talk about the marketing of the ACO, AMC, ACF, and MTC? They marketed their product to… us, and the product is doing…. for us.

    Reply
  2. Daniel Wolf

    Musics intended for mass distribution and consumption are necessarily different projects from those of other musics in which the priorities are more individual, possibly more intellectual, and often concerned with issues that are internal to music itself instead of functioning as an augmenting tool to communicative acts carried primarily through other media.

    The priorities for these other musics are not quantifiable in any statistically meaningful way, especially when compared to the scales of activity applicable to mass media and mass audiences. The vital issue for us is rather that of simply maintaining a presence, so that the music is out there and available to musicians and listeners who are interested in music that might be engaged in different issues and engaging in different ways.

    To some extent, we are disadvantaged by expecting one word, music, to cover so much activity, rather than to narrowly define it. The disadvantage for those of us working in these other musics is that we are constantly tempted to use the mass forms of music as a point of reference, deference, or even as an alibi, indeed to define our activity in terms designed for the mass genres, a temptation which often hinders our ability to locate strengths and qualities unique to our own work.

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  3. William Osborne

    Nice comment, Daniel.

    It is interesting how new theories of art eventually descend to forms of orthodoxy. The ideas are extended to the point of absurdity, and devolve to cant. One thinks of serialism in the 70s as a prime example, but I think much postmodern thought has reached the same point. We now have to explain the self-evident: that classical music has very different functions and origins than the mass media.

    It was interesting to question aesthetic hierarchies back in the 80s, but now we have created an extreme where popular music is pushed forward as a sort of universal frame of reference. The medicine was once useful, but is now an addiction.

    We might also remember that in consumer societies, desire is largely manufactured. There is no natural law that produced Elvis, nor the mass desire to hear him. Appreciation for classical music must also be manufactured, and through a process that is far more complex than the desire for most pop. We need to find the self-confidence to stand up for music education. And America needs to give up its radical, isolated stance, and create an effective system of public arts funding like ALL other industrial countries. Change is in the air. Now is the time to act.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

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  4. Chris Becker

    “There is no natural law that produced Elvis, nor the mass desire to hear him.”

    I disagree with William’s comment. But his point of view doesn’t surprise me as rock and roll is not generally treated as having a history that runs parallel to blues, gospel and jazz and many other American indigenous musics.

    Once again, I go to one of my favorite essays by Michael Ventura (see below). Might be of interest to those with a cursory knowledge of so-called “pop” music and its place in our 21st century. I think we as a country are still sorting out a lot of issues that date back before the Civil War but let me stop there…

    “THE HISTORIES of jazz and rock’n’roll are usually considered separately, yet when taken together they tell a very different story. It is the story of how the American sense of the body changed and deepened in the twentieth century — how Americans began the slow, painful process, still barely started now, of transcending the mind-body split they’d inherited from European culture.

    The mind-body split that defined Western culture was in its music as well. When you felt transported by Mozart or Brahms, it wasn’t your body that was transported. The sensation often described is a body yearning to follow where its spirit has gone — the sense of a body being tugged upward, rising a little where you sit. And you almost always sit. And, for the most part, you sit comparatively still. The music doesn’t change your body.”

    And regarding Elvis Presley:

    “Blacks pretty much ignored him — they knew precisely where he was coming from (he was coming from them) and they didn’t need to be told what he was saying, it was all around them and always had been. As for white mainstream culture — nobody knew what to do. An official culture that had become an official culture through the act of separating one thing from another (instead of unifying them), couldn’t then process Elvis or the rock’n’roll, black and white, that he was forcing on them. Yet Elvis was the first product of African metaphysics in America which the official culture could not ignore. The various American establishments — political, intellectual, media — had successfully ignored American music since Buddy Bolden (who was only mentioned in a newspaper once in his life, when he was arrested during what we might now call his first nervous breakdown). But they couldn’t ignore Elvis. And they weren’t going to be able to ignore American music ever again. They could co-opt Elvis, as they finally did, but they couldn’t rationalize him. And they couldn’t stop him. Within months of his first hit, black artists as wild as Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry would be heard on white radio-stations for the first time, due to the demand Elvis had created for their music.”

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  5. philmusic

    “In the final analysis, it’s a question of scale…”

    Frank I also think that it’s a question of “time”.

    As, the musical trends that affect us change so do the challenges we have as composers and audiences. The trends on TV have changed. Now “reality” shows muscle out the “situation comedies” and who remembers the variety shows?

    Time is also an issue in that many composers are in a hurry to make their mark and make it now! How many of us have or had particular timelines in our heads?

    As for it being “impossible to win” it’s a good mindset to feel bullet proof but I’m not so sure that will work for everyone. Any art, or in any sport for that matter, involve loss and risk. How we cope with loss and success says a lot about us.

    Phil Fried

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  6. rtanaka

    The idea of the manufactured desire, again, also predominantly comes from Adorno. He argued that capitalism’s divorce of labor from its means of production (a Marxist argument, ironically enough) allowed for a situation where aesthetic value became reduced to a matter of dollars and cents. And so, in reverse, dollars and cents could be used to artificially create aesthetic demand.

    I’m not sure if I agree with this, though, because I’ve read a number of times that even during the hay days of pop culture (80s-90s) something like 80-90% of record productions would end up in the red. I mean, from any business point of view, that’s really bad, and theoretically such practices should not survive. So it would mean that the record companies themselves don’t really know what people want, but they were able to survive just because of its size…and of course because nothing else was available at the time. From stories I’ve been hearing around LA, many of the record companies are currently freaking out because they’re losing their market share to the internet and other venues.

    In economic terms, the internet is simply a better reflector of actual demand, less inhibited by the inefficiencies of the market (like not knowing where the best prices are, geographical limitations, etc.) so its likely that many of the large institutions whom have been producing an excess supply of goods (but keeping prices high artificially) will be forced to adapt to this new circumstance or face the possibility of extinction.

    I tend to have more favorable perspectives on the consumer — people don’t fork over cash for something just because someone told them to. They do it willingly, although the reasons for doing so may or may not be good — there are usually reasons beyond marketing reasons why people might choose to buy “bad” art to begin with. There are lots of people who are unhappy with the commercial market, but just simply don’t know what else is out there. It’s usually these types of people that we have to target, I think. But as Frank said, you have to find your audience.

    An article that might be of some interest — it’s a pretty easy read:

    Fandom as a Materialist Aesthetic

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  7. William Osborne

    Chris, I understand what you are saying, but historical evolution is usually not based on natural law – and that is probably especially true for culture. Elvis clearly grew of black R&B traditions (among other things), but his particular manifestations of those traditions, and his identity as a mass media cultural icon, were manufactured by an industry that knew exactly what they were doing. One of the most notable concerns was a need to have a white R&B artist to serve as a mass media star. A black man would not do. Racism, of course, is not natural law.

    In a mass media society, culture is manufactured, so an appreciation for classical music will have to be too.

    William Osborne

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  8. Chris Becker

    “Racism, of course, is not natural law.”

    No, but neither is the “mind body split” that Ventura describes.

    “…his particular manifestations of those traditions, and his identity as a mass media cultural icon, were manufactured by an industry that knew exactly what they were doing.”

    Yes, but you said there is no natural law that produced Elvis meaning he was some how manufactured (birthed) by the industry that “knew exactly what they were doing.” This is not accurate and worse, it’s actually a revisionist or at least narrow view of that music and time period. There is a spiritual disconnect in your assessment of “Elvis.” I believe we can look back at that time in the U.S. (the 50’s and earlier) as a helpful point of reference when debating these questions about our own music (which lies outside of the mass media) if we could get rid of these cliched one-dimensional evaluations of the legacies of rock and roll.

    I feel like I’m dancing around a point here but bear with me. It’s rare that music is spoken of in spiritual or mythical terms on this website. The music that composers of my generation have mined outside of the European classical tradition still holds surprises for us I believe…there is still work to be done…we’ve only scratched the surface to date with how our country’s “popular” music might guide and inspire those of us on the fringe…

    Don’t mean to bust your chops, William. I think you bring a lot to these discussions.

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  9. philmusic

    “I’ve read a number of times that even during the hay days of pop culture (80s-90s) something like 80-90% of record productions would end up in the red. I mean, from any business point of view, that’s really bad, …”

    Unless you want a tax shelter–and this business model continues –as the film industry makes tons of money–yet the films show no profits!

    Phil Fried

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  10. William Osborne

    You’re right, Chris. There is much spiritual and mythical surrounding Elvis. (And by the way, I am an Elvis fan.) The question we are addressing is where these spiritual and mythical elements came from – how they evolved. These qualities are virtually the antithesis of natural law.

    We might also note that spiritual and mythical beliefs are pretty much beyond debate – they are held as absolutes. It is thus ironic how postmodernism in music started as a methodology for examining false assumptions about natural law as justifications for the presumed superiority of classical music, only to have those same forms of absolutism now reversed and applied to popular music. If there is anything we should have learned, it is that all culture is largely manufactured. That is, of course, a form of apostasy when confronting the zealotry that surrounds both popular and classical music. Just as with religion, discussion disintegrates into passion.

    William Osborne

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  11. Chris Becker

    I don’t understand what you mean by “natural law.” Can you define that? I thought I had a grip on it but I don’t believe I do.

    “If there is anything we should have learned, it is that all culture is largely manufactured.”

    Really don’t believe that myself…as an artist how can I? But again, it may be you are using words and I’m not exactly understanding the (or your) definitions…in this case “culture.”

    Phil, I appreciated your comments by the way ie sports and learning from “failure.”

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  12. rtanaka

    Unless you want a tax shelter–and this business model continues –as the film industry makes tons of money–yet the films show no profits!

    For a select few people, anyway. I’ve been driving near Burbank lately and at Disney studios they’re having a writer’s strike. The people on the lower rung rarely see any of the money. The industry has become so bloated that it can survive despite spitting out bad works on a regular basis. I think a little bit of attrition might be on order.

    Even in economic terms, “success” is largely defined by the company’s abiilty to meet its consumer’s demands. If 100 CDs are produced and 100 people buy it, it can be said that it’s more of a success than a large record label printing 1 million CDs and only sells 100,000. So if there’s something some people want and you deliver, then it can be seen as a success. Scale only really becomes a major issue if people are harboring desires to become famous or making a ridiculous amount of money.

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  13. William Osborne

    You are absolutely right, Chris. I began to notice that you might not understand the terms I was using. I should have explained them. Sorry.

    Natural law is a a philosophical theory that posits a world view (epistemology) whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere. Western science, for example, is based on natural law. Or the laws of nature, as we call them.

    Classical music evolved based on absurdly incorrect beliefs about natural law. Our scales, for example, were based on a Pythagorian system of ratios that were thought identical to how the planets orbited the earth (sic.) Classical music was a manifestation of celestial clockwork, a harmony of the spheres, deific, and absolute in authority. Augmented fourths, for instance, were contrary to this presumed system of planetary ratios and thought to be satanic – sort of like rock music in some circles today.

    Until only about 70 years ago, classical music still based its authority on concepts of cultural nationalism and race that were also deeply unscientific. In fact, the Vienna Philharmonic still believes that gender and ethnic uniformity give it aesthetic superiority. Only three weeks ago, the famous American molecular biologist, James Watson (the discover of DNA,) had to resign his position at a prestigious research institution on Long Island, after publically asserting the inherent intellectual inferiority of Africans.

    I guess the moral of the story is that we should be careful about attributing something so complex and subjective as cultural evolution to natural law.

    My conception of how culture is “manufactured” derives largely from the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky, who co-authored a highly influential book entitled _Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media_, first published in 1988. It examines how the mass media shapes society’s perception of the world.

    The term “manufacture of consent” was first used by Walter Lippmann in his 1922 book Public Opinion. He argued that propaganda’s increased (and increasing) power, along with the necessity of specialized knowledge in political decision-making, have made the traditional notion of democracy impossible. We think we are making free decisions because we do not realize the extent to which the media shapes our beliefs.

    It is probably apparent how these conceptions might be used to examine the evolution of both low and high culture.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

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  14. jgrossnas

    In terms of TV ratings, 7 million is a tiny number. When advertisers see those kind of numbers, they’re hesitant to buy time on a show, which usually means doom for a program.

    It’s a much different scale from album sales, especially nowadays. A #1 album on the Billboard pop charts might be selling in the low six-figures. If you had the equivalent number of viewers for a TV show, it would be canceled by the network immediately.

    Meanwhile, a classical album (or a jazz album for that matter) is considered a success if it can sell a few thousand copies. It’s all a matter of scale.

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  15. philmusic

    “…a situation where aesthetic value became reduced to a matter of dollars and cents…. I don’t agree… etc.

    Ok Ryan, I was trying to give some evidence that does not support your point. The fact that the employees may have been ripped off, as I believe Elvis was, only makes your point weaker.

    Phil Fried

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  16. William Osborne

    An interesting and articulate post, Ryan. You seem to follow the premise of classical and neo-liberal economics which asserts that people make economic decisions based on utility – even if their decisions are sometimes mistaken. For comparison, you might want to read some articles about economic behaviorism. There’s quite a bit on the web. Economists are learning that people’s spending habits are often not rational at all. Economic behaviorism studies this irrational behavior – a sort of sociology of irrational spending habits that are a far more pervasive force in economies than economists had believed.

    I think this will also be important for the arts. Our ruling aesthetic philosophies are usually very directly linked to our ruling economic philosophies. For example, postmodernism and neo-liberalism both embrace certain aspects of the arts in market economies. I think that neo-liberalism is falling out of favor, and that it will be greatly altered, or even replaced by economic behaviorism as a ruling paradigm. In the next 10 to 20 years, I think economic behaviorism will become our central economic philosophy, and that it will formulate a new set of aesthestic concepts based on the predictable patterns of human irrationality. (I know this is all very abstract and needs a lot of explanation, but I need to stop farting around and…er… shut-up and compose. Read some of the articles available and maybe you will sense what I mean.)

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

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  17. rtanaka

    Ok Ryan, I was trying to give some evidence that does not support your point. The fact that the employees may have been ripped off, as I believe Elvis was, only makes your point weaker.

    My point was that I don’t think the large record labels are exactly meeting the supply/demand curve as touted in classical economics. I don’t think we’re necessarily in disagreement here, because I agree that the economics of commercial art is a really distorted one at this point. The big problem is that the large companies have a near-monopoly on the airwaves, and this gives them an unfair advantage over any other type of competition that might exist.

    What seems like the typical way of doing business there is that they experiment with a couple of things, most of which end in failiure, but as soon as something is found to make some money, they rehash it over and over and over…the most obvious example is “clone” movies that come out a month or two after a successful one.

    I mean, most of these people are so into the loop that production starts even while the other thing is still in the works! The failiures to produce profits, the tons of after-market CDs that end up in the bargain bins…these things are aberrations in terms of good business practices.

    What I’m saying is that I think the internet will, in the long run, help to smooth out some of these distortions by appropriating the right products to the right people. I know lots, and I mean lots of people who are geniunely dissatisfied with the way the pop industry is working now, so I don’t think it’s fair to hold the consumer in contempt. As long as the business environment is relatively fair, I think its possible for good music to thrive.

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  18. William Osborne

    In regard to Frank’s musings about arts funding and popular culture, Jeff Koons’s 3,500-pound, hot-pink, stainless-steel “Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)” just sold for $23.6 million at Sotheby’s in New York. See a picture here:

    http://www.mediabistro.com/unbeige/art/jeff_koons_bless_his_heart_70473.asp

    Koons’s is a former Wall Street commodities broker. Bloomberg News reports that his subject matter includes his porn star ex-wife, puppies and pop singer Michael Jackson. They say he’s popular among the billionaire art-buying club. I’m not sure what that would say about supply/demand curves, Ryan.

    I’ve decided to take the American Music Center’s positive-thinking approach (at least if their webzine is any indication of their views.) I am currently writing a piece for the United States Marine Corp Band (The President’s Own) entitled “Leave It To Beaver.”

    Sorry, just being a smart alec. I know I shouldn’t say such things. Warm and fuzzy math.

    W.O.

    Reply

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