One of the most frequent accusations I still hear when it comes to so-called classical music—and by extension the contemporary music streams that flow from this tradition—is how the details you presumably need to know to get into it are totally off-putting to most people. Concert halls, with their silent-listening policy and dissertation-level program booklets, are supposedly way too forbidding. And in what the pundits are now calling the former era of record stores, potential music buyers were allegedly discouraged from even entering the classical section because of all the information you needed to know to make a satisfactory purchase. Anyone who wasn’t a trained musician felt either baffled or totally inadequate.
Admittedly, there were some challenges when it came to classical music shopping at brick and mortar stores. For starters, piece titles—especially ones you heard only in passing on the radio—were hard enough to remember. Often they were a bizarre amalgamation of a generic term like Piano Trio (which, counterintuitive to assumed semantic norms, isn’t actually three pianos), plus the inevitable numbers (do I want No. 3 or No. 4 and what the heck is an opus number?), and in some cases—thankfully usually only for the old stuff—letters (if I’m not playing along with it, why do I need to know what key it’s in?). But then you also needed to know the name of the person who wrote it, since lots of pieces have the same name, plus the names of the people who were playing it, which are almost never the same. And, for the people performing it—depending on what the “it” is—you often needed even more information. If it was a piece for orchestra instead of a piano trio, you also needed to know the name of the conductor as well as the name of the orchestra. And then, even armed with all that, you might not have been able to find what you wanted. Sometimes a conductor and orchestra recorded the same piece more than once. Sometimes the recording had been reissued in different audio renderings, e.g. stereo-reprocessed mono (yuck), half-speed mastering, digitally remastered, and on and on. And sometimes the recording was out of print. It was too overwhelming for most folks who just wanted a quick fix, so unless they were Juilliard or Curtis grads they went back to the pop music section.
But there are plenty of other realms where people who aren’t practitioners get very sophisticated with their hobbies. It was Super Bowl Sunday two days ago. I don’t follow football, so all the reports about the game make absolutely no sense to me. But for fans, whom I imagine for the most part have probably never been thrown a fifty-yard touchdown (whatever that is), it’s all perfectly clear. And no one ever talks about the need to make sports more accessible to folks who aren’t already in the know.
What about wine? On New Year’s Day I made a decade resolution to try all the possible grape varietals—a year seemed too short and dangerous an amount of time. What’s been amazing to me in my journeys into various wine shops and all the wine books I’ve been skimming through is how much information you often need to know just to get some basic facts about what it is you’re drinking. Think that it’s too arcane to make a choice between, say, Herbert van Karajan’s 1962 and 1970 recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major (Pastoral) with the Berlin Philharmonic? Try to have an informed opinion about pinot noir! The ones from France taste totally different from the ones from California, and the ones from France—which are governed by a variety of complex laws—often don’t even tell you that they’re made from the pinot noir grape. But if you learn that the amazing bottle of French wine you were served at a friend’s home was in fact said grape, good luck finding that bottle again. You’ll not only need to know the specific region the wine is made from, but also the name of the vineyard, and sometimes also the name of the wine, as well as the year of the vintage, plus a few other details of the wine making process, e.g. organic, oaked versus unoaked, etc. Frequently all these pieces of information blur into an incomprehensible haze on the bottle’s label. These labels seem far more obscure than what has been on the cover of anything Deutsche Grammophon ever put on the market. Still, despite the seeming scarcity of PhD programs in oenology, or for that matter basic wine appreciation classes in the public school system, the wine business is thriving. Admittedly, more folks are probably gravitating toward less cryptic fare from Yellow Tail, (gasp) Carlo Rossi, or Chateau Diana rather than seeking a possibly life-changing experience from Alsace, Beaune, and Chambolle-Musigny, to name three French pinot regions from the beginning of the alphabet.
But what can all this tell us about music? Concert tickets are presumably far too expensive for most people, yet it’s far more affordable to attend a music event than a major league ballgame, as I found out when I tried to learn something about baseball some years back. And the allegedly too steep retail price of compact discs ($18.98) is less than the price point cut-off used for Parker’s Wine Bargains, which is $25. And the disc presumably lasts forever; not so the wine. Naxos, whose list price is now a still reasonable $8.99 per disc, continues to be the world’s most successful purveyor of classical music recordings even in an era when recordings allegedly don’t sell. And like more affordable wines, their recordings are often as good, and sometimes better than the competition for the same experience, if repertoire could somehow be analogous to grape varietals.
Of course, in the age where the MP3 is king (does that make all of us serfs?), everything is a dollar, or all too often, nothing at all. The digital dissemination of music has decimated mainstream popular music recording revenue, but it is often touted as a boon to niche markets. For a lot of what we compose, perform, or listen to, however, the streamlining of information encoded on MP3s can make identification even more problematic, and therefore potentially even more off-putting than physical recordings. Who is the artist, the composer or the performer? Which performer? What is the name of the song (sic)? With character limits you can only get so much information on that line, but who needs to know about keys and opus numbers anyway? And if it’s a multi-movement piece you’re screwed since each one is a separate file even though they need to be presented together in sequence in order to cohere. Well, at least you don’t have to worry about the quality (sic once again) of the audio rendering. And from a consumer point of view, the price point is not to be beat. Then again, you get what you pay for.
But I keep wondering what the world would be like if digital dissemination had happened to wine or sports instead of music. As with music, people can hear games on the radio for free (although for the life of me I can’t understand how they are able to visualize the plays based on a description from a sportscaster). And often they can watch the same games for free on television if they’re willing to put up with the commercials. (TiVo doesn’t really work for stuff in real time.) Many folks prefer to watch games at bars where it’s easier to ignore the ads but where the food and drink aren’t free just to have the social interaction of fans who desire a common outcome. But in the era of ubiquitous earbuds, what was once always a social phenomenon of experiencing music has become a solitary act. Could smart phones streaming bootlegged real-time NFL footage erode the social context for sports and put the major leagues and their ancillary industries, from syndicated networks to sports bars, out of business as well? As for wine, it also remains primarily a social act. (Drinking alone is still mostly frowned upon.) But what if you could instantly get wine free from your computer? Would it destroy Bordeaux futures? Or would it be worse than three-buck chuck?