Cable Comparisons

TVs

Retro Gaming TV sets by Dennis van Zuijlekom on Flickr.

A couple of months ago, the Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had spoken about a potential implosion within the film industry during a discussion at the University of Southern California. Spielberg, addressing the current situation within the major studios, said, “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” “The pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller,” Lucas added. Paul Bond, the article’s author, writes, “Lucas lamented the high cost of marketing movies and the urge to make them for the masses while ignoring niche audiences.”

Sounds a little familiar, no? Just substitute “movies” with “symphony orchestras” and “theaters” with “symphonic concert halls” and the parallels between the film industry and the concert music community are hard to miss, especially if you compare the viewpoint of a filmmaker with the perspective of a concert composer. It’s never been easy for a composer to procure a slot on a symphony orchestra’s performance calendar, but with several years of lean times and structural upheavals for many of the major symphony orchestras, that option has become even more tenuous.

An interesting correlation can be seen between how creators and performers in both disciplines have, over time, maneuvered around those rising costs and diminishing opportunities. In the early 1990s, cable networks such as HBO began self-producing their own content. At first, the series were somewhat similar to those on traditional television in scope and tenor (The Kids in the Hall, The Larry Sanders Show, Arli$$), but by the late ‘90s with series like The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, Oz, Six Feet Under, and The Wire, audiences were introduced to material with much broader and more nuanced dramatic and narrative arcs than anything being produced by the traditional networks. Soon shows like Deadwood and Rome were attempting to bring large-screen production values to the “small screen.” Although both of those series were relatively short-lived, they set the stage for other programs—Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Sherlock, and the Netflix-produced series House of Cards—that give their creators license work with broad, filmic gestures and concepts while still keeping the ability to develop characters to a much greater degree than the time limits of the big screen allows.

In the late ’90s, around the same time that cable networks were experimenting with these new paradigms, the contemporary concert world was beginning to see their own models begin to evolve. Up until that point there were still just a handful of top-notch chamber ensembles—the Kronos and Arditti Quartets or the Bang on a Can All-Stars, for example—that focused on new music. By the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, however, a new crop of chamber ensembles began to evolve out of the graduate programs at Oberlin, Yale, Eastman, and other institutions—such as eighth blackbird, International Contemporary Ensemble, So Percussion, and Alarm Will Sound—that seemingly ignored pre-conceived ideas of what chamber ensembles could and should do. It did not take long for performers to see both new music and the chamber ensemble model as viable options. As a result, over the past ten years there has been a strikingly robust increase in the number and scope of chamber ensembles across the country to the point where one could argue that the chamber ensemble has usurped the symphony orchestra as the primary artistic vehicle for a large number of composers today.

The parallels between the emergence of cable television and contemporary music-focused chamber ensembles are numerous. Both are definitely creating new paradigms within their disciplines. However, both fields still experience significant challenges. Cable shows are dependent on the continued support of their studios, and, without that support, they run the risk of being cancelled before their stories are finished. Composers who write for chamber ensembles don’t usually run the risk of having their works “cancelled” mid-stream (though that does paint a darkly humorous picture), but one could wonder whether or not such a focus on small- and medium-sized musical palettes might have unintended long-term effects on the repertoire of the future. An advantage of writing for a large ensemble with a relatively fixed instrumentation is the opportunity for other orchestras or bands to play that work, but with so many chamber ensembles creating their own “niche markets,” the longevity of this repertoire could become an issue down the road.

The future of small-screen programs is attached to availability, as DVDs and online media such at Netflix and iTunes allow for audiences to access the programs. With music, it’s not quite as clear-cut and, while I don’t mean to sound anti-chamber ensemble in any way, I do wonder what, if any, effect a long and protracted emphasis on chamber ensembles may have on the contemporary music of the future.

7 thoughts on “Cable Comparisons

  1. Mark Carlson

    A very interesting article! As is often the case, however, the West Coast gets left out of the history of new music and of classical music, in general.

    I dreamed up my ensemble Pacific Serenades when I was a grad student at UCLA in the late 70s, in large because I recognized that the opportunities to write and hear orchestral music were extremely limited, all the more so for those of us living on the geographic fringes like Los Angeles. We had our first concert in 1982, our second in 1986, and our first season of four concerts each in 1987. We just finished our 27th season in June of 2013.

    Clearly, we were ahead of the curve described above by quite a few years.

    On every single program we did, we presented the premiere of a work that we commissioned–focussing on composers from Southern California–and made it the centerpiece of a program otherwise of standard rep. Over the years since 1982, we have commissioned and premiered 110 new works by 62 different composers.

    Who knows about the future, but the fact that most of those works have had repeat performances by other ensembles–some of them MANY performances–suggests that our music will keep on getting played.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      Mark, you’re right about the geographical bias, but I think the number of new small ensembles everywhere is the great change. My group Dashuki Music Theatre was founded in 1973 for the reasons you mention, contemporaneous with Kronos on the west coast, a year before Arditti in Europe, and long before Bang on a Can. Our focus was on new music in any venue we could find in urban Trenton, New Jersey, from churches to storefronts to sidewalks. And, in New York terms, we might as well have been in Los Angeles!

      Back then we were the only group in the region; even Philadelphia’s Relache wouldn’t come along for another four years. It’s thrilling that this has changed, and that new music groups are everywhere.

      Reply
      1. Mark Carlson

        Thanks for posting that, Dennis! It’s great to learn of more groups with histories that go way back, and I, too, am thrilled at the proliferation of new-music-oriented chamber ensembles.

        Reply
  2. Armando Bayolo

    Rob, I think the repertoire will take care of itself. Your fear of longevity might have more to do with our natural inclination to predict the future based on the past. What we’re seeing is a new paradigm with a new approach to repertoire building. I think we’ll be fine.

    And Larry Sanders was not really like other shows in the past. Along with Oz, it paved the way for shows like The Sopranos or Arrested Development, which set current standards for drama and comedy respectively.

    Just sayin’. ;-)

    Reply
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  4. Steve Mossberg

    I think the point at the end of the article on the skewing of contemporary repertoire towards chamber ensembles is an interesting one. To my ears, chamber music has always sounded more contemporary than orchestral. The rock, jazz, and hip-hop music I grew up with generally utilized smaller, more direct palettes than an orchestra would, and the transparency, immediacy, and intimacy of Kronos or Bang on a Can or Eighth Blackbird strike a modern chord with me.

    Reply
  5. Dan

    The economics of this situation in classical music was studied by the economists William Baumol and William Bowen in the 1960s. (Wikipedia has a useful summary of Baumol’s cost disease, with a reference to Baumol and Bowen’s 1966 paper “Performing Arts, The Economic Dilemma: a study of problems common to theater, opera, music, and dance” — see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baumol's_cost_disease )

    I’m not an economist, but Baumol and Bowen’s work would seem to have some predictive power — the real wages of musicians will keep going up faster than the rate of inflation, which would seem to imply that the cost of maintaining a performance ensemble will continue to outpace inflation. This seems to predict that there will be fewer and fewer symphony orchestras as time goes on. So from the standpoint of pure economics, music written for a chamber ensemble is more likely to get played, and played more often, than music written for a full orchestra.

    I suspect the situation in music is a somewhat different situation than that of Hollywood vs. the cable companies — the cable companies represent a new and disruptive force in an established market, whereas chamber ensembles are not a new development and thus aren’t disruptive in the same sense. In any case, it does appear that, like it or not, market forces are going to tend to drive composers increasingly to write for smaller ensembles.

    Reply

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