More Media Matters (Part 2)

Last week I suggested that an idealized “nine-to-five” lifestyle of an idealized “middle-class” American left an idealized “him” about one-third of “his” time to do anything other than work, commute to and from work, sleep, and eat. Actually “he” would have 1.5 more hours per week to dedicate to “leisure” time. But we all know that the state of the economy in the last 12 years has shrunk the “nine-to-five” demographic quite a bit. Some see this as a good thing as people diversify their talents and take up “freelance” vocations that allow them to “self-actualize” their lives through various creative outlets, like a hobby. In reality, these people are mostly using their creative talents to generate more income to make up for lost wages, more like a second job. Another argument against the idealized three-way “work-sleep-play” split is that seldom does work end when one leaves his or her idealized workplace. Often, time spent eating and time spent playing combine elements of work, thus becoming time spent working. (How many high-level business decisions are made at the golf course or at lunch?) So the idea that one has an equal chance to experience artistic expression from a “normal” work environment is a fallacy; one with a demonstrable downside.

Learning music has been shown to be important to the development of our minds and bodies. This is common enough knowledge that Barack Obama addressed it during his first presidential campaign. But to learn music one has to spend time—a lot of time—playing music. For instance: to play in my junior high school orchestra, one had to attend the 45-minute class five days per week, and one was expected to practice on weekends. Students who later became proficient usually played at least twice that much. Those of us who wanted to improvise to play jazz or rock had to learn it on our own and, thus, we had to practice even more. So, as I said last week, mastering jazz takes more time and effort than learning to play an instrument well enough to play classical repertoire, which in turn takes much more dedication and study than what is needed to play most pop music. (I’m not trying to say that there aren’t brilliant and dedicated pop musicians, but if one compares average representatives of these genres I’m sure that there would be no disagreement with the thesis.)

On the other hand, pop musicians can make a lot more money than classical or jazz musicians. I have no doubt that part of the reason for this is that pop musicians travel a tighter orbit around the Great American Culture Machine (GACM). They often look at the business of music as integral a part of music making as the creative part, and even more important than mastery of a particular instrument. And the seven-, eight-, and even nine-figure salaries that are flaunted in tabloids, newspapers, and business journals must hold some degree of allure to one who is interested in pursuing music as a vocation. But, these are proverbial carrots-on-a-stick held out by the GACM to pull in anyone who believes themselves worthy of a place on stage or, as an interviewer I was talking with earlier this week put it by way of referencing the baseball movie Bull Durham, “the Show.”

One of the subtexts of Bull Durham (for those not familiar with the classic) is the control of the individual by the GACM at the expense of talent and expression. In the movie, an aging but viable catcher is downgraded to an obscure triple-A team to coach a young pitcher with star potential into a Major League commodity. Although the mechanics of baseball are much more organized and pervasive than those of the arts, there are aspects of the music industry that resemble the world of Bull Durham. Besides the obvious aspects of physicality in music and athletics (the phylum that baseball is a species of), with its regimen of training, specialized exercise, and repetitive motion injuries, the concept of loyalty towards one’s group bordering on fealty is common to both. I’m sure that readers who are, or have been, involved in music as professional performers can relate to the catcher’s disdain at his association with a substandard team, but still taking pride and finding joy from his own performance. (It’s like the principle flutist of a community concert band delivering perfect cadenzas in Scheherazade while every instrument section’s tutti sounds like a major-second cluster, or the once-famous jazz saxophonist who plays in the same group to “stay in shape.”) And I remember showing up to a rehearsal of my beloved Boys Club Jazz Band to find the director-conductor-composer-arranger-baritone saxophonist Don Ontiveros sitting at his desk with the same expression that the team manager in Bull Durham had on his face when passing the news to a player that the front office was firing him, only Don was reading a letter informing him that funding for the band had been pulled (right after we won our division at the Reno Jazz Festival’s jazz band competition).

That was the first time I experienced the utter sense of disbelief I would have felt when reading the New York Times article that appeared on its front page, had I not become acclimated to such things during my brilliant career. However, I was surprised to see this particular arm of the GACM champion the inequity of the artist-to-industry relationship so diligently. That is, until I saw the part about “certain types of music, like classical or jazz,” being condemned to poverty if streaming on the Internet is “the only way people consume music.” I had already been reading Frank J. Oteri’s reportage from the MIDEM convention in Cannes. In his third installment, “Ephemeral Playback,” Oteri outlines a discussion on “how to revitalize classical and jazz” in the digital era. It seems that the question posed at Cannes is undermined by the NYT’s piece. By insisting that classical and jazz are fodder for unscrupulous corporate exploitation, interest in pursuing them, either as vocation or avocation, is diminished. If one were prone to conspiracy theory, an indication of the GACM being engaged in the practice of contraindicating the highest standards of cultural performance to the culture being created to foster consumer-only tiers could be perceived.

A possible better way to address the issue under discussion at MIDEM might be to reintroduce classical and/or jazz music into the core curricula of public education on a par with other subjects, such as math or English. The aforementioned research shows this will boost a student’s ability to master those other subjects and perform in society when schooling is done as well. And the explanation can be coupled with recent press showing a growing dissatisfaction with the current approaches to core curricula. Granted, the single attempt by documentarian Ken Burns to broaden the reception of jazz by American television viewers was greeted by an avalanche of invective from the jazz community (who thought its scope to be too narrow) and the jazz academy (who saw flaws in its timeline); but this shouldn’t make jazz, or any form of music, anathema to the Great American Culture Machine. Indeed, Burns should be, and is, credited with taking on the challenge of educating the GACM consumer class. But trying to encapsulate a genre is often to declare it complete, finished, over…in a word, dead.

This is possibly the biggest problem one confronts when involved in the practice of creating new music, like an 800-pound gorilla in the room. But it is also one that can, and hopefully will, be effectively addressed as a media matter. The relationship between the media and the arts is reflexive. The most obvious facet of that reflexivity is reportage and prose (as well as poetry). Music is generally removed by genre and style, as well as by issue and time. Hip-hop primarily addresses issues of class-differentiation by skin color and poverty, which were previously addressed by folk music and post-modern jazz (but folk music still speaks to a plethora of class-differentiated issues); but what music is addressing issues of culture deprived curricula in education?

To be continued…

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