“[T]he composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music … expends an enormous amount of time and energy … on the creation of a commodity which has little, no, or negative commodity value. The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested … But to assign blame is to imply that this isolation is unnecessary and undesirable. … [T]he composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world … By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.”
—Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares If You Listen?”
(originally published in High Fidelity, February 1958, and available online here)
“The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it grant reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.
—William H. Gass, from “A Revised and Expanded Preface”
(written between May 26, 1976 and January 26, 1981) for his book, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (New Hampshire: Nonpareil, 1981), pp. xviii-xix.
“[E]veryone who is deeply into music has figured out how to download music for free, despite the best efforts of the record business to stop them, and has far, far more music downloaded to their laptops and iPods than they will ever have time to listen to in their entire lives. Gigabytes and gigabytes of meaningless data. These same students invariably report that they have actually listened to all the music they paid for. If a virtual tree falls in a virtual forest and no one opens the file, does it still make a sound?”
—Bob Ostertag, “Why I No Longer Give Away My Music”
(posted at On the Commons, June 6, 2013)
“Perhaps if we dedicate some time to exploring how classical can be listened to just like any other genre of music, we can view it as an art form that’s easier to confront and enjoy. … Your hipster friend might judge you if you’ve never heard of The Decemberists, but I can promise the classical community isn’t so damning.”
—Mary Sydnor, “Classical Covers”
(posted on Drexel University’s online magazine, The Smart Set, June 6, 2013)
I was unable to write anything for these pages last Monday since I spent most of the day in Washington, D.C. in a series of meetings with a group of music creators from all over the world. Many of these people had come to the nation’s capital for the General Assembly of CISAC, an International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, which most of the world’s performing rights societies—including the USA’s (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC)—are members of. This ad-hoc group of music creators met in advance of the “official” CISAC convening essentially to talk about possible common ground between individual music creators worldwide and to look for ways that such a common ground could form the foundation for a viable network. But before I attempt to recount some of the conversations that transpired during the day and to explain a bit more what I believe the goals are of some of the people spearheading this initiative, I want to address the extensive and possibly excessive citations above. I believe these four quotes not only relate to what I witnessed in D.C., but also strike to the heart of what I believe could be a paradigm shift both within the composer community as well as a possible game changer in how we interface with the public at large.
The opening citation herein, by Milton Babbitt from his now infamous 1958 essay (admittedly more infamous for its title, which he did not choose, than for its content which few people who decry it have actually read), came flashing into my mind as I was on a train headed from New York City to the District of Columbia and was attempting to read a book of short stories by William H. Gass. (I was reminded of Gass after reading his introduction to the most recent edition of Robert Coover’s gargantuan McCarthy era parody, The Public Burning. I was actually disappointed that my train journey prevented me from hearing Coover recite some of his prose at a concert of music by Daniel Felsenfeld, who has written extensively for these pages and who had recently set some of Coover’s words to music.) Anyway, I was shocked to discover in Gass’s introduction to his own collection of stories a bleak assessment of the situation of contemporary writers in America that was exactly the same as Babbitt’s view of the role of contemporary composers written a generation earlier. While many readers here might judge the views of both Babbitt and Gass as elitist and disdainful of the general public, I would contend, rather, that both were satisfied with what they perceived as being their role in society, for better or worse, and that nowadays, most composers—at least the most vocal ones, myself included—are not satisfied with such a marginalization of either our own efforts or the efforts of our colleagues.
I’ll go out on a limb here and state that part of what enabled both of them to feel content with their position in the greater society was the belief that there were two kinds of artistic creation—work created for the sake of the art itself and work created for monetary success. In the beginning of the 21st century, there is no clear either/or; everything has become completely blurry from both an aesthetic and an economic standpoint. I would argue that there never were only two “kinds” of music, but now those two larger buckets hold no water. I would also argue that the wall that divided the “two kinds of music” from one another was equally harmful to both sides and that there is no music, no matter how erudite the methods used to formulate it, that cannot be appreciated by a wider audience than it currently has. And aside from the ubiquity of music that is created without the slightest regard to the genre distinctions of earlier eras, the monetization of any kind of music making is still undergoing a massive transitional process. When I used the expression “outside the commercial mainstream” to describe the majority of the music we feature on NewMusicBox, Eddie Schwartz–author of the Pat Benatar’s 1980 blockbuster single “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” president of the Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC), and the prime mover behind a newly formed alliance called Music Creators North America (MCNA)–asked me how much music I thought was commercially viable nowadays.
In an essay I quoted from above, Bob Ostertag, a composer whom I would have clearly placed in the “outside the commercial mainstream” camp once upon a time, explained how he is now forced to charge people for his music just in order to make it available in places where people actually look for music and listen to what they find there. And Mary Sydnor, a 22-year-old contributor to Drexel University’s online magazine and the author of my final citation, opined that the so-called classical music community is actually less elitist than many denizens of pop culture. All of which brings us back to that gathering of music creators in D.C.
Most of the North American attendees I encountered came from, for lack of a better term, the various worlds of “pop” songwriting (country, rock, etc.). But among the Europeans were Martin Q. Larsson, president of the Society of Swedish Composers, a representative organization for composers of “contemporary classical composition,” and Tomislav Saban, secretary general of the Croatian Composers Society (HDS) which organizes the Music Biennale Zagreb. (I initially met Saban, who is also the vice president of the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance, a.k.a. ECSA, during the ISCM’s 2011 World New Music Days which was hosted by the Biennale.) Also present was Lesley Thulani Luthuli, the executive producer for the South African-based Wala Entertainment, who has recently formed the Pan African Composers and Songwriter Alliance (PACSA), a group that will hopefully address the shocking inequities of royalty distribution to African musical creators that I learned about during the IAMIC Conference in Greece last year.
A recurring theme during the talks in D.C. was the need to articulate to the general public the need for music to be disseminated on the basis of fair trade. Some of the people who spoke proposed that music creators should look to the fair trade coffee movement of the past decade as a model for how to proceed. Many coffee drinkers are willing to pay more money for their coffee if they believe that their money will reach the farmers who actually produced the coffee. The creators of the music are like those farmers in that, as Eddie Schwartz put it, “We create the one essential element in an enormous value chain. Creators need to determine fair compensation; it shouldn’t be imposed on us from anyone else.”
Another pressing concern that several attendees spoke about is the need for performing rights organizations (PROs) to be based in the territories where they collect royalties. This is predominantly an issue for Europeans since there is growing momentum for PROs from various EU member states to compete with one another rather than to be the exclusive representative for creators within their own national borders. Opponents of this new business model claim that it will weaken PROs based in smaller countries and as a result will erode the culture of—as well as ultimately hurt the economic livelihood of creators based in—these smaller countries. According to Patrick Ager, secretary general of ECSA, “Exclusive assignment is a necessity of culture in Europe.” Another major issue that was on a lot of people’s minds was the negative impact of direct licensing, specifically the lack of transparency in the negotiation of such licenses. Perhaps no one put it more succinctly than Nashville-based songwriter Rick Carnes, the charismatic president of the Songwriters Guild of America: “If we can’t be a part of the process, then we’re not going to approve the process.” Like a classic labor leader, Carnes pulls no punches. He asserted that “whatever happens to any creator happens to all of us.” Seemingly taking a page from cognitive linguist George Lakoff (author of the provocative Don’t Think of an Elephant), Carnes asserted that the community of music creators needs to come up with its own language rather than argue positions using the frames that other constituencies—whether its technology companies, record labels, publishers, or anyone else—use for them. As he said, “It is important to have arguments based on your principles, not just Google’s principles.”
None of the people I met in D.C. last week were content to create music in a society that doesn’t value it, either aesthetically or economically. We should not be content either.