Several months ago I wrote a post entitled “Perceptions of Opportunity” that looked at how important it was to ensure that opportunities for composers to further their craft and have their voices heard were neither limited nor perceived to be limited. In a similar vein, perception seems to be a driving force today in how composers, performers, ensembles, and the media understand “success” within the new music community. In order to get a sense of what that perception is and how it works, one first has to agree on a definition of success. How does one actually become successful in our field? And what does that even mean?
From my humble vantage point out here in western New York, the answer to those questions depends on what kind of success we’re talking about. If we’re discussing personal satisfaction (having the opportunity to create, perform, and disseminate one’s art), that’s one thing; if we’re discussing financial stability (whether directly through one’s own creative work or through other means), that’s another. Both of those either affect or are affected by the content of one’s own work (and, of course, they’re not mutually exclusive).
Where the situation can become more troublesome seems to be found with the type of success that is based on exposure and notoriety. That notoriety can take obvious forms, such as the winning of a major award, a particularly positive review or article in a newspaper or magazine, or a significant commission by a respected ensemble or performer. But notoriety can grow subtly as well, through a gradual inclusion into the national discussion in print or online media, social networks, or by word of mouth.
Gradual notoriety and exposure can happen organically over period of years and come from a variety of sources or with consistent repetition from a few, high-profile individuals. This is, of course, not a new idea by any stretch; most of the composers that we would today label as “masters” were championed by others in print, in the classroom, and on the podium. What separates today’s composers from those in the past are the numbers; just as the number of composers have risen, so too have the conduits through which audiences can discover and explore new music. This expansion in numbers has created a growing need–or at least an opportunity–for guidance and, for lack of a better term, taste-making.
Over the past several years, there have been a number of composers, performers, and ensembles that have caught the attention of those in the media whose influence can have a sizable impact on the artists’ reputation within the greater musical community. It would be very easy to infer that if those artists are able to garner continued attention from the media, then their music must not only be of high quality but of superior quality when compared with the work of those who are not being noticed…and therein lies the rub.
Considering the small number of individuals whose judgements, opinions, or programming decisions can truly alter or affect public tastes, it’s very easy to come up with false inferences in both directions. If a particular style or musical sensibility becomes prevalent in the media–be that print, online, or radio–or on the concert stage, some observers may infer that that style or concept is “the one to pay attention to,” while other observers may fairly or unfairly assume that if that style has been embraced by the media, then it is automatically suspect and possibly invalid.
Public exposure and notoriety–what some might call a “surface level” success–is neither harmful nor beneficial in and of itself. If nurtured wisely and not taken too seriously, then it can be used to improve current projects and provide opportunities for new ones. If taken too seriously (from either the vantage point of the artist or the audience/onlookers), it can twist expectations, alter interpretations, and breed unhealthy reactions. It is hoped that with realistic expectations from artists and audiences and a wide-open, broad-based, and truly investigative media, the new music community can de-emphasize the surface-level successes and emphasize those successes that emanate from the content itself.