Send Chutes and Ladders

fire escape

As part of the Chamber Music America conference in New York last month, I sat on a panel that discussed the ways in which classical and jazz are isolated from other genres of music and what we might do to help de-silo our work (a much more complex and serious problem than being cordoned off in our own glass room in Tower Records was in olden times). There’s a pretty large gap between how the jazz and the classical community see these fields and how the rest of the music community sees them (as a quick scan of the Billboard charts often makes painfully evident), and that has both cultural and economic repercussions.

Current delivery platforms and participation rates in the creation of new work mean music of any and all types is coming at us at a phenomenal rate. This then requires music makers to place a high priority on and devote precious resources to being effectively present in this general music marketplace—to being where music fans are, so that those who are interested in what’s available can find and enjoy it. This has challenges, for sure. Market share (or strange ideas about composition vs. recording date) can result in classical and jazz being left out of splashy mainstream productions such as Twitter #Music and the Google Music Timeline.  Services such as Spotify and iTunes don’t handle the more complicated metadata very well, often rendering music in these genres harder to discover and sort. But building a tailor-made private playground cut off from huge pools of listeners is an even worse attempt at a solution, effectively serving only to drain resources and build walls. Seen in this light, standing in a crowded YouTube field or Live365 index makes a lot more sense. On its own it’s just an open door, but at least that door is open and there’s active street life beyond its threshold.

From there, standing shoulder to shoulder with other artists across genres takes us a certain distance further away from being an untouchable “other.” NPR does this in their “Best of the Year” album round up, on which Caleb Burhans’s Evensong is followed by Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. Here on Counterstream Radio, we did it through meaningful conversations between artists such as Meredith Monk and Björk.

Keeping out of that silo also requires keeping pace with what the major mainstream players are developing and how their work might help us entice more people to walk down our lane and visit our home. This made me reflect back on a talk I heard Tim Quirk, head of Global Content Programming at Google Play, give at the Future of Music Coalition’s Policy Day last October. He spoke about how new technology has allowed the development of services “that let thousands of potential masterpieces find their ideal audiences” independent of traditional gatekeepers. “Telling the world what it should or shouldn’t listen to has become far less important than simply making this overgrown jungle navigable…Context is more important than opinions.” On balance, that sounded like a powerful potential opportunity for classical and jazz music to me.

Later in his talk, however, the argument got a little more challenging. “Getting people to pay attention to something new has always been hard work and it’s only getting harder as the amount and, I think, the quality of the competition explodes while the ability to listen to something else instead becomes even easier. Capturing people’s attention and then hanging onto it is the fundamental challenge for artists and labels and their managers in the 21st century.”

It will be all the harder for those who find themselves stuck up a tower, never even making it to the party in the first place.

6 thoughts on “Send Chutes and Ladders

  1. John C

    Good points, but what do you propose for changes done by artists? How do we break through the barriers created by poor metadata use or active choices by aggregate companies to exclude the works? For instance, if the general audience uses iTunes, and we want to reach that audience, but iTunes does a poor job as a platform, how do artists change the platform? Is “active dialogue” enough.

    I’m all for alternative platforms, in particular SoundCloud, Instant Encore, Youtube, Vimeo, etc. but we are still stuck with tagging systems that may or may not be implemented properly by the artists, or by the platform. Building platforms from scratch, while a difficult endeavor, actually allows for the improvements in data…For instance, the electronic music database being put together at Georgia Tech. Yes, this is a niche database, and separated from the mainstream audience, but it has the power to deal with the data. It’s titled the Electroacoustic Music Mine, and though I’ve seen a presentation on it, and read a paper, I haven’t see it up and running as of yet.

    Still, you’ve hit on a major question–how do we reach these digital communities when the platform isn’t optimized for our data? But answers, answers, how do we change it?

    I actually think a combined effort of working on different platforms with strong marketing can solve the issue. Charles Wuorinen talked about the only way to make a difference in the system is one person at a time; that as artists on the fringe, we won’t be able to just change the system but we can change one person at a time. I think he was talking more about our own community, and on a local level, but the same thing is true on a larger, corporate level. If a group shows the viability of a new tool, say, for utilizing complex metadata in a large scale database search, and create better “you may like…” categories than what we get in the Pandora, then other companies will take notice.

    Perhaps, we should be leaders, and create the platform, and have the platform itself push other companies, not by sales, but by the ingenuity of the technology.

    Reply
  2. Phil Fried

    All classical music and Jazz needs to compete in America is the exact same marketing budget as popular entertainments. That translates into the same number of radio stations,cable arts channels that actually show arts programing, and of course the included synergy etc. etc. A couple of billion or so. Probably more.

    The belief that folks avoid Jazz and classical music in America because of its style and rituals is nonsense. We are merely crowded out the market.

    Reply
  3. Phil Fried

    It follows that because of the low profile of classical music any American ensemble with even a modest promotional budget gets noticed. Money talks. This begs the question; does the random, or even controlled, influx of money for publicity create a true picture of our profession?

    Reply
  4. Roger Rohrbach

    While I agree with Tim Quirk that the navigation (or “discovery”) problem is an important one, I think that he misses the mark when he says it trumps “opinion.” Tastemakers have traditionally served, and will continue to serve, a crucial function as navigators. This is why Beat Music has garnered so much press for their human-, not algorithmically-curated playlists.

    Quirk’s not a technocrat, but he’s employed by Google, a company whose mission is to automate
    Everything, and he’s singing their tune. I submit, however, that the review of David Lang’s death speaks in Pitchfork induced more indie rock fans to give it a listen than did “Like The National? Try David Lang.” appearing in their Spotify “Discover” pane.

    On the other hand, he’s dead on about audience attention. But that’s a problem for everyone, regardless of genre.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Online Music is Obscuring Opera | Schmopera

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