Truth in Advertising

Yes, but maybe not the truth you’re thinking of. An advertiser wants you to buy a product and may, or may not, tell you the truth to entice you into parting with your cash. But take a step back, back from the individual ad and its product and promises. (An ad is, after all, a promise: buy me and you’ll be smart and/or sexy and/or happy just like these well-paid and heavily photoshopped models.) Take a broader look, a more holistic survey of the ads in, say, an entire publication, and a different kind of story can emerge. A different truth.

Truth in Advertising I’m not rambling, I promise. A few weeks ago, I received in the mail both the Summer 2014 issue of OPERA America’s quarterly magazine and a 2014-15 brochure from the Metropolitan Opera. I looked through the Met brochure first and was glad to see John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer getting its Met premiere but saddened by their lack of other contemporary repertoire. I developed a sense of resignation that this was representative of the state of affairs across the nation. Then I flipped through the pages of Opera America and experienced something very different. Pages full of contemporary opera, American and otherwise. Quite a study in contrasts. So, I thought to myself, what’s going on here? I looked deeper.

And it hit me: the ads. The advertising in this particular issue of Opera America was replete with contemporary works. So I did some informal tallying and came up with some stats. I divided the content of the issue into two categories: editorial and advertising. Then, looking at each piece of content, I asked myself how prominent was new work (composed after 1950) or a living composer.

Summer 2014:

Editorial Advertising
Articles featuring a new work/composer: 2 Ads prominently featuring new works/composers: 8
Articles mentioning a new work/composer: 2 Ads mentioning new works/composers: 7
Total number of articles overall: 10 Total number of ads overall: 29 (5 music publishers)

And for fun, I did a quick comparison to Summer 2013:

Editorial Advertising
Articles featuring a new work/composer: 0 Ads prominently featuring new works/composers: 2
Articles mentioning a new work/composer: 3 Ads mentioning new works/composers: 2
Total number of articles overall: 11 Total number of ads overall: 15 (no music publishers)

And for yet further fun, a comparison to Summer 2009:

Editorial Advertising
Articles featuring a new work/composer: 1 Ads prominently featuring new works/composers: 0
Articles mentioning a new work/composer: 2 Ads mentioning new works/composers: 0
Total number of articles overall: 12 Total number of ads overall: 15 (no music publishers)

Emphasis on informal. This is not exhaustive, not scientific, but merely an attempt to put some numbers to an impression and see if a felt experience jived with reality. I will not draw conclusions for you–that’s left as an exercise for the reader. I merely call attention to an interesting change in a publication that is intended for a small but influential audience in the opera world. As a composer of opera, I am very interested in what the leadership of American opera companies is seeing. If anyone knows of more rigorous studies relating to advertising and new music, please chime in below.

Advertising has power beyond mere commerce. Advertising both reflects and shapes our experience. Art critic and historian John Berger in his series for the BBC and subsequent book, Ways of Seeing, has some fascinating thoughts about advertising in our society. It’s worth a read and might give you a new way of seeing ads.

The Opera America ads taken as a whole tell a story. Is it the story of a groundswell of new works among a vast array of companies that would seem to no longer take their cue from the Met? Is it a story of the end of fear of the new driving programming decisions? Or simply the laudable intention of OPERA America to correct an imbalance by courting new advertisers (as opposed to writing more articles about new work)? It’s too soon to tell, but I, for one, will be eagerly watching this story unfold.

2 thoughts on “Truth in Advertising

  1. william osborne

    I’ve long noticed that American opera companies are fond of premiering new works. This was a practice established by John Crosby at the Santa Fe Opera when he founded the company in 1956. Even though the season was only about 5 weeks long, the yearly premieres of new operas gave the company a great deal of profile. This became an established model for American companies most of which have very small budgets and seasons by international standards (e.g. Philly, Washington, Houston, Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta, etc. all of which have budgets equal to or less than Santa Fe’s 5 week season even though these are major cities.) Their numbers for performances per year are embarrassingly low by international standards. The premieres are great for composers, and bring life to opera, but they do not compensate for the lack of funding and short seasons for opera in America in general.

    Reply
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