These days it seems like whenever the topic of “people in the music industry” comes up, we are faced with a number of coexisting conflicts:
– Plenty of music is being made
– Money is either not being acquired or not given to the right people.
– Genre lines are fading
– Artist (career) development varies based on style
– Fans want genuine music and connection out of artists and their consumer experiences
– Artists have to pull focus from music to make the money to support that desire and their careers
How do we juggle and negotiate these oppositions? And in the focus often being left on commercial “artists” and their “money earned,” are other crucial individuals with different stylistic vantage points of the music industry getting somewhat sidestepped because they are perhaps not as automatically recalled as their mainstream pop-rock counterparts?
What about these individuals? Classically trained musicians for example, are often treated with different airs about just their music; to say nothing of how they do, don’t, should or shouldn’t operate as artists.
Just look at the heat surrounding the topic of US orchestras changing their societal roles in an effort to reverse decline. This was recently unearthed again via an articulate piece by New Republic that breaches the topic of popularisation of orchestral concert repertoire. New York Times writer Edward Rothstein is quoted for his opinion toward the inclusion of less traditional works, which comes across labeling a decision of desperation more than one of enlightening progression. Furthermore, Rothstein seems to emote that those responsible for such decisions, the administrative branch who function separately from artists, is a negative setup to be avoided:
“Cynically led by its managerial class, the orchestra is explicitly urged to lean toward pop and make courting audiences its primary activity.”
Perhaps to Rothstein’s delight regarding this point, an article featured on ArtsJournal.com highlights that individuals training and graduating to immerse themselves in symphonic careers, are facing what could almost be the inverse issue to Emily Gonneau’s discussion on artists losing their (sincere) voices. Lack of money and open chairs (literally) in the world’s symphonic groups are leaving these players to either start their own ensembles or turn to acquiring more general business savvy skills so they can make more money and live by the means this lifestyle of intense practice was intended to provide them. In other words, the individual oboist, violinist, piccolo player…t hese people need more exposure to the exact types of practices that has been alluded to as things your standard pop-rocker could stand to cut back on (in order to maintain more ingrained connection to visceral art and songwriting).
Still, this realisation brings up another question:
What does the industry at large think of, and plan to do, (or not do) about this ongoing schism that rears its head right in between the commercially-common and the fringe-appreciated? Does anyone think it’s crazy how, at this very moment, we’re writing and calling for actions of exact opposite approaches? To me, that screams that we as “one” music business, are really still existing as two. Sure, there are popularly-recognised musicians who could conceivably move fluidly back and forth if they choose, between styles and consumer crowds. Notice though, how when the public gets wind of these kinds of artists, what they tend to automatically say: Crossover. Even the language at hand implies a divide and one that extends beyond that of simple genre camps.
This was the knee jerk reaction for the “people’s diva,” Renée Fleming, with her indie cover album, “Dark Hope,” to which she and her PR team adamantly responded that the project was “not a crossover.”
When it comes to the survival of a singular classical player or single player of other non-mainstream genre, is it that there’s not a problem per se, but a mentality difference because of the nature of training for a collective-fueled career? After all, once you work with a symphony, band, orchestra or chorus, you are a single piece contributing to the success and skill of the collective.
So I understand that, at least where discussing and sharing opinions on non-musical matters are concerned, perhaps clarinetist #3 in the X Symphony Orchestra isn’t going to make that a priority because, in their role, they are but a piece. The current (unfortunate?) reality of being the individual player in these groups is that, in a way, you are surrendering some strength to your identity. I’ll admit, I don’t know clarinetist #3, or even violinist #3 in the New York Philharmonic, even though the NY Phil is one of my favorite performance ensembles. Conversely, the positive side, however, is that in connecting with a collective, these individuals are not having to concern themselves with sustainment and group awareness beyond supporting it with their main skill: high quality performance. To be crude: there are people in arts administration for that, right? (More on that semi-rhetorical question below.)
However, as is being highlighted by the article mentioned above, some US universities and conservatories are seeing potential for a solution by altering the initial pathway for aspiring classical performers. Some are desiring to infuse their curriculums with more study on how to function in the business space, in order to offset the decreasing amount of profits and pre-existent opportunities of today. This move inspires two reactions from me:
“Amen!” and “Moderation.”
I say a hearty Amen because, in my own experience during university, I never understood why some general principles, methods and ideas were not brought to the table for EVERY student who had the word music in their major. The continuing lack of this just implied to me, that the higher education system in music was stuck on the idea that the fundamentals of what makes music teachers different from music business majors, different from music performance majors, different from music technology majors, would never experience a deep enough change to warrant implementing more joint exposure.
You could say I’m thinking almost along the lines of a foundation similar to that of a med student. Specialties for them don’t come until they have cemented the necessary building blocks, and I’m sorry, but the ‘basics’ in music are not just about learning the notes on the staff, how to form a Neapolitan 6th and the recurring motif in half of “X composer’s” concerti — not any more, anyway — as is evident by the state of affairs in which these music students stand. The rise of other technology-blending approaches like educational classical courses and apps and symphonic crowd funding shows that more people are thinking outside the box to satisfy the musical and functional preferences of both themselves as artists and modern day listeners as consumers, and that more concepts could stand to be universally unveiled before students deviate from one another.
I’m responding also with Moderation, because if the solution to the world’s problems was only about doing the opposite in spades, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Teach performance majors to tackle business and take more control of themselves and their skills in the business space, and we might just end up with a new influx of ‘brand / renaissance-obsessed’ artists. They will just be holding horns and mallets and bows instead of amp plugs and microphones. If universities change their approach to guiding students, and imminently grads, into the live industry space, they would need to do so with some level of restraint, so as not to over emphasise profit against performance character, which is what these majors strive to discover and develop during their time building repertoire in school.
While I don’t happen to like the ongoing split standing between many of the world’s music makers, my own acknowledgement of difference in the identity dynamics of symphonic players versus solo artists (classical or not) points out a difference that arises from the psychology of how a person is able to gain public familiarity. And that difference isn’t born exclusively from decisions grounded in marketing (even if the difference can be exploited by it.) However, if this inherent difference were that significant, then it shouldn’t be as easy for individual members of your typical rock outfit, for example, to do side projects on their own. They, after all, go from group to solo and it can work rather seamlessly if their music is solid, well received, etc.
Some of you might be asking or thinking, “Isn’t it obvious that breaking away from a band as a keys player, drummer or guitarist, would of course be easier than breaking away from a group using instruments of more general obscurity, like the trombone or again, the clarinet? So we’re back to this being amidst a “popular contemporary / everything else” divide, right? Not exactly.
The mandolin, an instrument capable of flourishing well in a group and in single settings, wouldn’t necessarily come up on the general public’s radar for common instruments we hear people thriving on, within the mainstream. Thusly, would an active mandolinist wishing to make a career out of their skill, be inflicted with an onslaught of blocks between them and the public, due to less default popularity?
Not if they are so skilled, that some branch of the arts world at large has to put them on a pedestal. Chris Thile, who has played in trios, quartets, quintets and dazzles as a solo mandolinist, epitomises this route. Recognised by a Grammy before age 20 and as a genius by the less publicly-familiar Mac Arthur Foundation at only 31, he might not be as talked about as Kanye West or Stevie Wonder ; but is currently in a position not only to sell out shows and live comfortably (to say the least), but to also play what he wants when putting together a record because it strikes him artistically. The man transitions with ease from contemporary bluegrass to classical repertoire and hides behind no facade about it.
So now we’ve established a couple of routes to a musician’s life:
a) A group role where you play supporting music and don’t focus on establishing a heavy handed individual public identity but earn enough to live (comfortably).
b) A solo role where you play music spotlighting yourself and choose the music you want because it connects with you as an artist, not concerning yourself with how much, or how little, the public might receive it, monetarily speaking, possibly resigning to earning less than needed to have just music as your career.
c) A solo route where you do all of “b” but equip yourself with a business and marketing foundation to navigate the waters of the music business, in hopes of improving the part about less money.
d) A solo route wherein you get both “b” and “c” and instrumental or genre obscurity is a non-issue, because you’re just that impressive that the public overlooks anything unfamiliar about your musicianship.
More noted artists, whether they start as group-supported or start by trying to be self-sustained, can exist as single entities, have their cake and eat it too. However, the fact is, not everyone is cut out for or wants that exact lifestyle, even if they do want enough money to live on without a non-music related job. So where will a business-boosted university experience take them? Over into the realm of arts administration and an eventual route à la Joshua Bell and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields? And how is this potential outcome, for those who don’t want to be single stars, any better than the original observation of ‘too much branding?’ So much career change, even among careers so complimentary, could prompt a very similar situation of non-mainstream artists suddenly donning too many hats and losing immersion in their craft. Not to be confused with a move away from stylistic tradition, which is not necessarily a reflection of an unstable artist identity, as Thile explains, and has demonstrated through own journey of repertoire shifting:
“I do think it’s important that people who profess to really be interested in music, um, to expose themselves to the width and breadth of the great music available to them. You know, in this day and age, that’s EVERYTHING. And I think you’ll, you’ll see a lot more…you’ll see so much genre-hopping from musicians, you know, in the very near future, that it will cease to be genre-hopping. The walls between things will be so worn that [artists]won’t have to hop anymore. You can just sort of casually step over them, or, you know, they’ll wear to the point where you can just sort of shuffle through them if you’d like.
…It’s like, the actual nuts and bolts of this stuff are not that different. You approach one [style], you know, with [another’s] stylistic ticks and it starts to sound like, the [first]one. …These are just materials being manipulated in a way for you to suggest any style you want. It’s mere aesthetic considerations where most of the differences lie.”
That said, keeping in mind that not everyone is going to get the Grammy or the grant, how can we escape this trap of looking up to find we have run through every room in the house of potential music careers?
Looking over the four routes I have mapped above, it seems that absent of prodigal talent, your choices to attain financial stability, are to either wear lots of DIY and business-boosted hats, or, to find and stay within a strongly cemented group role, knowing that if you’re not functioning in a commonly received facet of performance, *cough* popular instruments *cough* that stepping away from your group might end your ability to be afloat with just music. At least until the “walls” come tumbling down.
Is there a fifth route “E” that is being overlooked or under-utilised here?
Kira Grunenberg is a music journalist aiming to shake up every facet of music and the arts. She is the mind behind “Throw the Dice and Play Nice (dot) com” and is the Executive Editor for AAMPP.net, a collaborative music network for fans and professionals alike. Follow her on Twitter: @shadowmelody1.