Monday, January 7, 2013

Classical music as an endangered ecosystem

Henry Doktorski performs with philharmonic orchestra
     I thought it would be fitting to start off the new year with an old topic. I’ve been reading about animal communication (zoosemiotics) and animal rights lately, with a view to filling out certain parts of my argument in favor of a sound commons for all living beings; but I wanted to finish up the ecosystem as descriptor thread, looking again at business ecosystems, with some more attention to James F. Moore’s notions of innovation, cooperation, and co-evolution as the new paradigm for successful business corporations. One argument for animal rights extends the principles of human rights to all animals; and of course the argument for cultural equity extends these rights to all cultures, as I’ve mentioned in earlier entries when discussing the benefits of cultural diversity (again, modeled on biodiversity). The idea of the acoustic niche combined with cultural equity suggests that in the social world all music cultures have inherent rights to survive. I’ve raised the issue before, also, about the periodic sounding of the death-knell for classical music. These days it’s hard to read about classical music without coming across an essay nostalgic for the good old days when people went to symphony and bought recordings and made sure their children had music lessons and when everyone knew that classical music was the best music in the world. But today, these essayists opine, classical music has fallen on hard times: it’s endangered, it’s lost most of its audience, kids don’t want to take piano lessons any more, music education is fast disappearing from the schools, and unless we do something about it, classical music won’t survive.
    Classical music is one of several case studies in music and sustainability. When the rhetoric of the periodic death-knells uses words like “endangered,” it’s helpful to think of the classical music culture as an ecosystem. Picking up the thread from the previous blog entry, this is another instance of ecosystem as descriptor. The classical music culture consists of composers and performers, amateur and professional; it includes music educators and music schools (conservatories, music in K-12 education, music in the colleges and universities, courses and teachers and students and all the music performance ensembles); it includes music institutions such as symphony orchestras and string quartets, early music ensembles, opera companies and town bands, as well as patrons (whether private donors, corporations, or government funded organizations such as arts councils); and of course it includes the listeners who get their music and the places where they find it, in concerts and tours, media products including recordings, television and film, advertising, various venues where music is performed and heard, as well as distribution channels such as the Internet. Music is the central idea, activity, and product; it is the energy that flows through the classical music ecosystem, as through all worlds of music.
    When back in 1984 I wrote that music cultures behaved as ecosystems, what I had in mind was that they could be studied as complex systems much in the same way that ecologists were studying ecosystems: in terms of adaptation, musical energy flowing through the system, and cycles of birth, growth, decay, and rebirth or revival. Most ethnomusicologists then (myself included) were still bound to the culture area idea, borrowed from anthropology, thinking of musics as characteristic sound structures, activities and ideas about music attached to peoples (usually regional, ethnic and/or occupational groups) living in particular places. In this way, ethnomusicologists could conceive of Native America, let us say, as a whole music culture area, and also as the differing music cultures of several indigenous tribal groups, such as Kiowa or Zuni or Passamaquoddy. Beyond description and comparison, the question was why was this people’s music over here as it was, and different from that people’s music over there.
       But younger ethnomusicologists were challenging the usefulness of the notion that each cultural group had its own characteristic music. If instead of looking at music as process, the way ethnomusicologists liked to do, we started looking at the way people actually consumed music as product, then it was apparent that music moved as easily from one group to another in the marketplace as any other product--more easily than most. Soon, ethnomusicologists were studying popular musics and the music industry, all over the world—including so-called world music, an industry marketing category. In a globalizing world, it seemed a little musty to concentrate on the older, traditional layer of music in a given culture when most people were involved with newer, popular musics, marketed as recordings, much (but not all) of it made in the West--a situation that has changed with the rise of indigenous popular music production throughout the world.
    Studying the music industry in this way suggests another use for ecology, the business ecosystem, which as I wrote in my last blog entry is a concept pioneered by James F. Moore. Although the people involved with classical music in the West take great pains to distinguish it from popular music, and although they are often reluctant to view it as a business—seeing it instead as art rather than commerce, its purpose enlightenment and pleasure rather than profit—in many ways it functions as an industry. What happens when we think of it it as a business ecosystem in Moore’s sense of the term?
    Central to Moore’s idea of a business ecosystem is the corporation. Although the classical music ecosystem has its corporations (music publishers, private colleges and universities, media companies, etc.) it is useful to conceive not only of business corporations but also cultural institutions run increasingly as businesses, ones that compete and cooperate, and that adapt and co-evolve (or not). In his most recent essay on the topic, Moore writes that “the term 'business ecosystem' and its plural, 'business ecosystems,' refer to intentional communities of economic actors whose individual business activities share in some large measure the fate of the whole community. . . . [Corporations] must dialogue closely with customers,” Moore continues, “so that what is created is what the customer wants and is willing to pay for. Mastering these challenges, of what might be called 'distributed creativity,' is the aim of the ecosystem organizational form. The conventional hierarchical firm does not effectively address the breadth and importance of inter-firm relationships. The unaided market is not able to achieve inter-firm coordination sufficient to justify players aligning their dreams, plans, and product road maps" ("Business Ecosystems and the View from the Firm," The Antitrust Bulletin, Vol. 51, no. 1, Spring 2006, pp. 33-34).
    It’s not hard to map the classical music industry onto Moore’s idea of ecosystems. Doing so suggests one reason why it’s endangered: it is out of touch with the market. The people involved with classical music surely form an intentional community with an awareness of a shared fate, more like European aristocrats powerless against the rise of the merchant class, than like the community of producers, designers, marketers, evangelists, and consumers surrounding Apple (Moore’s favorite illustration of a thriving business ecosystem). Despite the fierce competition among composers, performers, conductors and orchestras, recording companies and so forth, they know that they’re all in this together, struggling against what they regard as the cheap thrills of non-classical musics.
     But one place where they fail is in dialoguing with customers. Instead, they speak in a top-down monologue, starting with classical music educators who transmit elitism and professionalism, with little respect for the musical amateur. The virtues of its structural complexity, the intellectual experience of apprehending the beauty of its formal characteristics, the virtuoso skills of its finest performers, the notion that being involved with classical music will make someone a more civilized, more refined, and better person—these are not virtues that came out of focus-group dialogues between corporations and customers, or in this case classical music institutions and, broadly speaking, the classical music consumers who support the industry. Instead, they came from cultural leaders in Victorian-era Europe, 150 years ago. In a culture that prized amateurism, particularly the gentleman amateur, and might even have been said to have invented that tradition, this emphasis on professionalism may appear contradictory. However, the skills of the gentleman amateur were at least as well-developed as that of the professional; the difference was that he didn't do it for the money. To be sure, classical music consumers can and do parrot these virtues; but seldom do they originate with them.
    At certain periods in the twentieth century, the classical music industry was able to gain significant market share through recordings, often on the basis of these virtues, but coupled with another, namely connoisseurship. The earliest major record companies, Victor and Columbia, marketing 78s, offered as much classical music as any other kind, and not only priced those records higher but advertised them with much more fanfare. As I’ve written earlier on this blog, connoisseurship in music (whether classical music or any other kind) can lead to the accumulation of social capital, to be spent at appropriate occasions among like-minded people. Accumulating a record collection, for example, carried with it the possibility of connoisseurship even for those who lacked musical talent. Classical music critics such as Irving Kolodin wrote guides to recorded music (the first was published in 1941) that enabled one not only to own the best performances but to be able to say why they were the best. In the 1960s, budget-priced LPs on labels like Nonesuch as Turnabout made a much wider repertoire available, including early music, and the more expensive labels followed suit. Recording techniques improved, and with the higher fidelity of the LP recordings a concert-hall like experience in one’s own apartment or home became possible. More, higher fidelity records led some listeners to buy fine stereo playback systems. Connoisseurship flourished among hi-fi enthusiasts as well in the quest for an absolute sound that was indistinguishable from that of the concert hall.
    The connoisseur’s search for high fidelity in classical music extended to fidelity in performance, leading to the idea of historically-informed performance, and the feeling that it was somehow better to listen to the classical music of the past as the audience would have heard it when it was first composed—and that meant period instruments instead of technologically improved ones, and fidelity to the score whenever possible in preference to traditions that had been handed down in practice from one generation of performers to the next. Today the majority of early music on recordings is performed on period instruments or their reproductions. Just as an aside, it would be interesting to see a revival with period instruments and just about everything else except fidelity to the original score – which would become fidelity to the original recording – in, say, early rock 'n roll. Why not? Such revivals have existed in many kinds of music for decades – blues, jazz, old-time string band music, and Irish traditional music to name a few.
    Historically-informed performance and its alleged authenticity fascinates me. In the introduction to ethnomusicology course that I’ve taught to undergraduates at Brown—it is one of the courses required for the music major—I ask them to think about this aspect of the classical music culture. One year I played an audio recording of an orchestral piece from the 18th century as performed on period instruments by a historically-informed group, then followed it with the same piece as performed in the early 1960s by the non-historically informed Berlin Philharmonic. The students preferred the lush sound of the latter, commenting on the dry timbres and occasional out-of-tune harmonies of the former. The next year I did the same experiment, but this time I showed them a video of the same two orchestras playing the same piece. Now the students responded positively to the historically-minded group, commenting on the clearly differentiated instrumental texture and the enthusiasm of the performers, who were young people dressed like themselves and who moved around and showed emotion as they played. The Berlin Philharmonic became for them a parody of musical fogeyism, and instead of a lush sound the music was perceived as “muddy” and undifferentiated, while the performers’ formal outfits and stiff postures were ridiculed. However, ten years later when I showed the video again—this was in the twenty-first century—some students found the “hippies” playing the period instruments, gesturing and moving about, to be the ridiculous ones, while the Berliners, whose performance style and sound had become remote and exotic, were intriguing.
    Returning to classical music as a business ecosystem, we see another area where there is room for improvement if classical music is to come off the endangered species list. That is what Moore calls inter-firm cooperation. Instead of competing for an ever-dwindling group of classical music composers, performers, and listeners, classical music's businesses could consider how the feeling that they are all in this together can lead toward a common goal benefitting all. This has in fact been happening for many decades, but not intensely enough to make over the ecosystem in terms of Moore's principles of innovation, cooperation, and co-evolution. His ideas might help the classical music culture take steps to make its ecosystem more resilient; but this would require visionary leadership, combined efforts, and changed attitudes.


  1. Thank you for a thought-provoking post, Jeff. When I think about classical music institutions along these lines, I ask: What is the product, and who are the customers? I don't think the answer is the same in every case. There are two ideal types to consider:

    - Professional institutions where the product is a ticketed performance, and the customers are the audience members who buy the tickets, as well as the businesses and foundations that advertise in the program and underwrite the deficit

    - Amateur institutions where the product is the experience of making music, and the customers are all of those who share in the act of creation

    Actual institutions really combine these models. My impression is that the amateur organizations tend to become more professionalized over time, while the more prescient professional organizations have learned to give their stakeholders ways of contributing besides just buying tickets or donating money. Others do maintain the top-down attitude that you criticize, but I think many in the arts management world realize that this posture is not sustainable for the future.

    Let me give a specific example. In my fieldwork with amateur choral singers, a number of singers told me that rehearsals were more rewarding than concerts, which they regarded as a necessary chore. Among professionals, the reverse attitude tends to be true. Put bluntly, amateurs perform so that they can afford to rehearse, while professionals rehearse so that they can perform. Each attitude implies a different concept of "product" and "customer."

  2. Duncan, you’re perceptively pointing to the importance of amateur music-making, whether town bands, amateur choral groups of the sort you’ve studied and participated in, or pickup groups of musicians who get together—over many different kinds of music, not just classical—for the love of it. That book (FOR THE LOVE OF IT, by Wayne Booth) is the title of one person’s paean for amateur music-making. Booth, who taught for decades at the University of Chicago, and whose scholarly books were assigned regularly in graduate courses in English, had a secret passion for playing the cello and devoted many hours a day to it even though he knew he would never become nearly as competent a musician as he was a literary critic. Hopelessly in love with music, in that book he tried to explain how, why, and what the consequences were.

    It’s not the amateurs who sound the periodic death-knells for classical music; it’s the professional music critics and historians, the promoters and musicians and others with a financial stake in the professional institutions. The business ecosystem model for classical music does best at describing the professional institutions where money supports the activities, where people are paid a living wage or better to be involved with music full-time, and where there is a clear separation between professional music-makers and customers (listeners) who consume the musical product. The economic activity is characterized by commodity, not gift, exchanges. Talent, competition, virtuosity, and connoisseurship are prized. Amateur musical institutions, particularly as ideal types, do not conform to this model. Amateurs involved with music aren’t paid very well, if at all. As you point out, the customers (consumers) include the music-makers, who love to rehearse. Given sufficient musical competence, then talent, competition, virtuosity and connoisseurship are not so important. Indeed, the gentleman amateur’s modesty prevents putting too much weight on the first three, while connoisseurship moderates to good taste.

    I acknowledge efforts by professional classical music institutions to innovate, cooperate, and co-evolve and would like to see case studies of lasting, successful examples. When I was a youngster, it was common for symphony orchestras to invite public school groups to rehearsals. How popular is this today? Public radio used to devote considerable time to playing classical music recordings; not anymore. Customers have made their preferences known; they want news and talk shows. But what is the impact of public radio programs such as FROM THE TOP? Do these kinds of innovation make a difference? What Moore is pointing out is that innovation, cooperation, and co-evolution are characteristic of successfully adapting institutions that create their own ecosystems. The business ecosystem isn’t a suitable metaphor for all institutions, of course. When we get to the ideal type of amateur musical institution, it is not a business at all.

  3. A blogger I follow who has a lot to say about the evolution of the social role of classical music is Greg Sandow. Here's a recent post; there are years more in the archives.