Serve the Music?

Ever since Arnold Schoenberg dismissed the usefulness of an audience “except for purely acoustical reasons,” the approach of the classical music institution to the public seems to have been:

  1. Move into an ivory tower.
  2. Act surprised when nobody wants to visit.

There has, inevitably, been a ton of proposals on how to increase audience numbers. The one that seems to be doing the rounds at the moment was written by “Pliable” on his blog On an Overgrown Path. He called it “Stop trying to serve everybody, instead serve the music”, and wrote a post detailing how he sees that being done:

This means telling celebrity musicians that their profligate demands can no longer be met. Serving the music means embracing business models that secure the long term future for composers and rank and file musicians, instead of sacrificing their interests on the altar of new streaming technologies. Serving the music means rejecting the twelve pieces of silver offered by music festivals backed by repressive political regimes. Serving the music means dramatically reducing the influence of management agents, whose self-interest distorts the music. Serving the music means re-balancing financial models to reduce dependency on ethically tainted sponsors. Serving the music means thwarting the ambitions of cradle-to-grave corporations such as Universal Music, the BBC and Amazon. Serving the music means correcting the oversupply of classical music. Serving the music means putting music education back on the agenda. And serving the music means eliminating discrimination in every form.

There’s plenty wrong with several of these, but it’s not worth dwelling on too much.1

He concludes:

Simply serve the music. If you do, audiences—both new and old—will come.

“Serve the music” is a good sound bite but a shitty business model. Fact is: if you don’t think about how to make money, you’re not going to make money.

Pliable’s problem here is the same as the classical music industry’s as a whole: he sees the problems, but his solutions don’t apply to the world as it’s becoming today. He complains about monolithic corporations, but he doesn’t even seem to have considered the idea that musicians might abandon labels entirely.

Compare the appeal of working as a performing musician in a large city with that of being a recording musician online. As a performer, you have a pool of, say, a few million people from which to build your audience. Those people then have to go out of their way to listen to you on faith that you’ll be worth travelling for, and (assuming it’s a professional gig) you’ll have to draw in at least a hundred of them per gig or somebody makes a loss. For the touring musician, you have to count on drawing out an audience of this size in every city you visit purely on the basis of your reputation and repertoire.

If, on the other hand, you sell2 your music online, your pool is over three billion people. They don’t have to travel to hear your music, they can be anywhere in the world, and failing to sell a copy costs you nothing. Moreover, gradually building up a sustainable audience of a few thousand people in all the world is far from impossible. It’s easier by far, in any case, than creating a consistent audience in a single city.

I agree with Ben Thompson’s argument that the internet is great for enormous corporations, and great too for small, independent artists. In music, the people in trouble are the people in the middle: record companies with too many costs to function like independents, but not enough clout to compete with the massive labels.

Independent musicians don’t need to serve the music. They need to serve the audience.

Serving the audience

Serving the audience is not the same thing as serving the mass market. It’s the opposite. Success in the mass market means having broad appeal, in order to get a small amount of money from a large number of people. In music, this usually means being bland, neutral, and inoffensive. But serving an audience means finding something that appeals specifically and deeply to a particular group of people, and specific, deep appeal tends to be divisive.

A big part of serving the audience is figuring out who the audience is. Pliable, again, seems to think that there’s an oversupply of music, but I don’t know if that’s true. I think the problem is that most classical musicians and performing groups are competing for the same audience with the same material.

What’s important for musicians—particularly independent musicians—is providing a unique sound. Sadly, this goes against the training of most classical musicians, who are taught to defer to the score and to the composer’s wishes,3 but for those musicians who can manage it through technique, style, instrumentation, repertoire choice—even personality—or a combination of those, there’s literally a whole world out there in which to find an audience.

Serving the audience means treating your listeners with respect.4 It means communicating directly and honestly with them. It also means being your own record label and promoter, but doing that in ways that big labels simply can’t.

And of course, serving the audience means playing and recording the music as well as you are able. In serving the music alone, you reject the audience, but to properly serve the audience you must do justice to the music.

  1. All right, just one or two:
    • If you reduce celebrity fees, someone else will pay them, and all you’ve accomplished is to ditch a sell-out concert. So your best bet is to get every concert organizer in the world to agree to pay reduced fees to these musicians (and good luck with the anti-trust lawsuit afterwards, by the way).
    • Music education is a canard. Education generally has been accessible to far, far more people in the west in the past hundred years, and consequently so has music education. What music education accomplishes is to give young people the tools to understand music and to communicate using music, and the myriad benefits that come as a result. But if it made people more interested in classical music, the concert halls would be packed.

  2. As I’ve said several times, niche artists—and most classical musicians are niche artists—should probably avoid streaming services as they hurt sales without providing enough substitute income. Some suggest that streaming is good promotion, and it is, provided the musician has control over what gets released. 
  3. And that’s fine, of course, and there’ll always be room for new ones. But minor differences aren’t enough to stir up the love and hate that makes for a loyal audience. 
  4. Another of Pliable’s hobby horses is what he sees as the hopelessness of attempting to attract rock audiences to classical music. He seems to think that the failure of the industry to attract such listeners is because they’re a lost cause, but, as someone who knows a few rock listeners, that hasn’t been my experience. The biggest reason for the failure to draw in new audiences from the broader musically-interested populace is because the majority of attempts have been blatantly condescending and insincere. In other words, they haven’t worked because the people pushing them have no understanding of or respect for the audience they’re trying to attract. But more on that another time.