Varied Listening

Steve Smith, on the Log Journal, recently posted a nice meditation on a day in the life of a record addict.

And at some point it hits you: The amount of excellent music out there that you just don’t know about yet is quite likely infinite.

There’s so much music, period, being made and recorded nowadays that this isn’t at all unlikely. Or if not infinite, it’s effectively so: more than any human can expect to hear in their life. Smith also commented in an earlier post that when Simon Cummings, author of the excellent blog 5:4, posted his “Best of 2016” list, it “included any number of fascinating recordings I hadn’t even heard of.”

The other day, I posted a quote from Brian Eno about the ephemerality of music. Here it is again:

I really think that for us, who all grew up listening primarily to recorded music, we tend to forget that until about 120 years ago ephemeral experience was the only one people had. I remember reading about a huge fan of Beethoven who lived to the age of 86 [in the era before recordings], and the great triumph of his life was that he’d managed to hear the Fifth Symphony six times. That’s pretty amazing. They would have been spread over many years, so there would have been no way of reliably comparing those performances.

All of our musical experience is based on the the possibility of repetition, and of portability, so you can move music around to where you want to be, and scrutiny, because repetition allows scrutiny. You can go into something and hear it again and again. That’s really produced quite a different attitude to what is allowable in music. I always say that modern jazz wouldn’t have existed without recording, because to make improvisations sound sensible, you need to hear them again and again, so that all those little details that sound a bit random at first start to fit. You anticipate them and they seem right after a while.

The promise and the curse of being a music fan in the early 21st Century, I think, is a new kind of ephemerality. There’s simply so much great music out there, and it’s so readily available thanks to the Internet that, regardless of how good it is, it’s going to be harder and harder to listen to anything more than a couple of times. Every album you listen to a second time is a new album you can’t hear.

I’m the sort of music fan who will listen to the same album twenty times on repeat, when I like it. That means that my natural tendency is to miss an awful lot of great music. Over the past half-year or so, particularly since I’ve had a kid on the way, I’ve been trying to vary my listening more, to avoid the trap of only hearing (or playing for her) stuff I’m familiar with.

I try to be systematic, because imposing systems on myself is the best way I’ve found to avoid being lazy. I thought about the types of music that I tend to listen to most often (six months ago, mainly orchestral and piano music written by white men in the 18th and 20th centuries, and rock music from the 20th), and came up with six categories of work that defy those types:

  • Something written since the year 2000
  • Something I haven’t heard before
  • Something more than ten minutes long
  • Something by a composer I usually don’t like
  • Something not written for solo piano or for orchestra
  • Something written by a woman and/or a member of a minority ethnicity

I try to tick each of those boxes at least twice a day. And I try to take it easy on myself too: one work can tick multiple boxes (which is useful on heavy-workload days, when bedtime comes and I’ve barely listened to anything). There’s a handy iOS and Apple Watch app I use to encourage me, called Streaks. It tracks the number of consecutive days you’ve succeeded in doing something. (I was somewhere in the 40s for all of mine, before a couple of rough days last week broke everything.)

The other side of the coin that’s made this possible is Bandcamp. I’ve made my opinion of streaming in the context of classical and other niche-interest music clear in the past (more than once), but I see Bandcamp as fundamentally different: it gives far more leeway to musicians to make and sell what they want, to make money from their sales, and to control what can get streamed. The music on the service is also often far more interesting.

I’ve found some great music through this system: Caroline Polachek’s (free!) electronic album Drawing the Target Around the Arrow, Alarm Will Sound’s Modernists, Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder. There’s been plenty I don’t like too, but that’s not the point of this effort. The point is to find my boundaries, and push them.

A Return

I feel like I’m quite lucky that this blog is just a side gig for me, since it means I don’t have an editor sitting on my shoulder asking for work. It’s been almost seven months since the last post. My followers on Twitter will be aware of the horror with which I’ve watched recent political events unfold—most notably the U.S. presidential election, and the American right playing into the hands of a fringe group of authoritarian extremists.

But the protests give hope. I am a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. America will get through this. Autocracy is inherently unstable, and the American people are too used to freedom (with granted asterisks on that freedom for women and minorities) to give it up lightly. It’s going to be rough, but it will pass, and, hopefully, what follows will be better.

But enough about the elephant in the room. In spite of international events, I bucked the trend and had a pretty great 2016. Between March and December, I got married, and my wife and I bought our first house, and had our first child. That’s enough to keep most people occupied for a couple of years, so maybe it’s no surprise that side gigs fell away.

Over the next few months, I’ll be taking this blog back to regular (or less-irregular) activity. It’ll mostly be link-blog type stuff (mostly arts, some politics, since there is no escaping politics, and there is really no escaping politics now), with the odd longer comment piece, and links to anything I write elsewhere online.

There is also a bigger project, which I have been working on for some time, and will announce before the end of the month.

Zeitung Citing

I was delighted to learn last week that my article in VAN about streaming and piracy, in its German translation, was cited by the major German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung. I had a friend translate the relevant paragraph for me last night, and unfortunately the author seems to have spectacularly missed the point:

[The fact that most people use Spotify for free] affects classical musicians even worse than their colleagues in pop, as the specialist online magazine for classical music, VAN, has pointed out in the past few days: not only are classical “songs” more seldom listened to than non-classical; they are also often considerably longer. Because of this, VAN recommends that classical musicians and composers should publish their recordings and compositions for free online. Many are doing this, for example on the platform SoundCloud, which is delighted to receive the work of composers of contemporary and famous or popular “e-music”.

Just to be clear, in the original article (and in the translation), I said the opposite:

Professional musicians who know that their music has limited appeal should think very carefully about whether their music belongs on a streaming service at all. Small record labels should do the same. Few people are in music, least of all classical music, for wealth or power, but giving music away for next to nothing is a surefire way to never make a living from it. Instead, musicians can continue doing what they’ve been doing in one form or another for centuries: selling their music.

Publishing their music online for free is what musicians are already doing on streaming services, and it’s not working.

What I did say, and perhaps what the author of the article mistook as being the whole of the argument, is that putting music online for free in a limited or inconvenient way, such as a couple of songs from an album, or streaming only through video, can be a promotional tool to generate more sales. Barriers are powerful. Many people will pay out a little money to get something they want a little more conveniently. Video game makers know this, and and use it in a disappointingly gross way; but it doesn’t have to be as manipulative as that. Netflix and Audible—and hell, even Spotify—use free trials with limits (in the former two cases, limited time; in the latter, limited convenience) to encourage users to subscribe to their product. The point of giving something away when you’re trying to make a living on it—especially something as ephemeral as a digital copy of a piece of music—is to make people interested enough to pay you.

I don’t think anyone trying to make a living making any sort of specialist product should give it away.

Addendum: Three Analogies

Speaking of VAN, a few weeks ago I wrote an addendum to my previous piece on streaming and piracy, covering some things I had to trim at the time for the sake of space and pace.

Then I got married, and forgot to post it. For the sake of completion, it’s below:


I’ve written before1 that it’s in the interests of the big record labels to have their entire catalogues, or as much of them as possible, on the major streaming services. By sharing their vast libraries, the labels are more or less guaranteed to make their money back. All they need is a couple of hit artists, and they can afford to lose the bets they’ve made on everybody else (or at least break even). In that way, the big labels are like investment bankers: invest in as wide a variety of stocks as possible, and enough of them will provide a return.

It’d be nice if the labels instead saw their musicians as people, but that’s not likely to happen in a hurry.

This is why small labels are unlikely to receive the same benefits from streaming as big ones: not because they’ll never have a hit, but because the big labels they’re in competition with are almost guaranteed to have a constant stream of them.


Netflix is probably the business that seems closest to the streaming music model in many people’s eyes. In some ways it seems apt. Both services provide access to a large catalogue in exchange for a fee, and pay the majority of their revenue to content providers. But they’re different in a couple of important ways.2

Firstly, as I’ve covered before, Spotify (to take for example the most prominent streaming music service) pays a per-play fee for each item on its catalogue, so a song that gets ten times more plays than another makes ten times the revenue. Netflix, like traditional TV channels, pays for its content upfront. While the result is similar, with bigger earners getting bigger payouts, the fact that Netflix’s payments are made upfront means that all of the content creators get paid, and get to decide whether the payment is worthwhile. If you sell your movie to Netflix, and nobody watches it, Netflix lost the bet. They may not buy your movie again, but at least some of the effort that went into making it is recompensed.

On Spotify, if nobody listens to your music, you get nothing. And if one person listens to it instead of buying it, you’re out the sale of a CD.

Secondly, and as a consequence of this, Netflix’s catalogue relative to the number of films and TV shows released is quite small. Spotify is aiming to have every musician on Spotify, whereas Netflix can only afford a limited (admittedly high) number of shows and movies. This means that among shows and movies featured on Netflix, there is less competition for viewers. On Netflix, you’re up against everything Netflix can afford; on Spotify, you’re up against everything.

The main reason for the distinction, I think, is that Netflix is in direct competition with its providers. Streaming services work with the support of labels—especially the big labels for the reasons outlined above. But the big TV and movie companies have their own networks, and the more time people spend on Netflix, the less they spend on the Disney channel. How long this can last is an open question, since the more subscribers Netflix gets, the more content it can afford, and the more content it has, the more subscribers it can get. But I don’t think Netflix will ever have everything the way that Spotify has everything. There’s too much content being made.

Whatever the reason, the result is clear: Spotify’s business model is a worse deal for artists than Netflix’s, and makes it harder than Netflix does for artists to make a living.


News publishers today are facing a dilemma: give their work away for free, and support it through advertising, or hide it behind a paywall and risk piracy.

Sound familiar?

Only the biggest news sites in the world are able to demand advertising rates sufficient to cover their costs, and more and more those advertisements are going to Facebook instead. On Facebook, people care about the news they get, but they don’t care about who’s published it; they just click the link. But if publishers don’t publish to Facebook, they miss out on enormous potential readership. So big news sites are having to settle for Facebook’s terms or face a massive drop in readers. Elsewhere online, small sites are springing up that tend to fall into one of two revenue categories: paid memberships and sponsored posts. The sites have this in common: they are focussed on a narrow range of topics and interests, and attract people who share those interests.

Readers are willing to pay for the content, firstly because they have a passionate interest in the topic, and secondly because, in a lot of cases, they’re supporting a writer who they like. And piracy, while still a danger, is less of a risk because the audience tends to be both small and loyal. In the case of sponsorship-supported blogs, a similar system is at play: a site focussed on a specific interest will have an audience with particular tastes, and advertisers, particularly if they’re making niche products, are interested in that.

The big labels may do well to look at the publishing industry, as they have to compete harder and harder with all sorts of audio content. It may happen that big news sites that produce good work, but not enough of it to keep the lights on, are taken over by other big news sites until only two or three remain. Just imagine if that were to happen with music.


  1. Specifically, I wrote:

    So who wins in the Spotify ecosystem? Well, Spotify do well for themselves, obviously. As do the big record labels, those who have a wide enough variety of popular artists that chances are something they’ve released is being streamed right now.

  2. Kirk McElhearn also wrote on the differences between these services while I was away. 

What Only Humans Can

The YouTube educational video maker CGP Grey has a justly large following. He makes short explainers of, for example, the difference between Britain, the U.K., and the British Isles, Coffee, the Lord of the Rings mythology, and the family tree. Generally speaking, they’re very good.

One of his most popular (and best) is Humans Need Not Apply, a chilling look at the future of automation and industry, and the potential massive spike in unemployment that may come about in the next fifty years as computers become better at human jobs than humans are. It’s about fifteen minutes long, and worth watching.

While I can’t dispute many of the facts, I think the video gets it very wrong on some aspects of creative professionalism. Grey is a utilitarian. He openly admits on his podcast, Cortex, that, for him, music is a tool that helps him get work done. Elsewhere, he’s sardonically mocking of poets and artists (as he is in the video above). That’s all well and good. Not everyone can be an art lover, and not everyone should be. But a utilitarian view of the arts leads to a fairly simple notion of art as something trying to accomplish a job.

In the last two weeks, music has lost two titans of two genres: the austere, difficult, polarising composer (and undeniably brilliant conductor) Pierre Boulez, and the chameleonic, gloriously weird rock1 musician David Bowie. The two men had little in common, and as far as I knew never crossed paths except in passing. But their music mattered to people, and it mattered far less because of its qualities than because those qualities were the result of human work.

David Bowie’s early rise to fame came about because he revelled in his weirdness. He was, as Hilton Als noted in his New Yorker piece, “that outsider who made different kids feel like dancing in that difference”. No computer, no matter how good the music it made, could ever forge that connection with people. A glance at Twitter over the past week shows how keenly his loss is felt as a personal one by people around the world.

By contrast, Hatsune Miku, a fully computer-generated performer from Japan (if you haven’t heard of her, then yes, really), certainly has her core group of fans. And I have no doubt that her fans enjoy her performances, and listening to her singing. But were she to vanish tomorrow, through some freak accident of data loss, all her fans would really lose would be her songs. With Bowie, they lost an icon.

Pierre Boulez’s early music became famous (and notorious) for its high degree of mathematical precision—not only the notes, but the dynamics, tempi, articulations were all rigorously figured out beforehand. Regardless of the emotional content of the music (which some listeners passionately defend), that is a type of music that is surely highly suited to a computer’s labour. But again, part of the appeal of Boulez as a musician is the fact that a human could create and hold music of this scale and complexity in his mind. Who would be interested if it was automatic? If his music had been made by a computer—a machine which necessarily would have found it easier—it would have been less interesting.

Recently, the American composer Andrew Norman made exactly this point on performing. From a New York Times interview by Will Robin:

“By thinking of the orchestra as only a sound-making machine, we’ve actually eliminated a huge part of what makes a concert experience amazing,” Mr. Norman said. A laptop, he pointed out, easily supersedes what the symphony can offer in terms of sonic power and flexibility. “What makes an orchestra special, for me, is not actually the sounds that it makes but the fact that there are a hundred human beings doing that, right in front of me,” he added. “In a way, it’s performance art.”

There are already computers that can generate music; even ones that can do a job of imitating Mozart well enough to fool Mozart experts. But short-term existential crises aside, these works become curios—interesting for how they were composed, but passed over because there’s nothing to get your teeth into. No composer weeping over the streets at the beauty of the sound of a fire sergeant’s funeral. No artist in a fit of horror at war dedicating himself to representing that horror in black-and-white. No writer so full of self-loathing that he imagines himself transforming overnight into vermin.

That’s not to say there won’t be room (not to say a market) for computer-generated art, but only in its most functional sense. What if I told you your film could have music by John Williams? Would you say no? What if the other option was Beethoven? Or night clubs, whose music—beyond the compulsion to follow certain trends of fashion—is essentially background noise for socialising.

But a computer-generated Beethoven symphony? Would we really want that? Beethoven was great, and we have piles of his music to listen to now—but he’s been and gone. Music has changed since his time, and to go back is pointless. And any originality expressed by a computer is uninteresting, not in spite of its lack of imagination, but precisely because its imagination is theoretically limitless.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe next generation’s Hatsune Miku will be one with a personality and life programmed by her team (as authors program characters—no judgement here), able to inhabit independently a virtual world. People can definitely come to love fictional characters, and maybe they’ll love her as they love Katniss Everdeen. Maybe the following generation will see a wholly computer generated performer, with appearance, personality, life all created by computers with the last human interaction having occurred thirty years before.

But my suspicion is that for the people who find human connection in art, art made by humans will always be essential. At least until computers can imitate a full, creative human mind. And then we’ll have plenty of new philosophical issues to deal with.

Last week, on the podcast Exponent (and to a lesser extent, in this blog post), Ben Thompson detailed a political position I hadn’t been familiar with before, but one which I find interesting. In short, as technology has a greater and greater impact on society, and as its presence costs more and more people their jobs, it is in technology companies’ best interests to lobby not only for less regulation (the clarion call of so much business), but also for higher taxes and an assured “ground floor”, economically, so that those people whose jobs are lost through technological disruption are not left with nothing. This way, the people whom regulations are supposed to protect are protected by the safety net, and the corporations have the freedom to grow as they please.

The reasoning is this: a job done by a computer is not of net benefit to society until the person whose job was lost is contributing something new. Otherwise, nothing is gained overall. The technology companies benefit through having fewer restraints on the ways they can develop; those restraints are less necessary if people are assured a stable means of livelihood anyway; and that better quality of life can be achieved through revenue generated from higher taxes. In both the businesses’ and the governments’ cases, something is given and something is gained.

To be sure, it’s not a flawless plan. I’m sure that one of the common criticisms levelled at it will be that if you pay people for doing nothing, then people won’t do anything. I’m more optimistic than that. I think, left without the constant worry about meeting basic needs, most people will try to occupy their time in ways that fulfil them, whether that’s making art, or starting a business, or whatever.

In any case, we may know soon enough whether a basic wage for everyone can have positive effects on a society: the current government of Finland are in the early stages of carrying out the experiment.

Equally, those more skeptical of the corporate world would argue that no corporation would lobby for higher taxes—these are self-interested entities, after all. But they wouldn’t be doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but as a trade-off for reduced regulation (which, far more than tax, is the bugbear of many large businesses, especially tech companies). If the total cost of a computer doing a job plus a higher general tax rate is still cheaper than an employee (and it could well be), then the company still makes a saving, and the sooner that change is made, the more money saved.

More concerning to me is the ability of small and of poor countries to fund a project like this. There’s a compelling argument to be made that the tech companies who gain the most customers now, firstly, will become far bigger than any company that’s existed so far in human history, and secondly, will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future. Services become verbs—Google, Skype, Uber—and these services, as U.S.-based entities, will pay the majority of their taxes to the U.S. government. Good for American citizens.

But these services have a much smaller stake in other markets they choose to enter, and both the incentive and leverage to push local taxes as low as they can. Rich citizens (or visitors) in these countries demand the same services they get elsewhere in the world, but the companies that make those services can choose whether to enter the markets on their terms. They may be amenable to high tax at home, but would they be so willing to pay it everywhere else too?

These smaller countries, and these poorer countries, would be thus less able to compete with the rest of the world, and so would slip further and further behind in economic stakes. As a result, their governments would become less and less able to support their citizens under any system. In the Internet’s winner-take-all economics, maybe somebody still has to lose.

As I said, though, I’m an optimist. I think that most national systems will tend towards this sort of arrangement sooner or later, as a consequence of Internet economics and the needs that will arise because of it, in the same way that most western countries now have some form of socialism. (Not enough for some; too much for others, I know, but such is politics.) If companies can be compelled to pay high taxes in all territories where they operate—if that becomes the norm—then the revenue generated from that can keep people fed when their jobs disappear. Growth shoots already exist; the only real question is when it happens—and I believe the longer it takes, the worse off everyone will be.

As for whether people will still have things to make and sell, no matter how good computers get at making things (art, design, music, yes, but also sofas, clocks, kitchenware), I think people will hold onto a romantic attachment to the human-made. The down-side of Internet economics is that it allows companies to become enormous to a degree previously unthinkable, but it also—assuming it remains open and free as it should be (vote wisely, folks)—allows anyone with a computer and an Internet connection access to the largest market in human history.

This is Grey’s biggest error in judging the creative professions: he assumes that it’s a popularity contest. It isn’t. In order to get by, a creative person needs only a few thousand fans. Amongst the billions of people connected to the Internet, that is a fraction of a fraction of a percentage. Moreover, there’s a tangible thrill for fans in discovering something that nobody else knows.

For an artist in the twenty-first century, finding fans is hard, no doubt. But it’s far easier than it ever has been before. And Grey ought to know this. He’s done it himself.

  1. I guess? 

How not to do it

Roger Scruton, in BBC Magazine, has written an article that is equal parts “Rah, rah, rah!” and “Wah, wah, wah!”

It’s pretty amazing—an extended whinge about how modern life is rubbish, and how everyone would be listening to classical music if music wasn’t everywhere.

It doesn’t deserve a serious response, so I haven’t given it one.

In almost every public place today the ears are assailed by the sound of pop music. In shopping malls, public houses, restaurants, hotels and elevators the ambient sound is not human conversation but the music disgorged into the air by speakers—usually invisible and inaccessible speakers that cannot be punished for their impertinence.

“Back in my day…” is not a promising way to start a column, so Scruton begins with the somewhat less conventional “Why can’t I punish impertinent electronics?”

Whole areas of civic space in our society are now policed by this sound, which drives anybody with the slightest feeling for music to distraction, and ensures that for many of us a visit to the pub or a meal in a restaurant have lost their residual meaning.

Remember when you had to be rich to eat in a restaurant that had musicians on staff? Even then, I’m pretty sure they weren’t all playing Haydn.

These are no longer social events, but experiments in endurance, as you shout at each other over the deadly noise.

Has he considered going to a different pub? Or maybe having some friends over for dinner? Then he could play what he likes—including nothing.

There are two reasons why this vacuous music has flown into every public space. One is the vast change in the human ear brought about by the mass production of sound.

sound of rapid typing as Scruton edits the Wikipedia page on the human ear to show the vast change brought about by the mass production of sound

For our ancestors music was something that you sat down to listen to, or which you made for yourself. It was a ceremonial event, in which you participated, either as a passive listener or as an active performer. Either way you were giving and receiving life, sharing in something of great social significance.

Or had dinner to, or danced to, or marched off to war with, or sang with friends, or ignored while walking up the street or talking in a restaurant. Seriously, it’s as if he thinks pop music was invented in the late twentieth century.

Incidentally, he may be the first lover of any form of music I’ve ever known to describe his listening as “passive”.

With the advent of the gramophone, the radio and now the iPod…

“Now” the iPod?

…music is no longer something that you must make for yourself…

More people are making and sharing music now than at any other time in history. It just happens to be music Scruton doesn’t like.

…nor is it something that you sit down to listen to.

Except when you do.

It follows you about wherever you go, and you switch it on as a background.

You do whatever you want with it. It’s your music.

You are rightly prevented from polluting the air of a restaurant with smoke; but nothing prevents the owner from inflicting this far worse pollution on his customers.

Pop music: literally worse than inhaling poison.

Of course, you can ask for the music to be turned off. But you will be met by blank and even hostile stares. What kind of a weirdo is this, who wants to impose his will on everyone? Who is he to dictate the noise levels? Such is the usual response.

“How dare this restaurant refuse to prioritise me above its other patrons?”

Has Scruton never left a restaurant or pub because it was too loud? I have. It was easy. I used a similar method to when I entered, only in the other direction.

Silence must be excluded at all cost, since it awakens you to the emptiness that looms on the edge of modern life, threatening to confront you with the dreadful truth, that you have nothing whatever to say.

Well, we don’t all have a magazine to publish the nothing we have to say.

I suspect that the increasing inarticulateness of the young, their inability to complete their sentences, to find telling phrases or images, or to say anything at all without calling upon the word “like” to help them out…

Criticising young people for using a different filler word from yours is, well, silly.

The magical encounter with the Beethoven quartet, the Bach suite, the Brahms symphony, in which your whole being is gripped by melodic and harmonic ideas and taken on a journey through the imaginary space of music—that experience which lies at the heart of our civilisation and which is an incomparable source of joy and consolation to all those who know it—is no longer a universal resource.

It never has been. For starters, you used to have to buy concert tickets. It also helped, then as much as now, to know something about the musical and social context in which the music was written.

The belief that there is a difference between good and bad, meaningful and meaningless, profound and vapid, exciting and banal—this belief was once fundamental to musical education. But it offends against political correctness. Today there is only my taste and yours. The suggestion that my taste is better than yours is elitist, an offence against equality.

No, the elitist part is when you’re a dick about it. Oh, look, Exhibit A:

The first step is to introduce the precious commodity of silence, so that your students are listening with open ears to the cosmos, and are beginning to forget their addictive pleasures. Then you play to them the things that you love. They will be bewildered at first. After all, how can this old geezer sit still for 50 minutes listening to something that hasn’t got a beat or a tune? Then you discuss the things that they love. Had they noticed, for example, that Lady Gaga in Poker Face stays for most of the tune on one note? Is that real melody? After a while they will see that they have in fact been making judgments all along—it is just that they were making the wrong ones.

Scruton’s three-hour lesson plan:

  • Hour one: silence
  • Hour two: some bewildering fifty-minute work
  • Hour three: Detailed analysis of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face
  • Not timetabled: deal with a lawsuit from the John Cage estate

I’m sure that Scruton was more than happy telling his students everything that was wrong with Lady Gaga’s Poker Face or whatever, and I’m sure they were even happier to get out of his class, and go home, and listen to it. (Poker Face? Really? After that and the reference to the iPod, I felt obliged to double-check the year on the byline. 15th November 2015. Also, in an article ostensibly about the superiority of classical music, Poker Face is the only named work. Wow.)

You have to wonder how many of his students were even willing to tell him honestly what they really liked, if all he was going to do was stand at the head of a classroom and bloviate about what was wrong with it. Did he even ask? Or did he just pick something out of the charts, and assume that that’s what they were into?

Picking apart a nonsense article like this is easy (and fun)—but it’s also important. This kind of rhetoric is short on substance, but prevalent and toxic. When people complain of elitism in music, it’s because of this: the notion that their taste will be declared insufficient or invalid by some jerk if they even bother to turn up. And who can blame them? Contrary to Scruton’s assertions, people form a real emotional bond with the music they listen to—yes, Roger, even pop—and being told that something you love is wrong or bad simply because it doesn’t conform to what someone else expects is not an experience anyone wants.

But people who listen to what Scruton calls pop (and he’s using it as an absurdly large umbrella term to cover, as far as I can tell, everything that can’t be categorised as classical, jazz, or traditional) have a far more powerful weapon than his magazine column. They can ignore him. That’s been happening for a hundred years, and people like Scruton just don’t seem to understand why. His take on people’s favourite music has no more effect on them than an old man yelling at a cloud.

For me, as a lover of classical music (and jazz, and some of what Scruton would call pop), there’s nothing that makes me want to stop listening more than the self-righteous, condescending, narrow-minded, empty—frankly, theological—rhetoric of its cheerleaders.

Fortunately, the allure of the music I love has always been stronger than the repulsive force of those who’d have a world with nothing else. But what about people who weren’t as lucky as I have been, to have had great teachers and musical experiences growing up? If every teacher was a teacher like Scruton, wasting time that could be spent talking about Barbara Strozzi to pontificate about Lady Gaga, classical music would already be dead.

One last bit, as an addendum:

When Metallica appeared at the 2014 Glastonbury festival there was a wake-up moment of this kind—the recognition that these guys, unlike so many who had performed there, actually had something to say. Yes, there are distinctions of quality, even in the realm of pop.

You can almost feel Scruton pausing for the collective gasp at this banal statement.

I’d tentatively suggest that some “pop” musicians—Radiohead, Kate Bush, The Beatles—have far more to offer in terms of musical substance and imagination than some canonical composers—Johann Strauss, Vivaldi, Kabalevsky—but then I suppose that wouldn’t be fair. It’s far harder for Scruton to make his argument if he can’t just compare Lady Gaga to Brahms.

Tools We Love

In 2003, the Scottish snooker player Stephen Hendry arrived in Heathrow Airport from playing tournaments in Asia to discover that his cue had been broken in the plane’s baggage hold. Hendry had used the cue since he’d first got it as a gift from his parents 20 years before, and with it had won 34 world championships. After it was broken, Hendry didn’t win a professional match for two months. He described the psychological and emotional loss painfully: “You cannot underestimate the body blow for a snooker player of having your cue broken, after all it’s an extension to your arm.”

Any professional’s tool is an extension of her body. And of all the relationships that exist between workers and their tools, one of the closest and most complex is that which exists between a musician and her instrument. An instrument is many things to a musician: a flexible, intricate device; a beautiful object; a lifelong companion; a conduit for communication. Musicians spend hours with their instruments every day, learning the touch, the action, the glide, the exact technique needed to produce subtle differences in tone—everything that makes their instrument make the sound they want it to make. They know their instrument’s strengths, weaknesses, and flaws.

A few years ago, I had a piano with a faulty E. It produced a note, but required considerably more pressure than the other keys. I paid it little heed and practised on, straining for sound on the E so that it fitted better with whatever I was playing. I barely noticed I was doing it, and it quickly became a habit. Only in a lesson, on my teacher’s piano, did I discover that I was still applying the extra pressure, hammering out that E because I subconsciously expected it not to work.

The piano is an unusual case. Most pianists have to arrive at the concert hall and take what they’re given for their performance. Good halls will ensure that their piano is perfectly tuned and maintained, but different pianos have different characters. A piano with a fuller, more resonant bass might work wonders with a rich, sonorous Debussy prelude, but need careful control to keep Mozart light and clear. One with a more naturally dry, crisp sound will suit Haydn better than it suits Brahms. It’s like poker: you play the hand you’re dealt. Pianists have to adapt, in the space of a rehearsal or two, to the instrument they perform on.

The only pianists I know of to buck this tradition are Glenn Gould and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Michelangeli was a notorious perfectionist, said to be so concerned about achieving the exact right acoustic quality that if it would help, he would remove every chair from the auditorium. And so particular was he about the instrument he used that when he toured, he liked to take not only his piano with him, but also his tuner, Ettore Tallone.

Gould, after he’d found his perfect piano, stopped performing publicly and worked solely as a recording artist. In this Rolling Stone interview, he described the only way he could psychologically recover from an experience rehearsing on a piano that didn’t agree with him. After the disastrous rehearsal, Gould got in his rented car and fled to a sand dune:

So I sat in my car in the sand dune and decided to imagine myself back in my living room…and first of all to imagine the living room […] and I tried to imagine where everything was in the room, then visualise the piano, and…this sounds ridiculously yogistic […] but so help me it worked.

Anyway, I was sitting in the car but looking at the sea and got the entire thing in my head and tried desperately to live with that tactile image throughout the balance of the day, got to the auditorium in the evening, played the concert, and it was without question the first time that I’d been in a really exalted mood throughout the entire stay there.

It was only by recreating, psychologically, the feel of his own trusted piano that Gould was able to tame the one on which he performed that night.

But where pianists (and organists, and a few others) are unlucky, most other musicians are fortunate. A trumpeter, or an oboist, or a guitarist, plays on the same instrument at home and in performance, and so can develop a deep trust in her instrument. Where Gould carried the memory of his piano onto the stage that night, most other musicians will carry their instrument itself, and with it their awareness of how to use it.

At the opposite extreme to the piano, at least amongst musicians I spoke to for this piece, lie string players. I asked some how they would feel if they were put in a pianist’s situation, and asked to play on an instrument that wasn’t their own. Kevin Ng, a violinist, said that it would be fine if he had “a week or so beforehand to get comfortable with it,” while the cellist Corrina Connor expressed a sort of resigned acceptance, saying, “I would just have to get on with it, and do my best.”

The relationship between string players and their instruments is so close that it’s not uncommon for them to ascribe personalities, and sometimes even names,[1] to their instruments. Kevin Ng calls his violin “a temperamental Italian asshole at times.” And in 2013, Tom Service wrote for the Guardian about Jordi Savall, who plays viola da gamba:

[O]ne day, if it’s feeling unloved and if Savall hasn’t given it his full attention for a while, the gamba will take time to warm up, being at first obstreperous and unyielding and only complying to his touch and his musical will after a few hours.

Between the extreme cases of pianists, who must always adapt to new instruments, and string players, who seem to develop particularly close relationships with theirs, lie musicians who, for one reason or another, regard their instruments in more practical terms. Instruments like the recorder and the harmonica have more restrictions in range and available notes, and wear out quickly, so players will typically own a collection. For recorder players, Laoise O’Brien told me, playing on unfamiliar instruments and even swapping instruments is normal “because we need so many types of instruments it is difficult to have absolutely everything.”

Eimear O’Brien, a French Horn player, compares swapping her instrument to driving. I could almost read the shrug in the email she sent me: “You love your own [car], but if you have to you’ll drive someone else’s.”

Brand names come up in discussions of instruments almost as frequently as they do in discussions of cars. To O’Brien, the Alexander 103 is “the Mercedes of French Horns”, while flutists will brag about upgrading to a Nagahara from a Yamaha. Most pianists will develop an enormous preference for either Steinways or Kawais. (I’m a Kawai guy.) Then of course there’s the elephant in the room.

Niccolò Paganini, probably the greatest soloist of the early nineteenth century, played a Stradivarius violin. According to one of the many half-myths he nurtured about himself, or that have sprung up since his lifetime, he disabused one concert audience of the notion that he was a mediocre violinist playing on a great violin by suddenly smashing his instrument on stage. He then, so the story goes, revealed that he’d been playing on a cheap violin for the first part of the concert, and finished on the real Strad.

But the idea of an instrument that can produce perfect sound with minimal effort is nuts anyway. Roman Totenberg, whose stolen Stradivarius was recently recovered, spoke of his loss as of a beautiful relationship which took decades to develop, and was lost after precious little time at its prime. From the New York Times’ report on the recovery:

Mr Totenberg […] told CBS News in 1981 that it had taken two decades of playing the instrument before it reached its potential. “It took some time to wake it up,” he said, “to work it out, find all the things that it needed, the right kind of strings and so on”.

This is the balance that comes from owning an instrument, the mesh of practical and emotional considerations, of knowledge and understanding, of knowing the sounds your instrument can make and how to make them. You can approximate on another instrument—you may have to—but your own instrument is your home. It’s interesting that Gould, sitting out in his car in that sand dune, didn’t try to summon up his memory of his piano’s touch ex nihilo. He recreated his home first, and his piano as part of it.

The most profound art form surely would be one that allowed direct communication, mind to mind. Such a form doesn’t exist, because we’re not psychic, but of all the arts, music comes closest. Musical instruments are the bridge that make that connection. When a musician performs well, the effect is a paradox of consanguinity and solitude. She can make you feel at once like the only person listening, and like a part of something grander. Between the musician and the audience, there is only the instrument.

So it’s no surprise that some musicians come to love their instruments. It’s a love, too, that transcends musical boundaries. Amy Winehouse felt she drew a masculine power from her guitar. Miles Davis felt isolated without his trumpet to hand. Taiko performers speak of harmony with the souls of their drums. A musical instrument is a companion in training and a partner in performance, an intimately-known tool, a vehicle, a friend, a nemesis, a coach, a drug. That we can develop an cherished relationship with something of wood, gut, steel, and plastic is peculiar, but in that peculiarity is humanity. People can make these connections with objects because the objects were made by people, and because they connect people to each other, and because they have strengths and flaws and intricacies just as people do. And, though they are ultimately only tools, the relationships musicians develop with them are as complex and deep as any love.

  1. I spoke to several musicians for this piece. Some of them—string players and others—had named their instruments. Those names, in no particular order, are Isabelle, Gertrude, Gerald, and George. ↩

Hellstews, iTunes, and classical music

There’s been a welcome storm brewing recently on iTunes, starting with developer Marco Arment’s blog post (which, to his extreme discomfort, got picked up by CNBC), jokingly riffing on Apple CEO Tim Cook’s description of Android as a “toxic hellstew” of malware. Arment’s earlier piece on the unreliability of recent Apple updates was noticed by Apple (possibly because it was also picked up by CNBC), and I can only hope that they pay attention to this too: iTunes started well, but it’s become so bloated over the past several years that it’s a barely-usable mess. Having all your music in one place is great. Having all your TV shows in one place is great. Having all your films in one place is great. Having all of them together, along with sync data for your iOS devices, apps, books, audiobooks, podcasts, radio stations and who knows what else, inside an interface that’s increasinly obfuscating and bizarre: that’s not so great.

Anyways, Robinson Meyer has a great piece in the Atlantic on the travails of being a classical music fan using iTunes:

The CDDB, the industry’s leading database of MP3 metadata, is now privately owned and controlled, but it began as a crowd-sourced project with volunteer contributions. There is no reason this now-private database couldn’t be supplemented by a more robust, more complete database of audio file information maintained on a wiki-like basis.

I’ve long since given up trying to use the CDDB for tagging classical music, and started tagging everything manually (which has led to its own problems). Even tagging two discs from the same album is woefully inconsistent, often to the point of giving data in different languages for each disc. I’ve been thinking about something like this for years. I’d love to see it happen.


The launch of Apple Music a couple of weeks ago has started another backlash against streaming.

Alex Ross, on the New Yorker website:

[T]he pressure from the margin to the center is strong. Despite “Think Different” maxims redolent of the old Steve Jobs script—“It’s your music. Do what you like with it.”—you’re encouraged to gravitate toward the music that everyone else is listening to. This is what happens all across the corporatized Internet: to quote the old adage of Adorno and Horkheimer, you have the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” The musician, writer, and publisher Damon Krukowski, a longtime critic of the streaming business, calls it the return of the monoculture. “What Apple is doing to music retail,” Krukowski said on Twitter, “is exactly what I saw chains do to books in the nineties: kill indie competition, then eliminate the product.”

Criticism of the “monoculture” has never been less valid. The Internet is an incredibly large place, and within its 3.14 billion users, there’s room for an infinite variety of cultural pockets. While there may be a gravitational pull towards the popular, that pull isn’t strong—certainly not strong enough to change people’s existing tastes. If people can’t find what they want on streaming services, they’ll just go elsewhere. Because the Internet is so huge and so interconnected, it’s never been easier to find people who share your passions, no matter how obscure.

These cultural pockets will continue to exist alongside the titans. While it’s possible for companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google to become almost infinitely large, they grow at the expense of middle-sized businesses, not small ones. Because no company will ever be big enough to cater to everything everybody wants, there’s an infinite number of niches to be filled, and the best way to fill these niches is to be extremely small and focussed. Business analyst Ben Thompson has made the analogy to the rainforest: enormous trees taking most of the resources at the top, but incredibly fertile land at the bottom.

Streaming services are best suited to popular tastes, both from the listeners’ and the artists’ perspective. But it’s true that a lot of smaller artists and labels—the types who fit these cultural pockets—are having a rough time on streaming. Their rate of pay is pitiful, and it’s made worse by the loss of album sales.

To address the problems of streaming, though, we first need to think about who’s encouraging artists to be on the services. Through iTunes, Apple is the largest music seller in the world. If they wanted, they could use their clout to push indie artists into a catch–22: join Apple Music or leave the iTunes store—but they don’t. Spotify likewise requires no exclusives from artists. Tidal wants exclusives, but that business is a total disaster anyway. Only Google’s terms of service are onerous and repulsive.

The reason Apple don’t force artists to their streaming service is simple: it’s bad for them too. Think of it this way: if you’re an indie musician, you make a lot more money by selling an album on iTunes than by having a thousand streams of your songs. And so do Apple. Their thirty per-cent cut of an album’s sale is worth a lot more than their nearly-thirty per-cent cut of a couple of thousand streams. So why would they encourage musicians to be in their streaming catalogue? The problem with streaming services is not that they’re a bad model for musicians; it’s that they’re a bad model for some musicians, but at the moment nearly all musicians are on them.

Indie musicians’ complaints about streaming revenue are misdirected. It’s not streaming services that are to blame for the poor payouts to musicians. Even if streaming services could triple or quadruple what they charge listeners, the payouts to musicians per stream would still be vanishingly small. If anyone is to blame, it’s record labels—big ones in particular. It’s no good for smaller musicians to have all of their music on streaming services, but it’s of great benefit to those musicians’ labels. By having a large catalogue of music on a streaming service, big labels have a consistent source of income. A record label doesn’t care if one of their artists gets a thousand plays per month or a million, it’s all revenue to them. So they’ll upload their whole catalogue to Spotify, Apple Music, and all the rest, because they can. It doesn’t matter to the labels if any particular artist is a bad fit for streaming. As long as they have a lot of musicians making them a little money each, they’re sitting happy.

Rather than blame streaming services for not paying indie artists enough, musicians need to take matters into their own hands. They can only do this by knowing their audience. If a musician aspires to be the next Taylor Swift or Adele or Drake or whoever, then the goal is to get everyone listening, and that can only be accomplished by being available everywhere. In that case, being available on streaming services, and being pushed by a big record label, is almost certainly the right call. Those services are, after all, where most people are listening to music these days.

But if a musician wants to be a smaller success, a professional rather than a superstar, then they don’t need to be everywhere. Instead, they need to connect directly with existing and potential fans. That means being online, and it means building a relationship with their listeners. It also means selling, not streaming, their music, and convincing fans that it’s worth buying. I’ve argued before that piracy is a better option than streaming for musicians who want to build a passionate, loyal fanbase, and I stand by the argument I made then. Listeners who pirate music know the artist isn’t getting paid, and those who fall in love with it will often buy it in future.1 People like supporting independent creators, regardless of their field, because they can see that their contribution makes a difference. That’s the stuff on which Kickstarter is made.

Musicians who want to achieve this type of professional success can’t market themselves the same way as pop musicians: that way lies ruin. Instead, they need to develop loyal fans who are willing to pay to support them because they’re unique. The Internet, and social networks in particular, allow that kind of connection. Success as a musician separate from the peloton is still hard, but it’s within reach of more people than it has ever been before. And that’s not monoculture.

  1. It’s a long-established fact that people who pirate music more also spend more on music. It’s also interesting to note that when piracy was more prevalent, it received little of the type of backlash from independent musicians that streaming has.  ↩

Elitist Talk

Last Saturday, the soprano Tamara Stein tweeted:

Shocked how #elitist @RoyalOperaHouse is. £2 for #worldclass #ballet, less than a pint of beer! #sarcasm

I quoted her tweet, asking whether it’s really price that people find elitist. I meant the question rhetorically—I thought that if people objected to just the price of concert tickets, they’d call it expensive, not elitist—so I was surprised when Stein replied. She wrote:

[Y]es they do. It’s assumed tickets cost hundreds of pounds.

Trading bare assertions about people’s motivations seemed a pointless exercise, so I contacted a few of my friends: people who listen to classical music without being part of that world, to see if price is what puts them off attending more (or any) classical concerts. I also got in touch with a few performer friends to get their opinions on the matter.

People are notoriously bad at diagnosing their own problems with something—just ask any psychiatrist. If you ask people why they don’t go to the opera, people may assert the high cost of tickets, but if they make that assertion without even investigating the price, they weren’t that interested in the first place. Price is just an excuse.

So Stein’s point about price is a misapprehension. £2 tickets are nothing new; they’re as old as the concert hall. If people don’t know about cheap seats, it’s because they’re not interested. Why aren’t they interested? Is it lack of curiosity? Lack of imagination? Deep-seated insecurities? Laziness? All of these causes were suggested to me, but they’re just as superficial as price. If people aren’t curious, why aren’t they curious? If they’re insecure, what makes them feel that way? These suggestions are just ways of blaming the audience for not showing up. They refuse to acknowledge the responsibility of classical audiences to welcome newcomers.

The perceived coldness of classical audiences towards newcomers was a refrain from virtually everyone I asked about the topic. I asked a trained, non-practising mezzo soprano I know what she thought about elitism in classical music. She felt the audience were at least partly to blame. “Your presence is tolerated rather than welcomed,” she told me. “I’ve felt at times like I’m being looked at like, ‘What are you doing here?’” My brother Shane, who writes the blog Moon Under Water, points to system justification: people defend the way that things are (or seem to be), and their own place in it, often to their own disadvantage.

We ask the people who don’t go to concerts, “Why don’t you go to more concerts?” They reply, “They’re elitist.” We ask people who do go to concerts, “Why do people think classical music is elitist?” They reply, “They’re lazy and insecure.”

Neither of those answers is satisfactory.

So is it to do with the “target audience”? There’s a perception, widely borne out in the answers I got, that classical music—particularly before the twentieth century—was created by and for the wealthy. The extent to which you find this a compelling argument depends very much on where you put the threshold for “wealthy”, though I think it’d be very hard to argue that any of it was written for the poor. But what does that matter? The same is true of the vast majority of entertainment made today. The target audience now, as then, is the middle class: people with enough disposable income to visit the cinema once or twice a week, or to sacrifice $10 a month to Netflix or Spotify. It’s true that wealthy people often paid for the music—for its creation and first performances—but I don’t see how that’s different from pop music today. The people funding entertainment today just make their money in a different way.

Could it be the difficulty of the music itself? It’s certainly true that classical music can be obscure and difficult. Bart Busschots, a Linux systems administrator and a fan of Beethoven and Bach, sees a lot of parallels to science:

I don’t think it is elitist, but it is often inaccessible…[T]here is a large specialist vocabulary that newbies can find intimidating. It’s a bit like science [in that way]: once you’re in the magisterium it all makes sense, but getting there is hard.

He’s not totally wrong, but he’s not totally right either. Classical music is such an incredibly broad field that it’s impossible to accurately characterise it with a single adjective. Knowing about things like rubato and tone quality and the difference between an adagio and a largo are enhancements to enjoying the music, not prerequisites. Preludes by Debussy and Chopin, sonatas by Scarlatti, arias by Mozart: these things can be enjoyed without any idea of the context.

But it can be hard. Well, so what? Working at NASA is hard. Teaching at Harvard is hard. Playing StarCraft professionally is hard. People who reach the top of these fields are unabashedly and correctly called elites, so why is elitism considered such a bad thing?

 Elitist vs Elite

I don’t think anybody would disagree that Beethoven (for example) was one of the musical elite. But at the centre of the argument is the difference between calling somebody elite and calling them an elitist. The late critic Michael Kennedy once said, with apparently no awareness of the cognitive dissonance:

I want things to be ‘elitist’. These days it seems that people don’t want to put any effort into understanding something. You go to Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, and it’s obvious that some people don’t know a thing about the operas they have paid a lot of money to see.

That’s elitism. In two sentences, Kennedy excoriates people both for not understanding classical music, and for trying to learn. If you don’t know the music, where better to learn than at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne?1 You get the impression that Kennedy would have opposed the very idea of letting people attend world-class ballet for £2 without committing to extensive research beforehand. And as long as attitudes like this exist, we can’t really blame people for lack of interest, no matter the ticket price. Nobody wants to pay anything, even £2, for an unpleasant experience.

Here’s my theory: elitism isn’t liking something that’s harder or better or of higher quality than what other people like. Elitism is being a dick about it.

I know, of course, that the majority of concert attendees are not the kind of person who object to people who know less than them. It’s true, as Corrina Connor said on Twitter, that “there are lots of different ‘societies’ around classical music.” But for any large group of people, the voices that resonate outside the group tend to be the ones with the most extreme opinion. This happens in any discourse. Regardless of who else is in the audience, and the extent to which they’re a majority, the perception of classical music as a whole as elitist won’t change as long as statements like that go unchallenged.

There are always going to be people who just don’t like classical music; those who, in wanting to write off the whole field, will describe it as elitist. We can just ignore them. They’re not worth talking to. But the perception of classical music as elitist is broader than just those people, and it’s not wholly wrong. If we want to shake off the label of elitism, we need to make sure that we never dismiss or object to listeners who are trying to learn, or to listeners who grew up without much classical music and who may be unfamiliar with the associated ceremony. It may be that a second classical culture will emerge without the baggage of the existing one. Indeed, this is already happening: musicians like James Rhodes, who plays Rachmaninoff and talks like a rock musician; alternative performance spaces, where the music is moved away from the venues associated with the culture; podcasts like Meet The Composer, which are fascinating to experts and newcomers alike.

The good news, and the important news, is that we don’t need to change the music itself at all. Nor will the discussions need to be dumbed down, which I think is a real fear a lot of music experts have. All we need is to make sure nobody ever feels unwelcome at a concert, no matter how much or how little they know. And that will take a greater effort than selling cut-price tickets.

1 As for not putting any effort into understanding something, I wonder how well he understood how his computer worked.