Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Artistry and Economics

Every now and then you read a piece of news that reveals a new social fault line: like this one. Here is part of a press release:
On January 31, Allianz and Lang Lang have started a global partnership: Lang Lang will become a global Allianz brand ambassador. At the same time, Allianz and the Lang Lang International Music Foundation announced that the Foundation plans to run a dedicated youth programme to be sponsored by Allianz.
According to Wikipedia, Allianz:
is a German multinational financial services company headquartered in MunichGermany. Its core business and focus is insurance. As of 2010, it was the world's 12th-largest financial services group and 23rd-largest company according to a composite measure by Forbes magazine.
Also according to Wikipedia, Lang Lang is:
 a New York-based Chinese concert pianist who has performed with leading orchestras in Europe, the United States and his native China. He is known for his concert performances, television, as well as releasing albums and soundtracks. Lang has done much to encourage children and young musicians to take an interest in classical music, especially through the international foundation he launched in New York in 2008.
High-profile athletes have long exploited their celebrity to win promotional contracts with large companies who see a big publicity benefit to throwing a bit of money at a famous person who will say nice things about them. It has alway seemed a bit odd to me, especially when it blows up as it recently did with Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. Would you actually buy a product because an athlete endorses it? Really?

Musicians have been exploring some interesting ways of increasing their income. Dr. Dre is currently in the lead as I talk about in this post about the highest-paid musicians of 2012.

So what's the social fault line? Maybe it is more of a philosophical fault line. Here is the problem: it seems to me that more and more public life, that is to say the shared public arena or agora, is dominated by fantasy. Beyoncé's Superbowl half-time show, pop music generally, is all about various forms of fantasy. But it extends a lot further than that. The looking to celebrities, especially those known mainly for being famous, for endorsements, opinions, wise counsel, is a widespread and inherently idiotic practice.

Let's take a closer run at that Allianz press release for some examples of fantasy speak:
With its support of the exclusive youth programme, Allianz will promote the Foundation’s aim to inspire the next generation of classical musicians and to encourage music performance as a means of social development.
The programme will give young pianists from around the world the opportunity to work with Lang Lang. The aim is to share Lang Lang’s passion for music and make the young musicians ambassadors among their peers through a life-changing experience. “Music makes life better. It heals, unites and inspires - and it makes us better people,” is the artist’s conviction.
Lots of happythoughts, sure, but what does all this actually mean? The word "exclusive" has the sheen of, well, exclusivity, but no actual content. There are lots of youth programs. What about "inspire"? That's a nice word, but I can't actually think of a single instance in the whole history of music where a foundation has inspired anything other than the frantic filling-out of grant application forms. Inspiration comes from lots of unlikely places--just not foundations. Does Lang Lang have a "passion" for music? Perhaps--he certainly has a driving ambition. In what sense could "young musicians" be "ambassadors among their peers"? Let alone through a "life-changing experience". See, these are just buzz phrases that have no reference whatsoever to anything in the real world.

What bothers me is that we live in the real world, but all our public discussion seems to live in some weird fantasy world. I think music is another kind of 'real' world, with its own set of joys and sorrows, triumphs and frustrations, beauties and uglinesses. I dislike happythought talk about music just as much as I do happythought talk about the real world. I dislike the idea of successful classical musicians like Lang Lang being pulled into the kind of big dollar promotional crap that dominates the world of sports.

I'm just a grouch! Now let's listen to some Lang Lang:

Trying to play the "Flight of the Bumblebee" on an iPad. Sigh. Now of course Lang Lang is a fine pianist and musician. I just put that up to show the kinds of things artists do these days to show what regular folk they are. Here is Lang Lang in a serious recital in Vienna:

No comments: