Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Federal Trade Commission: Protecting You From Your Piano Teacher

The Wall Street Journal, always your source for updates on the world of music and business, has an article up about how the Federal Trade Commission is on a crusade to protect you from the rapacity of your piano teacher. Here's the nub of it:
In March of this year, a small nonprofit in Cincinnati—the Music Teachers National Association—received a letter from the FTC. The agency was investigating whether the association was engaged in, uh, anticompetitive practices.
This was bizarre, given that the MTNA has existed since 1876 solely to advance the cause of music study and support music teachers. The 501(c)(3) has about 22,000 members, nearly 90% of them piano teachers, including many women who earn a modest living giving lessons in their homes. The group promotes music study and competitions and helps train teachers. Not exactly U.S. Steel.
The association's sin, according to the feds, rested in its code of ethics. The code lays out ideals for members to follow—a commitment to students, colleagues, society. Tucked into this worthy document was a provision calling on teachers to respect their colleagues' studios, and not actively recruit students from other teachers.
I have noticed before how the mechanisms of government, grinding ever finer in the modern world, seem to be inadvertently harmful to music. I recall the case of Gibson Guitars and the confiscation of their stockpile of ebony over which seemed to be an administrative absurdity. Or the confiscation of musical instruments if the owners do not carry their full provenance with them when traveling. Indeed, just traveling with your instrument has become fraught with peril.

How ugly does this governmental abuse of power get? The article gives us some clues:
This October, MTNA signed a consent decree—its contents as ludicrous as the investigation. The association did not have to admit or deny guilt. It must, however, read a statement out loud at every future national MTNA event warning members against talking about prices or recruitment. It must send this statement to all 22,000 members and post it on its website. It must contact all of its 500-plus affiliates and get them to sign a compliance statement.
The association must also develop a sweeping antitrust compliance program that will require annual training of its state presidents on the potential crimes of robber-baron piano teachers. It must submit regular reports to the FTC and appoint an antitrust compliance officer. (The FTC wanted the officer to be an attorney, but Mr. Ingle explained that this would "break the bank," so the agency—how gracious—is allowing him to fill the post.) And it must comply with most of this for the next 20 years.
The MTNA is not yet free of fear; the FTC has still to approve the consent decree. An FTC spokesman told me the agency does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations. The organization to this day has no idea how it became a target, nor will it ever because the FTC doesn't have to provide it.
As has been said in another context, "the process is the punishment".

I can't express how much I detest this heavy-handed bureaucratic torture. There seems to be no real defense against this kind of soft tyranny. I doubt very much whether anyone outside of the music teachers' association really takes the measure of how much is lost with this politicization of every aspect of life. And how very, very little is gained.

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