Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Business of Music

Reading Norman Lebrecht's blog this morning--the place to go for the latest music news--I see an item about the fate of EMI. This gets me thinking about the intersection of music and business. I wrote one post about the economics of composition here. But there are other interesting questions. Why, for example, do so many musicians have so much trouble with the business side of things? Leonard Cohen is a well-known example. He has had a successful and multi-faceted career for many decades. He retired in 1994 to a Zen monastery in California where he spent the next five years. In 2005 the story broke that his management had allegedly misappropriated nearly all the money from his retirement account. Cohen says this is why he went back on the road for his 2008-2010 world tour. Many famous musicians have ended up broke.

Here is why I think that the business world and the music don't co-exist very well. It actually relates a bit to my last post on the interrupted Mahler adagio. The modern world, which is pretty much the world of business, is interrupt-driven. You have to respond to investors, clients, partners, suppliers, employees and so on and do so in a timely fashion. The world of music, which is a time-art, requires focus. In order to do musical work, you need time and a space where you will not be interrupted. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius gives us an example. On the website associated with his home Ainola, now a museum, we read this comment on his working environment:
Daily life at Ainola revolved in all respects around the composing and other work of Jean Sibelius. Silence was an absolute necessity for this work, upon which Sibelius often focused at his writing desk. It was only at the finishing stages that he would take his manuscript to the grand piano, and so for much of the time Ainola remained a place of great silence.
Piano practice was a source of problems at Ainola. When Katarina received permission to practice for a couple of hours at home, Jean Sibelius made a special note of this in his diary. Often the girls would go to a neighbour’s home to play...
Musicians of all kinds seem to seek out a secluded environment where they can work free from interruption. In the 19th century the possibilities of interruption were a lot less than they are now. But even then Wagner complained that with his rented apartment being across the street from an iron-monger he didn't see how he could finish an opera. The multitude of electronic devices we have now makes the 19th century seem like a peaceful time. In order to shield themselves from the constant interruptions of the business of music musicians like Leonard Cohen rely on management. This, of course, leaves them open to being taken advantage of by their management.

But the alternative, closely monitoring your own career and being responsive in all the ways this requires, seems problematic. Not for everyone, perhaps, but for many. I suspect that there are certain kinds of work, ones that delve deeply into certain kinds of aesthetic problems, that absolutely require isolation. The great pianist Arthur Rubenstein withdrew from concert life for several months in 1932 when he felt the need to completely rebuild his technique. As for composers, as every important new piece is, in a sense, a rebuilding, a delving down to the foundations, it may also require real isolation.

Music that is transcendent in some way, that tries to evoke the sensations of eternity (and, ironically, does this by shaping and manipulating time) is crafted in silence and tranquility. The full reception of this music may also require a silent backdrop, as, for example, the Mahler adagio that was interrupted by the iPhone alarm.

So that's why I think many musicians have trouble with the business world: their most important work, the music itself, often requires that they separate themselves from the usual interactions of daily life in order to focus completely on the music. But business requires instant responsiveness and communication. The two worlds are really at odds with one another.

Here is whole of the 2nd Symphony of Sibelius. Imagine, if you will, the kind of concentration it took to assemble this composition:


Jon Silpayamanant said...

We just played Sibelius 2 in our November concert. Such a gorgeous piece though I've always felt the last movement was a bit too long.

Some creative types claim to work best with a deadline looming, or in other high energy environments. I think different personalities might best use different environments.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jon,

Yes, I think you are right--some people seem to thrive in a busy environment. That's why I qualified it a bit. Some creative work may require the kind of isolation that Sibelius preferred. But look at Bach. His large family in a not-very-large apartment, his many responsibilities (like teaching Latin), and alongside all that, he composed, rehearsed and performed a large amount of music every week!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Which is not to say Bach might have thrived even more in a closed and quiet environment, right?

In other ways, though, I think having the life experience that he had more than likely developed in him a strong capacity to multitask, and maybe that is exactly the skill he brought to bear on his exquisite counterpoint!

Bryan Townsend said...

I can just hear him yelling down the stairs: "Cantata score for Sunday is finished and I need three copyists to do the parts! Carl Philip? Wilhelm Friedman? Johann Christof? Get up here!!"

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Hahaha! The advantages of a big family!