Saturday, January 11, 2014

Classical Music's "Business Model"

The music critic for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, has a column summing up the economic difficulties that classical music has seen over the last year. Let me quote a few excerpts:
The New York City Opera was hovering near death. The company needed $7 million immediately to avoid bankruptcy and proceed with its scheduled season. When asked whether Bloomberg Philanthropies, which had been supporting the company for years, would come to its rescue, Mr. Bloomberg said no. Even if he were to intervene, he added, City Opera’s “business model doesn’t seem to be working.”
Ah yes, the famous "business model"! On the other hand, the folks who run the Minnesota Orchestra seem very focussed on their business model, to the point that it doesn't seem to include an orchestra that actually plays concerts:
Most people would pick as the year’s second-worst story the continuing struggles of the impressive Minnesota Orchestra, where a standoff between the board and the musicians, deadlocked in bitter labor negotiations, resulted in the cancellation of the entire 2012-13 season and, so far, the first half of the current season. In frustration, Osmo Vanska, the orchestra’s music director, resigned after a decade of critical acclaim and popular success.
Mr. Tommasini's take on this?
Any institution, big or small, old or new, must have a clear artistic vision, a purpose that connects with audiences and the community. But the performing arts have never been profit-making endeavors. It is more important than ever that all institutions, from a fledgling string quartet to the lofty Metropolitan Opera, have an effective business model.
This seems nothing more than a platitude to me. As he also mentions, there is one fact about the situation in Minnesota that needs to be taken into account:
In a November Opinionator column for the website of The New York Times, “The Real Humanities Crisis,” Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, discussed the overall decline of support for the humanities and pointed to the travails of the Minnesota Orchestra. At a time when a deficit of just $6 million has pushed the orchestra almost to collapse, Mr. Gutting wrote, the Minnesota State Legislature appropriated $500 million to help construct a new football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
I think that people often forget that society, in the form of government, doles out astonishing amounts of money to things like professional sports. There are a lot more voters in a football stadium than a concert hall.

So in the spirit of this blog, let me see if I can uncover some uncomfortable truths about the relationship between classical music and society these days. In order to start, I am reminded of a segment I saw on CNN the other day (no, I don't actually watch CNN or any other TV, but I was in a restaurant where they had it on). The piece was about the historically low opinion rating people have of Congress these days. I felt like shouting at the screen: "but you elected every one of those louts you are now complaining about. If you want a better quality of politician, then vote for some!"

The same, I am afraid, goes for music. We live in a society dominated, not by a landed aristocracy as in the 18th century, or a burgeoning middle class as in the 19th century, but by a clever technocratic class who run government, media and academia. They run things for their own benefit, of course, and do so by sly manipulation of public opinion. Most people think roughly what they have been told to think by media commentators directly and indirectly by the way stories are slanted. In order to retain their hold on popular opinion, the technocratic class must appear to be non-elitist to a fault, which is why classical music does not fare well in the mass media or politics. It still has a toehold in academia, due to music departments that tend to help universities with their public image.

It is safe to say that no politician today would be caught dead admitting to a love of Bach over Beyoncé in public. We are far from the days when a major magazine would have a special feature on what records politicians like to listen to and the answers included Mozart and Puccini.

The "business model" of classical music today is exactly what it has always been: who pays the piper calls the tune. In the 15th and 16th centuries, composers were called upon to glorify and gild what needed glorifying and gilding whether it was the dedication of a new cathedral in Florence or a banquet of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Patrons who ordered portraits or other paintings sometimes would specify exactly how much gold by weight would be used--literal gilding!

The 18th century landed aristocracy, like the Esterházy family, loved music and were happy to pay what it cost to have a composer like Haydn as a permanent employee along with a chamber orchestra and everything needed to put on not only orchestra concerts, but also opera. Prince Nikolaus liked opera, so he built his own private opera house. Nowadays the Metropolitan Opera in New York is supported by wealthy lovers of opera. As it should be!

This has always been the case. Classical music has never had a viable "business model" in the sense of being a commercial product that you could simply sell in the marketplace and make a profit. Every production of every opera since it was invented around 1600 has lost money and needed the patronage of affluent music-lovers. Here is quote about the business model of opera:
“Profits at the door, the basis of the business investment, instead of growing are diminishing, evidently endangering the continuation of this noble entertainment.”
The source? It was a comment made about opera in Venice in 1681!

So, if we live in a world where orchestras like Minnesota and operas like the City Opera in New York seem to be failing, perhaps we should recall that they need financial support and always will. If you lose your affluent donors as it appears City Opera did, then you cannot rely on a business model to get you back on your feet.

The business model of classical music has always been reliance on the generosity of affluent music lovers. Unfortunately, while in the past, the affluent also saw the point of using music to glorify their station in society, they now look to other things like material possessions instead.

We obviously need a better class of affluent persons! More like the the landed aristocracy of the 18th century who seem, hands down, to have enabled the best music in history. Maybe the French Revolution was a mistake after all...

Let's listen to some music bÉtienne Nicolas Méhul (1763 – 1817), one of the most famous composers of Revolutionary France. Here is his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, which sounds a bit like Boccherini with extra spicy revolutionary fervor:


Rickard Dahl said...

I wonder what kind of business model Tommasini would like to see. Raising ticket prices? Firing musicians to reduce the orchestra size? Dedicating more concert time into pop music instead of classical? None of these "solutions" work well.
Well, what is needed I think is making classical music more popular not by simplifying it but simply giving it more exposure, more attention. This would bring new listeners into the concert halls. Another thing it would do is increasing the number of rich people supporting various classical music institutions (which is something needed as you say).

Anyways, I have a new piece (or rather a movement from a piece I'm working on) to share:

Feel free to tell what you think.

Bryan Townsend said...

Something I should have talked about more was the notion of a "business model". This phrase is tossed around all the time, but I'm not sure many people in music understand what it means. Essentially a business model is a plan whereby a business outlines how it, in the words of Wikipedia, "creates, delivers and captures value" and by value they mean monetary value. The business model is not about how wonderful the music is, it is about how many tickets you sell versus what your expenses are. If Mr. Bloomberg says that City Opera's business model isn't working he simply means that they are spending more on their productions than they are receiving on gate receipts plus donations. The business model for classical music organizations is always to lose money on every concert, even with a full house, but make it up with patron donations. If you can't attract enough wealthy patrons, then you are done for.

I listened to your new piece with interest. I am curious why you say it is in "C Aeolian". This is the same scale as what you might call "C natural minor" i.e. without using accidentals to raise the 6th and 7th scale degrees. And true enough, except for a phrase near the end that uses A natural, I don't see any accidentals. But if you mean by "Aeolian" that the piece is in minor, i.e. that the "tonic" chord is a minor one as it would be in the Aeolian mode (on A, spelled ACE), then that isn't what is happening here. The music is a slow gigue in E flat major with a contrasting passage in F major. I see this from the harmony and the cadences. For example, at the beginning there is a twelve measure phrase in three sections of four measures each. The first is all E flat major, the second moves from E flat to A flat and back and the third has a weak cadence that goes II6/4, V6, I. There aren't any C minor chords anywhere!!

Apart from that, it has a lot of nice things. I agree with the comments that it is a mix of Bach and Celtic. It is a kind of slow jig. But I think the weak aspect is the bass line. Have a look at some of Bach's bass lines to see how harmonically and melodically inventive they can be!

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, the complete piece itself is in C Aeolian, the same way you have a piece in a minor key that has a movement that is in a major key or simply just another minor key. Right now the work in progress 1st, 3rd and 4th movements are in C Aeolian and just this one movement is in the relative ionian. I like to call it aeolian and ionian as I compose within the various modes. This piece/movement happens to be tonal. Could have called the piece "Bass Guitar Duet in C Minor" but I prefer it with Aeolian since I'm pretty sure I won't raise the 6th or 7ths unless it's part of some kind of modulation, lets say to G aeolian where the Ab gets raised to A. I do have somewhat of a problem with writing bass lines. That and structure/developing pieces. I've been assigned recently practice writing from bass up (this piece/movement isn't written that way), it's certainly harder for me than doing the other way around (i.e. starting with the melody and finding something that suits in the bass). But that's the point, I need to practice. Thanks for the tip, I will check out some Bach.

Rickard Dahl said...

Something to add that I was thinking of but forgot: Speaking of developing pieces the 3rd movement for instance (which is in C Aeolian) is a vivace in 4/4 I decided to call "Scherzo alla Russe" (thought it sounded Russian although it might not actually sound correctly Russian but whatever, also surely is not 3/4 but scherzo ofc doesn't necessarily have to mean a presto 3/4 movement). Now I have a hopefully solid phrase of 8 bars (maybe it's two phrases of 4 bars each, I don't know) and I have lots of ideas (which for the most part build on the same sort of motif) that might come to use later in the movement, however figuring out something suiting to come directly after the first 8 bars is the tricky part. Anyways, I should spend less time talking about it and more time composing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, now I understand! Yes, this movement is in in the "relative Ionian". You might try, as kind of practice, seeing how many different bass lines you could write for the same melody. Or study Bach's bass lines in his chorales. But really good start with this movement.

Luckily there is no "Académie Russe" to designate what is correctly and incorrectly Russian! So you can do pretty much what you want. Russian music, to my mind, tends to be colorful, melancholic and sometimes fiercely dancelike.

You bet, we should all spend more time composing! And now I have to get back to my second quartet.