Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Music and Money

Some of my best ideas come from my commentators: thanks to you all! Today an interesting dialogue came out of a post of a couple of days ago. The post was "Why Pop Music Can't Be Humorous" and the relevant comments were these. The commentator's remarks are in italics and my responses in normal text:
I'm curious, is the natural conclusion of your argument that pop music is therefore more pretentious than classical?
I often like to lead my readers in a certain direction, but hold back from stating a firm conclusion. I think it would be an interesting exercise to examine the progress of pop music over the last 100 years. It started out as a very modest trend that was amplified enormously by the growth of the recording industry. All prominent musicians benefitted from the commoditisation of performances. Caruso could only sing one concert a day, but his recordings could sell in the thousands per day. Then Elvis and the Beatles came along and they sold a billion records each. Suddenly pop music was a Big Business. This has just become more pronounced as time goes on. It is a bit like any other business, I think. When the monetary stakes are high, it is less about the art form as such or even the individual vision of the artist and it is more and more about sales. As an artist grows from making a 1000 sales to making 10,000 sales to a million sales, he becomes the CEO or figurehead of a whole industry with dozens or perhaps hundreds of employees, all of whom depend on those sales. It is now a Big Business. Big Businesses cannot afford humour at their expense. It might hurt sales.
This, in a nutshell, is why as pop music became more of an industry and less of an art form, it became less interesting.
This is testing my limited music history, but surely big classical commissions were no different? Mozart was offered lots of money for his Requiem, was he not, but this didn't make it any less of an artistic project
Or I'm missing the point. Is your emphasis not on the money but on the mass appeal that's now neccesary in pop music?
According to Friedrich Rochlitz, who interviewed Mozart's widow five years after his death, the amount of the commission for the Requiem was 100 ducats. Assuming these are gold ducats, you can buy a gold ducat coin from the Austrian mint today for $138 US. That would make the commission, even at today's gold prices, $13,800. Frankly, it ain't much! But considering that the ducat was only worth about $2 in 1913, the commission was probably a lot less, even figuring in the difference in buying power. Compare this to a successful pop artist of today like Beyoncé. According to, she makes over $50 million dollars a year, or a million a week! 
When you are talking about a $15,000 commission, while the money is nice, that has rather a different kind of influence on what you do than when it is $50 million a year. I think this explains why a lot of pop music is simple melodrama, or inauthentic emotional posturing. That seems to sell pretty well.
Okay, safe to say you've persuaded me. I'm quite amazed that it was so little. Quickly looking up Beethoven's profits from the Congress of Vienna -- surely it must have been substantial, I thought -- and it looks to be nearly as measly.
Haydn did very well in terms of his earnings as a composer, but it was probably no more than a typical middle-class income of today. Until very recently, no artists, not even painters, made very much money. The really large amounts going to artists are pretty much a late-20th century and early 21st century phenomenon. It seems very established, but one wonders if it could melt away equally as fast?
Now don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of the free market system. The truth is that it has brought more people prosperity than any other economic structure--by far! All the socialist/communist systems always seem to end up in the same place: way too many secret police and not enough toilet paper. Just have a look at Venezuela today. But the arts, and classical music in particular, seem to have flourished better under the ancien regime when Joseph Haydn was employed by Prince Nikolaus of Esterházy and, though kept very busy, was able to be a very productive composer with exclusive access to a professional orchestra just down the hall. I cannot think of another composer who had that kind of beneficial situation.

When things started getting very weird was in the 1960s, I think. Up to then major classical artists like Van Cliburn could actually sell as many records as a pop star like Elvis. But the Beatles ended all that. By Sgt. Peppers, if they needed some horn players, or a string section, or, heck, an entire orchestra, they could just hire them as needed. Money was no object. But the pressures on them, of celebrity, of enormous amounts of money and no privacy whatsoever, were significant. George Harrison mentioned in an interview once that "the whole world decided to go crazy and blamed it on us." He might have been thinking of their first visit to Australia. When they landed in Adelaide, 300,000 people showed up at the airport to say hi. Population of Adelaide at that time: 300,000. By 1969, when they were trying to plan some public concerts, the logistics were so impossible that they just said to hell with it and dragged their gear up to the roof of their London office. After 40 minutes the police made them stop.

Bands like the Rolling Stones, who took a more pragmatic approach to the business have managed to survive to this day and become, essentially, large corporations. Most of the big pop stars now are essentially large promotional and publicity organisations with a committee of music professionals at the core turning out the product. The public face of the company is a young, attractive singer, who leads a wildly public life, some of which is probably crafted to add to the celebrity. These corporations make large additional sums of money by investing in spinoffs such as clothing and jewelry lines, headphones and so on. It's a Big Business.

But what it resembles less and less is an art form. I don't think it is impossible for a great artist to earn a lot of money, but I do think that if the amount of money starts to add up to millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, then the art itself is likely to become rather unimportant and insignificant. Mind you, the people involved will work extra hard to make it seem still very arty and authentic and so forth. I just don't think it will be.

So what do you think?


Ken Fasano said...

"Most of the big pop stars now are essentially large promotional and publicity organisations with a committee of music professionals at the core turning out the product. The public face of the company is a young, attractive singer". Sounds like Orwell's Big Brother.

Marc Puckett said...

There's an abstract of an uncopyable article at JSTOR the authors [Baumol and Baumol] of which declare it probable that, with the exception of a number of years, Mozart was "relatively well off". But the larger question is whether one can translate the purchasing power or value of a ducat in e.g. 1791 to our time based simply on the current price of gold: I don't believe you can, unless cans of Coke cost a buck, electricity $.0003 per kilowatt, and cheap violins made in Taiwan $20 at the end of the 18th c in Vienna. Handel made great buckets of money at various periods and left 17k pounds (not including his pictures), which would be worth (i.e. have the purchasing power of) $24 million today-- but I suspect his wealth may be exceptional. :-)

"When the monetary stakes are high, it is less about the art form as such or even the individual vision of the artist and it is more and more about sales." It seems to me that you have three possibles distinguished there that you're treating as axioms. And what is 'it'? The artist necessarily loses his creative focus because there is a marketing team?

I don't care how much money is spent on Drake nor how much he spends on whatever he spends money on, or Lady Gaga, or Madonna, or whoever. Van Cliburn and Glenn Gould both had 'brands' that were marketed e.g. and didn't dilute? diminish? there is a word I want and cannot get... their artistry because of marketing, or did they? Hmm; I suppose you might rejoin that there wasn't a billion dollars at issue: but the point would still be, 'every artist has a financial point at which he will bowdlerise or industrialise his work'. Joyce DiDonato, Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Netrebko, and from the recent and less recent past, Luciano Pavarotti and Maria Callas, they all (and many others) have been accused by someone, by many, perhaps, of 'giving way' to the lure of the marketers (which is 'sales', finally)... who is the perfume salesman who is also a pianist? It's a fascinating subject.

I'm pretty sure that the principal reason that there are so few pop musicians whose music will survive in a hundred years is that it is so much dross, not that so many George Babbitts have corrupted the pop musicians' integrity.

Jeph said...

Top tier pop has become mechanized to a dispiriting degree. The corporation metaphor is right on. I think the big game-changer now is streaming and subscription services, so that you can't make it off of record sales anymore. In the old days, bands made bags of money from record sales, and concerts used to be much cheaper. Now you can stream the music for a small monthly fee, and you pay hundreds and hundreds for a ticket, and bands are compelled to tour to keep themselves going. And, all the ancillary marketing stuff (scents, fashion, what have you...) had to be brought in to keep the business model afloat.
This doesn't seem necessarily all bad, as it is forcing musicians to concentrate on honing their live performance skills.
Still, in spite of all this, I admire pop musicians that are doing more interesting stuff. Writing that sort of music is a very specific skill set. While the musical ingredients are simple, you really have to know what you're doing to write a good song. It's got to be pithy, economical, with a good turn of phrase and good hooks. Not such an easy job to do it well.

Bryan Townsend said...

Lots of great commentary! Ken, not quite sure how it resembles Big Brother?

Marc, thanks for a very cogent test of my argument. Yes, I think too that much of the time Mozart did pretty well by the standards of the time. I think that someone needs to do the research and write a book about the historic economics of music, because every time I run into just the problem you mention: how to translate what musicians were paid historically into modern terms. What is 100 ducats worth now? And what was the purchasing power then? I'm surprised to hear that Handel may have amassed the equivalent of $24 million, but I suppose it's possible. Rossini sure made a bundle from his operas.

Perhaps my argument is a bit weak in connecting the sheer amount of money involved with the dilution of artistic integrity. For one thing, you could certainly argue that pop music never was about artistic integrity in the first place. Or was it? No, there is no necessity that an artist lose their creative focus because of a marketing team. What the actual empirical data is, we don't know. Who is calling the shots? Is it the singer? The songwriters? The producers? The marketing team? Any of these or all of these could be steering the boat. In the case of Prince, it was pretty clear that no-one was telling him what to do. Same with someone like Frank Zappa. But what about other artists?

Does every artist have a point at which they will industrialise or bowdlerise their work? I'm not sure. Was Glenn Gould's work ever industrialised or bowdlerised? Not that I noticed. In the long run, I suspect that the better music will survive and the lesser will fade away.

Jeph, very good point about the real challenge of creating pop music of real worth.

Ken Fasano said...

It is my understanding that "Big Brother" is not a real person, but a very good looking (singing?) facade for the Powers That Be.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, now I see!