Friday, October 4, 2013

No, Musicians Are Not Just Having Fun

It has happened again: amidst the battles between orchestras and management, the peanut gallery has piped in with the wearisome refrain that musicians get paid too much for doing what they enjoy. In his Telegraph article, "US Orchestras are Greedy and Overpaid," Ivan Hewitt glibly asks, "Why does a musician need to be 'compensated' for doing what he/she loves?" (Perhaps Hewitt abhors writing and secretly yearns to be a dentist.)

Never mind that Hewitt slaps musicians with the Protestant work ethic while Millennial entrepreneurs crow ceaselessly of the fun they have following their "passions" from the beanbag chairs at Google, and getting filthy rich in the process. Never mind that teenage entertainers of questionable talent earn enough in one year to fund the Minnesota Orchestra's new lobby. Never mind that the average orchestra salaries Hewitt mentions roughly equal the average starting salary of every newly-minted, top-tier MBA. Never mind all of pro sports and all of finance--but wait, these comparisons are unfair, for those people all make money.

Fine for them, but is that how we determine all jobs' value? I'll refrain from pointing out that art, historically, has not been viewed as a commercial enterprise, and that the social value of plenty of well-paid jobs (judges, cops, teachers, etc., etc.) isn't measured in dollars accumulated. Nor will I link to any articles about how kids who listen to Mozart trounce your kid on every single math test and instinctually know how to do origami.

But I will point out that, much like the immense infrastructure of media workers and technology that brings a pop starlet's crotch-rubbing into your very own living room--you're welcome!--a lot of work goes into those orchestral concerts. Musicians love playing masterpieces at the top level under fantastic conductors. To get to that point, less-loved experiences include the daily hours of practice from an early age, the potential lack of developed social skills because of time spent practicing, the lack of dates due to lack of said social skills, the wholesale rejection of the fruits of this sacrifice by grumpy audition panels, the fact that musicians experience this rejection up to several times a month before becoming established, the lack of decent retirement savings because they lived on credit cards before landing the well-paying spot, the abuse of tyrannical conductors when you do land the "dream job," and most importantly, the indignity of being forced, somewhere along this trajectory, to do this:

So yes, the hour or two of performing is a blast. The lifetime of work it takes to get there, well, that feels much more like what is conventionally called "paying your dues". It is necessary, and the results are satisfying, but it's not a trip to the movies. There is no question that the current economic difficulties will necessitate many painful changes, but as we negotiate that unpleasant territory, let's not scapegoat those being hurt the most after they've given the most.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Art of Talent Show Performance, and Why Classical Artistry is Different

I came across this video several weeks ago:

As I read through the comments of awed viewers, who admired Ms. Rigolo's precision, concentration, and artistry, I thought again about classical performing art forms from around the world--opera, ballet, kabuki, gamelan, in short, the art forms modern consumers usually call "boring". This video, very lengthy by internet standards, features nothing but a woman slowly balancing sticks upon each other until a large structure emerges, accompanied by meditative flute music. While videos of amazing ballet performances languish with merely hundreds of views, why does this balancing act sustain interest, why is it deemed artistic, and why is it so popular? And what can classical performing arts traditions learn from this?

It turns out that the artistic veneer masks a simple dramatic structure straight out of vaudeville. Media scholar Henry Jenkins, in his book The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture, notes how performer-centric and modularly structured evenings of vaudeville acts often eschewed art or storytelling "to focus attention upon the performer's skills, having little or no other interest." But impressive tricks were not enough; a performer's chances of being rehired or paid better depended on the magnitude of the audience's reaction. A tried-and-true formula emerged: steady increases in suspense, up to the point of the "wow climax" or "big wow," the kicker at the end of the act that finally sends the crowd into wild applause. This video relies on exactly such a structure. The costs of failure rise with each successfully placed stick, culminating in the all-or-nothing final balancing of the entire structure on a vertical pole. The crowd goes wild, and Ms. Rigolo even adds what performers call a "button," an extra gesture after the big wow, when she underscores the structure's fragility by toppling it with the initial feather.

Conforming as it does to the standard structure of jugglers, acrobats, or daredevil stuntmen, it is easy to see why this video sustains a mass audience's attention. Yet to go viral online, it must also conform to the emerging laws of what makes something "sharable": it must not only please the viewer, but also be something the viewer will publicly "like" in front of hundreds of online friends. Though sharing online can, in theory, match the intimacy of real-life confidences, the fact remains that online sharing to an audience of hundreds (or thousands) prompts most of us to share items that grab attention, then reflect our desired online self-image. As Lee Siegel noted in a recent New York Times article, "Seeking Out Peer Pressure," the internet "prizes the cute angle, the startling factoid, the arch provocation, qualities that are actually the careful, calculated style of the other-directed person cannily hiding behind an inner-directed facade."

Ms. Rigolo's performance gave viewers multiple reasons to share. The serene aesthetic veneer atop the vaudeville act structure prompted commenters to not only voice their amazement, but also praise the artistry. One commenter even found an exploration of deeper themes, in "the power of one feather in the end." The harmony achieved among the movement, pace, music, and props struck many viewers as artsy, beautiful, or even elevating the display to the level of "performance art". Thus, the video can be shared as any or all of those things. Furthermore, the performance requires no specialized knowledge of artistic forms or traditions to be perceived as artistic, something many traditional performing disciplines cannot so easily claim. The sharer can thus rest assured of reaching the widest possible audience.

Where performing traditions differ
Those already familiar with a classical performing art form can probably already see ways in which those arts diverge from the principles that made this video a success.

First, there's no two ways about it: to understand a classical performance of whatever tradition, at least some specialized knowledge of the tradition is required. Ms. Rigolo's balancing act can appeal widely because everyone can immediately and intuitively understand the difficulty of what she's doing. In classical arts, some aspects of performance share the same immediacy (a pianist playing prestissimo or a soprano's high C), but many don't--many people don't even realize, for example, that opera singers do not use microphones--a fact that makes their singing significantly more impressive.

On top of that, classical performers cannot merely execute difficult maneuvers and hope for applause. Playing "merely" technically well is an insult. Audience interest is sustained through any combination of precision, virtuosity, character, emotional communication, or a sense of taste, and again, understanding how these elements come together, which combinations work and which don't, which are surprising and which passé, requires a gradually acquired audience knowledge of the tradition in question. The uninitiated often find it difficult-to-impossible to follow a performance, and if they're not willing to explore something new that evening, boredom often results.

But mentioning dramatic trajectories brings up another major issue: within themselves and compared with each other, classical performances embrace an infinite diversity of forms. Some value steadily building suspense; some don't. Some embrace climax and emotional outbursts, while others shun them for meditative contemplation of the infinite. The vaudeville form seen in this video came from a specific time, and was calculated to be exciting, not necessarily meaningful. It was a pragmatic form evolved to create a big applause moment at the moment when (as Jenkins points out) the manager would peek around the curtain to see whether to rehire the act. Regardless of the wow climax's artistic potential, it is simply one form among thousands. In classical arts, meaning is important, and the form is often implicitly or explicitly chosen to help convey this meaning. The audience must be knowledgeable and curious about formal possibilities.

When I first watched this, I imagined arts organizations debating whether this video showed evidence of an audience potentially ready for, say, symphony concerts. For me, it's clear that the differences are too great; understanding why this video holds a mass audience's attention allows you to understand why they won't immediately look for a seven-and-a-half minute ballet pas de deux video next. This deepens my conviction that arts marketing needs to distinguish itself from popular media marketing, not ape it, because the experiences are fundamentally different.

Furthermore, many of today's popular marketing books recommend a focus on customers who will do the proselytizing for you--call them early adopters, sneezers, or whatever. The focus should not be on pop culture lovers who already hold negative impressions of classical art forms. I've read a few articles of the "Think opera is old-fashioned? Think again!" variety lately, and all suffer the same delusion: if a sexy lady can sell Coke, she can sell tickets to Carmen. Yet no one complains of always wanting to go to the symphony, but feeling repelled the cellist wasn't model-skinny. While current marketing trends revolve around building relationships, classical music marketing still seems stuck in thinking that getting attention is the end of the game, not the very beginning. We citizens see billions of advertising images per year; we are masters at ignoring things. People don't respond to sexy pop idol posters because of the sex; they respond because they know the singer's name and have a relationship with that "brand". If I don't already have some brand affinity for your opera company or whichever show you're performing, a push-up bra isn't going to sell me.

Instead, arts organizations should be searching vigorously for their "early adopters". Plenty of us have friends or relatives who may not be symphony subscribers, but feel dissatisfied with the commercialization and banality of today's popular culture. Many of these surely have some curiosity about classical art forms, but sexy headshots won't win them over. Increasing this curiosity effectively should be the first priority.

Ultimately, this is extremely important for all art lovers, especially lovers of traditional performance forms. The depth of meaning found in these forms can, perhaps, be rivaled by popular culture at its best, but never surpassed. Along with depth of meaning, traditional forms are irreplaceable windows into countries, cultures, or languages. Deep and real artistic experiences, furthermore, are inherently personal. Art inspires that old-fashioned type of sharing, of vulnerably giving others glimpses of your deeper self. In the end, these are worth more than ten million views.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The "Relevance" of Opera: Let's Define Relevance

Reports about new Universal Music CEO Max Hole's views on classical music's future launched another round of debate about classical music's relevance. Many raised excellent points; many others recycled inaccurate and unhelpful clichés as justification for either modernization or preservation, such as tales of old-fashioned and stuffy symphonic halls, intimidating clapping etiquette, and the superiority of live video in engaging fans. Though supposedly all steering toward a future of greater relevance, commenters displayed wildly different assumptions about what that even means. With so many paddling in opposite directions, it's no wonder classical arts are as stuck as ever in unsustainable models.

Discussion of the arts' future, whether by Mr. Hole or others, often make a dubious link between 'relevance' and ticket sales, scrutinizing top-selling musical acts for strategies orchestras might employ. Rarely is it asked whether the tactics which generate high ticket-sales for Lady Gaga should, or even could, generate ticket sales for orchestras and opera companies. Mr. Hole describes, among other things, how he'd like to "jump on [his] feet and shout and yell" for Beethoven, but alas, protocol forbids this. So let's say we take his advice and loosen up: does following his implications to a future of commemorative-t-shirt-clad teens tweeting and texting about Christian Tetzlaff seem like a plausible trajectory for classical music? Importing the trappings and protocol of arena concerts won't change the fact that the triggers for excessive spending on Bieber memorabilia simply may not exist in the classical world.

When music execs complain of a lack of emotion shown by orchestras or a lack of Jumbotrons magnifying a conductor's minutest exertions, they show the same lack of imagination that Stephen Fry criticized in his eloquent defense of classical music. They can't imagine people enjoying 200-year-old music with no visual aspect, so instead they catalogue the differences between the symphony and the Celine Dion Spectacular, and call that a path to classical music's salvation. And this is hardly a surprise, given their usual lack of exposure. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating recently sounded off that most politicians have not had a meaningful moment with the arts, emphasizing that the way to appreciate music is to spend time with it, one-on-one, as a listener or a performer. Background music doesn't cut it: real art requires real concentration. Mr. Hole himself claims to have liked the "bits" of classical music he's heard. Are "bits" enough to convey the grandeur of any art form?

To discuss the arts' relevance to today's audiences, we first need to understand entertainment commodities and artistic experiences as wholly distinct entities.

The use of the word "audience" is already a clue. Audience can simply mean the group of people watching something, but it can also be used to indicate a brewing mob mentality, as in, "The audience demands blood." Many of Mr. Hole's suggestions assume this second sense, where the audience is hostile, doesn't want to be there, and needs to be convinced that what they are about to see and hear might have value. But art shouldn't be about convincing the hostile that they haven't wasted their time; it should be about great work, and that's it. I know nothing about jazz, but if I go see the greatest jazz guitarist in the world, I'm not going to berate him for failing to teach me the basics instead of transporting the people who actually know a thing or two about the art form.

But an entertaining TV show is supposed to do exactly that, which is one major difference between art and entertainment media. Whatever you know and feel at the beginning of a TV episode, by the end, you should feel better and have a general sense of the characters and plot lines. Performing this service better and faster gets people to choose a show over its competitors, and it survives in the marketplace. The audience gets its itch scratched and the show's producers cash in: win-win. In other words, an entertainment commodity's 'relevance' to an audience absolutely involves ticket sales (or the equivalent), as the audience is paying for a fairly well-defined service.

Art does no such thing. It needn't make you feel better (though it often does), it needn't inform you of anything (though it often does)--it need only be good art. Rather than debate what art should or should not be, suffice it to say that the collective definitions, from the broadest to the most personal, greatly exceed the dual tasks of captivating minds and improving moods. Great art forms possess infinite depth: the more you learn and appreciate, the more you realize you have yet to explore. I love Homeland as much as anyone, but admit it doesn't quite make me feel that way.

Art's relevance, then, comes from this place of infinite depth, of its ability to be so many things to so many people. Great art opens itself to anyone, absolutely anyone, who seeks it. Whether its seekers number too few to make art a valuable addition to Mr. Hole's portfolio says nothing about relevance, just marketability. Though funding the arts is indeed a major obstacle, I remain unconvinced that wannabe copycatting of the wealthy entertainment world will build the audiences classical arts need to survive intact.