Sometimes I think the classical industry is a bit like a chap standing on deck of the Titanic, moaning loudly about how his feet are getting cold because they’re a little wet. Sure we have problems, but look at the world around us- when the ship is already sinking, the man with the cold feet is doing pretty well, and talking about whether now is the time to buy waterproof boots is probably beside the point. Music is one of the great tools for the righting of sinking metaphorical ships, be they nations or individual lives. Nations, of course, are ultimately collections of individuals. If you want to save a nation, save a person. If we want to warm our feet, let’s right the ship.
Look around America today, with the virulent spread of gun violence, or take a hard look at the UK and Europe, where fascism is on the rise. Racism and sexism are making a huge comeback, and politicians and pundits now seem to think it is okay to condone rape and the stoning of gay people.
The most commonly diagnosed cause of all this rage and dis-function is the lack of economic opportunity and hope since the 2007-8 economic collapse. The persistence of economic hopelessness extracts a terrible toll on any society. Hans Gál called unemployment the worst catastrophe that can happen to any society. He was speaking of inter-war Germany and Austria, and we all know how that turned out.
One of the many tragedies of our difficult age is the way in which so many individuals act against not only against the interests of their fellow human beings, but against their own. People vote for politicians whose policies will impoverish and imperil them. People embrace ideologies, such as the mass-scale rejection of basic scientific knowledge, which will ultimately damage their health and make their environment unsafe to live in. People support a gun culture that puts them and their children in mortal danger for no reason. Even at the most extreme, the jihadist who bombs a plane or the mass shooter who attacks a school are both acting in ways that harm themselves.
I strongly believe that these kinds of widespread and frightening self-destructive behaviours are indicative of not only a lack of economic health and opportunity (although the corrosive impact of economic hopelessness is hard to overstate), but of a general feeling of defeat and despondency that comes from being unable to understand and engage with the challenges facing the world.
I think some (huge) portion of the responsibility for this depth of despair and hopelessness must lie with our media and entertainment culture. Just as junk food fills the stomach but doesn’t nourish the body but instead gradually destroys it, junk culture fills the eyes and ears, but gradually rots the brain and soul. Our media culture is, overall, far more toxic than the Big Mac. News has become more of a game (a bloodsport, at that) than a public service, as broadcasters and publishers work primarily towards three goals: ratings (or distribution), profit and advancing the political and financial cause of their stakeholders. What is deeply troubling in our time is the extent to which nobody questions the validity of these three aims. Quite the opposite- public service broadcasters and publishers are under enormous pressure to show that they can measure outcomes according to the same metrics used in the for-profit sector. The notion that the success of a newspaper is measured in the truthfulness and relevance of its reporting seems pretty quaint these days.
Similarly, just as fast food is carefully engineered to manipulate the dopamine responses of those who eat it in much the same way that hard drugs do, most mass entertainment is aimed at doing two things- keeping you watching, and convincing you there is something wrong with you that can be fixed by purchasing whatever the show’s sponsors are selling. The first rule of advertising is to make the target feel like a failure so they’ll buy your product. I remember learning about advertising works when I was in seventh grade- it was pretty horrifying, but my eyes were well and truly opened. I was only twelve, but being taught about how advertising manipulates us, and how content (whether print, tv or radio) exists largely to prepare you to receive an advertiser’s message gave me a level of critical awareness with which to partially inoculate me against the soul-rotting poison TV and other media throw at us every day. These days, few schools still teach children about advertising- quite the opposite. They show commercial television in school, they welcome ads from massive corporations- they feed children the very toxic ideas they should be teaching them to protect themselves from (the school food isn’t too healthy, either), all because they’ve been forced to embrace the same goals as the junk culture- ratings or distribution (both as expressed by enrolment numbers and test scores), profit (in terms of both core funding and external support) and advancing the political cause of their stakeholders (school boards and councils in the USA and UK are among the most polarized and politicized organizations on Earth ever since a generation of religious zealots in both countries decided to take them over and shape the curriculum to suit their world view, facts be damned). Religious education, which is spreading like wildfire as a paradigm, often works using the same techniques of degradation, manipulation and reward as advertising- make people feel bad about themselves, tell them you have an answer (whether it be a bigger car, a political catchphrase, or God), then trigger their dopamine system with something. Advertisers usually offer a bit of sexual titillation, religious educators use the promise of salvation- of a solution to all our worries.
Junk food is designed to make you want, even need, to eat more junk food. Junk culture works in the same way- it’s designed to keep you consuming. I’d go so far as to say the values of junk culture have now expanded to junk education and junk religion. Epidemics of obesity, type- two diabetes and heart disease are just one manifestation of the damage done to our bodies by junk food. School shootings, fascist political movements, dangerous, wide-spread rejection of fundamental scientific facts- these are the type-two diabetes of the soul that are a manifestation of the damage to our selves by junk culture, junk education and junk religion.
That, to me, is the Titanic that the classical industry is standing on, worrying about our damp socks. Comparatively speaking, the rot of junk culture is just starting to infect our industry- we’re still, overall, a center of excellence and a powerful force for social good. Worryingly, however, many within and outside our industry are advocating that what really need to do is adopt more of the paradigm of junk culture- more manipulation, more titillation, and ultimately, more craven service to the political and financial advancement of our fiscal stakeholders. A generation ago, one could make the argument with a straight face that journalism was about the quest for the truth. With notable exceptions, the last fifteen years have made that notion look laughably quaint. Likewise, one would like to think that being a musician, or running an orchestra ought to be about making the most soul-touching, life-changing music, but fewer and fewer in and around the industry are willing to measure our success according to that metric. To many of our colleagues, it’s all about sponsors, sales and selling.
Orchestras and artists are governed as non-profits or charities for a reason. We’re not supposed to be putting money first, we’re supposed to be putting music first. But how do we stay in business? We look to the world of public-service broadcasting, and we see a gradual creep towards the values and practices of the for-profit sector. Just as the BBC and PBS feel they have to measure more and more of their outcomes in terms of money, ratings and relationships with funders, classical music presenters are trying harder and harder to emulate the business and marketing practices of the pop culture and corporate worlds. We sell concerts the way companies sell toothpaste, and build classical careers in the same way pop stars’ careers are developed- it’s about selling an image and a personality, not about developing a unique talent, building a body of work and growing an engaged audience for it.
So, how to avoid becoming part of the junk culture movement? Well, the food world has seen a massive, if incomplete, counter-movement to shake off the power of the junk food industry. It may seem odd, but when I was young, processed food was considered an emblem of progress. Practically nobody was interested in fresh produce or local sourcing. This mind-set permeated both home-cooking and the restaurant industry. It went beyond food- coffee was something that was mass-produced and came in a can from a factory. Beer was made in one of three or four giant breweries in Milwaukee or St Louis, and was uniformly horrible. The future of wine was considered to be the box-o-wine.
Now we have a large number of restaurants making a point of serving fresh, locally sourced produce. Green grocers are in, cans are out. You can buy fresh coffee beans even in remote small towns, and the micro-brew revolution has changed America from the land with the worst beer in the universe to the home of the very best. Boutique wineries have sprung up all over the country, with hardly a box-o-wine to be found among them.
Of course, the junk food industry continues to be a force, and a powerful and destructive one at that, but the new wave of food, brewing and cooking has created a viable, and highly successful alternate paradigm. One in which success is measured in terms of food’s ability to bring health and happiness- profit flows from success in those terms. To a large extent, this revolution occurred because people in the food world were prepared to set aside scale as a measure of success. In 1980, a beer company could only be considered successful if it was big enough to advertise on TV. By 1990, a local brewer could set up a successful business on a much smaller scale selling a higher quality product.
So, perhaps one of the reasons public service broadcasting and classical music have been tiptoeing (if not, in places, racing headlong) towards the business practices and mindsets of junk culture is that scale seems like an important part of what we do. An orchestra is, by nature, a large-scale institution. So is a TV station, let alone a network. There’s lots we can do more efficiently and at a smaller scale (the two most interesting concerts I did this year were for audiences of under 80 people), but I believe art needs to provide a counterbalance to junk culture. That means we need a certain amount of scale. We just need to achieve scale using a different paradigm- one in which we measure success in terms of the quality of our artistic work. The food industry can show us many examples of “new wave” business that started small but were able to upscale to a national impact while maintaining their core values (I had a very nice Lagunitas IPA last night here in Texas- they started as a micro-brewery in California). When we have a balance of scale, values and quality, I think we’ll be in a strong position to offer a more relevant alternative to junk culture, and can start giving individual listeners the kind of spiritual nutrition they need to survive in today’s difficult environment.
I’d like to encourage readers who want to see a future for music to think about how we can get away from the junk culture’s measures of success, and avoid their toxic ways of manipulating and exploiting their customers. When we chase ratings, we forget the importance of the impact we can and should have on individual listeners. Junk culture would rather reach 10 million viewers on a superficial or even toxic level than affect even 100,000 in a profoundly positive way. If art doesn’t make a profound difference in some of our audience’s lives, we’ve failed, even if a billion people see us on YouTube. Our entanglements with our funders also tend to mean that our programming is excessively cautious and we avoid directly engaging with the key social, moral and political issues of our day lest we offend the trustee of some foundation or a member of the local city council. In America, the prime accepted measure of an orchestra’s quality is its budget. I’m not sure that’s healthy. I’m totally sure it’s not true.
The values of junk culture feed on complacency. If you think you’re an unassailable center of excellence, you’re more likely to think you can flirt with the values of junk culture without believing you are doing yourself too much harm. Recent history would seem to confirm this- the New York Times (which I’ve read every day for over 20 years) compiled a truly appalling record of journalistic failings in the run up to the Iraq War. In pursuit of circulation, money and appeasement of those in power, it ran countless false stories, suppressed true ones, and utterly failed in its duty to hold power to account. In spite of that, it’s still the most important and probably the best paper in America and possibly the world. That’s why they haven’t learned any big lessons or made any profound changes since then. However, as the situation in Iraq worsens, the magnitude of that capitulation to power and profit looks more and more unforgivable. The real costs of those mistakes and falsifications will mount for many years. I’m sure their thinking was that, in a difficult and fast-changing world of publishing, they had to put profit and power first, or risk losing scale. They’ve lost scale in the ensuing ten years. In spite of their junk journalism calculations? Or because of them? Maybe, in the long run, more truth would have sold more papers? Or at least made a better world in which to sell them? Just because the New York Times is still the best paper in the country, it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re actually doing great work when it counts most.
Could the same be true in classical music? Maybe our problem is not with aging audiences, shinking donor bases or changing demographics. What if too many of our concerts are just not that great?
Today’s performers are amazing at avoiding making audible mistakes, but is that the same thing as giving a great concert? I don’t remember many typos or grammatical errors in those pro-Iraq War NYT articles. The only thing they lacked was the truth. What is our truth? Are we speaking it? Are our concerts really exciting enough, brave enough, moving enough? Do we encourage each other to take risks, to go right to the edge of the possible? To make old music sound new, and new music essential? Or do we reward conductors who facilitate mass reproducible, comfortable and familiar received renditions of classical works? I think to some extent, we do. One reason the Big Mac is so popular is because those who eat it (I confess, I’m one, but only occasionally) know exactly how its going to taste. Many conductors have had the experience of getting down to work on a standard repertoire piece with a fine orchestra only to find their colleagues’ ideas about the piece are already set in stone (see this blog post for a description of the phenomenon). Beethoven 7 to many is like the Big Mac of symphonies- everyone knows what it’s supposed to taste like. “We hired you to make Big Mac’s, maestro- not to deconstruct them!” one sometimes feels you are being told. Conductors who want a big career learn early on to become proficient at reproducing a nicely standardized performance with no horn splits or ensemble problems. Today’s conventional wisdom dictates that it’s better to adopt a fresh approach to personal grooming and styling (the age of the hipster conductor is on us, and that of the sex-symbol conductor is coming) than to try to push the artistic envelope too far. Too often, we learn to perform standard repertoire works in a safe and familiar way, and to programme only contemporary works that conform to broadly accepted norms of taste among those “in the know,” without in any way challenging the worldviews or power-bases of our funders and stakeholders.
The food world has shown us it’s possible to pursue a different paradigm and be successful. They’ve proven that one doesn’t have to be in the junk business to be in business. I think it’s important we learn from them- after all, music is way more important than food, just as the soul or the self is way more important than the body. Humanity is in desperate, desperate need of a viable alternative to junk culture. We’re the ones who can deliver it- but only if we make it our primary goal to do so.
It’s been exciting to see the strong response for this post. Thank you for reading and sharing.
One thing I don’t feel I made clear enough above is that I think one of the really horrible things about the impact of junk culture is that the people who are affected by it understand that they’re being manipulated, understand that it’s a toxic brew, but feel unable to free themselves from its influence. There’s a sense of rage at being trapped in a cynical world, and a sense of self-loathing at being unable to escape the junk culture.