Only the Crappiest Thrive

Longstanding Vftp readers will have noticed a couple of relatively major shifts of emphasis here at the blog in recent years. As my administrative responsibilities have increased (much to my dismay), my time and mental space for blogging have been in much scarcer supply, and each year’s total output on Vftp seems to be a bit smaller than the year before.

Of course, laying my entire slowing in output at the feet of trying to put on orchestral concerts in the age of austerity doesn’t account for a few key variables. On the positive side, I’ve said an enormous number of things here that I had always wanted to say, and once you’ve covered a topic, there’s not much point in rehashing it. Internet culture prioritises the new at all costs, so there tends not to be much audience for the older essays unless they’re amplified via social media, but every once in a while, I hear from someone who has found an old post here really helpful and relevant.

Another reason I’ve slowed down has to do with what actually seems important (or unimportant) these days. So many classical blogs end up being about the woes of the industry. As I’ve written before, I’ve come to believe that the problems of classical music don’t have a thing to do with whether we let people clap between movements or whether we wear tailcoats or loincloths on stage. Our real problems are society’s problems- without media reform, educational reform, corporate governance reform and political reform, the business and social prospects of all small and medium-sized economic entities, including individual workers, self-employed persons, small business, family businesses and charities (including almost all arts organisations) are going to be pretty grim and getting grimmer all the time.

Talking too much about the state of society (or the music business) is probably not a good career move for a conductor- it’s far too easy to offend and alienate funders and decision makers. Nevertheless, over the last couple of years, I’ve tried to find a few areas of discussion where I felt I could contribute to the debate it seems obvious we all need to be having about where the world is going. One of those was a 2014 post called “Facebook Ate My Blog.” This morning, Pliable (aka Bob Shingleton) seemed to sign off and turn out the lights at his wonderful blog “On An Overgrown Path” with a reference to that very post:

“The thrust of Ken’s perceptive piece was that, to quote him: “Blogging these days is NOTHING without Facebook and Twitter. Nothing”. That is a view I share, and it is one of the reasons why I am now bowing to the inevitable.”

I slightly regret I didn’t preface the sentence he quotes as follows “In terms of reaching a mass audience, blogging these days is NOTHING without….”

Over the years, I’ve learned a couple of things about reaching a mass audience via this blog. This year’s biggest blogpost was a satirical one (Music Industry Shock as Leading Orchestra Appoints Conductor Based on Skill at Conducting) with over 11,000 Facebook Likes and an astounding number of hits. It’s what we talk about when we say a post has “gone viral.” Every writer knows satire is one of most useful tools for speaking truth to power, and I’ve enjoyed the freedom humorous posts have given me to talk about some subjects I wouldn’t dare talk about with a straight face. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that many of the most popular posts in Vftp history are those that took the least work and offer the least substance. Among the most enduringly popular things in the archive here are the various top 10 and top 20 lists. These things are fun and provocative to do, but no more than that. Nevertheless, if I want to attract a lot of readers to these pages, I know better than to try to do it with an essay on Schumann’s anticipation of the Klangfarbenmelodie technique.

Do I need a mass audience here? Back in the day, a lot of friends suggested I add some advertising space to the blog as a way of “monetizing” my readership. My response was pretty consistent- the point of this blog was to promote me and the organizations that work with me. The argument is easy to make that a goofball post about Donald Trump’s penchant for making patently impossible-to-fulfil campaign pledges which brings a few thousand readers here will do more to spread the word about Ken-the-conductor than something technical that gets read by twenty or thirty people. If I want to “monetize” my site by increasing my professional profile, social media driven virality is the key. And the key to making a post viral is to not try hard and not aim too high. As Bob Shingleton wrote:

“The conclusion is quite clear: Facebook and other social media platforms control linkages and therefore audience for online content. And just like television, 95% of Facebook and other social media is crap; so you had better join them by churning out crap, or quit. Which means the Internet now practises a Darwinian form of selection whereby only the crappiest survive.

“The crappiest survive” might also be an apt description of the economics of concert giving, commissioning and broadcasting. Our industry is becoming ever more commercially minded- subsidy and sponsorship now follow earned income, so just as the least substantial blog pieces tend to get the most readers, so to do the least interesting concerts draw the largest audiences.

However, as I pointed out in noting that Facebook Ate My Blog, web traffic no longer monetizes blogs or bloggers, it monetizes social media companies. A hugely read blogpost here might get me invited to speak at a conference or talk on the radio, but neither is likely to pay very well anyway. Who it does make money for is Facebook and Twitter.

The very term “virality” is actually more apt than most people realise. We all know that the one good thing about getting chickenpox as a little kid, or mono as a teenager is that once you have had the virus, you become immune to it. A viral blog post runs its course then becomes essentially useless- everyone who is likely to be interested in it will have seen it, processed it, and to have developed an immunity to it. A viral phenomenon has it’s day, then it dies. A blog post that has gone viral becomes essentially useless. Should we revise Bob’s axiom to “only the crappiest thrive”?

Bob’s post links to an interesting Guardian article by Hossein Derakhshan.

“Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: newness and popularity [emphasis added]. (Isn’t this embodied these days by the real-world dominance of young celebrities?) That philosophy is the stream. The stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex and secretive algorithms.

“The stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open the Facebook app on your smartphone and dive in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites. But what are we exchanging for efficiency?

I think we’re exchanging too much. It is a fundamentally Faustian bargain. Newness and popularity are not the pathway to success for artists and thinkers, they’re the spiders’ web, and we are the flies.

One thing I’ve written about a lot on these pages, and that is a theme in my work, is my belief (shared by many) that the value of art is intrinsic.  Bach’s St Matthew Passion didn’t become a better piece overnight in in 1829 when Mendelssohn revived it after a generation in oblivion. Earlier this year I recorded Krenek’s magnificent First Piano Concerto- a tremendous work that had gone so long without a performance that even his widow was unaware of the work’s survival. It is neither new nor popular, but it is fantastic.

As the example of virality shows, reaching a mass audience can be a futile exercise. I’ve been really thrilled to have contributed a reassessment of Hans Gál’s music. I had a lot of help and luck along the way, but no matter how you cut it, the first complete recording of Gál’s four fantastic symphonies came about, in part, because I worked like a dog to make it happen. Many have since noticed how crazy it is that such good music could go un-played and unheard for decades. Many have pointed an accusatory finger at the BBC’s Glock- and post-Glock -era emphasis on living composers of atonal music. Surely Auntie should have done more for Hans?

Well, actually, they did do some good stuff for Gál. Last year, when Radio 3 finally gave Gál his well-deserved and long-overdue slot as Composer of the Week, one of the most important things they played that wasn’t recently recorded was a live recording of Gáls cantata De profundis. Many archival recordings of Gál’s works from both the BBC and Austrian Radio are actually pretty awful- a recording of Gál’s Triptych made for a BBC birthday concert in his honor nearly put me off recording the work because it made the piece sound so unconvincing and impossible. But the De profundis broadcast was a really good performance of one of his greatest works, that will have reached a massive audience when it was broadcast a  generation ago in the pre-Classic FM, pre-internet era. Why didn’t the Gál revolution start with that broadcast? For a moment there, it was both new and popular. Gál’s music didn’t come back into the mainstream because one piece got heard by a few hundred thousand people one evening on Radio 3. It is starting to happen now because a few stubborn individuals- his family, a few key performers, a few insightful writers- took an interest in the music and have stuck with the project for years and years. Reviving Gál’s music depended not on reaching a mass audience on a passive or superficial level, but on engaging a few key people on quite a deep level.

Nobody seemed less interested in promoting Gál’s music than Hans Gál, and his productivity was completely unaffected by the ups and downs in popularity his music went through in his lifetime. Blogging once seemed appealing because it gave one the freedom to publish without wasting energy persuading a gatekeeper to let you publish. It offered freedom to write without a word-count or a deadline. Now, traffic has become the dominant measure of a blog’s success. However, we now that the measure of success in art, in argument or in ideas is in the intrinsic value of the content, not in whether anyone reads it or hears it. Artists like Henry Darger and Vivien Maier have reached a posthumous mass audience. In their lives, they were anything but popular, and they only became popular once the work was no longer new. For some, it might seem like a tragedy that they didn’t live to see the mass acceptance of their work, but would that kind of engagement with popular culture have actually been good for their work? Darger’s magnum opus was over 15,000 single-spaced pages long. Would he have written so much if he’d spent half his doing book tours and writing a blog for the Guardian? Vivian Maier took over 150,000 photographs and never showed them to anyone. Would she have been better served by having an Instagram account?

Where does that leave people like me? Should more of us follow Bob’s lead and turn out the lights, at least for now, on our blogs? Should orchestras try to program viral concerts? Should composers be writing music for the Facebook listeners? Should we publish and pray- staying off of Facebook and Twitter and hoping our audience comes to us eventually? Or should we turn inward, focus only on the work and leave it to our heirs to find us a readership?

I share one hopeful clue.

Every so often when I’m out among real people in the non-digital world, someone I meet mentions that they read the blog. It happens rather less often than you would think- many acquaintances and colleagues are a bit reluctant to admit they actually read this stuff. It usually takes a special mix of enthusiasm and honesty for someone to really start talking to me about what they’ve read here. The stuff they want to talk to me about is not the satire or the top 10 lists. It’s the nitty gritty. It’s the minutiae. It’s the eccentric.  Chances are, if my blog is going to have any lasting impact on either my life or my world, it won’t be because it briefly reached a mass audience, It will be because it deeply engaged a micro audience. The success of this blog is not in the hands of the 11,000 who liked my post about Berlin, but in the handful who read everything here and think about it long after the latest virus has run its course.

We’re living in an age of apathy. Fantastic books, recordings (in all genres), new compositions and films all struggle to find an audience. I grew up in a generation that paid dearly for Milton Babbit’s famous ambivalence about the audience. I care if you listen. We all want to be read, heard, seen, supported. Right now, readers, listeners and supporters are all in short supply. In such mad times, creators can only continue to create, writers can only write, performers can only perform. Capturing a viral wave these days isn’t going to do you much lasting good, but missing one may not cause you any lasting harm, either. When we talk about the long game, it’s still the strong that are likely to survive.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

8 comments on “Only the Crappiest Thrive”

  1. Barney via FB

    Great post! And one other takeaway: when you write “Many archival recordings of Gál’s works from both the BBC and Austrian Radio are actually pretty awful- a recording of Gál’s Triptych made for a BBC birthday concert in his honor nearly put me off recording the work because it made the piece sound so unconvincing and impossible” – that points to why your day jobs as conductor (and player) are so important. Composers NEED performers who get their work and win listeners over, allowing them to feel what’s special about the music. Keep up the good work in all spheres! (I look forward to 2016’s output!)

  2. Richard B

    I always enjoy what you and Bob write. But as regards social media, I really do think a lot of people in our world are badly confused about the difference between medium and message. 95% of what’s on Facebook is rubbish? But hang on, you choose, for yourself who you want to read and follow on FB. 95% of what’s on mine is excellent, because it’s people like you and Bob and Jessica Duchen, and Mike Seal, and Gavin Plumley and Tommy Pearson.

    Blogs are problematic purely because they’re so individual: and one individual can’t in effect write, edit and publish a weekly or daily publication indefinitely unless they’ve a lot of free time and/or energy. I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a serious blog myself; I haven’t because paid writing work keeps getting in the way. But then maybe I’m overthinking it; maybe I should just publish as and when; maybe the problem isn’t blogs but the delusion (fairly widespread a few years back) that they would (or should) supplant and take the place of professional publications?

    Maybe we should just relax and let them be what they are: a personal, unpredictable, sometimes surprising, often very rewarding addition to the culture of music writing. In any case, Ken, what you write is always worth waiting for and I hope we’ll continue to hear from you as and when you have the time.

  3. Joshua C

    Indeed. I’ve been pounding my fist on the table of the betrayal of the “promise” of social media for some time, and together, you and Bob Shingleton have been invaluable resources in helping me better organize my thoughts beyond unfocused frustration. Bob’s blog will be sorely missed. However, upon re-reading Milton Babbitt’s infamous Stereophile essay (which you reference), I get the impression that he would probably agree with you on many points. For those who haven’t clicked through the hyperlink you provided, here is the concluding paragraph:
    “Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing. Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”

    And thanks to social media, streaming, and the devaluation of the work of art, I think we have reached that point.

  4. Lisa Hirsch

    Ken, Bob has dropped in and out of blogging at least once before, implying he was gone, gone, gone, then posting again when he returned from his travels. Don’t go into mourning until, say, June 1.

    Regarding FB, Twitter, etc, I just keep writing. I have a readership and don’t concern myself much about its size, etc. I am still at it after 11 years.

  5. Timothy Judd

    Thank you for this insightful post. All of your posts, both archived and new, offer a wealth of information and a unique perspective and I continue to enjoy them.
    At the end of the day, great music and thoughtful blog content require the listener/reader to slow down, engage, and think, which takes time and a certain amount of effort. With my own blog, The Listeners’ Club (designed to introduce new listeners to my favorite pieces), I have experienced the same dichotomy between posts which immediately grab attention (top 10s and a mugshot of Stravinsky) and more substantial posts. But even if one person is drawn to a piece they heard for the first time at my blog I consider it a success.

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