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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 18, No. 2 October 2012

Why new music dwells in a ghetto

by Philip Ehrensaft / October 1, 2012

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Excellent new compositions performed by skilled musicians to sparse audiences: this is all too common. One frequent explanation for this lacklustre attendence is the purported complexity of new music and its aesthetic strangeness.

There are other explanations for why new music is unpopular compared to mainstream classical music and other avant-garde arts, however. The macro-economic concept of “crowding-out” is Bernard Giard’s nomination for the number one factor explaining the divorce between new music and most classical music listeners. Girard also seems to make implicit use of the “winner-take-all economy” concept advanced by Robert Frank and Philip J. Cook. Finally, “Baumol’s cost disease” is a logical complement to the first two concepts. These three economic ideas—crowding-out, winner-take-all, and Baumol’s cost disease—help us understand why new music resides in a ghetto. A ghetto within a ghetto, really, given classical music’s small share of the total music market.

In a John Cagean chance moment, a French company selling university courses abroad asked the young philosopher Bernard Girard, rather than an MBA, to look into the effectiveness of its sales strategy. Success in that contract led to a career shift; Girard became one of France’s expert consultants on strategies for setting wages and salaries. On this side of the Atlantic, Girard is most known for his book The Google Way, the translation and revision of his original Le modèle Google. In Francophone business and academic philosophy circles, Girard is also known for his more recent ARISTOTE: leçons pour (re)donner du sens à l’entreprise et au travail.

Today, Girard leads a parallel life as a new music radio broadcaster and writer, and he is impatient with this explanation for what he terms the “new music ghetto.” As a teenager in early 1960s Paris, Girard was captivated by the music being created by Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, and Schaeffer. “The avant-garde music being composed in the 1950s and 60s was infinitely more complex than that being performed in contemporary music concerts today,” he says. “And there was an audience.” Explanations for new music’s present-day ghettoization lie elsewhere.

Girard explains the ghettoization of new music through economics rather than aesthetics. Crowding-out refers to government spending and borrowing rising to levels where the private sector finds it difficult and expensive to obtain financing for investments and expansion. In his Dissonances radio programs for Aligre FM 93.1, Girard charted a parallel crowding-out of contemporary composition by an increasingly standardized and restricted repertoire of classical music (listen at www.aligrefm.org and www.dissonances.pagesperso-orange.fr). One program examined the general economics of new music, with most examples drawn from France. The second examined  Quebec as one instance of new music institutions dispersing and fragmenting audiences.

New compositions, Girard points out, were standard fare in concert offerings right up to World War II.  After 1945, offerings increasingly focused on a standardized group of classical music. Booming markets for the new LP format drove this shift. Tickets for live performances are expenditures on ephemeral experiences. Buying LPs might be more lasting investments, but their prices were still high relative to median incomes.

So LP buyers preferred ‘safer’ investments. “The record created a market for ‘safe’ purchases, closely followed by the concert, because those who go to the concert are those who buy the CDs and train their ears by listening ceaselessly to the same works,” says Girard.

That new string quartet by a living composer? It might or might not become a lasting work. A Beethoven string quartet, on the other hand, is already a safe bet. 

This idea is tied to one presented in Robert Frank and Philip J. Cook’s book, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. In it, Frank and Cook question why wage gaps are widening between star baseball players and the rest of the team or CEOs and their employees. Their answer: the biggest baseball stars attract lucrative advertising contracts for the whole team. Ditto for high-rolling corporate executives, who attract major investors.

The same holds true for star conductors and soloists, who attract big donations and audiences. The classical music winner-take-all economy is also driven by the number of stars awarded to a recording by the Penguin Guide, Diapasson, or BBC Music Magazine, or inclusion in Gramophone’s annual guide. That is supplemented by radio broadcasts, music appreciation courses, and the like: experts tell us who are the best performers of the best compositions by the best composers.

Star ratings shape concert programing. Even if they happen to adore new music, risk aversion pushes managers to pay big bucks to star performers who mainly perform works that experts name as the masterworks. There is little room for new compositions that may or may not stand the test of time.

This system suits the time budgets as well as pocketbooks of star virtuosos. Rather than continually learning successions of new compositions, they strive towards the holy grail of perfection within a delimited classical/romantic core repertoire. Emphasizing the relative weight of star performers as opposed to living composers is part and parcel of the new economy of classical music. Emphasizing Great Works by long-dead composers is also alluring as it does not require the payment of royalties. Revenues up, costs down. Unfortunately, in the long run, this is a classic indicator of declining industries: managers adhering more tightly to the same-old in the face of markets that are stagnating or worse.

Baumol’s Cost Disease
In 1965, William Baumol and William Bowen published a breakthrough article on the economics of the performing arts, and economics in general. Baumol and Bowen cited the performance of a Beethoven String Quartet as exemplifying economic agents that are unable to increase productivity that is commensurate with salary increase.

A string quartet is stuck producing the same product with the same tools and same number of people as in Beethoven’s time. For the labor force as a whole, wages increased as capital began replacing labor. Members of classical musical ensembles expected and demanded the same kind of increases—even though their productivity was basically constant. Extra money had to come from somewhere to pay musicians. Raising ticket prices was one evident response.

When audiences faced higher prices for classical music concerts, the same logic applied as when they began investing in LPs—then CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, and downloading lossless audio files. When a consumers have the desire and means to pay high ticket prices, they generally prefer “safe” purchases. Most music managers and performers will accommodate this preference by programming established works.

New music typically has the same labor productivity and wage issues as mainstream classical music. Some musicians are enthusiastic early adopters and even creators of new technologies, and can thus mitigate Baumol’s Cost Disease—if this is used in ways that lower labor costs. For example, I paid a high price to hear a composer lead his new music ensemble in a large Toronto venue. Rather than the chamber orchestra that I expected, the composer was one member of a quartet playing a mass of electronic instruments. Provided that the investment costs for all those electronics was less than what he saved on the replaced musicians’ wages and travel costs, this was a smart business move. Other musicians that make brave new sounds with traditional instruments suffer more greatly from Baumol’s cost disease.

A fragmented market
Having been crowded out of the mainstream classical market, the institutional framework of new music fragments its own restricted market. Girard points to post-1945 government financing in France and Quebec that supported the expansion of university music faculties, conservatories, resident ensembles, agencies that commission new works, and the like. Much the same happened in the USA via private foundations that are financed mainly by tax-deductible donations from high income earners, plus both the private and public parts of the university system.

The audience for this substantially increased supply of new music has not expanded at the same pace, if at all. Girard believes that “a narrow, specialized public has formed, but in parallel with the classical following. And this specialized public was naturally more drawn to experimentation than a normal public would have been, thus the assumption that contemporary composers only make music for a happy few.” The result is typically a small audience composed mainly of fellow music professionals, friends and relatives of the artists, and a kernel of fans devoted to the particular sub-genre or composer at hand. Nevertheless, relatively little public and donated funding is directed towards strategies and actions that aim to draw new audiences into new music concerts. One-off performances of concert programs doesn’t help. “Then there’s the fact that word of mouth can’t play. Works are generally performed only once. You seldom hear ‘hurry up, there’s currently a fantastic piece being staged that you have to see.’”

The relative advantages of being crowded-out
The “relative advantages of backwardness” was a concept coined by the eminent economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron when analyzing 19th-century Germany’s challenge to the world’s dominant economy, Great Britain. Germany adopted leading-edge technologies in sectors like steel, chemicals and railroads. Britain had a decentralized industrial organization appropriate for the early stages of industrialization, but for Germany, starting out behind created advantages that helped them jump to the head of the line.

In parallel, there are paradoxical advantages to new music being crowded-out into a marginal market share: relatively small annual increments in audiences create a high growth rate relative to the small base. If you are small and thus less visible, there is more leeway to try out organizational innovations.

Girard estimates that just a modest annual increase in attendees for the sum of new music concerts in Montreal would go a long way towards filling its venues: “It’s even more infuriating since contemporary music doesn’t need to attract tens of thousands of people—just a couple of thousand would suffice.”

That is doable. Girard’s tough-minded questioning of the way new music organizes itself—or fails to organize itself—is a promising framework for thinking through strategies that have a shot at making this happen.                  

Interview translation: Catherine Hine
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