Training can be a place to start...

By Bill Ivey, Director, Curb Center, Vanderbilt University

Vicki made the very important observation that "issues concerning public policy are almost completely absent from arts school curriculum."  Not only do things like intellectual property, media policy, unions, performance rights, and so on not show up in art schools or music conservatories, they have precious little traction in arts management programs.  I suspect that faculty view consideration of systemic policy questions as an unworthy distraction undermining artistic growth, but of course that is wrong-headed.  But arts training programs remain an excellent place in which to insert engagement with policy affecting the arts system as an aspect of professional behavior.

But we must be realistic in assessing the relative power of individual artistic voices raised against the lobbying power of major industries that are dependent on a favorable legal and regulatory environment.  Despite the good efforts of advocacy groups committed to advancing public purposes or the needs of artists, the last thirty years (the era of Reagan/Thatcher deregulation) has witnessed a steady shift in the arts system away from public purposes and toward the interests of the marketplace.  This trend has been exacerbated by the shift away from the legislative arena into courts, where the cost of litigation makes it very hard for individuals and small groups to play.

We need to work on conservatory and art school leadership on this.  Also, why don't the big service organizations that deal with the nonprofit sector -- the League of American Orchestras, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Americans for the Arts, etc. -- take on these policy issues that are so critical to the work of their member institutions?

July 19, 2010 6:58 PM | | Comments (1) |


The general premise of this blog, that artists are not involved in activism, is untrue. Many artists are involved in social causes. The International Alliance for Women in Music, and the International Women’s Brass Conference both work for the rights of women in music. Together they have about a thousand members. There are many well-known organizations that offer poor children music lessons and youth orchestras. There are artists who work and lobby to strengthen public arts funding. There are artists who offer free concerts to the homeless. There is an entire genre of new music referred to as acoustic ecology that is deeply involved in environmental activism. There are many such examples. And especially in the USA, the very act of trying to be a creative artist at all is close to being a form of activism, if not subversion, because it often challenges our nation’s narrowly defined orthodoxy concerning the primacy of the marketplace.

The blog’s second, and more specific premise, is that artists are not actively involved in the debates surrounding net neutrality, even though these policy decisions will strongly affect them. This second part of the statement is untrue. Most classical musicians are so far outside the marketplace that systems of licensing would not have much effect on their incomes (or the use or abuse of their work) regardless of what policies are effected.

A classical CD can become a Billboard Bestseller with as little as 300 sold units. According to recent stats, the official total sales of the top 25 titles amounted to 5,000 copies, an average of 200 units a recording – including downloads. In financial terms, we’re talking chicken feed for many of even the most successful classical recordings. See:

Even famous orchestras seldom make money with recordings of even popular works. See:

In other words, only the most infinitesimal fraction of musicians make significant amounts of money from recordings, so many of the licensing decisions are fairly irrelevant for most of them. It can be little wonder that they are not interested in the policy “debates.”

There are a few areas where some genuine conflicts evolve, such as licensing agreements that can shut down small Internet sites that play new music, but these groups are so marginal they would have little say even if they tried to become more politically active.

On the other hand, I really like the ideas presented in Bill Ivey’s comment above. Our arts schools could do a much better job of training the people we need to lead us to better public policy for the arts. These people need to study the systemic failurs of our system, and especially by comparing it to the more effective public funding systems that exist in almost all other developed countries.

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This Blog Arts and culture are a cornerstone of American society. But arts and culture workers are often left out of important policy conversations concerning technology and creative rights even though the outcomes will have a profound impact on our world. Is it benign neglect? Or did we... more

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