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July 25, 2006

Finding the Niche

by Frank J. Oteri

While Doug's assessment that "[i]n a world of niche cultures, it may turn out that some of the biggest niches are arts niches like classical music" seems to parallel what my experience of the early 21st century marketplace has been, I wonder if we are ultimately selling ourselves and the rest of the world short by limiting ourselves to this niche.

I did not become a fan of classical music until I was in my teens and I was hooked by a combination of mostly new music and opera. I attended an arts-oriented high school (NYC's High School of Music and Art now consolidated with Performing Arts High as LaGuardia High School), heard Steve Reich on the radio (WNYC was stilling playing music most of the time back then), saw and heard Philip Glass on a short TV documentary that aired on PBS affiliate WNET during prime time, and chanced upon a free performance of an obscure Verdi opera staged at the open access Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park by Vincent La Selva and the New York Grand Opera. (These days the free parks offerings now known as Summerstage take place in a location far less accessible to serendipitous interlopers which improves the experience for those already there but makes it harder to become one of those people.)

We've narrowcasted our way into a new form of success. And yes, we're better at it that the rest because we've been a niche market for a long time. And now, thanks to the internet, pockets of interested folks scattered all over the globe which formerly barely made a dent in their own communities have now been linked together to form a viable demographic than can be marketed to. This viable demographic has led to the success of everything from the various new music initiatives like Bang on a Can, Alarm Will Sound and eighth blackbird (imagine the existence of any of them a generation ago) to specialized recording initiatives like Miklos Spanyi's traversal of the complete clavichord music of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach for BIS or Naxos American Classics' Milken Archive of Jewish American Music. (We are still awaiting Klaus Heyman's first comments on this blog.)

Indeed it's a great time to be a fan of classical music. I average five concerts a week sometimes and things I miss frequently get recorded not long afterwards. Last year, works by Chris Theofanides and David Del Tredici premiered by the Atlanta Symphony were recorded by Telarc the following morning and released just months later. Later the Milwaukee Symphony did them one better and released a download of Roberto Sierra's third symphony the morning after they premiered it. There's so much music coming at me all the time that I can barely keep up with it.

But how do you reach the person who isn't already a fan? I have access to more of this amazing music than ever before in my life but that's because I know where to find it. And if there's something I don't know, it's never been easier to look it up. You can find a detailed exegesis about the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov or the quartertone experiments of Mildred Couper with a simple Boolean search on Google, but, of course, it only works if you already know the names to trigger such a query.

In a society where music education continues to decline as does mainstream newspaper, radio and television coverage for this field, there is no viable way to broadcast information about this music to people who would find it of interest if only they knew it was there.

Now that every other activity is as much a specialized interest as classical music once was, it is perhaps comforting to know that we at least have learned how to make things work for ourselves inside such a box. But at the end of the day, even if everyone else is now in a box, is that really such an ideal place for anyone to be?

Posted by foteri at July 25, 2006 06:19 AM


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