Objections to Michael Kaiser

In a previous post, I linked to one of Kaiser’s blog posts, in which he forthrightly says that popular culture is more fresh, daring, and inventive than what happens in the arts. 

So people might object to this. I won’t bother with objections from people who think pop culture is worthless. I’m tired of those debates. But one key objection might be that terrific, fresh, daring things do go on in the arts, but just mostly not at the big institutions, Kaiser’s own Kennedy Center among them.

That’s a fair criticism. I’ve been excited, for instance, in this blog about all kinds of alt-classical performances, as I call them, including Bang on a Can’s annual marathon. So it’s not as if good things don’t happen at all in the arts.

But it’s also true that the big arts institutions — certainly the classical music ones — don’t do much that’s fresh or inventive. You could say that Kaiser should have qualified his critique, but on the other hand, when arts advocates talk about the arts (and how we all should support them), mostly they talk about things that are safe. Not daring, not inventive. The popular view of the arts, too, would be similar — Beethoven symphonies, not John Cage’s silent piece. At one of the Southwestern University discussions I was part of, someone not from the arts talked about art, and all his examples were classic and safe (Tolstoy, for instance). 

So Kaiser’s warning isn’t misplaced. Especially since exciting things in the arts these days often are close to popular culture, or at least closer to popular culture than Tolstoy or Beethoven symphonies are. I mentioned John Cage’s silent piece as the kind of thing — even though it’s 60 years old — that most people don’t mean when they talk about art. But as I noted here in the blog, a consortium of pop music people in Britain tried to push the silent piece to the top of the pop charts. To them, it’s central to art, but they’re from popular culture. 

If, let’s say, new music people in New York, burning because Kaiser implicitly dissed them — “Nothing daring in the arts? What kind of chopped liver are we?” — I might suggest that they be more proactive, and storm the Kennedy Center ramparts. Just demand to be heard, and not just there, but in all major arts institutions. Easier said than done, I know. But sometimes, if you’re not well-enough known, it’s because you haven’t promoted yourself enough. 

And yes, I know — some things are hard to promote. You can’t expect the silent piece to be played as often as Beethoven. (And, please, it shouldn’t be! It would grow stale.) But we’re at a turning point now, I think. All kinds of installation art, for instance, gets major coverage, gets done in public, gets eager, enthusiastic support from people who don’t identify with any kind of avant-garde. Indie rock, as many people have said, is converging with new classical music. 

So this is a time when we can promote things that are daring and fresh, and really get a response.

Another critique of Kaiser, though, is worth thinking about. As far as I know, he doesn’t do what he preaches. The Kennedy Center’s programming largely is safe. They just announced their next-season’s schedule, and, in music, it features — wait for it — a festival honoring Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Not, of course, the music created there now, but safe, familiar, not exactly fresh classics, music premiered in those cities in centuries past. 

I really have to shake my head. First, is Washington clamoring for something like this? When I ride the Metro, when I walk through Dupont Circle, do I overhear people saying, “I wish we heard more Viennese music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”? 

Not even the classical music audience could possibly say that, because every year they hear just maybe a little bit of Viennese music. By, for instance, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. Which makes every year a Vienna festival! How can you play the core of the classical repertoire, without playing Viennese music?

And of course the audience also hears — every year — music by Dvorak (Prague) and Bartok IBudapest). Which wouldn’t matter, if the Kennedy Center, featuring these three cities, had picked more surprising composers. But they didn’t. 

Popular culture, believe me, is fresher than this. 

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  1. says

    Well, we gotta give New York at least some credit. A number of the Tully Scope events at Lincoln Center, as mainstream a place as you can get, are wonderfully inventive and adventuresome. Tyondai Braxton and the Wordless Music Orchestra–can’t do a better experiment in combining pop and traditional classical elements than that. And Kayhan Kalhor with Brooklyn Rider (string quartet) created an incredible Persian/Western fusion, including pop elements. Both events had full houses with hugely enthusiastic, cheering audiences. And I’m just about to go to Zankel (the contemporary space at Carnegie Hall, for those not familiar with it) for Alarm Will Sound’s what-if-the-Beatles-and-Stockhausen-did-a-joint-concert event. I blogged about the Braxton and Brooklyn Rider events. Maybe Kaiser is right. Or maybe he just just come along to the concerts I’m attending.

  2. Robert Berger says

    Kaiser has done a lot of admirable work as an arts administrator,but he should have known better than to make such a ridiculous claim.

    There is greater diversity of repertoire being performed today than ever before in the history of Western Classical Music. There’s something for every one and every taste,ranging from medieval and Renaissance music to the latest works by living composers.

    To say that things are “better” in the Pop world is ridiculous,because that’s comparing apples and oranges.

    You might compare pop and classical with fast food and slow food in gourmet restaurants. Why eat at McDonald’s when you can feast on exquisite food at a fancy rstaurant?

    Please don’t assume that I’m saying this out of snobbishness. Some people just prefer gourmet food to fast food. De gustibus non est disputandum.

  3. says

    “Please don’t assume that I’m saying this out of snobbishness. Some people just prefer gourmet food to fast food. De gustibus non est disputandum.”

    …that leaves no room for assumption, Robert. That is the very picture of a snobbish statement (complete with Latin phrase). It makes things simple if one don’t allow various kinds of music to be heard in context with each other, allowing classical exceptionalism flourish, without even a serious discussion. It’s easier to dismiss an entire genre(s) of music if you label them as somehow “cheap”.

    There is indeed more innovation in sound, compositional style, and presentation in popular music (and film music) than there has been in classical music for some time. That idea is only outrageous to traditionalists who cling desperately to the idea that classical music is somehow better than all other kinds of music.

    I’m happy for the exceptions listed above, but the vast majority of classical institutions (including most of the other concerts at LC) are far away from providing compelling new art on a regular basis. They remain museums. We must allow ourselves the opportunity to discuss how to move the industry forward, rather than pretend everything has never been better.

  4. says

    I think the problem is association the whole of classical music with the big ponderous (and generally slow to change) organizations like Orchestras, Operas and Ballet companies.

    I like what Douglas Dempster cautioned about making such sweeping assumptions and using the undifferentiated statistics to make claims about the overall health of one organization against another:

    I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.

    To illustrate: it’s true that professional orchestras have struggled financially as they have reached various limits on audience size, cost-cutting, fundraising, and expansion of programs. However, at the same time that orchestras have struggled financially, chamber music is enjoying enormous growth in the U.S.31 While it’s not the whole story, the mobility and cost-effectiveness of chambermusic groups surely contribute very significantly to the comparative economic success of chamber music. The struggles of symphony orchestras are reported everywhere in the press, but one hears little about the growth of chamber music.

    More about Dempster’s piece here.

    There’s plenty of innovation going on in smaller classical ensembles–and there always has been. The problem is that most people don’t associate, say, a string quartet with the whole of Classical Music–the hone of having that metonymic function goes to Orchestras, Operas and Ballets, to the detriment of all the classical musicians who are innovating without completely giving into, wholeheartedly, a pop model which may or may not be sustainable either. Dempsters words again:

    These complicated statistics tell us several things. First—and this should be no surprise—classical music consumption is heavily influenced by electronic technologies and media. Audiences have shifted, and will very likely continue to shift, their discretionary time and dollars toward new technologies for listening to classical music. Second and contrary to the critics, younger generations of Americans do seem to be “growing into” a more mature interest in classical music, but they will probably, much more so than their parents, satisfy that

    interest outside the concert hall. The audience in the symphony concert hall may be aging, in relative terms, but the overall audience for classical music is not.26 Third, the trends revealed by these demographic data have no special relevance to classical music; very similar trends can be found affecting a wide variety of other art forms and entertainments.


    Having only 3.3 percent of the U.S. recording market, one might argue, is nothing to brag about. Even if there had been no decline in market share, some would see a crisis in the mere fact that classical music holds such a small share of the musical interest of Americans. But this has to be put in context. If market share is any measure of cultural health, the real crisis in American musical culture is in rock-and-roll, which sank from a 41.7 percent share of the market in 1989 to 25.7 percent in 1998. That’s what I call a sustained and precipitous decline.

    Jazz has lost half its market share, sinking in 10 years from 4.9 percent of the market to a tiny 1.9 percent. Pop and “new age” have lost one-third to one-half of their market shares over this period. Country music has approximately doubled in its share of the music marketplace, but still controls only 14 percent of the market. If there is any very clear trend in the sale of recordings in the U.S., it is a trend toward musical tastes becoming more fragmented and more eclectic. The marketplace for music recordings is now less dominated by any one musical style.

    In a cultural marketplace of this kind, the remarkable fact is that the audience for classical music has grown along with the general growth of the recording industry.

    I’d probably not have nearly as much of a problem with the idea that pop music is generally much more innovative than classical music if it weren’t for the fact that there exists, and has existed for decades a scattered global movement of non-academic experimental musicians that could care less about Classical music, and have no ties to it, but absolutely hate the idea of what pop music stands for in terms of relative lack of creativity.

    Hell, they even rail on Merzbow now for getting all “semi-popular” which really amuses me to no end.

  5. says

    Orchestras (and Opera and Ballet companies) are the foundations of major arts organizations. They are the de-facto leaders of the industry and they make top-tier chamber music possible. While it is encouraging to read that chamber music is doing better than it has in the past, that does not mitigate the realities of the larger industry.

    Indeed, it’s puzzling that after conceding that every available indication shows the industry struggling in both revenue and relevance, that Mr. Dempster can argue that there is a bigger picture; classical music is doing very well, it is simply changing. Thinking like this, there seems to be no scenario that allows us to actually address reality. It seems that if any indication shows promise it is a clear message that classical music is on the rebound, and anything that shows decline must be seen as an example of how the industry is simply changing. That’s a pyramid scheme.

    Using the recording market as an example is a variation on this unwillingness to even discuss facts. Noting that rock now has twenty-five percent of the market does not clarify classical music’s three percent. It does highlight however how little classical music matters to the larger culture. For example, Radiohead’s recent album (The King of Limbs) was not only a financial success, it was an artistic event that that was reviewed, blogged about, and discussed by everyone from Rolling Stone to Alex Ross. In contrast, to use the example of chamber music, the Emerson Quartet (with James Galway) is jetting around the world premiering Thomas Ades’ new quartet “The Four Quarters”. It will be politely reviewed by the local classical critic in each city (New York and LA so far) and then it will never be heard again.

    We must persuade, push, and pontificate about how to make this industry matter artistically. That means meaningful change in repertoire and presentation. It means embracing good art, even at the cost of challenging traditions. It does no one any good to pretend everything is wonderful, that is simply false.

    I don’t know who these non-academic experimental musicians are, but I think some of them have a band called Radiohead. The only people who can’t stand what “pop music stands for” are classical musicians. We must change the classical industry’s artistic snobbery. It holds us all back.

  6. Robert Berger says

    Classical exceptionalism ? Oh come on now.

    There’s no such thing. And I repeat,it’s totally unfair to judge the classical music world by the standards of pop music,and to draw the inference that the classical music world is “stodgy and hidebound” because of such unfair comparisons.

    I disagree with the premise that there is any lack of innovation in classical music today among our mainstream orchestras and opera companies, and the notion that they are “museums” is ridiculous.

    Classical music is vastly different today from what it was 50 years ago,for example. The repertoire has changed vastly and expanded enormously.

    It has taken advvantage of technology,such as in HD broadcasts of opera and concerts to movie theaters,for example.

    There has been a steady stream of new works by many,many different composers,not only European,but Asian,Latin American and women.

    You can hear far more than music by “Dead White European Males” today. There are more and more women conductors than before.

    Why is it that if you defend classical music you are autimatically labeled a “snob” and “elitis1149t”, but if you knock the classical music world,t’s perfectly acceptable? This is a double standard.

    I’m not a snob or elitist. I just love classical music passionately.I don’t have anything against other kinds of music,and I’ve heard more of other kinds of music than most pop and Rock fans have heard classical.

    If other people are fans of other kinds of music,that’s fine with me.

    But reverse snobbism against classical is rampant today,and that’s deplorable.

  7. ray says

    Ok, I went on youtube and listened to “music” by radiohead and it was crap – meandering, tuneless drivel – THIS is something classical musicians are supposed to lower their standards and praise? Something amateurish, unprofessional, lacking in technical expertise and musical skill? Orchestras play “safe” repertoire for the same reason classical radio stations (and comcast’s classical cable stations) do – THAT’S WHAT THE AUDIENCE WANTS! And there’s no need to bring new music into this – orchestras play new music often enough, and most of their listeners hate it – they just sit there and tolerate it, waiting for it to be over, so they can get back to the music they really want. Michael kaiser sounds like a middle aged man who wants to revert to his teenaged years by embracing music for the teenage demographic. Is he going to start reading comic books too? He should be ashamed of himself, making such a stupid comment.

  8. says

    Peter, Just a few comments as I’ve got to run to a show.

    Chamber music–the Emerson Quartet is just one example of chamber music. Bang ong a Can, the Kronos Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, Stringfever, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, etc. These are other examples of Chamber Music. That was seem to have a wide variety of chamber music, but not the same level of variety in the larger organizations (qualifications in a bit) is probably another good indication of how much more creatively and financially mobile chamber music is relative to Orchestral music.

    Non-Academic Experimental Musicians Having been involved with the international experimental music and noise scene since the 90s I’ve had the good fortune of understanding how these non-classical trained and generally pop music loathing folks feel about the music industry in general. Take the noise sub-genre in particular (since those were the circles I was primarily performing and touring with) since it had it’s beginnings right around the time that the pop music industry went global, as it were, in the late 70s early 80s. Most of those folks were nearly always creating their work in opposition to pop music. Half of the aesthetic was to create a musical sound and culture that was implicitly not commodifiable (and yes, I understand that’s a false dichotomy as well, but indulge me). Much of the subject matter, “band names” (e.g. Pop Culture Rape Victim, Premature Ejaculation, Gerogerigegege), appropriation of sound was technically illegal as the artists commonly explored and exploited taboo subjects and flaunted their abuse of copyrights. At the same time they would scoff at anyone who would tie in their sound aesthetic with figures like Luigi Russolo, John Cage, George Antheil and other fiures in th academic avant garde. That’s just one subgenre of this worldwide community (I use “community” very loosely) of musicians.

    Qualifications I mentioned above. There are plenty of other larger ensembles that stand well outside of the big organizations that stand in for Classical music under discussion. And they are starting to make their own way picking up a number of classically rained musicians along the way. Western Classical music isn’t the only art music in town and with a changing US demographic thats starting to be skewed more towards this rising non-Euro-American population, they’re demanding and starting to get Art music ensembles that they want to hear.

    You do have good points about Dempster’s piece–it was written oer 10 years ago, so is a bit dated. But in a way since the musical world isn’t just about the false dichotomy of Pop vs. Classical anymore (not that it ever really was), that debate seems a bit dated, too.

    Ok, now I’m off to go play Mediterranean and Middle Eastern music on the cello for bellydancers. Cheers.

  9. says

    -Jon, I agree that small ensembles account for some of the most interesting music making in the classical industry. You cited excellent examples. The low cost, and small audiences, allow for far more experimentation in small ensembles. However, my own personal interest is in reforming how we present large orchestral music. I believe that if the industry addressed that, it would elevate the entire industry, chamber music included.

    -Roger, it seems we must agree to disagree about whether there is innovation in orchestras. While it’s true that many have a larger repertoire than in decades past, nearly all orchestras still play the same eighty pieces year after year. New music continues to be only a small part of the offerings.

    Have a look: http://www.americanorchestras.org/images/stories/ORR_0809/ORR_0809.pdf

    Also, part of the innovation I am calling for includes changing how the music is presented. Currently, no matter what music they play, it is always presented the same way; tuxedos, bad lighting, lots of ritual, and strong dislike for anyone enjoying themselves enough to applaud.

    Further, the idea of including film scores, Broadway music, and video game music continues to be thought of as dumbing down the programming (classical exceptionalism?), rather than embracing our uniquely American symphonic music. It seems to me that if orchestras were as interesting and innovative as we’d all like them to be, they wouldn’t be have a steadily declining audience (in all demographics).

    I’m not making this stuff up: http://www.americanorchestras.org/images/stories/knowledge_pdf/Audience_Demographic_Review.pdf

    I agree that vilifying people for loving classical music is wrong, and I hope you don’t feel that coming from me. It is not my intent, and I too love classical music. However, there are too many people whose love for classical music leads them to think it is somehow more artistically worthy than all other kinds of music. These people exist, and they are holding the classical industry back from being relevant.

  10. says

    @Peter – fair enough. I think we’re in agreement that the smaller ensembles are more likely to be innovative while the larger ones aren’t. I think where we disagree is along the lines of how much the larger ensembles should be (or are considered to be) representative of classical music as a whole.

    Or rather, I think it’s an issue of how much the Orchestras/Operas/Ballet companies should be the representative examples of classical music. I tend to think that Dempster’s insight is about the recognition of how media portrayal of classical music (and therefore public opinion of it) can skew how it’s viewed. Maybe if we had more of a focus on how well (if that’s still, or ever was, the case) chamber music groups are doing rather than how poorly, for example, the Orchestras are doing folks in general might have a different opinion of the relative health of the Classical music field.

    It’s a common theme in economics–the big corporations get far more attention than the small businesses and individual entrepreneurs and as a result we really have no idea what the full economic impact of the latter is compared to the former.

    Obviously, the larger organizations move more money on a case-by-case basis than the smaller ones–but as a whole, what do we really know about how sustainable being in the classical music field is if we only focus on them to the exclusion of the smaller organizations?

    Also, since the discussion invariably never includes the other large “Non-Western Orchestras” that I mentioned above and that seem to be multiplying at an astonishing rate in the US as well as the other group(s) of underground musicians all we have is one type of ensemble (e.g. Western Symphony Orchestras) within a larger musical field (Classical Music) that we’re using as a measure for the health of the whole [Classical Music] industry and comparing it to a subset of another (Innovative Popular Music) that we’re using for the different whole [Pupular Music] industry (e.g. cover bands and special event bands as a whole probably do better economically–and are far more numerous–than “original music bands” in popular music but are never included as part of the discussion about the so-called “innovative pop music industry”).

    If I had a nickel for all the complaints about tribute bands, cover bands, party bands that are worthless because they “make money playing other people’s music rather than writing their own music”…


    There has been a steady stream of new works by many,many different composers,not only European,but Asian,Latin American and women.

    You can hear far more than music by “Dead White European Males” today.

    I think Anne Midgette said it best in her review of the Japan NHK Symphony Orchestra.

    The lone Japanese work on the program, “Green,” was commissioned by the NHK from the late Toru Takemitsu in 1967, and showed the fallacy of thinking that a Japanese composer represents Japan; influenced by Debussy, it revels in timbre and rhythmic subtlety, sending shoots of sound curling out of the winds, emerging from the strings.

    Hi, Jon. Nice to see you quoting my wife!

    Data on chamber music — ticket sales and the like — is hard to come by. But I’ve assembled some, at least anecdotally.

    First, according to a Chamber Music America study some years ago, chamber ensembles have trouble making a living. Apart from a few very famous ones (in the US), most can’t survive without university residencies. Concerts alone aren’t enough to keep them afloat.

    And ticket sales to chamber concerts have apparently been dropping for quite a while. Which doesn’t mean that Kronos, for instance, doesn’t do well, or that some newer ensembles might be making a splash. But a few years ago I did some work with a long-established chamber series in a substantial city, and they’d been losing 10 to 20 subscribers each year for a decade. I once facilitated a day-long discussion among chamber music presenters in New England, and almost all of them didn’t feel happy about present or future ticket sales. I’ve spoken or emailed individually to people who run chamber series, and they’re not optimistic. The audience just isn’t being renewed.

    That said, my information may be partial, or out of date. There’s certainly been a lot of excitement with new-style ensembles, and new ways of playing, in clubs, for instance. Maybe at Le Poisson Rouge in NY, for instance, we might find a newer, more enthusiastic audience. But these gigs don’t pay much, so I’m not sure anyone knows how a chamber group could make a living from them.

    I don’t mean to be a downer, or to reject the great points you’re making, Jon. Just wanted to supply whatever information I have. If i’m wrong, or leaving something important out, I’d love to hear about it.

  11. says

    Hey, Greg–hope you had a great vacation!

    I’d just started reading (regularly) your wife’s blog a few weeks ago and she’s always got some great and thought-provoking things (as do you) to say!

    I guess that’s part of the problem then–not really knowing how well chamber music is doing on the whole. But here again, I think what constitutes “chamber music” can be problematic as well. I would, for example, consider Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble to be a chamber music ensemble, for example–but would chamber music presenters including acts like this in the mix?

    I recall reading in Rena Shagan’s book, “Booking and Tour Management for the Performing Arts” how during the 90s there had been a shift in concert hall presenters towards including World Arts events and how some presenters are bemoaning this:

    …there is some concern in some quarters that work by artists of color, non-Western music, and nontraditional work have replaced a significant percentage of the classical recitalists and ensembles in performing arts series across the country…

    John Gingrich says:

    The media, and our major universities and cultural centers, hae abandoned serious western culture at about the same time. While I’ve been an aggressive proponent of cultural diversity and multiculturalism, I’m not sure I ever wanted to have it sort of mindlessly….Peope who never understood string quartets are suddenly able to book groups from Indonesia or Sri Lanka or Bolivia with even less understanding of those musical cultures.

    I wonder how the Brooklyn Rider Quartet/Kahyan Kalhor Eric mentioned above would be included in chamber music statistics, or the recent touring Edgar Meyer/Zakir Hussain/Bela Fleck collaboration or even the recent Alim Kasimov/Mugham/Kronos Quartet collaboration would fit into the statistics, much less all the other hybrid/fusion ensembles. Would presenters even bother referring to these as “chamber music” events?

    Maybe you’re right and we just need to stick to a new “alt-classical” label.

    Hard to say without some good data to back any of this up.

    Re: residencies–ok, I can agree with that, especially for the orthodox chamber music groups. But isn’t that being ab it uncharitable, Greg? If these some of these groups are sustaining themselves through residences (Rena Shagan also has some things to say about residences), then isn’t even that a better (and more sustainable) prospect than what orchestras find themselves in lacking the opportunities for residencies (Cleveland Orchestra and NSO notwithstanding)? At least through residencies you know the organization is going to engage in some kind of community building or outreach programs (even if it is just for the universities).

    Another trend Rena Shagan mentions (for the marketability of touring groups with presenters) is doing residencies and intensives as a part of “Project based touring.” I actually see this a lot with touring/full time bellydancers as some of my bands often get asked to perform as part of the “whole package event” of a weekend of intensives with a dancer that culminates in a gala show on [usually] a Saturday night.

    I think “Project based touring” can be an effective way to market something much more than just a gig. It’s something one of my band does for playing Sci-Fi Conventions and events–we give panels and workshops rather than just perform.

    The problem here then is–how do we factor in these kinds of “Project based events/tours” into the idea of sustainability if ticket sales alone are the measure of the relative economic health of a performing organization?

    And maybe these are just symptoms of the problem–that presenters are used to looking at the bottom line of subscriptions/ticket sales as a way to measure the success of their performing arts series at the expense including the non-performing economic data?

    I have to agree about this-the club gigs anywhere don’t really pay that much (witha a few exceptions), so the economic impact or, or the ability to use club touring (or really any kind of touring) as a model for sustainability isn’t usually a wise choice. I think Zoe Keating said it best in her presentation, “Should you quit your tech job and join a rock band?” Unless you’re already a big name, in which case you wouldn’t have to actively tour anyway, then the venues you’ll be able to hit around the country will rarely amount to more than letting you scrape by and as long as your needs are few, it can be enough.

    I still maintain that on the average the pop musicians who are making a living (or significant secondary income) from performing are those who are in cover bands. And I daresay that there are likely far more [pop] musicians in cover bands than in bands writing original material. And the two types of bands gigging circuits almost never overlap. So I think that on the whole, pop music is probably not any more innovative than classical music when we don’t just focus on the, as I said, the subset of actually innovative pop musicians and compare them to the subset of conservative classical musicians in the Orchestras.

    Seems like there are a lot of holes in our knowledge everywhere–but thanks, Greg, for supplying the information you do have, I’m sure I’ll be digging around for more myself.

  12. richard says

    Jon wrote:

    “I still maintain that on the average the pop musicians who are making a living (or significant secondary income) from performing are those who are in cover bands. And I daresay that there are likely far more [pop] musicians in cover bands than in bands writing original material. And the two types of bands gigging circuits almost never overlap.”

    Beginning in High School, and all they way through College and Grad school, this is exactly what I did. It helped put me through school. I always joked that I played boring crap at night so I could study Webern during the day. The only times I made art when playing were when I did jazz, jazz/fusion, but that didn’t put bread on the table. Whenever I did commercial pop I always felt like I was throwing imitation pearls before genuine swine.

  13. says

    Hey Richard,

    Yeah, that’s a common enough story amongst many musicians (the mandolinist in one of my bands practically put himself through school playing in cover bands) that I find it interesting that in the “Pop vs. Classical” debate so few folks want to discuss, much less acknowledge this not-so-“creative” aspect of the pop music scene.

    Not that cover bands can’t be creative–one of my favorite local “cover bands” is the Liesure Kings who basically do lounge versions of Rock, Hip-Hop and Heavy Metal tunes and they are really great at creatively adapting they lyrics/melodies into that format.

    And hell, some of the greatest tribute bands make a damn good living doing what they do in attempting to “perfectly” recreate a particular artists’ oeuvre and stage show. Not a whole lot different than the performing standards of the Orchestras we’re claiming to be not so innovative. Hell, the running joke amongst the original band musicians is that Orchestras are just glorified cover bands.

    And yet, they are usually the better paid bands locally and regionally (much to the chagrin of the local/regional original band musicians). And the given reasons for that are precisely many of the same given reasons that Symphonic organizations program the tried and true warhorses that they do–the oft stated, “it’s what the audiences want.”

    It’s good and all to make the claim that the pop music industry as a whole is more innovative than the classical music industry, but if the sample is biased towards referencing the, well, innovative pop musicians as the stand ins for the pop musician industry as a whole then we’ve already stacked the deck against classical music, I think.

    Maybe there are two separate issues here. Which industry, pop or classical, it’s easier to be creative in, and which one is better for making a living. I think it’s easier to be creative in pop, but easier to make a living in classical. You can get paying freelance gigs, and you can get teaching jobs, two things that are harder for pop musicians to get, unless (as you and Richard are saying) you play in cover bands.

    But then consider this. When I knew a lot of freelance classical musicians in NY, they’d tell me that maybe 10% of the jobs they played gave them any musical satisfaction. And, of course, they were largely playing the same pieces over and over again. So in a way they were playing in cover bands.

    Same goes for many musicians outside big cities, classical musicians I mean, who make a living playing in several regional orchestras, in addition to freelance gigs. They put endless miles on their cars, and, again, may not have much musical pleasure from all of it.

    I think maybe the bottom line here is that it’s tough to make a living from music. I do take the point you and others are making, that I might stress the positive side of pop music. I should be more careful to say that I’m talking about the best aspects of both fields, pop and classical. If you look at the people who do well in each, the pop people are more likely to be creative, or at least to have more doors open if they want to be.

  14. says

    I think it’s easier to be creative in pop, but easier to make a living in classical. You can get paying freelance gigs, and you can get teaching jobs, two things that are harder for pop musicians to get, unless (as you and Richard are saying) you play in cover bands.

    I think in the end, much of that’s going to depend on region but on the whole, yes that’s a good assessment. Though I would suspect that private teaching is probably more equivalent–the actual teaching positions is heavily geared towards the classical instruments.

    But then consider this. When I knew a lot of freelance classical musicians in NY, they’d tell me that maybe 10% of the jobs they played gave them any musical satisfaction. And, of course, they were largely playing the same pieces over and over again. So in a way they were playing in cover bands.

    Same goes for many musicians outside big cities, classical musicians I mean, who make a living playing in several regional orchestras, in addition to freelance gigs. They put endless miles on their cars, and, again, may not have much musical pleasure from all of it.

    While I agree with that, I’ve also heard tons of Cover Band musicians talk about how unsatisfying it was to play their original music for just an audience of friends/families and/or the other original bands who happen to be on the bill–and get much more satisfaction playing to a packed house of folks who are dancing/singing along to the tunes their cover band will be doing.

    I’ll admit-it does get old playing the same tune over and over again (in any genre) but playing the same old tune for a new audince can be just as invigorating as playing a new tune for the same audience (if not more so).

    I should be more careful to say that I’m talking about the best aspects of both fields, pop and classical.

    That might be helpful to your readers who aren’t so enamored with your enthusiasm for pop music/pop music culture. And I do sympathize (and empathize) with where you’re coming from, Greg–things need to change–but I think with the positive side of pop also comes the negative side of it (which is probably the side your detractors are associating with the Pop scene).

    Things like the uneasy relationship with gender inequality (to the point of misogyny) and the industry (and often, musicians in the field) focus on a relatively narrow audience of its own (kids get the short end of the stick here since clubs are invariably geared towards an 18+ crowd–all-ages shows/event are almost anathema for actively gigging pop musicians). In the past ten years I’ve been gigging in the local band (both cover and original) circuit these were the things that completely turned me off to the scene, and it’s something that isn’t particularly local but seems to me to be endemic at the national (if not international) level.

    It just seemed to come with the territory for a scene that’s in many ways “unregulated”–and something that the non-academic experimental musicians sometimes overemphasize in their critique-through-performance of the Pop music industry.

    If you look at the people who do well in each, the pop people are more likely to be creative, or at least to have more doors open if they want to be.

    I’m not so sure about this, but don’t really have anything other than anecdotes to use in disagreement. I guess it depends on what you mean by “more doors”–!