Refocusing the discussion on Sustainability.

This is the third post in a little series looking at some hot button topics in music these days. The first was an introduction. The second was an attempt to get us past the knee jerk reaction of "how different the arts are today," especially in regards to "full-time musicians" and "entrepreneurs." This focuses instead on sustainability.

One reason this all got started was an argument I had with a former professor about the idea of sustainability. Honestly, I'm sick of seeing the work "sustainable" tossed in with the arts. I'm kind of tired of the idea that orchestras exist to make "hand over fist" large sums of money. Why? Because orchestras don't exist to make money. Orchestras, and the arts in general, are not commercial. What's that mean?

It means that their purpose--their reason for being, is not to make money. Yes, professional musicians can and should be able to make a living performing and creating art. But that's not the same thing. It has to do with a philosophy, an attitude.

I've been recently working my way through the blog (and journal articles) of Jeff Todd Titon. His writings on sustainability, from a cultural, ecological, and financial standpoints are worth perusing. I bring him up because of a series he did back in March entitled "Music is not a cultural asset." In part 1, Titon gives background information, and in part 2 he takes apart David Throsby's arguments about the economics of cultural policy.

I'll let Titon's writings speak for themselves. I agree with most of his points, and definitely see how being tied to corporate structures, and treating music as an asset to be traded in a commodity exchange can cause major issues.. From a more specific standpoint, look at all the popular artists that get discussed as "selling out."

The phrase "selling out" is entirely tied to the idea of commodifying music. An artist creates a piece of work and said work is not "profitable." Let's say, for instance, this is a punk group that is about as hardcore as it gets--screaming, heavily distorted guitars, political statements, everything that is "in your face." They get produced by an independent label, or self-produce, and do alright. An exec from a large label says "we're interested in you, but, you'll have to tone it down one notch. Then you'll go platinum." It's the difference between making a great product, and making a product solely to fit the marketing consensus.

There is a deep philosophical difference between the two issues, the idea of creating a product for it's intrinsic value and finding an audience (or user of the product), and creating a product for the sole purpose of making money, cutting out innovation when needed, and giving users only what metrics define as being "profitable." Companies focused solely on "profitability" often aren't sustainable--look at the bank collapses caused by poor lending practices (which were highly profitable at the time), or companies that find it more profitable to shut down a manufacturing wing because it wasn't making enough money, only to see huge public backlash, and even worse profit margins. Removing the human element, and focusing on "profit" are bad combinations in the corporate world (just ask Hostess), but even worse in the arts.

I've digressed a bit, but here's the main point for me, as an artist--it's about a philosophy and an attitude. Financial sustainability does not cross my mind as I'm working on a piece. It's value as a commodity never crosses my mind. Even similar questions such as "will enough people like this piece?" don't really cross my mind--I accepted many years ago that some people will love my music, others will hate it, and a great many will be indifferent. This is true with all art, no matter if it's folk, popular, or "high." What is on my mind is "how do I create a work that is meaningful to myself, does something that interests me (and thereby, hopefully, others like me), and has some sort of deeper 'universal' quality which is translatable." Granted, that last bit doesn't go into my musical thinking often, but it is a part of what I do as I'm writing (this blog, a research paper, or even another play). Music is, in a way, universal, as well as deeply societally defined...I tend to be more experimental than worry about the tropes, but I have been studying music and cognition a great deal, hoping to unearth something useful (this is, of course, a different topic altogether, so I'll just leave it on this side-street for later examination).

It's this philosophy that's important. Almost all music organizations promote this in their mission statements (except for, maybe, Minnesota Orchestra's old mission statement...oy...). Simple statements like "Great performances for greater audiences" (Kansas City Symphony--though the "we have to make money!" creeps in their statement as well), "To perform, present, and promote music in its many varied forms at the highest level of excellence to a large and diverse audience" (Los Angeles Phil Association), or an even more specific one from the NY Phil:

The mission of the New York Philharmonic is to support, maintain, and operate an internationally pre-eminent symphony orchestra in New York; to maintain and foster an interest in and enjoyment of music; to encourage composition of symphonic music; and to instill in its community, and the nation at large, an interest in symphonic music by providing local concerts, domestic and international tours, education programs, media broadcasts, and recordings. 

And now for a local group, newEar from Kansas City, MO:

newEar contemporary music ensemble dedicates itself to commissioning and performing music of our time and providing listeners with unique and stimulating musical experiences that are rooted in artistic excellence and enhanced by education opportunities.

All these groups are financially sustainable with their current ideas. Looking at their programs also gives a nice idea of what happens when groups focus first on the artistic output, and further down about the financial sustainability. The LA Phil has the Green Umbrella music series--a home for new and experimental works. It's been around for quite a while, and Esa-Pekka Salonen fought hard to keep it running during tough financial times. And what you get is reviews like this, as well as a thriving musical culture always looking forward while still performing "the greatest hits" of past generations.

In summation, it's all about attitude. If an artistic endeavor, orchestra, chamber group, art studio, etc is approached from "how do we make enough money to stay open," what invariably follows is stagnation, conservative programming, and, unfortunately, a loss of money. Sustainability is a quick way to fall away from innovation, away from the Green Umbrella series', and toward a commodification of the art form.

Because if art is simply commodity, just a product meant to be traded with some sort of societally defined financial value, and some harder to define cultural value, then it will cease to evolve. Just like if Steve Jobs thought "I need to think of a product people will want," vs. "I need to think of something that people don't know they want." One statement is innovative, the other not.

And innovation breeds sustainability--by providing new ideas and products that people didn't know they would want, or even need, you can change the world. There's a very old adage "you have to spend money to make money." This is doubly true in innovation, because it won't always work. But if you take a conservative stance, it will, inevitably, not be sustainable. Remember, even though NYCO went under, it wasn't because of their new works. Anna Nicole was, after all, nearly sold out before it even opened. It wasn't the new works that killed NYCO, it was mismanagement (such as going dark for a season, which is a quick killer!).

After all, Beethoven is wonderful, but putting a Beethoven symphony, which the metrics would say sell out every time they are played, is a bad idea. Hyperbole, of course, but the sentiment is similar--"playing it safe" doesn't create a sustainable program. It just puts everything on life support, limping along for a year or two longer...


Anonymous said...

"Sustainability" is one of those buzz words (along with Entrepreneur) that have more to do with marketing a "new" economic model or viewpoint than anything else. Invariably it's never really examined in a comparative manner--or when it is it's usually in the service of making apples to oranges comparisons.

No one seems to care to mention that audiences don't create sustainability in even the Pop Music or Sports Industry any more than it does in the Arts.

At one time Classical Music had value for businesses and corporations--the PR sponsorships during the late 30s and 40s on the radio and early television of orchestras gave the businesses a chance to combat the previous New Deal/anti-business trend during the Depression. Eventually Sports and Pop Music took that role of value for businesses as ad sponsorship made up the lion's share of revenue for both industries (I think we tend to forget that Music Labels gave advances and tour support so that artists could effectively market the Labels' products--i.e. the Recording by the artist).

We think of a three way relationship between audience/consumers + artists/producers + venues/broadcasters -- but we always seem to forget about the donors/corporations which actually contribute far more revenue to artist/producers when such exist for them.

And as we know, very few folks have the benefit of that last group except large arts organizations, professional sports teams, or pop superstars. The rest of us "sustaining" ourselves through multiple income streams.

John Chittum said...

All great points. But, at the same time, it's important to remember that audiences are consumers in multiple fashions. Ticket sales at football games aren't the cash cows, but the concessions, parking, etc definitely are. Tours for pop musicians have, for at least the last 40 years, revolved around selling a recording, hyping a new album, etc. than anything else.

The live experience has been a form of marketing for another product, be it concessions, recordings, or TV/Radio proceeds.

It's interesting, we assume that the concert is "the product," but the more I think I about it, the less I'm inclined to agree.

All this to say, really, we need to divorce ourselves from the current capitalistic idea of value anyway. Commodifying human experience, trademarking DNA, and having an entire society focused on money being the end product of any endeavor is dangerous for any form of culture.

Anonymous said...

Concessions are the cash cows for the venue. The ad dollars from businesses go to the teams, the concessions go to the venue. We're told that cinemas are really in the food business (or the concessions is where they make their money) while the movies are what draw in their customers.

Same thing for big pop music venues--that $5 bud light in a plastic cup is more than covering the cost of beer itself, but the venue needs to make enough off concessions to pay for running the venue and paying for staffing it.

So yeah, the concert, the game--these are used to market the the events as well as the venue. They are the draw, but the ticket sales go the the performers while the concession sales go to the venue.

It used to be the case that clubs would pay a percentage of their alcohol sales to musicians--5% - 10% was pretty standard, but that doesn't happen much anymore except in the venues with a big regular audience.

I'm not sure how much we could ever divorce the business side from the value side but as long as the demand side is driving the business, we're all going to see a much smaller piece of an increasingly smaller pie.

John Chittum said...

Let's not move this further into supply side style (and do mean style, as it's not really supply side) economics shouldn't be traded in culture. Or how, quite honestly, the current capitalist system of ownership is bad for anything creative.

I will call BS on that article though for a false equivalency. I agreed that the original NY Times OpEd was wrong in calling it slavery. However, the idea that professional writers aren't the same as surgeons because everyone can write is the same as saying "surgeons shouldn't get paid much because anyone can learn first-aid and CPR." There's a huge skill difference between, say, me and a real writer (I'm good, but still an amateur), just as much as there's a difference between me and, I dunno, people that don't read books but comment that they could write one.

It's false equivalency, something that is horribly rampant in the majority of writings about art and economics these days...

Anonymous said...

Problem is that we can't move it to the supply side anymore. Resources are scarce. And while some of us can make a distinction between a "high value work of art" and all the musical products that exist out there for consumption, most folks either don't or can't so any high art music is going to compete (from the consumer standpoint) with all the other forms of musical entertainment.

While the business and corporations were traditionally the big funders and often gatekeepers of entertainment, that's also breaking down as newer technology (and forms of entertainment) quickly becomes the norm. This actually parallels what happened to musicians in the first half of the century with the coming of motion pictures, then sound pictures and radio, and then television.

Popular (and not so popular) entertainment always had a big boost through some form of non-performance revenue streams and most of these took advantage of it when they could--now those systems are breaking down and we're seeing a surplus of musicians without the old gatekeeping mechanisms which is bringing the overall value on both high and low art. That's what I focused on in my Free Culture post.

One of the commenters took the author to task about that surgeon/writer equivalency too.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that second sentence should have read "Resources aren't scarce anymore"