Badminton with Words

There are two words being bandied about a great deal in the classical music community these days: entrepreneurship and sustainability. Neither one are new concepts, with bloggers and modern writers tackling the issue for the past few years. Even more importantly, both have been vitally important portions of music from the beginning of time, and are inexorably linked to creative fields.

However, in the last couple years, we've seen a veritable boom in thinking about these two concepts. Part of it comes out from studies, including National Endowment for the Arts surveys on public participation, studies showing what many musicians have anecdotally known for years: that classical music audiences are older than they were. We've also seen a lot of reactionary material on rethinking degrees and recitals. My own alma mater, DePauw University, just got a 15 million dollar gift to revise their curriculum for musicians of the 21st century. With the failing of two major institutions, the general orchestral crisis with striking symphonies, ailing endowments, and reactions that range from conservative programming, to kitsch and pop driven programming, some national (and international) ire, and tons of local support, everyone has appeared to give their two cents on the subject.

Some people are reactionary (myself included), others have been at the fore in the years preceding the current financial issues. Greg Sandow has done a good job showing trends that may lead to understanding where the failings began with his timeline of the crisis. Jon Silpayamanant's blog has shown how some studies and ideas are red herrings, and his bibliographic timelines are great resources in studying 20th century (and sometimes into the 19th century) trends. And, of course, there's Drew McManus and many more that have graced my own blog over the past year. Maybe someone should put together a large repository of links just to people working on the subject? Not me, not today at least.

For my part, I'm done being reactionary at the moment. Time for some "innovation," if you will. But this innovation isn't about tossing my ideas on "how to fix the problem." Instead, it's going to be innovation on thinking about the problem. And by innovation, I mean changing my own stance and thinking creatively, not necessarily coming up with new ideas.

So, as with any good story, a good place to start is at the beginning. In the beginning of this blog, there were two words: entrepreneurship and sustainability. What do these terms mean? First, let's talk about entrepreneurship. What is an entrepreneur? A simple economic definition is "one who starts and runs a business or businesses." But is that really all an entrepreneur is? Other key components listed in various sites are "leadership, initiative, and innovation." From a business standpoint, this could mean someone inventing a new device, or upgrading a past one, and selling it in their own business--highly touted entrepreneurs (and venture capitalists) include Elon Musk of Tesla and Space X; Henry Ford and the auto industry; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in computing; and many more. Entrepreneurs are separate from researchers who may be incredibly innovative, be major leaders, and even have large amounts of initiative by the simple economic situation--a researcher or scientist may not take the step to start their own business.

So, what is an entrepreneur in the arts? The main focus I've seen is on how artists can make a living. This may include innovation, but mostly innovation from an "economic" standpoint--how do we market better, how do we utilize social media, what do we teach students so they can make a living post graduation? There's also a bit of focus on collaboration, mainly with other artists, as a way to create something "sustainable:" the idea that by working together in collectives, we may have a better chance to make enough money to live.

Then there is sustainability. This is a loaded term with at least two separate, equally talked about areas of study; economic sustainability and ecological sustainability. Prior to the current crisis, there was a lot of blogging and talk about sustainability in ethnomusicology groups. Jeff Todd Titon is a name that pops up a lot in modern research of cultural sustainability, which looks at a combination of economic and ecological sustainability of the arts--mainly of folk traditions.

What I see in modern conversations about sustainability is entirely economical; not cultural, not ecological, purely economical. How do we make enough money? What is enough money? Fundraising ideas? For me the biggest tell of the shift in thinking was in the Minnesota Orchestra mission statement:
The Minnesota Orchestral Association inspires, educates and serves our community through internationally recognized performances of exceptional music delivered within a sustainable financial structure.

That's all well and good, but notice it doesn't actually mention orchestral music, and says quite firmly "within a sustainable financial structure."

Now, I'm not knocking either idea. Entrepreneurship and sustainability are both important to music. However, it's important to think about how semantics can prime a situation. When someone says "sustainability" the current in many brains right now means "sustainable financial structure." When we hear about sustainable financial structure, what comes to mind? Well, if you read the news in the US, it's something that's a highly polarized issue that gets tossed into two broad categories: out of control spending by a large government; and not enough spending by the government to help push economic recovery.

Dichotomy, it's the essence of the human mind. As my playwriting teacher once told me: keep everything to dualistic choices, they're easier for everyone to understand (My edit: mainly in a limited time).

What I'd like to push for is more options and ideas on the subject. My gut reaction is that the conversations about sustainability and entrepreneurship are actually being hampered by the words themselves. We've reached a point where specific meanings of coalesced and we're being split into camps. This is decidedly uncreative, and unbecoming of artists. Really, a field that prides itself on diversity, on proliferating new ideas, we're letting a couple common definitions cloud our judgement? Perhaps it's time to remove the language itself from the equation. So, I'll do my best to avoid those terms, and find terms more specific to the situation.

The second issue I'm seeing, past the semantic, is that of historical context. For many, this crisis is seen as completely unique, something that has never happened before. Have there been no crises in "classical music" before? I can think of several--the move from a patron based system to an independent system (pushed by Beethoven but adopted by many in 19th century Romantic view. And, of course, it's not like patronage actually ended, but the move from a court position to an independent position caused all sorts of interesting battles). Do we forget the troubles and trials of Mozart, who attempted the lifestyle before Beethoven and didn't do such a great job? Or how hard Beethoven fought for his share of the pie? And how, moving into the 20th century, patronage didn't go away, but shifted, from nobles in the 18th century, to orchestras, opera houses, and the state in the 19th century, to academia starting in the late 19th century into the 20th century as support from the state dwindled. This is just one instance where a historical perspective could be very helpful: how did the arts change during these major changes in economic, social, and political change? We see countries moving from monarchies to democracies (or to more heavily structured parliamentary systems), the industrial revolution changing economics on a huge scale (much like the information and electronics age are changing economics, especially rapidly in the rise of digital media and online retailers), and social movements in creating the middle class, the ending of slavery, serfdom, and other forms of indentured servitude, and an increase in freedoms for people through the 20th century. How has art and music transformed during these time periods?

In other words, why are so many people attempting to reinvent the wheel? Why are so many of us (including myself) being reactionary? and even deeper, why are we looking for roots to the problems?

Which is my third issue: we need to identify roots of problems and not just treat symptoms. There are organizations and individuals looking at these problems: Jon Silpayamanant is going in this direction; the NEA published a report on how technology influences arts participation, a study I'm currently working my way through and considering deeply. But many of us (myself again included), haven't always been looking for the root of problems. We've found problems, for instance, the aging audience. However, why is the audience aging? There has been some recent work looking into this, from raising ticket prices to outreach to the distancing from the public. I've posited a few in my posts recently as well.

But now's the time to stop positing and actually investigate and find out why. Time to do studies and see which of these many factors are actually influencing people in specific communities and nation-wide. Before we start leaping into making curriculums (even though I agree we need to create new curriculums in colleges at all levels), we need to identify the root of the problem. Otherwise our changes are nothing more than band-aids tossed on a tumor.

There is a third word bandied about as well: collaboration. It is, also, misused, I think, and in need of some semantic repair. But, at the moment, I think I'll stop and collect my thoughts again--this has been sitting for a few weeks as I worked through my thoughts.

Because it's time we stopped being purely reactionary. There's a time and place for it, but, when we are faced with deep problems, problems of a financial, philosophical (both as far as the place of the arts in society, as well as the roles of various agencies in the arts), political, social, and ecological. Actually, I could sum up by saying let's look at the deep problems of the arts and the world, but that is all at once too broad, too prosaic, and too philosophical.

Instead, let's simply take a breath and act like artists: ask a question, work through that question creatively from many angles, find a deeper, more important question, and come up with several hundred possible ideas to try, then try them, one by one, in various scenarios. Let's step back from the answering phase we seem to be at, and move back to questioning.

Mainly, now that we've identified problems let's ask "What is the root of the problem?"

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