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Capitalism in Current Music Scene

Music and Capitalism

    When we think about art music, certain composers come to mind immediately: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, among others. All of these composers have long passed away.

    The art music scene has remained static for so long that there's scarcely any room for living composers to have their works performed by major orchestras or in major opera houses. This saturation of historical repertoire has created a challenging environment for contemporary composers, whose innovative works often struggle to find a place alongside the classics. A few of us might manage to squeeze our pieces in between those venerable, deceased giants, but it's unlikely that we will capture the center of attention, given the enduring legacy of these names.

    To survive in this ecosystem, an increasing number of living composers have turned into entrepreneurs, merging their paths more directly with the capitalist marketplace. This entrepreneurial spirit is not just about selling music but about creating a brand around one’s artistic identity, leveraging digital platforms to reach global audiences. However, capitalism in music isn't a novel concept. For instance, one could argue that Ludwig van Beethoven was among the first capitalist composers in Western classical music.

    Beethoven composed with an eye towards the future, aiming his music not at his contemporaries but at generations yet to come. This approach set his work apart from the immediate cultural, social, or political conditions of his time. The concept of absolute music,which operates entirely on its own terms, plays into this by allowing music to exist outisde any specific situations. This detachment from context turns a piece of music into a commodity, infusing it with commercial potential. Beethoven's forward-looking perspective not only transformed the realm of music composition and performance but also established the foundation for viewing music as a timeless commodity.

    Transitioning from Beethoven’s revolutionary approach, the current music scene has further evolved under the influence of capitalism, amplifying both the inherent value and commercial appeal of music. However, the involvement of new music composers in the capitalist marketplace affects more than just the commercial value of music. It has opened up new possibilities for composers to engage with audiences through multimedia collaborations, soundtrack work, and even direct sales of scores and recordings. Moreover, it has created additional pathways for musicians to gain public recognition and promote themselves, ranging from casual social media presence run by individuals to significant recognitions like fellowships or awards.

    This movement has necessitated a shift in how musicians approach their careers, combining their artistic self with commercial savviness. The opportunity to forge direct connections with audiences—whether through digital platforms or innovative performance formats—has not only diversified the outlets for creative expression but also emphasized the importance of visibility and branding in a saturated market. The cultivation of a strong, recognizable brand becomes pragmatic in achieving not just audience engagement but also long-term career stability and institutional recognition. As musicians gain more recognition, it becomes easier for them to achieve institutional stability.

    This dynamic shows the importance of marketing and networking in the modern music industry, where artistry alone may not suffice to ensure a composer’s legacy or livelihood. This is evidenced by the ease with which a renowned composer can find a position at a prestigious university. While this may not always be the case, the prevalence of award-winning composers being hired by prestigious universities cannot be overlooked. Once a name is recognized, it's much easier for it to be recognized again.

Bang on a Can

    I'd like to examine Bang on a Can from the perspective of capitalism, as they serve as a prime example of composers who have successfully navigated the marketplace. Founded in 1987 by Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, Bang on a Can began with a marathon concert in a downtown New York City gallery. Their innovative approach to concert presentation and programming, which often blended genres and broke traditional concert norms, played a significant role in their rise to prominence. Fresh out of school, or still attending, the trio managed to transform their initiative into a vast international organization. Along the way, they achieved institutional success, securing positions at NYU and Yale, and winning prestigious awards such as Pulitzers and Grammys.

    Their dominance over the scene, particularly in contrast to the "uptown" groups inspired by postwar modernists, suggests that their promotional strategies were more effective. Their ability to create a brand that was both avant-garde and accessible allowed them to reach a wider audience beyond the classical music aficionados. While other factors likely contributed to their success, marketing played a crucial role in attracting an audience.

    The poster for their inaugural marathon concert, featuring an image of hammers striking a can, presents a rebellious and industrial aesthetic likely appealing to a younger, authority-resistant New York City audience. This visual identity, emblematic of their approach to music-making, presented their appeal to a demographic seeking alternatives to the mainstream classical music experience. This targeted marketing proved highly successful, helping Bang on a Can to widely publicize their name.

What matters?

    It's not my place to judge whether engaging in the capitalist market as a new music composer is right or wrong. In reality, we, as musicians, are involved in it to some extent regardless. However, one important consideration often taken for granted is that a composer's name recognition does not guarantee anything else, including their integrity as a musician or their teaching prowess. This raises critical questions about the values we prioritize in the music industry and the criteria we use to evaluate artistic success. A well-known name might merely be the result of effective salesmanship. Fame and quality are not synonymous; a famous name signifies nothing beyond fame itself.

    Bang on a Can's ongoing contributions to new music may deem them good composers, depending on your definition of "good." Their relentless pursuit of new musical expressions and dedication to creating platforms for emerging composers reflect their significant contributions to the field. However, their renown should not be the basis of their merit as composers.

    Judging a piece of music solely by the name of its creator is an easy trap but should be avoided for the reasons mentioned above. The essence of music—its power to evoke emotion, provoke thought, transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, to name just a few—should be the ultimate criterion for its evaluation. In an era increasingly defined by brand and marketability, remembering the true value of music and the importance of authentic artistic expression is vital. Ultimately, the enduring legacy of a composer or a musical work should be determined by its impact on the listener and its contribution to the audience and community, not by its commercial success or the creator's fame.

    This understanding becomes even more crucial in our current times, which are heavily influenced by capitalism, shaping our values and perceptions to varying degrees in subtle but profound ways. Therefore, it is imperative for composers, musicologists, and listeners to critically evaluate musical works, prioritizing their artistic integrity and innovative qualities above anything else.

[1987 BOAC festival program]

[1994 BOAC Festival Program]

[2017 BOAC Festival Program (excerpt)]

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