Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Second thoughts: Dear Detroit, the economy of music isn't rational

Orchestra Hall, Detroit
By Barry Johnson

It's hard to make sense of the dispute between the musicians and the board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from outside of Michigan. We aren't privy to the history of the symphony or the larger economic conditions it faces. We suspect that those conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that the support for the symphony going forward is going to be at a lower level for the foreseeable future. We sympathize with musicians who are asked to take a $30,000 per year pay cut, with little chance that this is going to be a short-term hit. But honestly, we aren't there and can't make a first-hand assessment.

But from the post yesterday and the subsequent comments, a couple of points are worth restating. The first involves one of the central arguments that the Detroit Symphony musicians are making. They contend that the salary cut will make it impossible for the symphony to employ truly first-rate musicians going forward, and that ultimately the music the symphony makes will suffer. As  our  commenters (Charles Noble, Frank Almond and Thomas Lloyd) pointed out, one way or another, this presupposes that the best musicians (however we define "best") will always seek out and secure the highest paying positions.

And that presupposition is built on the idea that the economy as a whole is a rational meritocracy.  I think we owe the Chicago School of economics the credit for insinuating this particular canard into the culture.  Is the Los Angeles Philharmonic many times better than the orchestras in Milwaukee or Portland? Will it suddenly become twice as good as Detroit's, once the pay cuts take place? No one is going to argue that, at least not successfully.

And it demeans the work done in Milwaukee and Portland by musicians we know are committed to the craft of their instruments and the art form of their music. We may admire the playing of a violinist in the famed orchestras of LA, San Francisco or Cleveland, but we don't for a moment think that our own violinists can't convey the musical ideas of Mozart or Mahler or Philip Glass. They can. We've heard them. Maybe we even prefer them to the recordings we've heard of the bigger orchestras. (In fact, I do in some cases.)

So, I'm unmoved by that particular argument mounted by the musicians in Detroit.

But what should the musicians of Detroit do? Sit there and take it quietly?  I think I would offer to cut yet another five percent from my salary, if the money went to the right place.  We might call the right place "marketing" (as Kennedy Center chief Michael Kaiser has), but I think it's broader than that. The Detroit symphony (much like the one in Portland) is fighting to make its work and art more central to the culture of its city. I'd demand to play EVERYWHERE the staff could schedule me -- malls, schools, colleges, outdoor amphitheaters, public squares, in Detroit and the suburbs.

If that meant playing fewer concerts in my concert hall, well, that's OK, because the real work to be done isn't perfecting my Brahms, it's showing why Brahms matters to my community at all, especially to people who don't come to the music already believing that.  Once I've done that, everything else falls into place. We all listen to Brahms together. We start to build a better culture, one informed by Brahms, together. I don't worry about the salaries of musicians in a culture like that. Maybe I don't even worry about my own.

This sounds so simple. Too simple. But as Detroit is proving, we spend a lot of time squabbling with each other while the real "enemy," ignorance, runs rampant. We let our rules and regulations and past practices get in the way. We make false arguments or argue the wrong thing. The value of the orchestra isn't economic; it's not even semiotic: the orchestra as a sign of an "advanced" culture.  All of its value is tied up in the experience it offers its listeners, second by second, measure by measure, the attention it demands and the rewards it issues. Who can we get to listen and how can we encourage them to join us again? I'm sorry: Nothing else matters.


natalieg said...

There is something here that intrigues me.

"If that meant playing fewer concerts in my concert hall, well, that's OK, because the real work to be done isn't perfecting my Brahms, it's showing why Brahms matters to my community at all, especially to people who don't come to the music already believing that."

Is this the role the musicians in a top 10 orchestra? Doesn't being the best of the best mean that you don't have to play in schools and malls and parks to indifferent audiences?

Or are all artists, even the very top echelon, required to do audience development work now? Perhaps we're now in such a crisis that there is no more place for elite artists to have the luxury of simply honing their craft.

Frank Almond said...

Our orchestra is a huge part of the local and state community both in and out of the concert hall. Beyond the extensive schools and youth programs, we play all over the state, perform numerous community outreach and donor events, and are the contracted orchestra for the opera. Personally, I think this is not only fundamental to our role, but absolutely necessary for any orchestra these days. Some would argue that many of the “top 10” orchestras should adopt more of these activities as part of their basic mission; perhaps in the next several years they may not have a choice anyway. Incidentally, our musicians are not contractually required to teach privately in schools, as one of the Detroit proposals evidently mandates. That is a radical departure from industry standard (as are many other elements of that proposal, such as abolishing the tenure system).

Regarding the economics discussion, Bill Eddins has a relevant comment thread going here: http://www.insidethearts.com/sticksanddrones/2010/08/25/bill-eddins/2723/

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks for joining in, Natalie. I think that audience development actually IS the work of musicians, no matter how good they are or how famous. No audience then no musicians then no classical music. No "informed" audience then classical music becomes insipid. Of course, it's up to the individual musicians to decide where and for whom they want to play, how seriously they want to take up that task.

Say Yo-Yo Ma is going to play in Pioneer Courthouse Square when he comes to town for his concert with the symphony. Classical music fans are going to flock to the square. And I, riding by on the MAX, say, will turn to my seatmate and ask, "What's going on?" It could be that the answer, Yo-Yo Ma, which may seem utterly cryptic, leads me to hop off the train and listen. Or it sticks with me, and I try to decode it. My search includes a YouTube video, I listen, and...

I think this is a fine use of a great musician's time, to stir up the city at large and make new converts.

Barry Johnson said...

Frank, I think that Top 10 orchestras -- which are mostly in the largest cities -- need to do proselytize even more than Milwaukee. Their capacity to stir up interest and excitement around their cities, regions and even nationwide should be used to good effect. Your approach in Milwaukee puts you right where the battle for attention is the fiercest, which is where we need you! I appreciate the need for outreach to schools, but I'm not so big on mandating private instruction, but maybe that's a subject for another post.