The story of how the digitization of music revealed the music industry’s feet of clay has been told more than once, but it’s never been properly explained. File sharing may be the prevailing symptom, but it’ s not the actual cause. Something preceded the creation of Napster, and that was the desire, even the need for many music fans, to have a Napster. As far as I have seen, after the many books and articles on the subject, no one has touched on the parties responsible, the decisions they made, what they thought they were doing and how they were fooling themselves. Perhaps it’s because it’s been told from the standpoint of business, when it’s really a story about music.
It’s also a lesson in the difference between music as a creative human activity and the music industry (or recording industry) as a manufacturing business. Music is made by composers and musicians, artists. Recordings are manufactured directed by business executives and produced in factories. Musicians understand this difference inherently, and develop the skills to not only produce their art but to manage the organization of their work and careers, on scales small and large. Business executives do not understand this, they’ve proven this in fact, no matter what their words say.
What this means in practice is that when a musician is selling you music, you get music, content, and when an executive is selling you what they call music, you get a package, which may or may not contain some substantial content. Before the digital era, the recording industry sealed LPs and tapes into jackets and boxes, shrink-wrapped them and it was a business. Those packages, more and more frequently, contained one, maybe two tracks that you would hear on the radio and enjoy enough to want the package, yet it was mostly so empty. Those two tracks, if you were lucky, were surrounded by . . . so much packaging, like aural excelsior that you couldn’t through out.
It wasn’t always like this. One of the curious, happy coincidences of history is that recording and reproduction technology was developed as the great era of pop music as a songwriting craft was getting under way. For over half a century, pop music was as song driven art, and each hit song was recorded by multiple singers in multiple styles. People came for the song, and they left with the artist, but content was king. The continued expansion of radio as a medium for music, and the development of the 45rpm single, moved pop music into a star driven form, and eventually the singer was king, with or without content (this story is told extremely well in two excellent books, the critical How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll by Elijah Wald and the impressionistic, brilliant Sonata for Jukebox , by Geoffrey O’Brian). The music industry began selling the star, and that meant getting that one hit record and making the rest of the album as a sort of excuse (the current, long-lasting atrophy is a sad and worrisome example of what might be the twilight of the American experience; vastly overpaid, deeply incompetent executives seeking the next big vastly overpaid, deeply incompetent pop star, because in their tiny, limited, monochromatic socio-economic universe, like can only recognize like, producing the type of inbred offspring incapable of surviving outside their sheltered, decadently cosseted environment).
The only people who were surprised to find that music buyers wanted that one song and were fed up with having to swallow the whole stinking, crappy album, and were champing at the bit to find a way to just get that one damn song, were the music industry executives. They actually thought they were selling music, rather than just a package (by this time the jewel case). I certainly would never imagine that these captains of industry had any decent taste to speak of, but capitalism indicates that they should be self-interested enough to know what their product actually was. Of course, businessmen, seeking favors, handouts, begging for politicians to protect them from competition and living like parasites off the tax laws they successfully game, are not capitalists.
Musicians are. They have to be, they have to survive. And it is so very difficult to make a living playing music, so very difficult to run a band, and ensemble, a performing organization, that those who survive, let alone modestly succeed, prove by doing so that they are for more talented and skillful – and imaginative – managers and administrators than the vast mediocre landscape of CEOs and politicians who claim the wisdom and mantle of executive leadership. When you look at the line of candidates up for the Republican presidential nomination, try to imagine any of them trying to run a their own big band, like Darcy James Argue, or create a career like Cecil Taylor, or produce Make Music New York. Then pick yourself up off the floor when you finish laughing.
To musicians, the ability to not only professionally record and produce their own music, at what is now an exceptionally low cost, and then to distribute it on their own (and this is really the vital thing), has been just the thing they had been waiting for and they have taken advantage of the tools of digital media to a far more creative and greater extent than any business of any kind, especially the ones that base their model on the internet. Because the musicians have content, they also have had it. The best example of this is what symphonic orchestras have done as recording contracts withered and died. Of any groups playing music based on the old pop-songwriter model, it is the orchestras, who are built on centuries worth of content and share that with the public. That’s what they do, it’s all content! The major ones, and many lower level ones, also have recorded their own performances for decades for their own archives. With that, it’s really no step at all to this: a growing catalogue of digital only concerts, recorded directly from the stage and with little or no post-production editing. They’re not recording sessions, they’re concerts, and they’re being recorded anyway, and they music is great, and the musicians play it exceptionally well, and . . . so . . . why the hell not?
For music lovers, this concept is heaven. Not only is great music available to them that they previously could only have heard in the concert hall, but, for almost a year, the only recording of the new Arvo Pärt Symphony No. 4 that was available was the concert one from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And last fall, the Berlin Philharmonic went from concert to digital with their tremendous Mahler Symphony No.2 performance in the space of a month. Content, distribution, not a music industry honcho in sight.
Many orchestras have formed their own labels for digital and physical reproduction and distribution; LSO Live was one of the first, and others include the Chicago Symphony, the Concertgebouw and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The New York Philharmonic produced a digital only Mahler cycle under Loren Maazel. You can even watch live performances, via the web, of the Berlin Philharmonic. But no orchestra has done as much with media as the San Francisco Symphony. They started their own SFS Media label to produce their monumental, wonderful Mahler cycle, all recorded in concert, and are continuing to produce new recordings, including their new Ives/Copland concert recording. But the most expansive, ambitious, exciting and satisfying media venture they have undertaken is their “Keeping Score” program, and true multimedia production for DVD, the web, audio and television, where it is now returning, starting this week, for two episodes on PBS (check your local listings or go here to search for broadcast dates and times in your area – in New York City, WNET will air the program on consecutive Saturdays, June 25 and July 2, at 2pm. After broadcasts, full episodes will be available for streaming at video.pbs.org.).
You should watch these, whether you have never heard of Gustav Mahler – the subject this time around – or you know everything about Gustav Mahler. “Keeping Score” is the greatest examination of great music that has been done outside of the esoteric language and analytical techniques of the academy. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the Symphony (think of him as a CEO with actual talent and a paycheck he earns) is a protege of Leonard Bernstein, the great explainer of art music to the public. Bernstein was a great, essential figure in American culture, but in this are, Tilson Thomas surpasses him. He has the advantage of new technology and new ideas about media, of course, but it’s to his, and SFS Media’s, credit that the programs exploit their medium’s possibilities to the fullest.
Previous episodes have examined the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Appalachian Spring from Aaron Copland, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz and the Ives Holidays Symphony. They are filled with vivid biographical details, things that tell us about the composers and also the specific circumstances and possible meanings of the music. We see the chamber where Berlioz labored at the Cantata that would win him the Prix de Rome, we tour Shostakovich’s apartment, we witness the kind of holiday parade scene that Ives loved as a boy. Tilson Thomas, friendly, charming, lightly passionate, speaking with the inherent confidence that what he is telling us is interesting and important and so never selling, is a brilliant tour guide through the physical, mental and aesthetic geographies of these composers.
These pieces are more than just collections of notes, spaced out at a duration that seems daunting to people not used to classical music. They are intellectual and emotional ideas and experiences put into physical motion. Each composer had the context of their life that brought them to the point of creating their pieces, and this is especially vital for Beethoven, Ives and Shostakovich. All the DVDs are tremendously fascinating, even gripping, and completely entertaining throughout, but the Eroica is so important, and Ives and Shostakovich’s pieces are so deeply mysterious, that the insight Tilson Thomas provides is a thrill, even breathtaking. The final movement of the Beethoven Symphony begins with a jokey tune, in such extreme contrast to the sweep, power and emotional depth of what came before, that it can be disconcerting. But when MTT sits down at the piano and demonstrates how it came about – Beethoven, participating in an improvising contest, turned his rivals music upside down, played that and then spun off a series of variations on it – the great genius and plain humanity of the composer is revealed in a way that is both astonishing and funny. That variations finale is a way of Beethoven demonstrating his own heroic ability, proud, petulant, generous, humorous all at once, like music itself.
The Ives and Shostakovich stories are penetrating. Their music has so much complex, personal psychology, hints of things that we may comprehend but can never truly understand. Meaning in Shostakovich is an impenetrable mystery. Since he could never safely say what he meant, we can never be sure that we know what he means, or that he’s being sincere. Keeping Score shows the reasons for his fear and insecurity, as well as his reasons for his desire to be an accepted artist in the political culture of the Soviet Union. Tilson Thomas doesn’t answer the questions, but he gives us the best ones to think about as we listen to the music. He also penetrates the details of the composition to show us, with music, how Shostakovich created that sound that makes him unlike any other composer. The episode on Ives Holidays Symphony is a tour de force of biography and musicology. Ives psychology is deeply complex and essential to understanding the musical decisions he made. It’s a mix of hero worship of his father and disappointment in that same man, a longing for the memories he had of his home town, whether real or fantastic, an idealization of his country, a need to both carve out his lonely path and be noticed and accepted. There are many fragments of memory, image making and bits of American traditional and popular music in the piece and to hear them in their original context, and even in a small New England town, opens up a beautiful window into the piece, turning something dense and knotty into something transparent and, like Beethoven and Shostakovich, so human that we can understand how a man could say something we ourselves could not image.
But that is the way these programs work, with all the composers, and expect the same from the Mahler programs. There is more to them than all I’ve just written though, the best part: each includes a complete performance of the work in the episode. The stories and analysis that comes before makes you sit up and take notice, really listen, and that adds to the benefit that these are absolutely great performances from what is arguably the finest orchestra and conductor in the hemisphere. The playing, the ideas, are so musical and so polished, with strength, energy, confidence and tremendous phrasing, color and expression. SFS Media has released these as separate audio CDs, and all of them would be excellent first choices for anyone interested in the music; the Eroica and Symphonie Fantastique recordings are the finest I have ever heard, the best out of some extremely fine competition, and the Holidays Symphony is not only better but, strangely, almost too good. Ives has an inherent roughness, even clumsiness and chaos, in his writing that is integral to his art – the sense that he barely has the language to say the strangest, most personal things he wants to express is important – in that a sense of struggle makes his music speak honestly. The San Francisco Symphony plays the music with such unbelievable skill that they make it sound like an accepted, common part of the repertoire. In a way, that’s deeply subversive, and also a fitting tribute, that musicians have set themselves to Ives with such dedication and purpose that he sounds, well, like a “Classical” composer.
This is the second in a series of articles. Read the first one here.