It is safe to say, for at least the last four decades, orchestral music has been in decline. And when we say decline, we mean bleeding money like a stuck pig. Why? Pretty simple, actually; people don’t go to the symphony.
Here’s the great part about this long tale of cultural woe. People have started going to the symphony. And it’s happening because the orchestra has started playing things they want to hear. The Wall Street Journal, printed bastion of stodgy old New York finance types, ran a cute little article about how video game soundtracks are being played by orchestras. And, wonder of wonders, concert hall seats are actually fulfilling their designed goal and attracting asses to sit in them. Those asses come attached to real people, who bring money for tickets and even merchandise that they give over when they attend.
Stephen Colbert had a traveling orchestra on his show a few days ago, and they performed some music from The Legend of Zelda.
First, it sounded great. Second, I had no idea there were orchestras that did tours with this new-plan stuff. And third, good on Colbert for showcasing something like this. After all, wasn’t the original plan for ‘late night television’ to be a sort of variety show with interviews? But the interviews have dominated for about twenty or twenty-five years now. I keep hearing interesting things from the Colbert show, so good on him. But let’s move on.
I think this whole phenomenon with the video game music is amazing. I’ll bet I’m like most folks in this regard; I don’t really have anything against classical music, but it’s not something I’ll listen to as a first choice. Or a fifth choice, to be honest. And it’s not something I’ll pay $60 or $90 or more dollars for a concert of. And that, in a nutshell, is why the symphony has been in decline for so long. It’s an art form that doesn’t appeal to today’s consumers. More importantly, it’s been an industry without a plan. When classical music had a higher popularity, when there were more people willing to pay for concerts of Bach and Mozart and so on, it could support itself. The musicians could be paid, the halls could be maintained, and the art — the business — could continue. People stopped going, and orchestras have been closing.
One of the constant problems, ever moreso today, is how too many artists and art aficionados think business is a naughty thing. Blunt truth time; unless your art is counterfeiting and you can literally print money or make it magically appear out of the ether, your art has to be supported. If you pay for it yourself, it’s really a hobby. I’m sure you have fun with it, but without fiscal support it’s a hobby. Whatever your art is, it requires money to sustain. Paints have to be bought, instruments have to be bought, speakers and amps, pencils and paper, computers and word processors, digital drawing programs, big blocks of granite; whatever medium the art takes, you’re either a hobbyist or a thief if your art doesn’t attract funds that support it.
I’ve had this conversation with artists before. I’ve even had it with fans. One of the strangest people I’ve ever met in real life, and I really did meet this guy, was someone who insisted — demanded — his musical tastes be exclusively eclectic He only listened to music that no one else was listening to. Now, I think even he realized that if he’d managed to hear about this music, he probably wasn’t the only one who had. But no one else that he was aware of could be listening to it, or he’d stop and move on. Actually, he allowed his girlfriend to also listen to the music. But if he heard about other people talking about the band, God forbid actually playing it; if anyone else came into his radar who knew about that music, that music was instantly off his. He only liked it if no one else did.
I’ve never understood his position. I’m not kidding about what I described in the above paragraph, but I don’t get it. This was just a normal guy, a college student (naturally), so he wasn’t rich. The main thing I’ve never gotten about him, apart from the oddity aspect, was how he expected any of the bands he ‘liked’ to stay around if no one (except him) was listening to them.
The reason I mention this strange guy I ran into once upon a time is some of the (limited) existing audience members of the symphony hate the new events. Even in the WSJ article, they quoted someone who hates the upsurge of symphony popularity due to the videogame music. He says “from a business-strategy perspective, it completely devalues the brand.”
Let’s break that down. Devaluing the brand . . . the brand is dying. What’s the point of keeping it ‘intact’ or ‘untarnished’ all the way into extinction? How does that help the brand, the art, or the audience? Sure it might somehow have held onto its ‘honor’ or whatever, but it’s dead. It’s part of history; no longer active. So that part’s stupid. The first part’s even more stupid. From a business-strategy perspective . . . does he not hear the lack of intelligence in that phrasing? The business of the orchestra has been shrinking, for decades. People don’t go. It’s not a blip, not a short-term decline. For a really long time now, the audience has been below sustainability, and still getting ever smaller. Most of two whole generations of people, with a third working their way through grade-and-high school, have arrived on this planet and all but completely ignored the orchestra. Where’s the ‘business’ if there is no business? Where’s the ‘strategy’ that has reversed this decline?
The strategy is the video game music. The orchestras have found something that people will pay for. And it’s something they, the orchestras, can supply. If you have a business built on musicians, you need a musical product. You don’t turn the musicians into something else; they’re musical artists. They got into the business to play music. This new ‘phenomena’ has people paying to attend the symphony, which lets the symphony pay its bills. Better, the new attendees are having a good time at the symphony. They like this music, they enjoy the experience of hearing music they know and love being performed by several dozen professional musicians. They’re willing to pay, happily, for the experience. Reports from fans of the new plan concerts are excellent; they’re having a fantastic experience listening to music they know performed professionally.
Apparently that’s not enough for some hardcore orchestra fans. They’d rather ‘preserve the purity’ of their precious orchestras. Never mind that this video game music was written for orchestras in the first place. ‘Real’ composers — Hans Zimmer, Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer — write these soundtracks. I’m not sure how some sort of ‘hardcore’ orchestral fan wants to argue that Zimmer’s music doesn’t qualify as ‘real symphony’, but if they want to make themselves sound stupid that’s their prerogative.
Now, let’s be clear. These orchestras aren’t replacing the ‘old’ concerts with the new ones. They run in parallel. If someone is among the (limited) pre-new-plan audience and hates the new plan, then don’t go to the new plan concerts. Stick with the existing ones that you like, where they play the stuff that hasn’t been attracting the audiences that can keep the symphony afloat. Most of the new plan fans aren’t going to those, so you should be free to sit there in the rarefied air and be as smug as you want. Why should it bother you that, on other occasions when you’re not there, the symphony has a different audience in the seats? An audience that’s paying the bills?
A lot of the issues in this remind me of other industries that are struggling to stay afloat. Like, oh book stores. There’s a good one. The literary novel industry, there’s another good one. Movie theaters, yup, fits into this same framework as well.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t keep up, too bad. In the War against the Chtorr series, David Gerrold says “Mother nature doesn’t give a shit.” He’s right. Biologists (and it was a biologist saying it in the novel) understand this. Survivalists understand this. Soldiers understand this. Things happen, and you’re either ready and able to keep up, or you’re not and you fall behind. Fair, not fair; does not play into it. At all. “That’s not fair.” Too bad, we’re moving on.
Barnes & Nobles is in the news right now because they’re about to close their last remaining store in Washington DC; they can’t afford to pay the new rent the landlord of the retail space the store occupies is requiring. That landlord has set the rate because he has other buyers for the space that will pay that rate. This is just business. That’s how it goes. B&N is vacating because the store won’t be profitable at the new rental rate. If their business was more profitable, they might be able to pay the rate. That’s not to say they should, but if they had enough profit it wouldn’t be a question of “we must leave” but rather “do we want to leave”. But they don’t have the revenue to even contemplate paying the new rate, so their only option is to seek cheaper space elsewhere.
Bookstores continue to have this issue. Movie theaters are starting to have it. Literary novels have had it forever. In all three spaces, there are people who whine about how it’s not fair, how the market and the audiences and the fans should just be more willing to support these entities.
Fans, audiences, people, support things that they value. That they benefit from. Orchestras have been not on that list for a long time. Bookstores are on that list for a lot of people now. Movie theaters are about to be on that list. Literary novels . . . yeah, hardly anyone even cares in the first place. ‘Art’ like that is part of the reason reading isn’t a popular past time these days; by the time you stagger through ‘the literary classics’ in school you hate reading and swear never to pick up another book. You’re certainly not going to pick up a new ‘literary novel’ since it’s written to be like the ‘classics’ you’ve already learned to hate.
The point of art is to attract fans. By doing so, it attracts financial support. That support allows the artist to sustain himself; and that allows more art to be created. Therefore, anything that sustains an artist is a good thing. What does it matter if symphonies spend some time performing new compositions instead of the old ones? The old ones aren’t drawing support. The new ones are. Business is not a dirty word. Landlords don’t take art for rent, and neither do grocery stores or utility companies or department stores. They take cash.
That people love it, are consuming the art, should be all that matters. Anyone arguing differently isn’t interested in the art; they’re advocating exclusivity and snobbery. Those people are the problem, not the new groups of fans.
And I’ll bet you the musicians in the symphonies like playing to full halls.