Special (Merriam-Webster): distinguished by some unusual quality.

Life’s a Pitch just finished a week hosting a virtual panel on when and how artists, managers, journalists, presenters and publicists single out musicians for being “special” in their promotion and career-building efforts.  Amanda’s summary of the posts by her 4 guest bloggers is here.

I hesitate to spend most of an entire blog post regurgitating other writers’ material, but this is worth it.  Great food for thought for musicians, presenters, and music lovers of all stripes.  If you need more motivation to click through, some highlights:

Jonathan Biss (our Wolf Trap Debut Artist from 1997!) writes that “Traditionalism is big in classical music, of course, meaning that there’s a lot of knee-jerk “this is the way to do it because this is the way it’s always been done.” (“It” could be any number of things – from questions of musical style, to programming, to concert attire, and on and on.)  But recently I’ve heard a lot of the marketing-driven opposite, which seems equally knee-jerk to me: “this has never been done before, and therefore it is relevant and interesting.””

Michael Kondziolka at University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan says that “yes, hooks are fine and human interest angles (sometimes) riveting…but, never a substitute for convincing music making that reveals some truth or provocation embedded within, some kind of technical accomplishment, or, maybe, some hint at a shared humanity… Actually, the more I think about it, if one can be certain that the players will hit the accomplishment quotient, then human interest hooks are actually welcome in my book.  And we shouldn’t be afraid of them or feel that they somehow cheapen the artist’s integrity.  (Please.)  Any information sharing or story telling that aids, abets, or heightens a sense of empathy between performer and listener – whether artistic, human, spiritual – has to be a good thing.  Right?  Live concert performances must, after all, traffic in empathy.”

Matthew Guerrieri of Soho the Dog weighs in: “On the other hand, I personally find assertions of specialness within the concert presentation itself–spoken explanations, multimedia elements, &c.–to be often more annoying and distracting than anything. I’ve seen it done well, but only rarely; it’s harder than it looks, and it takes just as much (if not more) preparation as the music. If there’s absolute commitment on the part of the performer(s), if they really believe in whatever high concept they’ve come up with, I can happily go along for the ride, even if, in the end, I don’t quite buy it.”

It all rings so true.  But more than that, what makes me squirm is that it all seems born of desperation.  Is it existential fear that something we all value might be lost in an era that values data and speed above all else?  Is it actual panic because artists and those who promote them are slowing being pushed to the edge of extinction?  Of course, it’s both.

We can all tell the difference between an artist who makes connections to his audience (verbal and otherwise) because he is compelled to communicate with every fiber of his being and an artist who does so because a manager or a presenter dictates that it’s now part of the required dog-and-pony show. 

On the topic of “special” added-value elements, well, how about this comment at the bottom of Mr. Biss’s post? 

Let’s make this really, brutally simple.
The only things we need today to have a “life-altering” musical experience is a good surround sound system, a CD/mp3 player and a Blue Ray DVD system.
Constant concerts by 100s of symphony orchestras or other groups, 90% of which are repeats of trite, old repertoire or newly composed self-indulgent idiocy are economically and artistically unnecessary in a digital recording era. The average US concert hall monstrosity doesn’t produce the sound quality in most seats that a car stereo would.
Innovation? Find an equivalent for classical music of what Cirque de soleil has been for the three-ring circus. Until that happens, good luck getting audiences into concert halls.

Chew on that a while. (And let’s assume that the comment is legit, rather than satirical. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this from The Man on the Street, but I guess the fact that it appears as a comment on a blog that would appear to be primarily read by “believers” is a little stunning.)

Will we find the equivalent of which the writer speaks?  Should we try?  For if we succeed, the goal is going to shift significantly while we’re at it.

Back to the definition at the top of this post (special: distinguished by some unusual quality): as we compete for our part of the pie, we are struggling with what “unusual” means.  Clearly, we (opera, symphony, ballet, even jazz now…) are unusual.  Always have been.  Always will be.  We want to be special, but now we desire that our “unusual” qualities are more and more palatable to the mainstream.  I’m back to my take on Seth Godin’s passion-pop gulf, hoping that our ministrations don’t take us to the trough of the graph.

[P.S. The fact that I spent the weekend reading The Black Swan has set me up for a rocky Monday at the office.  Sorry to bring you along for the ride!]

One Comment

Nathaniel Peake

I think this blog post is incredibly insightful, while being incredibly terrifying. The classical arts are said to be phasing out, as the digital age introduces new mediums of "truth", mostly through film. However, I believe in the audiences. As a member of the audience myself (as well as a performer), I feel that a live performance offers something it's digital counterpart does not offer, the possibility of imperfection. Flaws are inherently human, and any medium that mirrors those imperfections is a true reflection of the human experience. True reflections of the human experience are what resonate with audiences, and they are the juicy morsels that bring them back for more. "Reality TV" attempts to maximize on this, but any writer for a reality tv show will tell you, the camera directs the audience what to see and feel. The theater gives the steering wheel to the audience member. They have the choice of looking at said-set piece for 2 hours, to explore a new perspective. As far as sound, any theater (live-performance goer) will tell you, the sound in a live theater trumps the digital sound, because not only is unfiltered, but at any moment something new, unique, rare, or even something incredibly wrong could appear. That risk, in watching a creation unfold, is part of the appeal of live theater. I think things in the theater are changing, but I'm hoping in the end, all of these influences from the digital age help us to reflect not evolve to something that does not have truth at its core.

Thanks for the awesome blog!!! I love that this is a topic for both sides of the curtain to connect to.

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