… then I was a stockbroker, now I am a hippie again.
In the words of The Bobs.
In his 1998 book In Praise of Commercial Culture, Tyler Cowen, the prolific co-author of Marginal Revolution, makes two arguments. The first, about the effects of capitalism on art, is convincing, but the second, about critiques of art, is not.
Dr. Cowen argues that production and distribution via market mechanisms benefits artists and art consumers. Competition and consumer taste do a good job of selecting the best artists and eliciting innovation and masterworks. Technological advances and increasing wealth open up new possibilities and greater independence for artists. Many great artists of the past, from the Renaissance to the Impressionists, explicitly operated as businessmen in a market. On the whole, market forces have been salutary for art and artists; therefore commentators should not fear commercialism in film, publishing, music, or other art markets.
This is the primary argument of the book and Dr. Cowen supports it well. Recent applications of technology to facilitate “long tail” markets provide yet another illustration of the benefits of capitalism for the arts.
However, Dr. Cowen also spends a lot of space beating up “cultural pessimists,” which I found less convincing. Cultural pessimists seem to come in two flavors: those that say the market corrupts, homogenizes, or otherwise damages the production of art, and those that decry the perceived moral or political effects of certain artworks.
…this was one of the moments that fixed my aesthetic sense in a particular time and place, and I’ve never shook those impressions. It was 1939. It sounds, and looks, like the last plea for grace before the world fell apart.
And how. I saw it in kindergarten, on a reel-to-reel projector (remember those?). For me, it was the Pegasus in Beethoven 6, particularly the moment when the stallion alights in the aerie. Those few seconds bit into my brain and became part of the mortar for Lewis, Tolkein, Stewart, and the rest. The rest I forgot – even that I had seen the film – until years later, when I saw it again and those memories fired up.
Fred Wilson at A VC has been outlining his vision for the future of music marketing and distribution (short version: music will be free). He is a maven for rock and pop and a regular commentator on technology and venture capital, so I listen to him.
I think free music can be a great business. In this post, I’d like to make explicit something Fred is leaving implicit, a key feature that I think is necessary for mass adoption. The payment model itself has to respond to consumer preferences. There is too much variation in taste for “one-size” monetization.
First, it’s worth reading all of Fred’s posts:
A quick post to collect a recent flurry of writing on the economics of music:
In addition to having strong yet fragmented tastes, classical music fans are potentially very heavy music users. Asking a classical music buff how many Beethoven recordings he should have is like asking a wine connoisseur how many bottles of Bordeaux she needs.
Admittedly, I’m an extreme case: I probably have 15 sets of the Beethoven symphonies, mostly on LP. I would buy another set, but for a very low price – say, $6 for the nine symphonies. Amazon is going in the right direction. I am happy to see that “Classical Blowout” purchases are still eligible for free shipping.
The next step is deeper discounting on large bundles. The Napster/Grokster file sharing phenomenon, and the success of downloading services like Rhapsody, showed that there is large unmet demand for music at prices lower than iTunes and retail CDs. How about a quiet market test of 60-CD bundles for, say, $279?
Last night I had the chance to see the great pianist Keith Jarrett perform a solo concert in his trademark, entirely improvised manner to a packed, joyous hall. To see a great American master performing works that have never been heard before and will never be heard again (except perhaps on a recording) was profoundly moving. The concert-goers showed great affection for Mr. Jarrett and complete accord with his musical vocabulary.
Mr. Jarrett’s concert improvisations
are were often quite massive, but last night he played a series of relatively short pieces. Some were of a distinct genre – ragtime and blues – but others were as spiky and “difficult” as anything by Boulez, Schnittke, or Nancarrow. I heard echos of Debussy and Shostakovich. His well-known vocalization and his physicality were much in evidence, as he stood erect, crouched, marched, and danced.
If you are new to Keith Jarrett, I suggest his Koln Concert as a starting point. The La Scala and Paris concerts are very good; the Vienna Concert might be his best. He also has a good Goldberg Variations on harpsichord and a complete set of Shostakovich’s 24 Piano Preludes & Fugues.
UPDATE: I should add one improvisation anecdote. Mr. Jarrett played five encores. Sitting down for the third to sustained applause, he remarked, “I need all the time I can get. [Laughter] If I had brought Debussy or Beethoven or Schumann, I would know what the first note is, and I’d just be waiting to play it. Since I don’t, your applause is that much more important to me. [Laughter]” (Close paraphrase, not exact quote.)
The sections of Friday night’s concert added up to something as powerful as the totality of the Cologne concert, but achieved that in different ways, in different amounts of time.
James Lileks reacts to Le Sacre du printemps, as performed by the Minnesota Youth Symphony:
Holy FREAKING God, and by that I mean the ancient god of fertility who needs an annual virgin to convince him to let the earth flow forth with vines and grains. The Symphony orchestra did “Rite of Spring,” and I don’t mean a watered-down Reader’s Digest 4/4 version, I mean the Rite of Spring, uncut.
Heh. Before the show, the conductor enlisted the audience in a fun reenactment:
I thought: this isn’t going to work with Minnesotans. No one’s going to dare to heckle. The orchestra sailed into it, and with three measures everyone in the hall had assumed their roles. Catcalls! Cheers! Hushing shhhushes, boos and bravos.
Today is the final broadcast (in reruns) of George Jellinek’s radio program The Vocal Scene, through which he “shared his knowledge and love of singing” for 40 years. Here is a New Yorker appreciation of Mr. Jellinek’s career from 2004, when he recorded his last episode. His memoir, My Road to Radio and “The Vocal Scene”, is available here.
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Posting resumes after a needed break. Happy New Year.
Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece by Ethan Smith titled “Can Anyone Catch iTunes?” looking at strategies of iTunes competitors such as Yahoo, Microsoft, and Napster. Most focus on pricing, rights management, and device compatibility. But there is still opportunity to innovate on product performance – for example, in classical music. How would a category killer work in the online classical niche?
Naxos is the leading online classical music provider, with its entire library of 11,500 CDs online for $150 per year (I haven’t tried the service). But there’s no ecosystem to support it. As anyone knows who has typed in a track title like “Beethoven, Harnoncourt, The Cleveland Orchestra: Beethoven Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica,’ Mvt. III Scherzo – allegro vivace,” there is still opportunity to delight classical music fans.