Microtonal music -- can it truly survive in a capitalist economy?

by Aaron K. Johnson 2013-10-05 @ 10:07:33

Well, I'll answer my own question: not very easily, if at all.

In a world with already dwindling resources for serious art music of any sort, including well-established and conservative classical music, can we expect that artists who create work that may be evocative, highly listenable, and yet, far beyond the mainstream to make their living at it? I do not know any composers, personally speaking, who don't have a day job, either in music (private teaching or academic teaching) or outside of music. The challenges of sustaining serious art music, including art music that explores all the colors of the infinite tonal spectrum as we are interested in here, are immense.

Perhaps we need to re-think the role of music in society. We might perhaps accept these sobering facts and adapt because we have to, and make the role of the creative art musician in society as not a specialty, because it cannot be anymore, but, rather, that of a part-time craftsman or craftswoman who creates because it is their passion to do so. Perhaps this is an opportunity to create a more communal, ritualized sense around music creation and performance. Perhaps we need a Western version of the spirit of tribal music-making one sees in Africa: a group who live, work and eat together also gathering and playing their mbiras and singing...no one is solely a performer or consumer, but all contribute.

This last thought is an interesting and challenging one for me. I often wonder at the relatively high average level of skill, musically speaking, of say a tribal African group when they sing, dance and play instruments, compared to the average Western amateur community choir. There is no doubt that the cultures where music has played a central role in community ritual are far far ahead in their average skill level. Is this something that is genetic, environmental, or both? And, if the environment plays a role, how can we change our culture to make music-making central, and less of a consumer activity? And how can we take advantage of such a new culture by, at the same time, expanding its pitch resources?


Margo Paula Schulter 2013-10-07 @ 22:12:23

The question of what priority is given to music, and the arts generally, is a political question, and arguably one of social justice, part of the question of how resources are equitably or not so equitably distributed. Certainly communal creativity is part of the process: Sami Abu Shumays has suggested that diversity of intonations in maqam music as practiced in different parts of the Arab world may result at least in good part not from any special property of ratios for neutral thirds, for example, as from the tendency of groups with natural languages also to develop local dialectis as well as personal idiolects, so that how one tunes becomes a form of individual and group identity. This is one fine example of how a communal process can indeed help shape a musical language.
Cameron Truthsayer Bobro 2013-10-10 @ 06:14:13

What "capitalist economy"? Do you have any idea at all how money and music work together on a large scale? Look: every single radio station, bar, club, restaurant, waiting room, car mechanic, doctor's office, swimming pool, *anywhere* with public play of music must by law pay ASCAP, BMI, GEMA, SAZAS, etc. regularly. There is a complex system based on probable audience (number of chairs, for example). Our organization pays 46 Euros a month plus circa 100 Euros for every live event. Neighborhood bar, 30... spa, a lot more (small country, I know personally a significant amount of promoters, producers, owners, etc.) So that's an absolute minimum of 747 dollars a year for us, just for being a public institution. With concerts, which are many, we can say something like 2 grand a year. Now, if that money were going to the musicians playing and being played, then I'd be fist-pumping for the system. But that's not how it works. The monies collected by rights agencies, which all together are astronomical if you apply some math to it, are paid according to formulae. These formulae are completely geared to "international hits" (I also know directors of radio stations and worked on the national radio). That means that quite literally your regional hits on the radio could receive MORE plays than a hit single from the US and you would not get a penny, while the piles of cash collected throughout the country go straight to Madonna etc. In small countries/large regions there's a "local's cut" that goes to the top ten most established locals, and of course the folk endeavour to become one of these shills, but the lion's share (after "administration fees") goes to a handful of artists of the large international record companies. When you weigh everything together, it is literally true that underground musicians PAY the music industry in order to be allowed to perform. There is no "capitalism" or "market". It is a racket, plain and simple. Why no rebellion? Because stupid musicians all want in on the ritches and bitches: illusion of freedom, illusion of opportunity. Is there any genuine market? Sure- it's big but it's gray. New Age and Dark Metal are genuinely popular art forms and I know a number of musicians who make a (gray) living in these fields without being crushed by the rights agencies. About ten years ago GEMA's #1 single sold less than half of some Nordic satan-band's single (according to a person from GEMA) but was simply publically ignored.
Cameron Truthsayer Bobro 2013-10-10 @ 07:12:39

Sorry if the last sentence above wasn't clear: the Metal tune was completely ignored, the Pop single celebrated. Pop and popular is NOT the same thing.
Aaron K. Johnson 2013-10-11 @ 21:27:19

So we agree, Cameron?
Cameron Truthsayer Bobro 2013-10-12 @ 00:47:08

I'm sure we disagree on grounds of completely different conceptions of things. New Age and Dark Metal (or whatever thousand different monikers these things go under these days) operate to a significant extent in what is probably as close to "capitalism" as possible. There is supply and a genuine demand. This is true of a number of musics that are popular in a real sense- Noise/Industrial, Gospel, etc. While these musics may periodically intersect with large industry, they continue regardless of whether they're ever "on TV" or not. I'm sure that's true of many "Country" musics as well- accordian and horn-band music never goes out of style around. Musicians will play weddings and parties professionally regardless of what's going on elsewhere. "Classical" and "Pop" do not work this way. You will hear the hits repeatedly, whether you want to or not, and you will give money to the business who own the hits, whether you want to or not. That's not "capitalism" or "socialism" or what have you- it is a legalized criminal racket. "Classical" has its own racket going. Let me illustrate: not too long ago I tried to get a concert grand for one of my visiting musicians. It had to be a long piano as he'd be retuning the strings and it seems that short strings won't do. The center of the city at that time was full of grand pianos, as the city was European Cultural Capital that year. In fact, I knew the exact piano I'd be renting- it was about 500 feet away and would be free the day before I needed it. 600 euros to rent the thing for 24 hours, no negotiation. Now, what organization, in a country with a significant number of people with a monthly wage lower than that, can afford such a sum? Only those who simply pass on the bill to the government. So where could a musician making "microtonal" music make a living? If anywhere, in the "capitalist" gray markets which support such movements as New Age, Dark Whatevers, and so on.
Aaron K. Johnson 2013-10-15 @ 10:28:21

Well, I think your analysis is accurate...perhaps my title was misleading.

I might have better said: "Can microtonal art music survive in a capitalist economy?", and of course, there would be the question of what constitutes art music....but that's what I meant.

Perhaps in the case you mentioned, if your organization devoted to microtonal art music had a government grant and or was 'officially recognized' as a government sanctioned cultural institution, and you could "pass the bill to the government", you'd have been able to get your piano! But that's, again, a big if.

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