Art on the economic rack

All what I said yesterday about the economics of content applies in spades to music.  US recorded music sales (CDs, streaming, and LPs) are down about half in real dollars since 2006. Musicians depend on live performance, and treat their CDs as advertising for concerts: live performance revenue is about double recording sales.

What this means is that the music itself has to change: every gig is under pressure to get as many people in the seats as possible. Some music is designed for this: it’s simplified to survive amplification in a stadium,  where what you see from distant seats is out of sync with the garbled auditory signal, and it can be improved with fireworks, lighting, and I guess ecstasy distribution.  Some music is not suitable for this kind of venue, but a series of club dates or performances in 500-seat halls with good acoustics cannot support a band, or even a soloist. The relentless pressures resulting from the impossibility of monetizing nearly all person-hours of music listening (recorded content) leads to ridiculous, absurd events like the concert for which I just received an ad from Cal Performances: Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile (great, wow!)…at the 8500-seat open-air Greek Theatre at Berkeley.  At the what??!!

These guys are virtuosi of acoustic instruments, none nearly loud enough to be heard in that space. Their musicianship comprises the subtlety of fine distinctions in timbre,  intonation, and rhythm, absolutely none of which will be audible potted up for that venue and bounced around in it, not to mention that from most of the seats (toward the rear), Ma’s right arm will zig while the sound he’s making zags.  How is a pasticcio like this a better experience than hearing the same performance as recorded in a good studio, perhaps as a video? Nothing wrong with big crowds getting together for a social event, but this is a truly bizarre sound track to accompany that.

What about dynamics, if timbre, pitch and rhythm don’t work? Well, another interesting thing has happened to music, more gradually, over the last century or so. Once upon a time, loudness was the most expensive element of music with which to get a big effect: to sound twice as loud, you need ten times as many musicians, which is why the chorus at the opera doesn’t sound anything like fifty times as loud as the soloist.  Now, dynamics is the cheapest element; just turn up the pot on the mixing board (or your iPhone)!  At the same time, the relative (to everything else) cost of excellent musicians and singers for live performance has gone up enormously because they have seen none of the productivity improvements that have made almost everything else cheaper–it still takes two person-hours of trained talent to perform a half-hour string quartet   same as it took in Mozart’s time.  So: make it louder, enough louder that an audience accustomed to really loud will think it is hearing something special. Sound levels, in earphones and at venues, drive a positive feedback loop that has measurably deafened the audience with volumes OSHA would forbid in a workplace: they can’t hear subtleties at higher frequencies, so the only thing to do is…louder still!

If Ma and his pals could make a living from recordings, they wouldn’t have to collaborate in deeply anti-musical outrages like this concert. Fewer people would be able to attend live concerts, but those who did would actually hear the music.  How to allocate the scarce resource of small-hall seats at top-level talent events, other than by price and scalping, is a legitimate problem, but making a hash of this kind of music through zillion-watt amplification in a stadium isn’t distributing the experience.



Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Art on the economic rack”

  1. I'm doing everything a single person can do…this year I've purchased about 150 CDs, mostly by people who don't much wind up playing mega-venues.

    Leaving myself aside, I agree with your point. It's possible to make a living playing venues of 500-1,000, but you'd have to be playing 200 or so shows a year. And selling them out. And that would be brutal.

  2. I saw the historic and quite excellent Rolling Stones concert in La Habana in late March, and they must have some new technology, because there were about 1.3, 1.4 million people there, and we were easily two and a half to three football fields away, but the jumbotrons near us were showing Mick's lips at the exact same time the words were coming out. It was pretty impressive!

    Well, I mean, that's not so hard, if the speakers and the jumbotrons match……but there wasn't any weird cacophony of closer jumbotrons and closer speakers. It was all perfectly synchronized, and amazingly clear crisp sound.

  3. I want to add in another issue: competition from the recent past. Bix Beiderbecke is not much competition for current jazz performers – his stuff is too low fidelity. But John Coltrane and Glenn Miller are, their stuff is well enough recorded that it's pleasant to listen to. In classical, the same: pops clicks and hisses hurt your enjoyment of any Caruso you want to listen to, but recorded Maria Callas sounds pretty damn good. Glenn Gould, yah! So current artists have more of a hill to climb, even if the payment issue were solved, than did previous.

    1. Dave is right on the money here. We examined this issue in connection with composers in 2008
      (paywall, see excerpt below) ; music used to be composed fresh for every occasion, but starting in the early 19c old music entered the performed repertoire and now composers have to compete with Bach and even Guillaume de Machaut for ear time. It's less of an issue for popular music writers (few rappers cover Stardust), but yes, performance from the past is lately much more able to compete with performance now.
      Last fall I considered this issue more generally

      The Border Conflict between the Present and the Past: Programming Classical Music and Opera
      ABSTRACT. Contemporary music is a category of cultural capital that is employed by symphonies and opera especially inefficiently. Considering its quantity, presumed relevance to social needs, and programming, this is surprising. The authors present a model of the programming decision for an ensemble that indicates that increasing the use of contemporary music’s capital stock (i.e., increasing on-stage performances of contemporary music and thus listeners’ exposure to and appreciation of it) is more difficult than in other artistic fields. Since redirecting audience attention to this cultural endowment will require retiring many resources from common use, standard recommendations for subsidies should be reassessed.
      From the text: "Today, classical music in performance is mostly the music of the past, but only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, almost all music in concert and ecclesiastical programs was contemporaneous; the shelf life of a cantata or quartet was counted in months, after which it passed into libraries for composers to study.2 While “modern” music in symphony orchestra and opera repertoires accounts for roughly 30 percent of programming worldwide, the category actually comprises music more than a half-century old.3 Opera programming choices reflect even more deference to older works, perhaps because an opera production is such a significant risk with regard to audience acceptance.

      1. I am sort of 1/2 way with you here. And I think of a friend of mine, who got off the train at about Stravinsky, or maybe Milhaud. She likes classical, and is buying recent music – and what she is buying is orchestral movie scores and neoclassical works by the guys who do movie scores. John Williams, yah! And she actively doesn't want to be in the room when John Adams' stuff is in the air. Nor Cage neither. It's not that her attention hasn't been directed to Adams/Cage. It's that she really really doesn't like it if it's not tuneful. It's not that she is stealing it through Youtube, she doesn't want to be near it.
        The Dutch paid all their artists for their output during the natural gas bonanza. I saw some really dreadful shit on display at the national toxicology institute when I was there for a meeting, and I was told there were giant warehouses more of even worse. Sort of like regulatory capture, instead it was artist capture. There's a useful discipline to actually having to please people and have them part with their own money. But, exactly as you said, it gets difficult to maintain the disciplines if no money is coming in.

  4. AnBheal makes a good point, but it's not new technology: we audio folks have been solving this problem for about 25 years now. That doesn't mean that all venues want to manage their sound properly, but it's really not that technical a problem: I've taught the basics to interns in about 15 minutes. It does require some fairly expensive equipment for larger venues, but the Greek has it, as does the Hollywood Bowl, Red Rocks and most venues.

  5. Why is it better to watch a concert on a large TV screen with the speakers reasonably close to you in an arena, than in a movie theater (or many theaters –"Live at the Met") or in your living room? Why not just have everyone sit down in the park and stream the event to tablets (or virtual reality gadgets) and earphones?There could be a button on the screen, or a slider, for applause to be spliced into everyone's sound.

  6. The notion that being a musician is a particularly respectable occupation, that can be especially well-remunerated, is a very recent one. It's approximately contemporaneous with the the idea that it is possible to "own" a musical performance. The only reason that this idea ever made even the slightest bit of sense to anybody was that for about a hundred years, the only way to hear music without actually being present when the performance happened was for somebody to buy a piece of physical stuff with the recording encoded on it somehow.

    Yo-Yo Ma is, it happens, my favorite example of something or other: he is a very gifted musician, but is he so uniquely gifted that he deserves to be the only cellist anyone ever hears performing solo works for his instrument? I expect not, though to a very good first approximation that is the position he occupies. Does he somehow deserve to have a net worth of $20M after a 50-year career, while year after year after year dozens or hundreds of highly accomplished young musicians wind up putting their instruments in the closet, to take up careers in finance (if they're lucky and well-connected) or food preparation (if they're not)? Superstar recording artists like Ma are themselves a blight on the arts.

    The careers of people like Ma, Wynton Marsalis, The Beatles, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Itzhak Perlman, extend the list how you want… these people made fame and fortune accidentally, because recording technology was temporarily crappy. Their like will not be seen again.

    1. The key point to this whole line of discussion is found wscholine's first paragraph. There are two related ones. First, although "intellectual property" may not have been coined as a euphemism, it is one. Copyrights are government created licenses, nothing more or less. The second is that, whatever you can get your legislature to try to proclaim, effective intellectual property rights — and the careers of musicians and composers — must be grounded in, and are limited by, the technology of the day. Adaptation will occur.

  7. Superstar musicians are like superstars in any field where the rewards to being top are way larger than to being second or third best. Bob Frank and Phil Cook map the territory (arts, sports, business, more. read it) in The Winner-take-all Society, and in subsequent work by Frank.
    I think you mean they made fame and fortune because recording technology was good enough to take over most listening hours (and marketable in physical chattels). Before that, there were famous musicians, but they could only perform to a couple of thousand people at a time, so the market supported not just Caruso but the local tenor in your local opera house.

    1. No, I mean that it's perverse that the market only has room for so many virtuoso cello soloists, seems like about 1. I feel confident in claiming that Yo-Yo Ma is not head-and-shoulders superior to every other living cellist. If that's what you're seriously claiming I am sort of dumbfounded. The contest is not between Caruso and the local tenor at the local fleabag opry house, it's between Ma and all the *other* Julliard-trained cellists who've graduated since 1980 or so.

      "Recorded music taking over most listening hours" would be better said "listening hours enormously expanded by the availability of recorded music." But it hasn't done just that, it has truly wiped out the *all* of the 2nd-rate musicians, along with most of the 1st-raters. It's fairly predictable that the Midwestern town (pop 75000) where I grew up would lose its capability to produce Broadway shows with paid local talent, which happened in the 1970s. It's maybe less obvious that even shows produced on Broadway should have tape players instead of pit orchestras, which took maybe another 25 years.

      [Edit] That Frank and Cook book has been on my reading list for a while. Maybe the argument I'm trying to make is that the temporary deficiencies of early (meaning pre-digital) recording technologies accidentally made it possible for there to be a winner-take-all economy in music performance, These deficiencies are now mostly gone, and the winner-take-all market will disappear as a result. And really, everything I've said here is a reaction to your "If Ma and his pals could make a living from recordings…" Ma has had a very good living from his cello, and if he's committing musical outrages it's not because he needs to in order to keep body and soul together.

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