11 March 2013

What Future For Music?

Here is my Norman Lebrecht moment.  I have suddenly become depressed about the future of classical music and am predicting its demise.  Well, to be honest, I'm neither depressed nor convinced its demise is likely, but Lebrecht gets all the kudos for misguided pessimism so why shouldn't I cash in; especially as we have a non-professional connection (one of my students tells me he attends the same synagogue as Norman).

In the office where I occasionally work is a state-of-the-art photocopy machine.  It works day in day out, churning out vast quanitites of paper, transferring scrappy sheets of A4 into neat, folded and stapled booklets, and turning hefty hard-backed tomes into manageable soft-paper leaflets.   There is usually an orderly queue, patiently waiting while the person at the machine oversees its inexorable issuance of ream after ream of paper; and the clarion cry, "the photocopier's run out of paper", usually gets the secretary up from her desk six or seven times a day to tear the packaging of another 500 sheets and slam them into the machine's cavernous belly.

And who are those people for whom photocopying substantial quantities of material is so important that they sacrifice so much of their day for it?  They are performers, choral conductors, singing teachers, orchestral directors, ensemble members - just about anyone involved in music.  Pianists are there copying a single Debussy Prelude from a book of 12, violinists are copying their part from Britten's Young Person's Guide so they can take it home and practice in private, brass players are taking their next week's crop of Arban Studies from the book one brass teacher once labelled "the music-stand-buster",  and, of course, the chapel choir is getting one copy each of Rutter's Christ the Lord is Risen Again from that handy-sized book of anthems with the red and yellow cover.  Mention that they might be contravening copyright laws and they look at you as if you are daft; "I just want to try this out with the choir to see whether they like it", is the usual excuse.  And what if they do like it?  Will you go out and buy 45 copies of the book?  Silly question!

Increasingly these people are making copies of something they have already downloaded free-of-charge from the internet; and if it's there for the public to access, it's got to be legal hasn't it?  With not too much searching around you can usually find a score of what you want free on the internet, and once printed out, you can make unlimited copies.  So much handier than ordering the music from a shop, and certainly much, much cheaper.  Forgetting the environmental resources plundered by all this paper (most of which gets thrown away - if you need it again you can always download some more and photocopy it again), I do wonder how seriously these people take their responsibilities towards their art.

Some years ago a fierce debate raged over the cost of commercial CDs.  You could buy a blank one for a few dollars, record some music on to it and the total cost was a tiny fraction of the cost of purchasing a commercial CD.  Ergo, the record companies were guilty of shameless profiteering adding an (apparent) mark-up of several hundred percent on the real costs.  Of course, the jaw-dropping stupidity of those who propounded this argument meant that they failed to recognise that the cost of a CD includes the cost of hiring the musicians, paying copyright fees for the use of the music, paying engineers, producers and, most importantly, the fellow who writes the booklet notes.  None of these come cheap (except, of course, for the poor fellow who writes the booklet notes) yet, because you can't see them, you assume they don't exist.  There is a substantial part of the population which really does believe that because music is ubiquitous it just magically appears out of thin air.

With the rise of downloads and sharing sites, that old argument has flared up again, and there is shock horror when record companies and musicians start to object.  The loonies come out in their droves whenever an unscrupulous file-sharing site is closed down; and popular opinion seems to be that it is those who expect to be paid for their work who are wrong, not those who steal it.  I worry that with this unregulated mass acquisition of free music now wholly out of control, those who perform music will soon be unable to carry on.  We may love music, but we love money too, and without the latter we can't really perform the former.

And it is clearly going the same way with printed music.  If students, teachers, players and choirs can't afford music, hard luck.  I can't afford a Rolls Royce; that does not give me the right to go and steal one?  Despite what the unthinking say, music is a luxury not a necessity, and if we can't afford it, perhaps we need to re-evaluate our priorities.  Getting it free and distributing it free is only hastening the demise of composers, publishers and performers.  Composers and arrangers will stop composing and arranging if they don't get paid for it, and when the very people who perform their music start to steal it, there seems a very real risk of the whole thing falling apart.  Unless we start buying again and give up expecting to get it free, classical music will certainly die.

1 comment:

  1. I feel there is always such dilemma when it comes to new classical composition. Composer, publisher need the fund to survive. However given the climate now, recording companies, performers can hardly fork extra payment for contemporary composition. The business model of classical music doesn't look good. Or classical music shouldn't be run as a business in the first place?