Sunday, March 22, 2009

Too Big To Fail

The current crisis in banking is, in large part, due to the massive deregulation of the financial sector, which included a removal of restrictions on the types of business that single institutions can carry out as well as the end of restrictions on interstate banking, creating the banks (and other private financial institutions) which are now identified as "too big to fail."

I contend that new music appears much less lively, diverse, and interesting than it actually is because there is a similar concentration of public attention on a limited number of markets, venues, and providers.  A recording on Nonesuch, for example, is more likely to get reviewed and will receive optimal distribution, while recordings on more local and upstart labels and without the backing of a major media firm like Warner, will largely be ignored.  A one-off performance in New York before an audience of 12 in a Soho loft gets reviews, but a run of 12 sold-out performances on Cape Cod is ignored entirely.

The more egregious effect, however, is on the music itself.  A commission for orchestra is rare and an orchestra is a large and expensive institution, and composed as it is of a mass of people with well-practiced working habits, even quite talented people, tends to learn new things slowly, so rehearsal time is precious.   Consequently, presenters tend to play safe with the orchestra, the musical institution "too big to fail," and play it safe by choosing composers with track records for playing it safe and working successfully with other orchestras (remember second grade: "plays well with others"?  diplomacy is ofen a real substitute for real musical interest).  The chosen few composers, in turn, protect their track records by providing just enough novelty ear candy to maintain the aura of the new while fundamentally remaining in the safety zone in terms of both performance difficulty and audience receptivity. 

This situtation is most unfortunate because it seriously misunderstands the central function which risk plays in musical change and underestimates the capacity for serious musicians to successfully negotiate risks.  Each landmark in music history can be reasonably heard as an example of a composer and performers successfully resolving risks.  (There are even a small number of extraordinary works in which the risks have never been successfully mastered, yet it still seems worth our while to keep working at them).   The relationship between success, failure, and risk in music-making is something altogether different from that in commerce and finance, but I daresay that music managers have been doing as damn bad a job as their colleagues in finance in risk management.    

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