Sunday, April 16, 2006

Why the iPod Matters

ACD expresses puzzlement about the importance of the iPod and challenges Steve Metcalf on a point he made in an article on New Music Box.

I'm not puzzled.

What the iPod and iTunes have the potential to do is reach new audiences. Alex Ross pointed out some time ago that 14% of the iTunes downloads are classical works. Some of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Minamalist Jukebox series has been made available at iTunes. That means people who weren't in the hall and don't have the CDs of the works performed can get to hear first-class performances of important music on demand. The iPod market is immense, as Steve Metcalf points out in his article, and iPods are cool. Reaching more iPod owners = reaching a new audience. (Ignore ACD's blathering about the coarsening of the culture. We'd have the music he hates, whether that's rock or rap, even if we were still on 78s.)

I'm not sure Alex is right to agree with ACD's point 3, mostly because I so dislike claims that classical musical is "fundamentally elite." There was a mass audience for new music in the 18th and 19th centuries, because there was much less of a distinction between popular music and what we now call classical music. Composers could make a living writing music because there was a market for commissions and performances of new music. (Okay, I do realize that was not the point Alex was responding to.) I absolutely think that for classical music to thrive, we need audiences for new music, and a few superstar composers - household names, whose music interests the public - would be a fine thing indeed.

Update 1, April 14: ACD points approvingly to a Playbill article reporting that some Philadelphia Orchestra concerts will be broadcast on radio. However, the NPR program is not available nationwide; for example, no stations in NYC or the Bay Area carry it. In California, you can hear these programs on the radio only if you live in Bakersfield or Fresno. If the contract included podcasting rights, I could download MP3s of the concerts to my computer. Or to an iPod, if I had one.

Update 2, April 14: ACD has updated his original post and will not respond until I demonstrate better reading comprehension. In that, we're even.

Update 3, April 16: ACD updates again and, in taking issue with Galen Brown, states that "What classical music is today seen as is the music of a superior intellectual and cultural class, and as such deemed elitist and therefore anathema." Can we have some evidence of that, beyond ACD's assertions? ACD regards himself as part of a superior intellectual and cultural class, that is quite clear, but I don't know anyone else who takes that stance. Moreover, I've never seen anything supporting the idea that people who don't go to classical music concerts or who are ignorant of classical music don't do so because they think it's elitist or the music of a superior intellectual or culture class. The people I know who don't go to classical music concerts are intellectual, well-read members of the middle and upper-middle classes, who are aware of, say, the intellectual currents in the literary arts, in politics, in historical thinking, in the scientific world. I can have conversations with almost all of my friends about Dawkins vs. Gould or the history of creationism, but it's a lot harder to find people to talk with about, say, Minimalism from Terry Reilly to John Adams, let alone Thomas Ades.

We'll take, for example, the friend I took to the Symphony last night, to a concert of Webern, Stravinsky, and Ives. She and her partner go to a few classical events a year, mostly in the Cal Performances series in Berkeley, even though they live walking distance from S. F. Civic Center, where the Symphony, Opera, and S. F. Performances have plenty of events. They attend plenty of intellectual and cultural events - go regularly to the museums here, subscribe to two different theater companies, attend City Arts & Lectures (lectures and conversations covering a wide range of political, literary, and cultural matters). There's the time issue, in not attending classical music concerts. There's the question of "what's good?" But believe me, the reasons they're not going to a lot more classical performances have nothing to do with whether classical music is elite or not. I think they'd just laugh at that, as I would.

Update 4, April 16 About ticket prices: I wrote an article for SFCV called The (High) Price of Music. Someone not too familiar with the classical world might not be willing to pay $30 to $129 to sit in Disney Hall listening to the L.A. Phil, but might pay $5 for a concert podcast to hear on that iPod - and then might be willing to spring for a concert ticket.

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