Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Community, Nostalgia, and the Classical Music Blogosphere

I am an avid participant in a couple of old-school forms of communication and community. One is an amateur press association (also known as an apa); the other is The Well

An amateur press association is, to use a back-formation, a sort of LiveJournal in print. APAs originated in science fiction fandom a long time ago (the 40s? 50s?). [Update: kalimac has the real scoop. APAs the 19th. c.] You'd write a zine, copy it (on mimeo or photocopier, depending on the decade), and send the copies to a central person. That person would staple together all participants' zines into a distribution and mail them out to everybody. Then you'd read the distribution and include comments on everyone else's zines in your own zine, as well as whatever life updates or essays you wanted to include.

I've been an apa member since fall of 1988. The apa I'm in is up to distribution 160 and is published every two months. There are current around 20 members. My zines have ranged from 2 to 25 pages, typically averaging 10 or 12 pages. I've written at least a million words for the apa and I've missed very few distributions.

Over the years, members have come and gone; some have joined and dropped out more than once. Three or four original members still participate. I joined around distribution 19 or 20. I've written zines using WordPerfect, AmiPro, Word, and NeoOffice, to give you a brief history of word processing. I seriously thought about using FrameMaker for a while, too.

In the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, the apa had a two-year-plus waiting list, and there were times when turnover was so slow that the editor decided to admit a new person at some interval just so we'd have new voices. People came and went for the usual reasons: a demanding job, going back to school, a new relationship, lack of interest, health, or time. In three cases, apa members died.... 
Then the blogsophere and LiveJournal took over the publishing lives of many many people, and suddenly there was less interest in apas. The waiting list disappeared. Among other reasons, why wait to join a print medium when you could set up a blog and have an audience of more than 20? And have them commenting in real time rather than two months later?

The Well, founded in 1985 as an online adjunct to Whole Earth Review, was one of the first online communities. In the beginning, you could reach it only by direct-dialing a modem pool....because the Internet did not exist yet. This made it an expensive proposition even in the Bay Area where members were geographically close to the modem pool; I remember all too many reports of gigantic phone bills to go with the gigantic bills for participating....because in 1990, when I joined, there was a $2/hour cost for using the Well. The cost issues led to creative solutions like the phone line in someone's closet that forwarded to a Marin county number and somehow greatly reduced the phone charges for the people who knew about it. Eventually, the Well joined the Internet and you could get a Netcom account with a local modem pool, log in to Netcom, and telnet to the Well, meaning your phone costs dropped to the price of the Netcom account, which was, at the time $20/month.

During the early 90s, there was immense concern about what might happen if the Well got too big. The number of concern was around 10,000 members, at a time when the Well had maybe 5,000, of whom the 250 most active probably posted 80% of the content. Owing to the total ineptitude of just about everyone who ever ran or owned the Well, this never became a problem. Now, of course, the Well is shrinking and is sadly down to maybe 3200 members. The web interface sucks; there are lots and lots of specialized places to talk about your areas of interest elsewhere on the Internet, and to lots of people the Well looks like a small, cantankerous collection of aging, leftist hippies. That's because we are a collection of aging, cantankerous, leftist hippies.

Over the years, lots of people have come and gone. They got tired of the tiny number of Well members, the shiny toys of the larger Internet beckoned, the Web took over, the blogosphere wiggled its little fingers at them, people's lives changed. And of course a few people died. Yes, I miss the departed, whatever their reasons for leaving, but change is inevitable.

I'm still a participant on the Well and in an apa. I find value in a slow-motion print medium where I can write at whatever length I like and have interesting exchanges with people. I'm still on the Well because it's a great place to chat, to get recommendations for restaurants, books, and museums to visit. (In some ways, it's hilarious to see big companies trying desperately to make money by replicating what I've had on the Well for decades: a bunch of people I know and trust who can responding intelligently to questions, requests for recommendations, and so on.) I've known many Well members for 20 years+ now; I have them calibrated; I like to talk with them, whether it's about the latest science fiction novels I should read or what's going on with their kids. The Well is my virtual water cooler, but the folks at the cooler are also my friends.

Over at Musical Assumptions and On an Overgrown Path, Elaine Fine and Bob Shingleton are in mourning, it seems, over changes in the classical music blogosphere. I suggest reading the comments as well as the postings, to get some different perspectives. This posting will be an expansion of some of what I say in my comments on those blog postings.

Elaine mentions a number of changes in the world of classical music, including how music is now published, choices she has made about publishing her own music, and the collapse of classical radio. The existence of IMSLP is both a reaction to problems in music publishing and a reason for its collapse: if renting out parts to out-of-copyright symphonies and selling Brahms and Lassus vocal works to universities support publishing new music, a publisher who has less of that business because of IMSLP has less money available to publish new music and promote composers. Mid-list authors, who sell steadily, but not spectacularly, have to do an awful lot of their own book promotion because publisher publicists are available primarily to best selling authors. The same is true in music publishing, I am sure. If you're John Adams - or you can pay your own publicist - you're in luck. Otherwise, you're doing your own publicity.

Elaine also discusses the camaraderie of the early-ish CM blogosphere, that is, the grand days of 2005 or so. I agree; there is somewhat less camaraderie, fewer comments on each others' blogs, fewer blogosphere-wide discussions. I'm somewhat sorry about this. On the other hand, how many times can we discuss applause between movements? Or whether classical music is dying? I've completely stopped wrestling with Greg Sandow over this because he is so obviously wrong about so much. Yes, some classical music institutions will die, but most will not. When was that ever not true? It would be interesting to see what happened during the Great Depression as a comparison to what's happening now. And how many times can one arm-wrestling with AC Douglas about anything??

There's plenty of camaraderie left, from my perspective, at least in the Bay Area: we read and comment on each other's blogs and even get to see each other in person. (San Francisco is a small town for a big city.) I sat at a table at a press conference yesterday with Patrick Vaz, Sid Chen, and Axel Feldheim. We would have invited Josh Kosman to sit with us if only he were still blogging regularly if we'd had room. I think I saw Opera Tattler there too, but maybe that was the previous night at Matthias Goerne's incredible recital. (More about that later.) During the American Mavericks Festival, one dinner included me, Brian from Out West Arts, John Marcher, and Maura Lafferty. We saw Patrick later. And several of us have been known to peek into the pit for a chat at intermission with Patty Mitchell.

I still comment on plenty of blogs around the blogosphere, too. And I wouldn't hesitate to contact the bloggers I read if I were to visit London, NYC, or Vienna.

A major point that both Elaine and Bob make seems to be that somehow the classical music blogosphere is becoming commercialized: Elaine mentions commercial or commercially-minded bloggers and obviously thinks this is a bad thing - but the only name she names is Norman Lebrecht

What? Lebrecht is an author and journalist, and one who is and has always been controversial. He makes his living writing (I think). He's blogging as an adjunct to the rest of his career. 

I'm hard-pressed to see what's wrong with this, per se. I started my blog, among other reasons, to draw attention to my writing in hopes of expanding the number of paid outlets for which I write. (It sort of worked; the major limiting factor is time. Also, blogging has taken on a life of its own for me, because, well, I like to write about music and I like having an audience that can talk back.) 

If Lebrecht has turned to simply spouting press-release-ese, that's unfortunate. If it were a trend, it would be a bad trend. But one blogger isn't a trend, and, well, it's Lebrecht. 

Now, I have some points of sadness about people who are no longer blogging (or no longer blogging much) because of time, work, performing, writing, or having said what they have to say, including Sid (The Standing Room) and Jonathan Bellman (Dial "M" for Musicology). Luckily, there are hundreds of people now blogging about classical music, and lots of them are well worth reading. There's just no shortage of good writing about music out there. (And that's another reason why there's less commenting, etc. We can't keep up.) 

I don't see problems with people deciding to blog at advertising-supported sites, because people have to eat. Earning money from your writing isn't evil, just difficult. Not to mention, anybody can commercialize their blog with Google AdSense. My recollection is that ACD made just enough from AdSense and maybe Amazon Affiliates to pay his site hosting fees; I think that James Jorden might be making more than that from ads on Parterre Box. I do not think this automatically makes people suspect; better to judge them on what they actually write.

Yeah, if you're just reposting press releases, well, zzzzz. You're boring and don't deserve to be read. What's interesting is your reactions to press releases, music news, concerts, etc. But where are all these people reposting press releases? Not in my RSS feed.

I don't particularly understand the sideswipe at The Rest is Noise. I dislike some of the particulars of the book and have one serious beef with it, but a book on 20th c. music that sells like hotcakes and gets translated into a dozen or so languages is doing us all a favor.

On to Bob's remarks. He says that...
classical music blogging in both micro and macro formats is losing its appeal because a number of high profile bloggers have sucked the genre into a vicious downward spiral. This spiral means blogs are fast becoming no more than an echo chamber for industry press releases and salacious gossip leavened occasionally by that perennial fallback for the creatively challenged, a YouTube video. Let's not forget that yesterday's corporately-cooked lunch is unappetising even when reheated by syndication and aggregation.
Okay. He says "a number of high profile bloggers" without naming names. I'd really like to know who he's talking about. As a fan of Parterre Box's heady mix of criticism, news, gossip, and bitchiness, I hope that's not who he's talking, wait. I don't actually care if he means Parterre Box, where readers know exactly what they're getting. But I'd love to know who he does mean.

I myself passed on an opportunity a year or so back to syndicate my blog to another site, one that's rather less visible than HuffPost. My reasons had a lot to do with my own independence and the hazards of moving your blogging site. See Unquiet Thoughts: it didn't take Alex long to revive The Rest is Noise, the blog, after saying he was moving to The New Yorker's site.

I also think that Twitter is not the devil, unlike Bob (and apparently Elaine). Sure, there's plenty of retweeting in my stream. Does anybody actually read their full Twitter stream?? I don't think I could; there's just too much pouring out of everyone. But most of what I see - or pay attention to - consists of links to material I might not otherwise have seen. And I see plenty of tweets directed to me personally.

I was a huge Twitter skeptic for a long time, and also - just not very interested. So it took me until last year to open an account, and I have found Twitter useful for a number of things:
  • Getting an answer from a performing arts organization much faster than I would have if I'd used email. ("When is your season announcement?", for example). 
  • Links to blog postings and article I haven't seen in my RSS reader and might not have found.
  • Breaking news reports
  • Spreading the word about a new blog posting (self-promotion, yes!)
  • Public instant messaging
  • Teasing people
Getting back to where I started - yes, things change. Change is a constant, change happens very, very quickly these days, and some people will always regret the change or be nostalgic for the way things were. I am sure that when the printing press was invented, there was panic in some quarters over loss of control over the written word, the dissemination of which had previously been limited by the great expense of hand-copying every text. But the invention of the printing press spurred a giant increase in literacy, an explosion of translation of and interest in old books, and the spread of knowledge. True, the production of books like the Hours of Catherine of Cleves dropped precipitously.  (Today, you can view the Hours up close and personal on the World Wide Web. Just click the link! How cool is that?) I'm glad there are surviving examples of those magnificent creations, and even more glad that the printing press exists. Electronic books are disruptive in their own ways, of course, and we'll see how they work out in the long run. In the meantime, I'm in a position to read Trollope on my phone or in print.

For anyone feeling nostalgic, I also recommend a reading of The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage. The invention of the telegraph in the 19th c. meant a great increase in the speed of communication. Predictions about the effects of the telegraph on society bore a remarkable resemblance to predictions about the Internet, all the way down to the dire warnings, nostalgia for the hand-written letter, etc. I expect you could find similar predictions when the telephone became popular. Yes, things change. And we live in interesting times. Better than being bored, I say.


Brian said...

Thanks for this great piece and smart rebuttal Lisa. As a side note, last week, HuffPo apparently sent out a new round of emails to a number of prominent bloggers including myself to solicit new participants in their venture.

Unfortunately the email I received wanted to know if I was willing to have Zerbinetta's Likely Impossibilities content put on HuffPo which I told them I had no position on and that they should perhaps ask her.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Um, wow. That is....quite confused.

I am evidently not prominent enough, and then again, I might not want to appear on the same site as Ivan Katz. Thank you for the kind words!

Brian said...

Oh you're prominent all right! Although you did miss out on dinner with Luciano Chessa on Monday in downtown LA where we were seated right next to Kathy Grffin.

(Eat your heart out bay area.)

Henry Holland said...

Lots to chew on here.

I got online fairly early, ca. 1989 or so, not that long after I went to my first opera. I mainly did it to find bootlegs of my favorite bands, but it was also a great way to meet gay people who had my non-mainstream gay interests (loud guitar bands, sports, astronomy etc.)

In 1999, two friends of mine started a website for gay sports fans called Outsports. I've seen the ups and downs of that venture, of it going from being quoted in the NY Times and seeing my friends go on prestigious talking head shows to it driving both friends nuts with how much time and effort it takes just to keep it going. One side-effect is that they're plagued by religious assholes in their comments section who quote Bible verses at them in a post about a gay lacrosse player in rural Maryland.

I've twice tried to be a regular blogger and I found I ended up resenting it, the feeling that I *had* to keep adding fresh content. I'd rather haunt comments sections. :-)

As for classical/opera sites/blogs, it's depressing how insular it still is. Even a popular site like Parterre Box still has the same dozen or so regulars that are around since I started going there when it went from 'zine to website and they've formed a clique.

What bothers me the most about the PB comments section (and opera blogs in general) is that there's very little discussion about the actual operas or the opera business, it's mostly focused on this or that singer, which bores me to tears, it reminds of sports fans arguing about their favorite teams.

Part of the problem for me is that I have zero interest in large parts of the classical/operatic repertoire. It's absurd for me to expect a bunch of blog posts about Schreker, Birtwistle and Pintscher but since I have no interest in reading reviews of new recordings of the Brahms piano concertos or Haydn symphonies, I simply don't go to a lot of blogs any more.

As for IMSLP, it's invaluable for me. The last time I asked at Korngold's publisher (Schott) about buying a full score for Die Tote Stadt, I was quoted a price of $500, IF they could find one for sale. Schreker full scores, my Grail, hahahaha, please.

So, lo and behold, what's on IMSLP but a copy of the full score to DTS! I had no hesitation or guilt about downloading it and printing it out on nice legal size paper, front and back and having it bound at Kinko's. Total cost: about $40. As far as I can tell, the copyright expired in 1995 (1920 + 75 years), as the law that was enacted in 1998 adding another 20 years wasn't applicable.

John Marcher said...

Ha- that's funny, Brian.

I second what Brian says, Lisa- a quite lovely essay. I don't follow many of the blogs you've mentioned and some of the reasons why are implied in your commentary- they often seem to be more about a business that happens to involve music rather than being about business of experiencing music.

I'm interested in reading the thoughts and opinions of others, especially those who are able to convey a sense of who they are and why music (or whatever it is they write about) matters to them. That's something I probably don't do very well with on my own blog, but then I'm always torn between writing about the performances taking place onstage and the ones going on in my life.

There does seem to be an increasing number classical music blogs offering little more than Youtube clips and straight press releases and I wonder to myself why would I bother reading this or clicking that link as well as what the blogger is thinking they're providing by doing so. You're right- it is boring. Because of that I find myself reading fewer blogs than I used to. Thankfully, there are still enought bloggers like you, Brian, Patrick, and Jeremy Denk to keep it interesting and worthwhile.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, all.

JM, which blogs are press releases & YouTube clips? Send email if you don't want to say here...

I definitely find Musical Assumptions worth reading; Elaine is a composer and performer and always has an interesting take on practical matters germane to music. Overgrown Path I have read off and on; interesting stuff but sometimes....

I think IMSLP is great but its existence has disruptive effects that might not be ideal for the business as a whole.

Do y'all read Likely Impossibilities? Extremely smart mostly-opera blogging.

Henry Holland said...

Do y'all read Likely Impossibilities? Extremely smart mostly-opera blogging

I do, and it's nice to have another female voice but to me it points out the severe limitations of that type of blog: when she was based in Vienna, everything was Vienna-centric, but now that she's in NYC, it's another blog that's become Met-centric.

The Wistful Pelleastrian said...


What bothers me the most about the Parterre Box comments section (and opera blogs in general) is that there's very little discussion about the actual operas or the opera business, it's mostly focused on this or that singer, which bores me to tears, it reminds of sports fans arguing about their favorite teams.

Totally agree. And let’s face it, Bernard Holland is mostly right about these types:

Opera attracts a lot of levelheaded aficionados, but it also inspires a coterie of listeners for whom the term ”fanatic” is literally apt. They are a weird lot, to be seen almost exclusively in opera houses and at voice recitals by opera singers. In short, many opera lovers are not music lovers at all. I’m not even sure they are opera lovers. Opera is merely the excuse that puts their beloved singers on stage; opera provides the trappings that surround the human voice, and voices are what this excitable band of loyalists is all about. The cheers for fading divas making their latest farewell tours can rock Carnegie Hall for minutes. Public responses to arias in the opera house often edge toward hysteria. Opera singing seems to drive men mad. I say men because women opera fans seem to be a little calmer

These people are not all amateur listeners. My most vicious mail comes from operagoers who feel that the objects of their adoration have been slighted. But once, a few years ago, when I ventured a mild comment on the vagaries of Tiziana Fabbricini's soprano technique, an eminent critic from Texas turned on me with such red-faced fury that I prepared to be assaulted in the aisles of the Met. Given the genocide, starvation and general injustice in our world, a certain imbalance of values seems to be at work.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Big shrug. People go to concerts and the opera for all sorts of different reasons, of course. They love the music; they love the drama; they love the voices; they love the spectacle. I don't care much about what puts butts in seats.

Plus, does anyone think it was every any different? 18th c. opera existed in part so that fans could hear the castrati sing crazy variations in the A section repeats.