When composers can’t hear their own compositions

By Felix Salmon
September 11, 2011
Nico Muhly has a fantastic rant about the way in which professional orchestras make it effectively impossible for composers to actually listen to their own pieces, after they've been played.

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Nico Muhly has a fantastic rant about the way in which professional orchestras make it effectively impossible for composers to actually listen to their own pieces, after they’ve been played; the most pungent comment on his post comes from fellow composer Jeff Harrington, who says that he’s never heard a piece that he wrote for two great musicians who have played it 30 times.

The problem here is not that the pieces aren’t recorded — they are. Rather, it’s that the recordings are digital. Because they’re digital, they can be copied perfectly, and distributed widely, with great ease — and that’s something that orchestras are very scared of. They make good money from their digital recordings, and they don’t want to risk unlicensed recordings being found in the wild.

This is a pretty short-sighted view. Nico Muhly isn’t asking orchestras to let him put their recordings online; he just wants to be able to listen, privately, to what his piece sounded like when it was actually played by humans in a concert hall. But in fact it wouldn’t do any harm to anybody if that recording turned up embedded on his website. People who listen to it there would be much more likely to buy the official recording if and when it appeared. Either way, Muhly’s main point stands: composers will write significantly better music for orchestra if they can hear what it sounds like after they’ve done so. And not just composers, either: the same is true for soloists, as well.

In general, it’s depressing and unsurprising to discover that orchestral unions are even more hidebound and reflexively negative, when it comes to the digital world, than record labels. They look at the world of digital music as something to be scared of, and to say “no” to as loudly as possible, unless and until someone comes along with a big bag of money and pays them to say yes. It’s the same zero-sum mindset behind the Authors Guild’s opposition to Google’s attempts to make their work much easier to search for and find.

Google Books was only ever going to encourage more people to buy more books, yet the Authors Guild insisted on hobbling it and extracting as much money as they could from Google before allowing it to go ahead. And making it easy for people to listen to new music online is the best possible way for orchestras and composers to build a new fan base and long-term audience — but instead the orchestras are fighting that which is in their own best interest.

Orchestras suffer no losses if people listen to their sounds outside the concert hall where those sounds were originally performed. In fact, they benefit: anybody who listens to those sounds online is someone who might become a fan and subscriber. But the unions don’t think that way: they just know that they’re paid for performing in the concert hall, and they’re not being paid any extra if and when that performance appears online. And so they’ll oppose any attempt to get it there.

I’m not sure what the best way around this problem might be, but I fear that it’s part of the reason why the extremely vibrant new-music scene has relatively few pieces for full-scale orchestra. They’re hard to write, expensive to perform, and then impossible to distribute in recorded form.

If the artform does survive, I suspect it will be thanks the one group of composers who regularly do hear their music recorded — soundtrack composers for film and TV. So, Nico, is Hollywood calling? That might be one solution to your problem.

(Via the Browser)

12 comments

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I don’t know from classical music, but I think my modest experience with rock concerts generalizes. I think that my $100?? ticket should bring with it a coupon or code for a full copy of in-house video and audio feed. I can buy a probably inferior bootleg anyway, and just might if I liked the concert enough. I think classical orchestra should probably do the same thing with audio recordings, and video where it exists, for the reasons you state. To get there, we will likely need changes in both laws and business practices, but get there we will.

Posted by kenjd | Report as abusive

Whatever happened to concert Premieres of new pieces where the conductor was the composer? That was how Mozart, Beethoven and all the other greats did things. WHy wasn’t this guy at his own concert?

As for the orchestras, a recording gives them immortality. I’ve just bought some works recorded in the 1920s and 1930s that were conducted by the C20th best composer, Wilhelm Furtwaengler – honestly, you’ve never heard Beethoven like it! Such a wonderfully creative interpretation and wonderful to listen to. Without a recording, that beauty would be dead along with the whole orchestra, and the work of a genius would be lost forever.

As a saxophonist I can understand how the musicians feel, but like bankers after bad economic news comes out I feel they’re overdoing the fear and forgetting to spot the opportunity.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

The orchestras should be looking at the business models of music innovators like The Grateful Dead. They figured out that bootleg recordings of live concerts added to their bottom line by helping to build a massive fan base that was very loyal, went to live performances, and bought merchandize and recordings.

They could do things like post live recordings on a short-term, rotating basis on their web-sites (potentially charge a subscription fee to hear the entire performances over the web). I don’t expect them to reserve good seating locations for bootleg recording people, but there are lots of things that could be done short of that.

Posted by ErnieD | Report as abusive

Are you guys serious? Have you any idea how *much* it costs to record a classical piece with a full orchestra? Or does the notion of cost structure not occur to you?

Albuquerque has closed down its orchestra. So has Honolulu. Philadelphia is in Chapter 11. The recession has hit the arts world hard, and a lot of high-cost activities in second-tier cities won’t make it.

So OF COURSE orchestras are looking for every nickel they can squeeze out of the recordings they produce. And kenjd wants them to give away recordings, and Felix wants them to have their recording embedded in a composer’s web site. Sure, and print a couple hundred dollar bills while you’re at it.

There’s room for creative entrepreneurship in the classical music space a la Ernie, but consider the market. They are typically not your tech-savvy twitter-posting, facebook-friending, yelp-reviewing crowd. They’re old guys and gals in furs and Lexuses, mostly. With executive assistants to handle the tickets.

Posted by Publius | Report as abusive

Publius: Who is going to be the market in a 20 years, when most of today’s old guys and gals are not available? The potential replacements are a lot more tech savvy, and know darn well that classical music is subject to the same changes in technology as are books, movies and popular music. Ignoring the changes as long as possible because some people liked yesteryear’s realities better is not a winning strategy. 21st Century classical music will need to live in the 21st Century.

Posted by kenjd | Report as abusive

Fron the headline I thought this entry would be about the later compositions of Beethoven. Sometimes the composer can’t physiologically hear his compositions!

Posted by Christofurio | Report as abusive

As someone who is sympathetic to unions in general, surely we can’t be surprised when we read that unions’ first reaction to any new paradigm is one of fear and cynicism. After all, the entire history of unions has been a fight against external forces, why would this potentially be different?

As Publius points out above, orchestras (and thereby unions) are in real trouble so of course they are fighting even harder to hang onto what they’ve got. It’s all well and good to say that “digital is the future” but what good does it do when these musicians face the very real threat of no longer being in the industry in the next few years?

I’ve got a few classical musician friends and many are actively contemplating leaving the industry because there really doesn’t seem to be a future, no matter the role digital plays.

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

Very few classical musicians actually make much money. Usually they have to augment their meagre performance earnings from teaching and other jobs. However, if they become a resident in an orchestra they do make a reasonable income, but again, nothing like a rock star.

The weird thing is, classical music today was the rock music of yesterday. So, why wouldn’t the same marketing model work for them? For instance, in the UK the BBC used Nessun Dorma as the theme tune for one of the World Cup programmes, and it became an instant hit and made it into the Top 40.

What about merchandising? Many orchestras are not well represented here, and there is of course always that little voice in their heads saying “we’re artists, not businessmen”. When they do a concert, they don’t fully utilise the event to sell more product – how about a sales hall with their merchandise, their teaching expertise, offers for individual and smaller group performances in between the big concerts? I might see a CD or two very occasionally on sale, but usually I have to search them out – nobody actually tells me they are there, where to find them so much of the audience fades into the night.

As for the market all being aging fuddy duddies, you should look at how many young people there are attending the BBC Last night of the Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London each year: it’s full of youngsters – and that’s because it’s entertainment that centres around the music, and the conductor plays along with the spirit of the crowd. They have party poppers, whistles, fancy dress, flags and people from all corners of the world, even an air horn sometimes. It’s always a sellout and the queues for last minute tickets can be enormous.

The Classical Market in the UK exploded when Classic FM was born – a commercial National Radio Station that only played Classical music – but in a different way. Not as a whole Symphony, but as a movement only, then something from a different composer, treating the classical music as if it were tracks on an album (which is really what it is, and was). Sales of Classical Music soared, musicians became pop stars. I always tune in to it in the car when I visit the UK.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

Publius asks “Have you any idea how *much* it costs to record a classical piece with a full orchestra?” – And I’m sure he may be replying solely to the commenter asking for a recording with their ticket, but in Nico’s post (and in the comments) the no-recording issue comes up even when you’ve simply set up sound recorder on your iPhone and set it on the desk next to you while the orchestra rehearses your piece.

My wife’s a composer, and I’ve taken it upon myself to be the one who documents her. So yes, I know how much it costs to make a recording. And I know that some of my favorite recordings of music aren’t in the highest of fidelity, let alone 5.1 surround. You’d be surprised at the quality you can get from under a thousand dollars worth of equipment. Nico’s not asking for a Deutsche Grammophon level recording of every piece that gets performed – as nice as that would be, that’s unrealistic. But a scratch recording, so that you can hear what the music you wrote sounds like when played by real musicians, as opposed to MIDI instruments on your computer, so that you can refine the music… there’s absolutely no reason that composers have to bootleg this sort of thing.

Hell, when we put The Gonzales Cantata on in the Philadelphia Fringe festival a couple of years ago, we posted an earlier recording of the whole thing online. When Rachel Maddow ran a wonderful piece on us using the YouTube clips and PDFs we freely put online, in 24 hours, dozens of thousands of people had gone to the website, listened to the free stream of the entire concert, and we had people flying in from California for a show that up until we were on MSNBC, probably wasn’t even going to break even. We shot three days of 1080p HD footage of the performances, and put the whole pro-edited thing on YouTube (with the libretto in closed captions) — free!

And I guarantee you that if we hid the video, hid the audio, restricted access, we wouldn’t have sold as many CDs, mp3s, posters, and tickets as we did by putting everything online, freely available.

Posted by Leviathant | Report as abusive

“In general, it’s depressing and unsurprising to discover that orchestral unions are even more hidebound and reflexively negative, when it comes to the digital world, than record labels. They look at the world of digital music as something to be scared of, and to say “no” to as loudly as possible, unless and until someone comes along with a big bag of money and pays them to say yes. It’s the same zero-sum mindset behind the Authors Guild’s opposition to Google’s attempts to make their work much easier to search for and find.”

This is simply wrong. The American Federation of Musicians, the union representing all but one of the major American and Canadian orchestras, signed and ratified a labor agreement with the major managers’ media committee that made it possible to put recorded material on the Internet for no payment to musicians except for revenue sharing (if there actually were revenues).

Exactly one orchestra took advantage of that agreement until 2005, when my orchestra became the first orchestra to put previously unreleased recordings on iTunes. (One of the recordings in the first wave of material we put on iTunes was a recording of a world premiere we had performed all of three weeks earlier).

Two anecdotes from the front lines about the orchestra industry’s struggles to move into the digital age might help explicate what has really happened, though. The first is when my orchestra did another world premiere, this time of a work by a composer more prominent than Mulhy. We immediately offered to put the resulting recording (edited for radio) up on iTunes, only to meet with the composer’s refusal because he wanted a “real recording” made (ie, studio session released on CD). He was, of course, given copies of the performances as they happened. (We tried to work with the local opera company to put up the recording of the same composer’s opera, for which we played and which was also a premiere, only to meet with the opera company’s refusal to cooperate).

The second anecdote was a recording of Carmina Burana we made using a binaural microphone as an experiment (we subsequently bought one and have recorded all our main series performances with it since then). It was an incredibly successful experiment, and we wanted to put it online, as very very few orchestral binaural recordings have ever been released. The publisher, even though we had already paid them for the music rental, and even though none of the performers would get an upfront fee for the recording being up on iTunes, demanded a huge additional payment, which killed the deal.

I know it’s easy to blame “the union” for the problems of the orchestra business. It’s also wrong.

Posted by bratschewurst | Report as abusive

PS: the Internet Agreement went into effect in July 2000.

Posted by bratschewurst | Report as abusive

Don’t even get me started on music publishers. If these 800-pound-gorilla industry leaders had put all their profits to good use, then we’d be buying e-books for our Random House Kindle, listening to music on Universal iPods, and composing music on Hal Leonard’s Sibelius/Finale.

Instead, because these institutions are so reticent to change while simultaneously maximizing profits for executives, new institutions are being built that better fit today’s landscape.

Music has never been easier to distribute, with options like Tunecore and Bandcamp. My wife self-publishes her sheet music as PDFs via a simple Paypal form. (There is a slightly more complex form for larger purchases, which basically acts as a sales lead generator) We bundle rehearsal or performance videos with Bandcamp music purchases – which even gives the listener the option to download the music in lossless quality! Got a question for the composer? Like so many now, she’s on Twitter. This transparency and accessibility is a /good/ thing.

There are still ‘classical’ record labels that require that you pay THEM, and then you end up with a box of unsold CDs in your basement, because no one buys CDs anymore.

Take that money you save from doing this yourself (or with trusted partners) and spend it on a publicist, or keep it DIY and buy your own Facebook and Google ads (you might be surprised at how effective Facebook ads are). If things are going so well that you don’t have time to do it yourself, then you should have enough money to start outsourcing. If you’re successful, others may want to employ your team. You might even accidentally become a leader in the field.

That’s not to say composers should give up making music in order to become full-time promoters, but you also shouldn’t completely absolve yourself from the process that goes into you getting paid for writing music. That money doesn’t come from nowhere. And if no one hears your music, that money doesn’t come, period.

Posted by Leviathant | Report as abusive