I’m doing exactly what every professional blogger says you shouldn’t do, which is writing from the gut, right now, and not letting it sit. But then I’m not a professional blogger, I’m just a guy with a website and the question that I’m thinking about feels quite urgent to me.
That question is: Who’s fostering new music for the future?
Though, the question could be, what does the future look like for new music? New music is a term that I first started seeing referenced in books and articles published around the mid-1970s, before that it was usually referred to as Avant Garde, experimental, or some variation. New music, as I understand it, was a reference to a music that had it’s origins in the western classical tradition. This music included everything from John Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck right on through Philip Glass’ minimalist piano works and Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa.
I believe that I have to answer the question of what “new music” is before I can begin asking the question about the future fostering of new music. Micah Kimo Johnson does a pretty good job of that in this essay, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just grab a line from the essay itself:
New Music is music that pushes boundaries and challenges the system of labels. Without an obvious label, the music is called “new” and once there is enough similar music, a new and more descriptive label is coined.
I definitely agree with this and I wonder if we haven’t reached a place where the need for the term “new music” hasn’t, indeed, died and is no longer necessary. Between web search keywords, categorizations and micro-genres that might only consist of a handful of artists, is there a need for such a broad categorization such as “new music”.
I think so.
I think that there is a need for a broad new music genre, maybe now, more than ever, because the term “new music” alludes to something greater than a mish-mash of words. I think of John Schaeffer’s long running WNYC program New Sounds, which, on some level, is one of only, well… honestly, I can’t think of another program like New Sounds, that truly encapsulates what New Music is and what it can be. New Music can be many things, but more often than not, it’s a hybrid music, it’s a sophisticated music, and when it’s not it’s often done in response to sophistication in music. It’s an interesting music, both evocative and provocative. New Music is usually, in fact, new sounds and or old musical ideas done in new ways.
The tools to make and distribute new music are more readily available than ever before, while the promotion and general findability of this music is abysmal. Whether due to mis-categorization, bad keyworking, micro-genres, or possibly just obscurity, new music is hard to come by. This is what leads to me ask the question of who’s fostering new music for the future.
People like John Schaeffer, John Diliberto from Echoes, Stephen Hill from Music from the Hearts of Space, Manfred Eichner from ECM Recordings, and writer Alex Ross are just a few of those folks who’ve done much to foster new music, but all but Ross, are Baby Boomers, who are getting older and while living longer, it’s not inconceivable to believe that they’ll retire one day, or just not be around forever and then who’s the keeper of the flame? I was struck by this question as I sat and listened to New Sounds… who is going to be doing New Sounds in 20 or 30 years? Who’s going to be doing Echoes or Music from the Hearts of Space or running ECM? Naturally, one is led to think that the younger upstarts that are out there will take the reigns, but who are those people?
I’ve looked at record labels, I’ve looked at what’s left of publishing, both web & print, both periodicals and books. I’ve looked at all of the various radio programs, both public and community radio… Commercial radio gave up decades ago… Labels, only very rarely, foster/curate artists like ECM, or Windham Hill, or even Blue Note. Anybody can have a label these days, but the value proposition seems such that the majority is done by folks most eager to push their own work rather than assemble the work of others for folks to hear. Publishing, for music and what would be known now, as musicological literature is either academic or almost not at all, whereas it wasn’t always that way… Periodicals…? What periodicals? Public radio has a few programs sprinkled here and there, but with syndication, there’s very little local that could one day blossom into the next Echoes or Music from the Hearts of Space and bring a greater awareness to music, especially with the bad precedent set of syndicating a retired program like Car Talk ad infinitum… Why take a chance on anything new when the same drivel can be pumped out for years to come… It worked for Happy Days, right?
So, who are these new upstarts? Who are these younger folks eager to get a foothold and make a name for themselves as the next great curator and voice of new music? Are they doing a podcast somewhere? Are they doing reviews on YouTube or writing micro-reviews on Twitter? Are they publishing at all? Is there even a forum for them to get started if they wanted to? Probably not much of one, any way…
As a working artist I assemble and maintain many spreadsheets on who’s doing reviews, what radio shows are still going, who might do an interview and publications they work for, if any, because it’s much easier to start your own blog than it is to go through the process of writing for someone and having to bend to their editorial discretion. I can tell you that since I started promoting music in 1999 there’s been a palpable decline in folks using the musical content I create. Admittedly, I might be on the fringe of what could be considered new music, but it’s still a circle that I can navigate with a fair amount of acceptance.
My beginnings as a composer truly parallel the growth of the web and subsequently creates an interesting case study:
As it became easier to publish content online, print magazines started to go into decline… Not surprising, but here’s what’s very surprising, every webzine that was out there and catered to new music in 1999, about forty-five, based on old spreadsheets, has since gone away or been abandoned. Out of nearly 150 radio shows that could, conceptually, broadcast a new music, less than twenty remain. As the means to disseminate the work has gotten easier those disseminating the work has declined. Live performance numbers are harder to come by because certainly in a pre-Internet world if you wanted to hear live music you had to go out and see it live, now you can stream it. Not that I believe a lot of people do that, but for a would-be venue owner isn’t easier to play CD or Mp3s than it is to go through the work of managing bands, artists, etc… unless you’re really committed to it? If you don’t know, let me assure you, it is… Live music is A LOT of work to manage and maintain.
In the last two months alone, two decades-running programs have contacted me because they’re on the brink of having their programs cancelled.
I’m coming full circle now with my question. Who’s fostering the new music of the future? Does it matter? Does anybody care? Are folks helpless to the machine? Economic principles would say that with an abundance of means of production, the production would increase, but instead, it’s diminished? Is it a matter of categorization? Is it a matter of pitching for a ruling lowest common denominator? In a world where Google rules is seeking out obscure peripheral music the bastion of the extreme specialist who has to tunnel around conventional means to get to the good stuff, but after the work of the hunt isn’t interested in sharing the work? Could be. I don’t know. Or maybe they’re just a solo collector and don’t want folks knowing about what they’ve found… Collectors can be weird like that.
I guess what I’m concerned about is that there won’t be anybody around to foster the new music of the future? If it’s too radical for Pitchfork then it’s just too radical to be covered at all. At the same time, maybe folks with larger exposure have given up on trying to be the cool kids with the cutting edge content and a stake in expanding people’s minds and instead they’ve chosen 100 words on the latest, safe, Philip Glass piece than talk about the oddball composer who makes sophisticated music with sticks and tin cans in Iowa. Philip Glass is an institution and is safe, the weirdo composer is ephemeral, throw-away.
Is new music ephemeral and throw-away?