Social Viability: The Challenge for the Future of Music

February 29, 1996

Congress's actions on the NEA last year demonstrated the political vulnerability of the arts in this country. While troubling, that was merely symptomatic of much deeper but less immediately apparent social and economic concerns that face the arts at the end of the 20th century. This essay is written in an effort to generate discussion that will ensure that 50 years from now there will be a place at society s table for the music we present. Simply put, my intent here is to address the question: "How can the place of reflective music in U. S. society be ensured for the next century?"

Reflective Art/Visceral Art

That premise includes a term -- "reflective music" -- that is not part of the common language. The terminology must be explained before proceeding.

Reflective Art Visceral Art
Aesthetic Focus: Depth of Content Immediacy of Impact
Motivation: Educate/Edify Entertain
Perceiver Involvement: Requires Effort Easy/Accessible
Language/Tradition: [Imported] Vernacular/Indigenous

There are two ideas to present. The first one, the aesthetic focus of works of art, is a subset of a larger concept. Aesthetic focus refers to the two categories of emphasis into which most works of art fall: depth of content and immediacy of contact. Works emphasizing depth of content challenge the mind and spirit and offer rich rewards for repeat exposure to them. Works emphasizing immediacy of impact are designed to have a profound and immediate effect on the receiver. These foci are not mutually exclusive. Great works of art attend to each of them. Whether Beethoven symphonies or the work of the Beatles from the late 1960s, the greatest music "grabs" the hearer immediately and continues to offer much value each time it is experienced.

The larger concept is the artistic content of the work, also in two categories. The first is reflective. Such works generally have depth of content as their focus, attempt to educate or edify, require some effort to be appreciated, and often derive from an "imported tradition." The second category may be called visceral. These works have immediacy of impact as their focus, attempt to entertain, are characterized by ease and accessibility, and may derive from an indigenous cultural tradition. These categories are not hard and fast, nor are they mutually exclusive. However, it makes it clearer why what is known as "popular" (or visceral) art can survive what economists call "the market test" and why reflective art should not be expected to do so. Reflective music is facing a number of challenges that, taken together, bear the impression of a crisis.


After 15 years of booming growth in the arts (1965-80), attendance at professional performing-arts events reached a plateau. According to Bradley Morison and Julie Dalgliesh, in Waiting in the Wings, the principal cause of the boom was the decentralization of arts activities and expansion arts opportunities, led by the NEA, into previously unserved parts of the country. Morison and Dalgliesh observe that by the 1980s the market had been "maxed out." Converts had not really been won. All those who were predisposed to be interested had merely gotten onto the bandwagon because the wagon had gotten to where they lived.

More troubling than the attendance plateau, however, is the general nature of the current audience (its demographics) in age, race, economic status, and education. That audience is primarily upper middle class, white, college-educated, and 35-55 in age. The long-term health of any industry is dependent upon successfully reaching its future consumers. For most arts institutions, current audiences look nothing like the demographic profile of the U. S. that is projected for a generation from now.


A concern over resources is growing. The first part of this concern is the competition for time. Arts organizations need people to give of their time as volunteers to run the institutions as well as to be audience members. The increase in single-parent and dual-career families has developed a large pool of utterly exhausted men and women who, at the end of any day, simply are thankful for the opportunity to lift their feet off the floor and fall asleep. This fact serves as a "double whammy" because, not only are they less interested in going out on the town for the performing arts than were their counterparts of 20 years ago, they are less interested in donating their time as board members or staff support volunteers.

The second part of the concern is the competition for money. Increased costs play a significant role in this. The performing arts are among the most labor-intensive industries in society. There is very little way to improve the economic "productivity" of a symphony orchestra beyond a certain point. Fixed amounts of time are required for rehearsal and performance. While other industries have been achieving cost savings through mechanization and organizational restructuring, that is not an option at least, not an acceptable one in the performing arts. The performing arts have been subject not just to that inflation but also to the fact that labor costs have been increasing exponentially as a portion of the nation s economy.

Further, the proliferation of social needs along with a slow economy (relative to the mid-1960s) work together to create a cut-throat environment for fund-raisers. Funders of all kinds question arts giving in ways never done before. The concerns being expressed about the use of public money to support the arts are well known. At the same time, individual donors and private organizations (corporations and foundations) are much less inclined to give readily to the arts than they were in previous years.

At this point, the question presented at the beginning of this essay should be revisited: "How can we ensure the place of reflective music in U. S. society for the next century?" In a democratic society, the answer is simple. Music presenters must be directly involved and must be recognized as an ongoing positive influence in the lives of more than 50% of the population of their community.

How Did We Get Here?

Before that statement can be explored, some more background must be presented. From the origins of Western music until relatively recently, the process of creating, rehearsing, and performing music was done under one roof -- often literally so. There was a close link among patron, composer, performers, and audience.

In the 19th century, with the rise of the middle class and the weakening of the aristocracy, new arts delivery systems developed. In the visual arts, the Paris salon became a place for discussion as well as the origin of the sales gallery. In music, ticket sales and subscription concert series can be traced back to this era. Composers, performers, producers, and even audiences gradually became "freelancers." To lend some order, at least for orchestras and opera, institutions were created to produce performances.

In the 20th century, these institutions took over almost sole control of presentation of the "product." Orchestras, in order to ensure their future, primarily performed the safe music of the 19th century rather than the more difficult music of this century. Therefore, many composers sought professional refuge in academe. The composer-performer-audience feedback loop was ultimately severed. By the middle of the 20th century, the structures through which music was created and presented resulted in the presentation of music that had become removed in time as well as in physical and cultural distance from the audience. Without the rejuvenation of music woven from the fabric of the culture, the concert hall became primarily a museum. Museums are essential for a society, but music has far more than that to offer.


Transitional moments, such as the one the arts face now, call for industries to reexamine the nature of the product they produce. Today telephone companies are evaluating whether their product is phone calls or communication. Libraries are deciding whether their fundamental product is books or information. The successful ones will be those taking the "long view" of their mission. For music, this reexamination will center on the role that the musician will serve in the next century. Will that role be custodian of traditions from the past, practitioner of art that springs from the common culture of the nation, or some combination of both?

The obvious correct response is to preserve the past as well as to be the loom upon which contemporary culture is woven. However, sufficient thought has not been given to what the latter means. Works do not reflect the common culture simply by virtue of being written in the last 15 minutes. Composers, both by the structures in which they work and by personal inclination, have a strong tendency to be esoteric rather than inclusive. (The author includes himself in this indictment.) The musical materials most composers use today are far removed from the music familiar to most of the public. Regardless of the reasons for this, it does not bode well for the future.

In a time of extremely limited resources, if the arts as we know them are to remain politically viable, large segments of our communities must be able to respond personally and passionately when asked the question: "Why are the arts important?" To do this, as stated earlier, music presenters must be directly involved and must be recognized as an ongoing positive influence in the lives of more than 50% of the population of the community. This does not mean that the goal is to have half the population in the audience. Rather, it is to enable people to respond positively to the question: "What good is reflective music?"

Where Might We Go?

What are some things that can be done? First, an attitude change over the relationship with music "consumers" is needed. The National Task Force on Presenting and Touring the Performing Arts has said, in the book An American Dialogue, "`Audience' is simply too limiting [a word] to describe the array of people, beyond our valued ticket-buyers, whom presenters and artists must engage. `Community' implies a fundamental partnership that makes presenting and touring both compete and compelling." This concept of partnership will provide exciting new ways to think about the activities presenting organizations might pursue.

Specifically, new programs should be undertaken and old ones rethought with a view to broadening the base of support. Activities should include:

1. Intimate involvement in educational programs for children in the public schools.

No educational innovations should be taking place in the local community without the passionate input of that community s musicians.

2. Musical training for employees of corporate sponsors, along with tickets to attend events.

For instance, the corporate chorus should be reintroduced into the workplace.


3. Programming reflective works that speak to many different segments of the community.


Of course, current offerings should be continued, However, a panstylistic, pancultural approach to valuing reflective music can be developed. New work that "speaks" in vernacular language or derives from indigenous traditions should be commissioned and performed. Much of the great music of the past was based on what was for those composers and audiences familiar, indigenous music Bach s hymn tunes, Haydn s Ldler, the Romantic-era composers nationalist melodies and forms, Bartók's Hungarian folk music, Copland's Appalachian Spring and Rodeo, to name a few.

4. Presenting this new music to the public in current venues but also in new, "extraordinary" ones, e.g., small ensembles in recreation centers, parks, or other places "where the people are."

The business community knows that the future lies in micromarketing. Increasingly it will be found that, like politics, all the arts are local. Grassroots arts activities must be encouraged.

5. Supporting grassroots activities with a mosaic structure for arts organizations.

A single structure could be used as an umbrella to cover a number of nearly autonomous presenting organizations. The grassroots activities need not be large or expensive. Indeed, microactivities may be better suited to the needs on the local level. The umbrella concept will allow economies of scale in administrative operations where possible and also will allow the cumulative visibility of the various activities to be seen as a unit, enhancing the community s understanding of the value music represents to them all.


If some of these things are done, along with other innovations, music presenters can be directly involved and can be recognized as an ongoing positive influence in the lives of more than 50% of the population of the community. In doing so, the place of reflective music in U. S. society for the next century can be ensured.

A moment of crisis for the arts is at hand. It is a crisis of socio-political viability that will not be solved until programs are developed that actively include the majority of the population. Without this, subsidies, both private and public, will dry up, sooner than later. And subsidies are nonoptional. Any reflective art must be subsidized. By definition, reflective art is not going to survive the market test when pitted against visceral art. The more expensive the reflective art is, the greater the subsidy must be; the greater the subsidy, the greater the need for widespread understanding and acceptance of the need for the art. Otherwise, the art cannot compete for that support and will fail.

The response to this crisis will determine whether musicians in the reflective tradition will continue as practitioners of an art that is vital to society or serve as keepers of an art that, while profoundly important, is not central to the lives of most of the population. That will hurt musicians, but it will be a disservice to the culture as well. Musicians owe it to themselves and to their fellow citizens to accept this challenge. The creation and presentation of contemporary, reflective art rooted in its culture is both a demonstration of a healthy society and the means by which it remains so.

1960 Last modified on May 2, 2013
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