Modern Music, Efficiency and Flexibility

Many of us learned in music history classes that Modernism in music grew out of nineteenth century Romanticism and was a reaction against most of the seemingly ironclad “rules” of Western counterpoint, a tradition stemming at least back to the Renaissance. However, this development really only represented a microcosm of the vast musical universe that was the 20th century.

Outside the world of symphony orchestras, opera houses, recital stages and music conservatories an entirely different revolution was taking hold: the mass media revolution. Prior to the existence of audio recording, the majority of the population in Western Europe and the United States only heard music performed by local/town musicians. It was simply not affordable for most of the population to travel great distances regularly to hear concert performances in big cities. Regular concert goers typically lived in large cities and had a moderate to great deal of disposable income. This largely remained true for many classical music audiences throughout most of the twentieth century as well.

The mass media revolution completely changed the distribution model for music in the twentieth century. Suddenly, people across the Western world (and eventually the entire world) outside of big cities had the ability to hear the greatest musical performances from the comfort of their own homes. Records and radio broadcasts first brought the concert hall into the living room. This opened up markets for music that never existed before. Rather than rely on ticket sales to live performances and patronage from wealthy benefactors, music could be funded by unimaginably large audiences who listened to it at their convenience.

Even though the earliest recordings and broadcasts made and sold in the twentieth century were that of “classical” music, a whole new genre of “popular” music soon took the public by storm. The success of popular music did not initially hurt what musicologists now call Western “art music” (which is an umbrella term for all the musical traditions that essentially evolved from Western “classical” music). In fact, the mass media also helped art music reach wider audiences. However, popular music quickly outgrew it in both distribution and profitability by many orders of magnitude.

The main difference between popular music and art music related primarily to funding. By the middle of the 20th century, popular music was largely funded by for-profit corporations. Art music was funded in large part by patronage. However, the same fundamental problems of audience, cultural relevancy, and sustainability plagued them both in unique ways.

The success of popular music is predicated on its ability to maintain an extremely large audience. Unfortunately, that is a difficult proposition. Rock and roll, once genre with an extremely large audience, soon evolved into over a hundred rock inspired sub-genres, each with its own small following. Popular music was also subject to cultural fads. Contrary to what many of us might believe, most popular music acts fail miserably before they get any notoriety. In fact, record companies often fund hundreds of acts with the hopes that just a few of them might succeed. With the success of the internet as a distribution tool for music, the audience for popular music is as divided and niche as ever. Record companies were often bought up by or branched out into entertainment companies for long term sustainability.

Western art music continued largely to fund itself with the patronage system. Wealthy individuals, corporations and governments would give money to arts organizations and sometimes directly to musical institutions themselves in exchange for something that was largely deemed to be a public service. However, patronage funding is not unlimited nor is it blind. It is still difficult for art music institutions to justify that they are serving a public good with a very small audience. Since patrons can give to a wide range of institutions, their personal music tastes are often a big factor when making decisions about which ones to fund. If they just want to hear Tchaikovsky overtures all the time, that’s often what an orchestra might be pressured to provide.

This brings up a final point about modern music. There is a general tradeoff between efficiency and flexibility. Factories are highly efficient. Each necessary job is given to a worker who is highly skilled in that area. The most efficient factories often have expensive machines that are even more efficient than highly skilled workers at a particular task. However, highly efficient factories are also highly inflexible. A large factory with expensive machinery specifically honed to make a certain item must endure very high costs to retool or replace that machinery in the event that it must start manufacturing something different. However, a smaller and more inefficient plant that employs human workers with a diverse skill set can transition much more cheaply.

The very forces that make something highly efficient also tend to make it highly inflexible. It’s the reason why highly successful corporations like Apple, Google and Microsoft have diversified and branched-out into other related markets. Modern music, thanks to influences from the mass media, is very dynamic. Styles and fads are constantly changing. As time marches on, these changes only accelerate.

Like many industries, the music world has attempted to build its own factories. These include (but are not limited to) record companies, conservatories, symphony orchestras, music education curriculum, etc. These institutions are highly successful due to their efficiency, but their mere existence becomes threatened as soon as tides change. It is important that musicians everywhere of all ages build just a little bit of flexibility into their skill sets.

The lesson to be learned from modern music in the twentieth century is that efficiency can be a huge liability in a changing world. As musical institutions in the early twentieth century scrambled to adapt to and take advantage of a world influenced by recordings and radio broadcasts, modern musicians will need to be ready to adapt and take advantage of a hyper connected world economy. Trends are set almost overnight and replaced just as quickly. Technology more than six months old is obsolete. This will be the age when flexibility will surely trump efficiency for most musicians and musical institutions.

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