time to change the way we view music and the arts

“Kick logic out and do the impossible!”

I was not one of those people that was fixated on the superbowl this past Sunday. Nor was I looking to get in on anyone’s secret party or hedge any bets on the possible winner. I’m sure there are those of you that partook in each of those activities though, and I’m focused on a the last one for a minute. Football facts aside, there’s an element of excitement or anticipation when you place a bet because (usually) you have some sort of a backing reason for why you believe your team will win. This is especially true if you are the type that follows a season record and if your favored team has a good one, then all the more reason why things will go your way…

With the arts, it’s too bad that patrons can’t just look up “team stats” in the form of their favorite orchestra or long running dance company and have a sense of perceived logical security about “winning” the ongoing contest to stay alive in this economy. That “contest” came to forefront of my thoughts after thinking about the magnitude of investment that’s put into an event like the superbowl and how, despite filling every seat, (even turning away 400 paying spectators due to an incomplete installation of temporary seating.) the investment in the actual venue doesn’t get much of the floor for discussion. Venue management is a notable sector of the arts and Interestingly, David Smooke, a Ph.D. accredited faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory of John Hopkins, hit that nail on the head with his discussion on arts funding and its correlation to new arts jobs. A key point that sticks out for me is when he states:

“…funding for the arts only seems to be discussed when specific art works are found to be offensive.”

It’s true to an extent, that American society appears to thrive on the negative. Just look at the news industry. No matter how gruesome or devastating, negative news stories almost always get the front page over positive ones. Highway accidents usually prompt long, frozen lines of congestion that, after you’re past them, make you realize there was no reason for everyone to be stuck in place for that long to begin with because everything was already off to the side and everyone just ‘wanted to see what was going on.’ Reality TV needs an injection of drama now and then, and let’s not forget the tabloid and entertainment gossip niche. Hence, I’m hardly shocked by this statement. What’s so poignant about this issue, and why it’s so good it’s being brought up again, is the fact that unlike the news, legitimate or tabloid, artists aren’t necessarily going out of their way to consistently create provocative pieces, performances or programs. Yes, things arise once in a while, but the arts industry as a whole isn’t built on a foundation of nudity, profanity, violence, prejudice or scandal, as so much of the average negative news story tends to be. That said, if an industry has to make waves to power on discussion of funding and job creation, the arts are perpetually stuck with a sort of ‘fuel disadvantage.’

Smooke eloquently develops his initial point and I believe this portion sums it up well.

“At times, it appears that we forget that jobs in the arts are just that: jobs. While I believe that reasonable people can disagree as to the role of government funding and whether or not tax dollars should be spent on the arts, I find it frustrating how little we discuss the true economic impact of our cultural institutions. People writing about sports consistently tout the amount of money spent by tourists enjoying these events while downplaying the public support of their stadiums and the other costs associated with these undertakings. When a city bids to host the Olympics or a Super Bowl, most media coverage cites claims that the economy of the region will benefit from success. But it’s relatively rare to hear any discussion of an orchestra’s impact on the local restaurants and shopping districts, or to see any mention of the administrative and support work created by these institutions.” (Full article : HERE.)

People may not have a daily routine of attending some arts related activity, which is the nature of the arts and I do understand that. All the same, the ongoing implied assumption that “the artsy stuff will just be there when I come back to it, because I can’t be expected to see it everyday,” means that the administrative figures are still having to fight to prove the most basic fact of all, which is that they have to go to work every day, just like any other job in another field. It’s not like a power switch you can turn on and off and while it’s “off” no power (a.k.a. money/stability) is being lost.

I realize this last part I wrote is a bit of a rehashed potato. Nevertheless it’s a pertinent side point that bears importance.

Going back to what I said before about patrons looking up stats, the situational irony in what I said is that patrons can at least attempt to look up information to gain some level of confidence in their art organization’s stability. Annual Reports, Yearly Financials, Tax returns, even organizational charts…many times these papers are accessible to the public either through the organization’s website or through services like Guidestar but unfortunately for most average level patrons, there’s not much that can be done or predicted in what will happen to “arts company x” based on said data, even if you read it 1000 times over and gain a very clear picture of how “arts company x” is doing. Meanwhile, in the commercial music industry, your average teen/20 something listener/fan of “x group” doesn’t have access to published documents outlining a band’s yearly financials, marketing plans or tax returns (other than perhaps their raw sales figures, which are hardly the tip of the iceberg) but it certainly feels as though the teen and 20 something customer majority have so much more affective power over their life established patron counterparts, and this coming from simple combinations of basic, raw data, fan response and general overall buzz.

Source upon source, from The Salt Lake Tribune, to The LA Times, to CBS New York are making various predictions for the upcoming Grammy Awards on Sunday night and the method to their predicting madness? It depends on who you’re talking about in that moment. Even I’ll admit I don’t hunt down every piece of data before a music awards show and for the the past year I’ve “known” Taylor Swift was going to just keep getting awards so long as her name was in the category, mostly because I was generally aware of the incessant star power she had. I was always saying “Predictable..” when she would win, which she always did. So from the outside it looks like “feeling” is enough. Though that’s hardly a solid line of deduction, even if I could confidently say “I knew that would happen.” Then in comparison with the seemingly logical stack of evidence for success/failure with any orchestra, gallery or theater, aren’t these strong “feelings of confidence” for predicting the outcome really just heuristic assumptions? Furthermore, the media’s Grammy predictions swing the winner’s pendulum wildly from genre to genre without hesitation and even MTV agrees about the almost random nature of the Grammy awards, particularly the most coveted.

“No prize…has been a greater wild card than Album of the Year. Ignoring last year’s victory by Taylor Swift, the Album of the Year award has gone to somewhat esoteric entries in the past few years. The reasoning is relatively simple: Because everybody votes for Album of the Year, (no matter what the background or genre of expertise), the singular representations from particular music worlds tend to overcome pop albums that draw votes away from one another. For example, while most people from the pop and rock universes probably split their votes between Kanye West’s Graduation and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black in 2008, people from the jazz and folk worlds only had Herbie Hancock’s River: the Joni Letters to support (and thus give it a victory).”

That whole explanation sounds like a venn diagram that could be analyzed with reason. Yet when everything is said and done, and after MTV says, “Album of the Year is reserved only for country and curve balls,” whether it’s with sophisticated documents or screaming fans, if an authority can’t establish and then follow its own line of reasoning, then even assumed majority popularity becomes unpredictable and it just looks like dumb luck.

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