Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How far should we go to "market" great art?

I wish I could blog more often, but I find it difficult to find the time.  It is not unusual to have more time for such non-essential activities when I am away from home, which I am now - I am in Seoul, Korea, in the middle of a week of concerts with my friend and colleague, violinist Stefan Jackiw.  The trip coincides with the recent release of our CD on Sony/Korea of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas (we hope it will be released in the US and other countries soon).  As a side note, it sure can be tricky to use Google (of which Blogspot is a part) when you are in another country, because it knows where you are and asks questions, in this case, in Korean.  I know a few important phrases now in Korean (Do you speak English?  Where is the bathroom?  and a few others) but I certainly cannot read even a single letter.

It is always interesting to notice, as I play in different places, that classical music is marketed in a different way.  Here in Korea we feel very appreciated, more so I would say than in the US or in Europe.  For example, the presenter flew us business class and has put us in one of the very best hotels.  I can assure you that this is not typical in the classical music business (unless you are in a major orchestra, where the players' unions in many case have successfully gotten their employers to give them the best possible accomodations when they go on tour).

Yesterday, a few hours after arriving at the airport after the long flight from New York at 4:30am, we went to give a performance/press conference.  There were a good number of journalists in attendance, some from print, others radio or TV.  This is the kind of reception that might have greeted Vladimir Horowitz in the US many decades ago, but I'm not sure how many of these things even a mega-star like Yo-Yo Ma might do in the US today.  Beforehand Stefan and I each had to spend 20-30 minutes getting "hair and makeup".  Of course, as red-blooded American men this is not exactly normal for us, but I have to say we both did look a lot better than normal.  All of this, plus a closely organized question and answer session with the press, was in order to sell some CD's of Brahms.  In fact, to some degree we are pushed around (in a helpful way) by our people at Credia, the Korean manager, as we are a part - just a part, mind you - of the marketing strategy for selling the CD's and our concerts this week.

(Stefan Jackiw - in normal everyday life, he doesn't always dress quite so well)

It would be nice if people came to concerts just because they want to hear great music played (I hope) with insight and passion.  But the truth is that concert-goers need a little more of a push sometimes, and it seems that the Koreans understand the need for the extras (like hair and makeup) that make the product (us?  Brahms?  Art?) more enticing to the customers.  It is like food - a delicious mess is not going to sell as well as something more beautifully plated.  In fact, it may even seem to taste better.  But does music sound better when we are wearing tuxedos?  Or do the tuxedos just signal to the audience that something special is happening on stage, and they ought to pay attention?

On the plane trip, I watched on one of the 50+ channels available on Korean Airlines entertainment system a video of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Seiji Ozawa, and the Berlin Philharmonic doing the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the Musikverein in Vienna.  (Just the fact that this was one of the options - along with videos of Andras Schiff and Yevgeny Kissin - on a KAL flight should tell you something of the value Koreans place on classical music).  The performance was part of the attraction for the audience (though it seemed VERY slow, and perhaps more about violin playing than about Beethoven), but as I watched I realized that a big part of the experience for the audience in attendance would be the gorgeous and historic concert hall itself, the spectacle of hearing the unofficial greatest orchestra in the world, and of course just looking at Anne-Sophie Mutter, who looked fantastic, and was dressed as glamorously as a Hollywood star at the Oscars.

(yes, this is the great violinist Anne Sophie Mutter, not a fashion model)

If the audience attended for some combination of all these reasons, I'm not bothered by that - the truth is that, in the end, they listened to the monumental Beethoven Violin Concerto, instead of spending their time and dollars on something more superficial.  If people come to our concert in Seoul and/or buy the CD in part because we looked good in our makeup on TV, I won't complain.  At least we are still playing great music.

Where it gets hard for me is when we have to play second-rate music, music that is kind of like candy - immediately appealing, but which does not have lasting interest, in order to sell tickets.  I would say that many if not most concert presenters in America feel pressure to do this: put on programs of orchestras playing video-game music, for example, and avoid great works that are too long for the channel-surfing attention span of today's audiences.  Is this the only way? 

Although people are quick to point to the imminent demise of classical music, as it finds itself needing to "pander" to audiences who want Pops concerts more than "real" classical music, I know that this phenomenon is not at all new.  We may remember Schubert today as the composer of masterpieces like the C-major Cello Quintet, "Die Winterreise" and the B-flat major Piano Sonata, but in order to try to eke out a living he *also* wrote trivial little piano pieces and pieces for piano duet, which were tuneful and easy to play, and hence more marketable.  Brahms had the luxury of writing great, serious music in part because he had a huge financial success early in his career with the Hungarian Dances, which are wonderful, but certainly not the reason Brahms is remembered as a great composer.  Maybe all of us have to find time both to get an audience *now* by doing a *tiny* bit of dumbing-down, but also to do the things that may have a small audience now but will be remembered and still relevant later.

What do you think?


Wende Persons said...

Looking forward to hearing your new Brahms CD with Stefan, Max! And regarding the dilemmas of art and commerce in drawing audiences, the great mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig once said that she programmed her recitals as "one for the critics, one for the audience, and one for me." Along with great music-making in each case.

ckoh71 said...

Isn't Korean Air the greatest? Those personalized entertainment systems make the long flight easy to endure. Plus, the bim bim bap tastes pretty good. And the flight attendants aren't bad to look at either!
Marketing is a necessary evil. And for something that's struggling to retain relevancy in the marketplace (at least in the US with younger audiences), I think it does need to make some concessions (though playing video game music is absurd). I'm obviously an appreciator of the arts, but even I get annoyed at the idea that I am paying $75-150 a head to sit in usually uncomfortable seats at Carnegie Hall or the Met. Imagine how people in our generation (the ones who now have the money to keep the arts alive)who may be far less familiar/comfortable with classical music feel when faced with the choice. So I do think you have to create an experience. Obviously, the music is what matters. But alas, the days of purists are dwindling.
Have a great time in Korea. Is there any way I can get a hold of that CD? Do I have to buy in Seoul? I can ask my friends or relatives to buy it I suppose & pick it up next time I'm there.

Max Levinson said...

Thanks for the comments. For the moment the CD is only available in Korea, but I'm told there is a local Korean web site similar to Itunes where one can purchase the CD for download - but I don't know what it is called, or whether one can use it from another country. The Sony/Korea representatives seemed to think it would be released internationally at some point, but it's hard to say how soon.

violindoc said...

Hi Max,

I'm not a performing classical musician as you are, but I am on my own entrepreneurial journey, trying to create an authentic life which reflects my deepest values while also supporting my place in the world. The last paragraph of your essay seems to speak to the need to balance "things that will sell" and "things you believe in that may not sell as well or immediately".

Having your own business - which is I believe the reality of life for any artist or creative professional - involves finding that right balance for you. There are realities of life, including how and where you wish to live, the family you wish to support, etc. And then there are the equally real interior feelings and relationship to your art that must be expressed if you are to be fully alive.

I was trained purely in classical music, and have tried to love it from afar - without fully taking the risk of "going for it" with music as the central axis point in my life. No matter what professional field I've tried, I gravitate back to my reverence for music, and it finds its way into my life.

In my recent experience trying to teach violin to children of non-musician/non-artist parents, I've felt that trying to "sell" the value of music training as something that will help a child become a "successful" person worked marvelously as a business proposition, especially to the upwardly mobile, highly (overly?) educated set in Silicon Valley. However, when I have attempted to move into the realm of finding true understanding and deeper expression of the music, it has caused the same people to either turn away in fear or confusion, or give up on something that takes too much time for too little "tangible" return.

I'm trying to find my own balance point between appreciating myself and finding an audience that appreciates me.

Thanks for your writing! Have a great time in Korea, where you are a ROCK STAR!

December 16 at 3:25pm