It’s hard to believe the Los Angeles Times employs a music critic as out-of-touch with contemporary culture as Mark Swed, but they do. He’s gone on the record in the past
about his disdain for technology, and this weekend his latest salvo
in some imaginary war between technology and classical music went up. He talks about what he calls “technological fascism” or the blind faith in services such as Twitter, Spotify, and the social media consultants who advocate the use of online technology by performing arts organizations to increase attendance. And as borderline offensive as appropriating the term “fascism” is to refer to something he objects to about marketing and the arts, his broader point is utter nonsense.
Swed begins by making sure we know he’s a down guy. He’s up on the latest trends and dissolving boundaries between contemporary classical and popular music styles he tells us. He does the kind of routine name-dropping of artists like Bjork and Radiohead that classical music critics always do when they want to ensure that readers understand this fact about them. But what's really got his panties in a bunch is an unreferenced story about a orchestral concert where audience members were encouraged to tweet during the performance if they wanted. Specifically, that this was encouraged by some nefarious unnamed social marketing consultant as an idea to bring in more youthful faces in the hopes of making them regular ticket buyers. Heaven forbid.
His complaint is that tweeting, and much online activity, distracts from actually paying attention to and experiencing live music not to mention the irritation it can cause performers. Fair enough. I’m certainly no advocate of engaging in tweeting or any other online activity during the course of a live performance and find it as irritating as the next guy. But Swed’s extrapolation that the mindless encouragement of such activity poses a threat to classical music or culture on the whole is ludicrous. The point he’s making is that tweeting and use of other services like iTunes and Spotify are perceived by some as unquestionably positive. Furthermore, these technologies have been developed on a pop music model with little benefit and some potential downside for lovers of classical music. The use of these services is then advocated by social marketing consultants to classical performance organizations in thoughtless and poorly developed ways in an effort to increase ticket sales and attendance. But we're told that the threat is much bigger than just some inept marketing strategies. We’re told by Swed that, “This has nothing to do with technophobia but with big and serious issues, and ones that go beyond classical music.” You see this marks the decay of culture and our inability to “disconnect” and experience things without a technological interface.
But I find it hard to believe that all of this is really such a threat to art or culture. First of all, rampant availability of tweeting or online friendly concerts is hardly going to bring in throngs of new faces to anything they aren’t actually interested in to begin with. I doubt there are hordes of 25 year-olds who would love to pay 100 dollars or upward for an orchestra concert now that they now they can use their smartphone during it. And who is to say how one has to behave to get something personally meaningful out of an experience anyway. My focus has waxed and waned at times even in some of the greatest shows I've ever seen. Rapt attention isn't everything. One does want to be respectful of one's neighbors certainly, but there is more than one way to listen to music despite what Mr. Swed would have you believe. As for the issue Swed raises about small recording labels being threatened by Spotify, there is no evidence that this service, or iTunes for that matter, has driven down sales of classical music overall. Though Swed cites Brian Brandt of Mode Records' piece
about the devastating effects of Spotify on his label in the last six months, one can simultaneously see Naxos reporting substantial increases of 6% in sales
of recordings during this same time period despite their catalog being available on Spotify for over two years. Now I recognize that comparing Mode and Naxos is unfair on many levels, but I think the overall point is still valid. Maybe it's not the technology, but one's ability to use it as a tool to one's benefit that's the issue. Spotify has been available in Europe for years and yet the availability of classical recordings there remains the envy of anyone in the U.S who is paying attention. In fact, Spotify may have the exact opposite effect when it comes to classical music. Having a cheap streaming version of some recordings to sample may actually increase people’s interest in purchasing recorded music, not decrease it.
So while Swed has set up his straw man of rampant smartphone use during classical concerts and invented the bogeyman of internet technology decimating creativity, he ignores the most simple and logical facts. Live classical music performance and peoples’ interest in it has survived the steam engine, the gramophone, electric light, the automobile, movies, television, CDs and Lindsay Lohan. I hardly think that iTunes, Spotify, Twitter or the internet for that matter is going to suddenly finish that off now whether that is big label stars like Lang Lang or emerging independents. Inept marketing has always been with us and will always be so. Art and artists have thrived in much more economically hostile conditions historically than they do now. Art and music will go on. Audiences are smart enough to decide for themselves what they want to hear and in what manner they will pay attention to it in order for it to mean something to them regardless of the technology they have at hand and regardless of outdated proscriptions from classical music critics.
Labels: Los Angeles Times