Classical Music: Killed by the State

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In a
recent article on the looming demise of classical music records

— we still call the CD-music industry the “record” industry —
the author predicted that 2004 will be the final year for the
industry. I say, “good riddance.” The classical music record industry
has always involved a sweetheart arrangement between private enterprise
and the state.

Think of
the word “philharmonic.” Can you think of an example of this word
where it is not prefixed by the name of a city? If you came up
with “BBC Philharmonic,” you are well-informed, but the same
problem exists. Philharmonic orchestras are all funded by taxes.

This is
not a new development. It has been the problem with classical
music for well over a century. Urban philharmonic orchestras are
not now, nor have the ever been, supported by the fans of classical
music. They have been supported by the political victims of the
fans of classical music.

Should classical
music be an exception to the principle of consumer sovereignty?
Maybe you have heard the story that Ludwig von Mises once said
that he favored privatizing everything except the Vienna State
Opera. No one has located the document in which he said this.
No one has identified when or where he said this. This is because
he never said it. Years ago, Leonard E. Read told me the name
of the man who made the statement: Max Thun (pronounced “Thune”).
I had never before heard of Max Thun. Except for this one reference,
I still haven’t. But it seemed convenient that “Vienna Opera”
and “Austrian economist” would go together, so an urban legend
— urban Vienna — was born.

Why should
classical music lovers, opera lovers, or ballet lovers have the
legal right to force other taxpayers to fund something these taxpayers
neither enjoy nor want to support? Why should the words “classical
music” become a talisman that persuades politicians to allocate

Most conservatives
know better than to promote the state funding of art. The result
of such funding is the mess that modern art has become. Atonal
music is to music what subsidized art is to art.


have historically maintained choirs and orchestras. By “churches,”
I mean the Catholic Church and other large denominations. Independent
Bible churches have choirs, too, but they are not the Mormon Tabernacle

people have funded the arts in the West. This includes music.
Among the very wealthy, such support of the arts has been considered
a responsibility and a privilege. That Nelson Rockefeller had
such poor taste in art is a shame, but at least he and his peers
put their own money where their values were. Had they not also
lobbied for taxpayer support, I would have had no objection.

has moved away from those who put up their own money or money
that their supporters have entrusted to them voluntarily. Increasingly,
patronage has become peonage, and taxpayers are the peons. This
transfers the funding of the arts to Civil Service—protected
bureaucrats and political appointees. Why these people should
be regarded as reliable trustees of public taste, I cannot say.
How they are uniquely empowered to identify The Beautiful and
then fund it on a cost-efficient basis escapes me. I can see no
reason why Mises’ critique of socialist economic calculation as
irrational does not apply to state-funded arts. I think modern
art illustrates the principle. I wish someone would write an essay,
“Artistic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.”

For a time,
state funding seems productive. The state recruits producers from
the private sector by offering them more money or greater security.
But Amadeus
was on target: Salieri, not Mozart, got on the state’s payroll
and stayed on it.

Most of
us think of classical music as music composed prior to Igor Stravinsky.
Anything that came later is atonal, which sounds terrible to most
of us: an acquired taste that we would not expect anyone normal
to acquire. We refuse to pay for it voluntarily. So, the classical
music record industry is dependent on new recordings of old favorites
— the classics. It is as if we lived in a world where there
were nothing except top-ten radio stations from the ‘sixties —
1660’s, 1760’s, 1860’s.

Why do we
think that musical genius declined after 1880? I offer this suggestion:
because the state started bankrolling classical music heavily
in the late nineteenth century. The state has dominated classical
music, and the result is John Cage.

music comes in spurts of creativity. No one who is not suffering
from Alzheimer’s sits around listening to the music of 1947—52.
Except for the Beach Boys, do CD’s of any group from 1960—62
still sell? But CD’s from 1953—59 and 1963—69 still

If the state
had funded popular music to the extent that it has funded classical
music, we would be expected to listen enthusiastically to CD’s
of Vaughn Monroe and Eddie Fisher. On special occasions, there
might be a “Best of Abba” concert for young people.


music is a niche market. It always has been. Church music, regional
folk music, and music hall music always had a broader market.
The record player made popular music even more popular. A song
lasts three minutes or less. There were two songs per disk. With
classical music, you needed three or more disks, sometimes 12
inches in diameter, with interruptions in between passages, until
the long-playing record appeared in 1948.

on top-ten radio shows is cheaper per ad because there are more
ads. Songs are short. Classical music stations have a small audience
and far less air time available for ads. The musical pieces last
too long. There is usually only one classical station per large
city, except for the subsidized end of the FM spectrum, 88.1 to
89.9, where no ads are allowed. This spectrum — incredibly
valuable — cannot legally be sold to the highest bidder.
The cultural price of this arrangement is National Public Radio.
We get Mozart and Brahms during the day and “All Things [Liberal]
Considered” in the afternoon and early evening.

At this
point, I must digress. I am a lover of practical jokes that conform
to practical joke-master Jim Moran’s definition: “mental hot-foots.”
Back around 1961, a student at Gonzaga University, Dan Avey, found
out that a local top-ten radio station was having a contest. “Vote
for your favorite performer. We’ll play the records of the performer
who gets the most votes all day on [date].” Avey, never one to
pass up an opportunity, organized a mail-in campaign on the Gonzaga
campus. The performer? Enrico Caruso. Caruso won the contest.
This did not help the station’s advertising revenue and Nielsen
ratings on the Big Day. (Avey later became a news announcer on
KFWB in Los Angeles.)

To expect
classical music to be anything but a niche market is like expecting
Leo Tolstoy’s novels to outsell John Grisham’s this year. Over
the next century, they will, but not next year.


Adults of
my era were introduced to classical music by way of radio kids’
shows. We heard “The William Tell Overture” on the Lone Ranger.
Bits of “Fingal’s Cave Overture” and “Les Preludes” were interjected
to liven up the drama. Green Hornet fans — the Lone Ranger’s
great nephew — had to make do with “The Flight of the Bumble
Bee.” A few of us found out that this was “long-hair” music when
we were in our teens. (“Long-hair music” in 1955 meant something
different than it did in 1965.) It is no surprise that there is
a web site devoted to
the classical music themes on radio and TV shows
. Those shows
are long gone. There is today no widely listened to pathway to
classical music appreciation in the United States.

Public schools
used to offer students an opportunity one day per year to go to
the local city-run orchestra, where the orchestra would play “Peter
and the Wolf.” (After a few years of this, I was mentally rooting
for the wolf.) Only a few students per school attended.

Some public
schools used to teach music to all students in the junior high
years. Maybe there was one teacher to cover all students in the
school or the district. That meant one class per week. But those
days are gone. There is no training in music today for most students.
Music classes are optional in high school.

Where does
anyone learn to appreciate classical music? In the day
care curriculum
that Rev. Nick Kozel has developed, there
is classical music every day. The program offers a “listen and
color” session every afternoon. But Kozel went to college on a
music scholarship. The typical day care program offers nothing
like this. Neither does any public school that I know of.

radio sets musical tastes, and these tastes are geared to the
lowest common denominator.


music that is worth listening to today comes out of Hollywood.
John Williams writes wonderful music. So does Jerry Goldsmith.
They write for American movies, which target large audiences.
Fantasia aside, Stravinsky never has made it to the big
screen. There is still a market for good music. The movies provide
lots of it without tax subsidies.

The World
Wide Web is promoting segmented audiences. Each special interest
has its favorite sites. Classical music can make a comeback here.

Home school
parents want to separate their children from the surrounding mass
culture. They buy classical music CD’s for their children. They
keep their children away from FM radio. Here is a future market
for classical music.

Home schools
and the World Wide Web are not run by the government. Here are
obvious markets and distribution systems for lovers of classical

music and organ music are affordable to produce. The private sector
can easily produce such music. Orchestras are far more expensive.
There should be fewer of them. Cut the tax subsidies, and most
orchestras will disappear for a time. But they will revive.


music companies made a pact with the devil: the state. That pact,
as always, has now gone sour. This is good. The pact was immoral
from day one. It was based on theft. The suppliers — orchestras
— were on the take politically.

music has a future, but only if the present economic arrangement
dies. The state has long controlled the production of classical
music. The fact that cacophony has reigned almost supreme since
1900 is a testimony to Mises’ original observation. Atonal music
is to music what socialism is to economics: planned chaos. We
could use less of it.

8, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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