by Gary North
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 funds?
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.
PATRONS OF THE ARTS
Churches 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 Choir.
Wealthy 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.
Patronage 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.
Popular 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 sell.
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.
A NICHE MARKET
Classical 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.
Advertising 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.
AN ACQUIRED TASTE
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.
Popular radio sets musical tastes, and these tastes are geared to the lowest common denominator.
Orchestral 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.
Chamber 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.
Classical 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.
Classical 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.
January 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com