‘So, What Do You Play?’ Down with The Music Business
A Rant

‘So, What Do You Play?’ is what people always ask when I say my day job is teaching Music in a university. It’s an understandable monolith, a view of music as a single thing - a production-line churning out violin students. The conversation comes to a halt soon afterward, when I say I’m a composer rather than a player. ‘Oh’. Composing is a sure-fire conversation-killer.

However, our western culture commodifies music as a monolithic whole in much more serious ways, every day; let me look at these. A term one hears a great deal on the Today programme is ‘the Music Business’…. a term from which I always feel excluded. I know only serious money interests the media, but so much music is starved of, never mind serious money, even light-hearted money; think of the composers writing ensemble pieces for small, sometimes non-existent or partially paid, commissions, the folk musicians in pubs, the youth orchestra kids working hard on Saturday mornings, the badly paid freelancers just out of music college doing chamber concerts in the suburbs, or playing in the pit for Christmas pantomimes… I don’t see these folk as included in that ‘business’ - musicians who will never fill the O2 or crash the internet with their new download, to be gulped down by millions. Music is not one thing, and it is not even different things with one intent. It is different things with different intents - but we’ve lost sight of the question, what is the intent of any music? It’s now assumed that all music is consumable ear-stroking – while less obvious, but more durable, agenda don’t get air-time.

For example Western art music is a rare bird in being sublimely useless – its intent is only to be itself, and even that intent emerged out of the usage of church and of court. Most of its boisterous neighbours, the world’s folk musics, have always been attached to dance, or work practice, or some defined social context. In most of these traditions, the process of notation is secondary, so they differ from the Western canon in the role they place on shared memory. Meanwhile ‘folk’ music is not one thing either; these world musics are themselves individuated rather than items on a menu, even when iPods and ‘world music’ festivals make them appear so. Some art is fashioned to last, to slow-release its secrets, while at the other end of this continuum is the music made to be consumed as rapidly as possible for commercial purposes. In between are countless gradations, including popular musics that want to experiment, and art musics that hoped to sell. It is the specific intent of music – to be whistled, to absorb and evoke, to be swallowed whole and forgotten, to help pick fruit by – that helps to define its identity.

Yet the tendency to limit music to the domain of our own experience is a marked feature of our media, which rings with wonderfully solipsistic claims from within diverse musical worlds. An enthusiast for Scottish accordionists will hail a recording from the dance band circuit as ‘one of the all-time greats in musical history’, while the same accolade is being given, by separate adherents, to Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain, or Jan Garbarek’s Belonging, or a recording by Nat King Cole. In the same way a reporter from Glastonbury Festival gushes that “every conceivable area of music is here – from Hip-hop to Funk and Soul.” Strange, then, to find no viol consort music, no Tuvan throat-singing, nor any work by Helmut Lachenmann, who seems to get into most other festival programmes. We may ask where this leaves the monolithic notion of ‘the music industry’ - never mind the great works of Bartok, Ligeti, Stravinsky. Statements like these of course remind us that music is in fact many things at once; it’s just funny that they come from people who all think it’s one thing, but all have a different conviction about what that one thing is.

It’s usually classical types like me who are portrayed as snobby and hierarchical, but I think art music actually trains us to look out for things that are not ‘ours’: to expect diversity, the idea that music will present itself in infinite forms – and with different goals. Nothing strikes me as more misguided than those prizes for which different musics are nominated, all thrown in the same hat: what is the common basis for comparison? How can you compare the intent of sustained drama through a one-act opera with a reframed national folk music style using electronic hardware? Would the television prize of ‘All Time’ (a popular quantity in ‘the business’) go to Family Guy or to Lord Clark’s Civilization? It’s really as daft as that… meanwhile music continues to insist on being more than we ever give it credit for being, because it is bigger than we are. It is not one thing. It is not, though it hold in its embrace numerous separate fields of endeavour, a ‘business’.

c 2014 Piers Hellawell

(given in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, London as part of the Institute of Composing Rants series, during the PRS Foundation for Music’s New Music Biennial)