Monday, April 23, 2012

Whither the Musical Blogosphere

When I entered the blogosphere I had a working relationship with a reliable music publisher who, until he died, did a great deal to promote the music I wrote. I also had plenty of places to write articles for publication, but I did not enjoy having my work edited (for content) because what I had to say did not fit the commercial goals of the publication. I wrote CD reviews for a magazine (and still do) where my content was left intact, so I knew the joy of being able to state what I felt was the truth in print. My first blog posts were articles that I had written at the request of music magazines, but never saw publication as articles.

I also had put in many years in radio, back when radio was a kind of two-way conversation between the person doing the show and the person listening, and the person doing the show was somewhere within a 50 mile radius of the listener. I had many years of experience as a performing musician as well, and had a nice working relationship with my community and the musicians who floated in and out of it over the years. I also had a teaching job at a community college (and still do), and wrote program notes for an orchestra (and still do).

I can't believe that I am having nostalgia about something that never existed in real time and in real space. When musicians (I'll call them "classical musicians) first discovered the blogosphere as a "place" to find like-minded people and to present their ideas about music and music making for discussion, it was like being in a cafe in Vienna at the dawn of the 20th century. I used to feel a wonderful sense of camaraderie there, wherever "there" happened to be, and felt a nice balance between my normal working life and my "sidebar" life in bloggery. What was lacking in my daily life could be found in the connections I made through writing and reading musical blogs. It was a lot of fun.

Things have changed.

After my publisher died, his company was sold to a large entity that had its own agenda. That agenda didn't include promoting my music, so I had to figure out a way to do it myself. That's when I made my thematic catalog blog. I also decided that I was no longer interested in writing music that could only be distributed (sold) by a publisher who may or may not decide to promote it. Musical publishers have the unique ability to decide what they want to make available and what they want to keep unavailable. Most of my published music is available in libraries, so I thought that a catalog blog would be the best way to direct people to music I have written. I am proud of the music I have written, and I don't want it to get too lost in the din.

When I realized that the Werner Icking Archive (now incorporated into the IMSLP) was a perfectly reliable place to make my newly-written music available for musicians to play, I decided to forgo the idea of making 10% royalties on sales of music, and make my music available to musicians without any exchange of money. Keeping track of money is a task that I abhor, and with the amount of money that performing musicians make, considering them a "market" is rather distasteful to me. Being productive is important to me, and communicating with people is important to me. Selling is not.

Unfortunately, in this commercially-driven world, selling is the way the exchange of intellectual proper is evaluated. Bloggers without commercial agendas seem to have slipped out of the musical blogosphere, and the commercially-minded bloggers have taken over. Norman Lebrecht, who I gave a few points to for his interview with Thomas Quasthoff, is contributing to the death that he seems to want for classical music by reporting on gossip from its underbelly. Unfortunately there is little to read at his Slipped Disc blog (notice that I don't have a link) these days. For a while I was enjoying some lively discussions in comments, but there is little worth commenting upon there anymore. It is not a blog about music, it is a blog about superficial musical activity. I don't really care about the music "scene" in large. I care about music.

For a while, while he was writing The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross was the king of the musical blogosphere. All bloggers wanted to be noticed by him, and a "nod" from Ross was a feather in the cap of any musical blogger. He was a "pro" because he blogged at The New Yorker . Though I have found many of Ross' New Yorker articles worthwhile, I was not particularly impressed by the book. I suppose I was in the minority.

Perhaps some people no longer participate in the musical blogosphere because the effort of writing does not give the kind of feedback that they expected it to give. A single voice in the wilderness can be loud and can have a great impact, but when you have millions of single voices offering their opinions about music, you get a cacophonous mess. Perhaps some people have gone elsewhere to blog for money at commercial blogging entities (those that sell advertising), where they might get paid a little bit for their writing.

I'm hanging on because I don't have an alternate agenda. I need to have contact with people in the "outside world" because I always have. I'm not afraid of being wrong when I state an opinion, and though sometimes I end up having the "last word" in a discussion about something, that is not my goal. Perhaps, in this age of Facebook and twitter (two entities I don't participate in because of their superficiality) the blogosphere will never return to its former "self." One blogger I enjoy reading jokingly defined blogs as being "so 2008". Perhaps that says it all. But, for the sake of people who prefer to communicate in words rather than captioned pictures, and in paragraphs rather than the number of characters you are allowed in twitter (whatever that number is), I'll remain where I am and who I am.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Unless you provide more specifics, it's hard to tell whether things have changed as much as you posit. I started blogging in 2004 as an adjunct to my tiny reviewing career and because Alex had a blog. I've gotten some paid work and quite a few ticket offers because of the blog, but I don't have any ads. Am I a commercial blogger?

Is Terry Teachout, for whom his blog is a major platform for promoting his other work? Is Greg Sandow, for whom his blog is, etc.? They were both blogging before I was.

Looking at the list of people whose blogs I read, lots of them have larger or smaller careers reviewing, writing program notes, teaching music, or composing - but lots of them don't. Are the former commercial bloggers?

Is this a useful distinction to make? There's a good sense of camaraderie among the SF and California bloggers, but it's always easier for the first in, when there's a smaller pool, to feel like pals and create a sense of community. With 300+ classical music blogs out there, it's harder.

Elaine Fine said...

Perhaps it is different when the blogging community is part of your physical community. I think you might have misunderstood my point, Lisa. Sandow and Teachout blog as part of the Arts Journal, and, regardless of how much or how little they are being paid, their blog activity feeds their other activities and adds to their clout. They have reason to continue blogging regardless of whether they make money from it specifically, because they are part of a platform that gives them a significant audience and a significant voice.

I miss the otherwise unaffiliated independent people in the musical blogosphere who do not update their blogs (for whatever reason). I feel that what once was a land of cultural adventure has become a supermarket where only name brand foods are sold. Or I could give a Wal-mart analogy for a one-stop shop that puts other "stores" "out of business."

I'm very happy that you are still here. And that you are willing to comment. And that you haven't changed your reasons for being here.

Blogging in exchange for opera tickets does not put you in the commercial category in my mind. I can't think of a better exchange of services. And I would make a distinction between "commercial" and "commercially-minded." By commercially-minded I meant that there are people for whom blogging might have been a means to another end. A step up the career ladder, of sorts.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think I did understand your point. ArtsJournal bloggers aren't paid (or they weren't years ago when Terry wrote about whether or not people would pay to read his blog postings); Terry and Greg's blogging is a major support for what they do.

I would say I am commercially-minded. I don't consider this a bad thing. I hoped I might get more paid writing work if I started a blog. (I have, though not much, though that's partly a function of the fact that I have a full-time job.) It's still a major way that anyone thinking of hiring me can judge my writing, because I don't have an editor other than myself.

I would have to say that I don't care what people's motives are, whether stated or unstated or whatever I might think their motives are. I care a lot about the content of what people write.

Carl said...

Dear Elaine, I love it that you are championing the values that mean so much to me in such a public way! Please keeping fighting, and don't give up - this could be fun. Your writing is part of what keeps me going, for sure.

Michael Leddy said...

I think there’s less conversation generally in the blogosphere, i.e., people reading one another and responding. Sherry Turkle had a piece in the New York Times this weekend about the “flight from conversation.” I think it’s taking place online too.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Michael, I agree with that. The early comment threads from my blog are gone with HaloScan (bad decision on my part), but the first year or so, there were lively discussions on various subjects with quite a few highly visible people participating. I think there are various reasons that has changed:

- How many times does anyone want to have the same damn discussion with G*** S*****?

- How many times can we possible go around and around about the same issues? Applause between movements! Not again!

- We're all ignoring AC Douglas at this point. I haven't seen anyone arm-wrestling with him in more than a year, and I was the last holdout. (I would love to see his blogstats; I wonder how much his no-comments policy and obstreperousness have cost him readership.)

- A surprising amount of conversation takes place on Twitter in real time. We didn't have Twitter (or Facebook!) in 2004 when I started blogging. I still have plenty of comments and discussions on my blog, however.

- We Can't Keep Up. I just checked the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. When they first sampled my blog, I linked to 38 blogs and sites. Of those, 12 blogs or sites have essentially gone dark; they're still there, but haven't been updated in years.

At present, though, I link to something like 90 or 100 sites and blogs (including some that have gone dark). There are more than 300 classical music blogs of varying quality around.

The classical blogosphere is no longer a tiny backwater where we could all read each other regularly. It's now an enormous backwater where we just can't stay current.

Susan Scheid said...

Elaine: First of all, thanks for alerting me to Company (in re your point, Song of the Lark is a blog I think I'm going to enjoy following as an authentic addition to the musical conversation). Glass's SQ 5 is another piece of his about which I was persuaded by a lively performance by Contemporaneous. (I think I prefer SQ5 to Company, actually. In Company, I do hear those Glassisms that grate on me. Ah, well!)

On your point, I haven't been traveling in the music blog world for anywhere near as long as you have--nor do I know anywhere near as much about music--but you do confirm an impression I'm getting, in some quarters, anyway, as I look for places that have honest musical discussion. I do think the two can blend, though it doesn't often happen. (I think New Music Box does a very good job.)

Scott said...

Lisa is absolutely correct. I used to read my RSS feeds religiously every day, and either link to posts from my blog or comment on the other person's blog at least once a day. When it started taking too much time away from work and family, I gave up reading other blogs, except on rare occasions. Now that I've started on Twitter, I've started reading a few more blogs again, linked from tweets that I can scan really quickly.

And I gave up on AC way before that. Sometime around his starting his own ranking system.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Scott, I still read a giant number of music blogs (maybe 40 or 50?). I link to others frequently, especially to bloggers discussing the same issues or programs I do. As you can see, I comment, as well.

I like your use of Twitter, which I also find great as a referral to blog postings and articles I might otherwise not have seen.

Re Alex Ross's blog. My blogstats consistently show his blog and Parterre Box as major refers to my blog, so I'm grateful for their prominence and my listing on their blogrolls.

Elaine Fine said...

Bob at On an Overgrown Path gives an eloquent take on exactly the kind of thing I wrote about.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I've already posted some comments on Bob's posting. He does not name names, without which it's difficult to verify his assertions. Who does he mean? Where are the people swallowing press releases whole or merely echoing them?

Elaine Fine said...

I named one name in my post.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Lebrechtt, you mean? One example does not indicate a trend.

Anonymous said...

Blogging is not as important as composing, reading, playing and listening to music. Nice to read your blog, every so often, Ms. Fine. Truth be told, the active verb, to music (I know your husband might rage at co-opting a noun), should drive us forward to "music." Your blog is most interesting; most are not. Stay happy, make music, and then music some more.

Anonymous said...

Blogging is not as important as composing, reading, playing and listening to music. Nice to read your blog, every so often, Ms. Fine. Truth be told, the active verb, to music (I know your husband might rage at co-opting a noun), should drive us forward to "music." Your blog is most interesting; most are not. Stay happy, make music, and then music some more.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Reading this again after almost 18 months, I wonder if I'm one of the people posting press releases! I certainly get a lot of date/time/price info for events I think are interesting from press releases. In the Bay Area, it is not possible to otherwise read up on every concert at every venue; sometimes the press release is the only information I have about something intriguing.

I've actually looked at Lebrecht a few times in the past year, and in none of those cases was he posting a press release.