The Sustainable Musician

What would it mean to make music "green"?

The sustainable musician makes music now in ways that nurture music tomorrow. Like an organic farmer, the sustainable musician enriches the cultural soil to increase our human capacity for expression. Sustainable music is both art making and arts advocacy; it talks and walks the embrace of culture as living, since no matter how excellent, an extinct, unsustainable music serves no one. Sustainable music nutures both musician and listener, making our communities into more vibrant, meaning-full environments for communication. Sustainable music provides immediate spiritual sustenance, while increasing our ability to listen, to think, to experience, to love, to care about art, about ourselves and each other.

Today the status of professional musician is under siege. We can blame this on the global economic crisis (and that’s certainly a problem), but it’s also a predictable effect of unsustainable musical thinking. When excellence becomes more about serving music than serving humanity, music withers, art dies away. For well over a century, the notion of the musician amateur, the “lover of” music who makes music for pleasure and enrichment of self, family, and friends, has been discounted in part to create the category of professional. Yet the resulting gap between music lover and music earner while it may temporarily elevate the status of the professional in the short term, degrades the fertility of the cultural soil that feeds human culture and connects music to life. It pushes the professional away from his or her listener. Any gap between artist and audience—between art and engagement—distances the listener from participation in musical experience. It is this gap that makes music making elite, disconnected from its audience, an absent partner in its community. It rips the roots of music as art from the soil of community and that gives musicians their purpose.  It removes music from life itself.

What would happen if we thought about musicianship as sustainable music making? How might the thinking of a musician change? Would it change a lot or just a little? Would music be less about competition, about beating others, and more about the embrace of the human capacity to think through artistry? Would playing music at a school, a retirement community, or the town square suddenly seem as important as performing in the concert hall? Would playing in a concert hall seem more significant, more potent, and more likely to enhance the human experience? Would the walls dividing classical from popular, improvisation from note reading, hip hop from fiddlin’, film music from concert music seem less in need of defense?

Would the sustainable musician see the World Wide Web as an opportunity rather than a threat? Would it seem more natural to invite youth orchestra musicians to sit in with members of the Boston, Chicago, or Your City Symphony Orchestras? Would more orchestras imitate Baltimore’s “Rusty Musicians Project” or create New Horizons Ensembles? Would the requirements for a music school degree in sustainable music making change to include learning how to teach as well as perform? Would it include advocating for public policy that supports art, not for art’s sake but for the sake of global peace, public health, and human understanding? Would excellence find additional purpose? Would music matter, even just a little more?

In this spirit, I’d like to propose “the sustainable musician.” What do you think this would mean?

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About usmusicscholar

I am an Associate Professor of Musicology, American Culture and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
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2 Responses to The Sustainable Musician

  1. usmusicscholar says:

    One clarification I want to make to my original post is that I’m not proposing a new dichotomy of sustainable musician versus professional musician. It’s not so much that I’m suggesting we change what we do, but how we think about it and how we advocate for it. I do think that this conceptual change would have a beneficial effect on what we do, but that’s a secondary result.

    I would say, for example, that a professional symphony player, a local music teacher, and a university professor of music could all be examples of “sustainable musicianship” engaged with their community soil, if those doing this work are engaged with mixing performance and advocacy in ways that nurture a musical future. What I’d like to discard is the gap between music and its users be they musicians, professional or amateur, or listeners or students, etc. We all need to express our love of music through our work whatever that may be.

    What I hope is that music schools (i.e., where I am) can rise to the occasion of the current threats against music as unsustainable to train sustainable musicians, that is, musicians who have a broad awareness of musical ecology and have the skills to navigate whatever opportunities the cultural environment throws at them. Musicians, professional and amateur, can’t entirely trust the market to care for their work but need to become skilled advocates and cultural ecologists.

    What I’m hoping is that the next time we as musicians meet someone new at a party or in the grocery store line and are asked what we do, that we answer “I’m a sustainable musician.” The conversation that follows will concern the value of music in our world and enrich the ground for future sounds of the art.

  2. I like the genesis of this post, but I think that we need to get much more “real” about what “sustainable music” means. How does a “sustainable musician” make a living these days? Breaking down walls is great, and I whole-heartedly advocate the assimilation of ALL forms of music into music study. Technology has made it possible for ANYONE to make music, record it, and distribute it. People have access to music in ways that they never have via streams, internet radio, and digital release formats.

    Sustainability, however also suggests survival. Musicians have rent to pay, groceries to buy, utilities, phone bills just like everyone else. We spend countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars cultivating our skills in hopes that we might capitalize on our investments of time, energy and resource. I recently attended the New Music Seminar in New York City and learned, while people interact more with music than they ever have, revenue is where it was in 1970 (after inflation adjustment) and is continuing to decline. This essentially means less money for many more people.

    Music business has also become much, much more about “business” than it ever has. Twenty years ago, it was a fight to get a band to license their song for a product or commercial as it was seen as “selling out”. Now, thousands of musicians line up to get exposure from these kinds of deals, on top of a decent pay day (since, as mentioned before, traditional income streams have all but dried up). Since there are so many artists/bands out there competing for people’s attention, the ability to attract and retain a fan base is more important than ever. In fact, it was suggested at the conference I attended that the music model of the future was based on how many fans you had and how much they spent in a year.

    Let us also examine the “high art” music that exists and how it is sustained. My experience is with opera and jazz, so I will use those as an example. Opera is associated with elite social class. The Met’s endowment (which is vast) came from, in a large portion, rich socialites bequeathing large sums of their estate to the institution. The art form, like classical music, has been ascribed to cultural elitism and as an event that brings this community together. In a way, you could say that this supports your argument (communities coming together around music).

    Jazz, since its institutionalization (which, it seems to me, was a desperate move to preserve the art form), has also sought the same elite status (look no further than Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center Jazz). Again, you have a music bringing together communities of people on the premise of elitism.

    I think the biggest point needed to be made here is this: Patronage. In my musical education, there was not enough emphasis put on this. Handel had the Medici family and King George the II. Mozart had royal patrons in Salzburg and Vienna. Record labels were, by and large the patrons of the 20th century popular music (A&R). Today, we are back to partrons…except that the concept of patronage for musicians has gone the way of the dinosaur as of late. Musicians need to be savvy businessmen, diplomats, promoters, marketers on top of world-class musicians. All of which can be accomplished…if you have someone bankrolling you.

    I’ll give you an example. I have a funk band that I’m trying to break (CopperTonic). We play shows about once a month. We play for the door (or, rather 70% of the door most of the time). I spent a YEAR co-writing the songs with my partner, Michelle, and many hours arranging the parts for horns and rhythm section before our first gig. The music is fantastic and people that hear it like it a lot.

    To date, I have SPENT approximately $2,000 on this project (not including my time). Michelle has spent about the same.

    People balk at a $10 cover or a $3 sticker or $15 t-shirt (merchandise being the backbone of the “new music business model”) and steal music off the internet rather than pay for it (full disclosure- I’m guilty of this as well). If we are REALLY going to talk about “sustainable music”, we need to reform our schools of music immediately. How to write a press release, how to use MIDI, the “psychology” of putting on a great show and that four-letter word,”sales”, are FAR more important that sitting around analyzing Bach fugues for musicians that actually want to make a living making music.

    I’m all about “sustainable music”, provided our perspectives are based in the reality of the 21st century marketplace (another “dirty word” in art”). Like the great general said- “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want”.

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