The Media and Success in Music

by Colby Parker

Written for The Entrepreneurial Musician (ENTP 351, Fall 2013)

As young musicians, hardly a day goes by when we don’t see an article on our Facebook and Twitter feeds telling us that there will never be any jobs for us. The authors see things like orchestras folding and opera houses closing their doors, and conclude that graduating from a conservatory these days is like walking the plank off a spaceship. However, these articles operate off of and prey on a set of assumptions about success and happiness. Corinne Ramey’s article “Classical Music, Modern Problems,” published August 30, 2013 in the Wall Street Journal, considers and judges the prospects of young musicians from a perspective in which success is inflexibly rooted in traditional mono-careerism. In the article, Ramey examines the career outlooks of the hundreds of young musicians entering undergraduate schools in New York, specifically those at the city’s three conservatories: Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and Mannes College (part of The New School). Like most conversations about professional music, Ramey’s article demands that musicians fixate on an outdated and unnecessary achievement: a single, large source of income.

The article begins with excerpts from interviews with first-day freshmen to establish music as an unstable and endangered field, viable for only those select few who can land a big orchestra job. Ramey mentions that these are brand-new students, but breezes right past their excitement at a chance to explore their passion for the musical world to ask them what their careers will be. How many freshmen in any field have entered college with a complete, coherent, and effective plan for the rest of their lives? The question is a set-up for a disappointing answer. If students answer with their dreams, for example, to be principal trombone of the New York Philharmonic, they sound far-fetched and unrealistic. The same goes for people who envision a diverse set of occupations; either way, the impression is that there is no plan here: these students don’t really know what they are doing with their lives. When Ramey describes a composer’s career that encompasses many different engagements, she includes “owning a coffee shop,” an example that paints a musical career as inevitably requiring the fall back of what society would think of as a “real” job. The implication is that musical training is completely inapplicable to the rest of someone’s life. The range of responses to Ramey’s question could be used to showcase the variety of niches in the musical world and the need for quality training in order to prepare students for performing a variety of these services. Instead, she follows these responses with an extremely short summary of the health of musical professions, saying, “Orchestras across the country have suffered bankruptcy, strikes and lockouts, and audiences are graying. . . . [T]he National Endowment for the Arts and CDs have been replaced by Kickstarter and Spotify.” This statement provides so little information on the outlook of the musical world that the reader is forced to take this opinion for granted. Even though thoroughly exploring this point would be central to determining what challenges the students will face and what they require preparation for, without that discussion, the reader must simply agree that music is dying. With such an evidently fatal outlook, the question must be asked: what would it mean to be successful in this field?

Ramey operates under the assumption that these young musicians must be bound by the definition of success held by the Wall Street Journal and its readers: a successful career is holding down the sort of job that the average subscriber would have. The audience of the Wall Street Journal is predominantly male, high income, and well-educated. According to the Pew Research Center, 71% of their readers are male. ABC News reported that three quarters of Wall Street Journal readers have college degrees, and the average reader’s annual income is $234,909. Indeed, when I read the article, the one non-Wall Street Journal ad that popped up alongside was for the Palm Beaches golf resort in Florida. The young musicians receiving training at these New York conservatories are working and thinking in very different ways from the average Wall Street Journal reader. However, the images used in the article fulfill the expectations that someone in an upper-class career path would likely have of current college students. The first image, captioned “The Mannes School of Music,” shows a student going up the stairs in Mannes. She is backlit by a window and much of the picture is dark and dreary. The second shows the freshman piano student who provides the article’s final quotation seated on the stairs flipping some papers in her hands. Neither of these pictures have anything to do with music. They could have been taken in almost any building of almost any people and provided the same non-information. If the goal was to provide some information about this music school, musicians who go there, and their profession and training, wouldn’t it have been more effective to provide an image of facilities more relevant to the specific nature of the school than the stairs, or of music-making instead of paperwork? Sitting on the campus stairs working on a sheaf of papers is not what musical education is about; it is the college student as envisioned and remembered by $200,000/year earners in their early forties. Displaying the students in this context makes them appear to be studying a topic with no fundamental differences from any other concentration—except that the thing they are doing is believed to be dying, obsolete, and unwanted.

When success is defined in the terms of the newspaper’s readers rather than in the terms of the students, accomplishment revolves around earning a large and steady income, and financial security is equated with quality of life. The article sets the tone by using language such as “job-search tip” and “day job” to avoid recognizing a profession in music as something different from a traditional job. Ramey exemplifies the musical profession’s decline with a transition in income sources from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to Kickstarter. This point relies on the belief that a stable, singular source of income is preferable to freelancing one’s own projects, a view likely to be more prevalent among a high-income professional readership than among young musicians. Not considered is the argument that a musician who diversifies his or her sources of income is protected from complete destitution; if one option folds, they still have other sources to support themselves until they can find or create something to replace it. This career path could actually be considered more stable. (Not to mention that thousands of artists who never would have seen any money from the NEA have had their projects funded by Kickstarter). The viability of a varied income stream is not even recognized as an option. In a similar vein, the New York Philharmonic (NYP) concertmaster and Juilliard teacher Glenn Dicterow sees his students as caught in a dilemma: they are talented and enjoy making music, but there are not enough spots in the world as soloists or chamber musicians. Thus, he tells them that they “would be better off as an electrician” than a professional chamber musician. In the eyes of the non-musician public, Dicterow is probably the strongest testimonial Ramey could have—who would better know the job market and possibilities available than the concertmaster of the NYP? But Dicterow has been concertmaster of the NYP for over thirty years; he has had a single source of income and is not an authority on the modern career of a part-time chamber musician, part-time private teacher, part-time pit orchestra player, part-time recording artist, part-time Kickstarter. When Dicterow and others define personal accomplishment as primary employment, students who pursue music knowing that they are unlikely to find one of these rare conventional jobs may seem self-indulgent, refusing to set down their fun little hobby, take responsibility for their life, and do real work.

At no point does Ramey even suggest that students get something out of their studies other than the ability to turn a solid quarterly profit. She offers no glimpse of the dynamic emotion and individualism that music allows people to display. The connections musicians can make with their audiences and one another are reduced to the level of, as Ramey puts it, “putting kale in a smoothie”—the small benefit of an otherwise unhealthy career. The final note of the article is a quotation from a student who describes her goals as “earn[ing] lots of money and then organiz[ing] a charity foundation for talented kids.” No questions are asked about this objectively noble dream of starting a charity; instead, the article focuses on the need for income and plays what was most likely a response given as a joke (“marry a rich man”) as a grim and hopeless last word. Not only does this degrade the authentic possibility of the student’s first response (“Teaching, playing, winning competitions”) but it also retrospectively makes the previous line about students’ being interested in fundraising a set-up to a critical punch line: instead of thinking about real fund-raising, these kids are just figuring out the easiest way to get theirs so they can waste their time on whatever irresponsible hobby they like.

            I was drawn to this article because after my first reading, I could not pinpoint exactly why I found it grating. Ms. Ramey is at least talking about people like me, and that’s worth something, as we young musicians are usually ignored in discussions of the marketplace other than to say: “They are screwed.” The article does not read as hostile or especially fatalistic, in comparison to other media. My fundamental problem with it is that it focuses so solidly on a traditional American, upper-class ethos of success that, by definition, is almost impossible for a musician to achieve. As a result, a musician’s passion is seen as misguided and foolhardy. When the article mentions how Mannes students are to be mixed with other New School students, the tone is one of hope, as if the values and stability that the regular students have from doing real subjects might rub off on the musicians. The article never mentions the impact that the musicians might have on other students, or the positive impact that studying music and the skills it teaches—for example, focus, self-motivation, reliability, steadiness under pressure, dedication, creativity—may have in these students’ lives, outside of being note monkeys. While I am glad that Ms. Ramey engaged high-ranking administrators, a music professional, and students, the conversations with them were so brief and excerpted that I could not help but feel as though the snippets chosen had a strong narrative hand behind them. I would want to see information from older students and recent graduates in order to form anything resembling a complete picture of the subject; ambushing college freshmen and casting their opinions as the outlook of a profession as a whole is not an effective method. As with most articles in this genre, this one inspires me to present myself and my work as seriously as they deserve. As a young person in a lightning-fast world growing increasingly saturated with entertainment, I have found immense value in music, and this article reminds me how necessary it is to make a case for that value.


Works Cited

“In Changing News Landscape, Even Television Is Vulnerable—Section 4: Demographics and Political Views of News Audiences.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Pew Research Center, 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2014.

Mayerowitz, Scott. “What Do the Rich and Powerful Read?” ABC News. ABC News Network, 28 July 2007. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.

“National Endowment for the Arts Appropriations History.” National Endowment for the Arts. National Endowment for the Arts, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.

Ramey, Corinne. “Classical Music, Modern Problems.” The Wall Street Journal. 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.





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