To Market! To Market?

Brad Garton
Winter, 1994

At the recent ICMC, there was much talk of reaching out with our music to new audiences, to expand out base of listeners, to rid ourselves of the "ghettoization" of tape music, to cast off the mantle of marginalization that binds serious new music. While of course I endorse these ideas in principle, and I think the world truly would be a better place if more people attended to more diverse types of music (expanding minds, all that), I feel some ambivalence about the nature of the reach-out enterprise. This short article is an attempt to articulate some of the 'problems' I perceive -- aspects of computer music promotion that make me feel a little uneasy. I don't offer any solutions to these problems. The best I can suggest is that we approach the task with our eyes as open as possible. We should work to cultivate a hyper-awareness about how our music is packaged and delivered. My own impression is that this packaging and delivering of our music had a much more profound effect on the listener (and the societies of listeners) than the acoustic signals we traditionally think of as being The Music.

This effect is bi-directional, too. One of my first concerns about the promotion of our music had to do with the backwards reflection this activity has on the composition of our music. Corporate structures in our society suggest that promotion can be cleanly separated from creation and production; the Marketing and Advertising departments take over after the Research and Development departments have done their job and the commodity is winding merrily down the assembly line. In my experience this model is fundamentally false. The selling of an item surely exerts an influence on the present and future shaping of that item. In the case of as mutable and fluid a thing as music, that influence can be quite dramatic. I remember (not so long ago!) when playing in various rock bands in high school and college, we invariably had long and often heated debates about "selling out". Once you begin to explicitly acknowledge a particular target audience, your music begins to bend towards the perceived critical consensus of that audience. Now I'm certainly not saying that our music should (or even could) exist independently of some perceived audience. I just want to point out that when we pursue a wider listenership, this will have an influence on what we compose. "Selling out" is a crass and pejorative term, but the core of the idea -- that the choice of an audience changes the music -- is valid. Do we want this change?

I'm also concerned about the human transaction that takes place as we move to promote our music. If the act is of a "here is the Real Heavy Stuff, you should listen to THIS" or a "smell me, I'm the future of Music" or the related "High Culture for the Masses" nature, then I want no part of it. Reading (for example) The New York Times Arts and Leisure section is a downright depressing experience for me, because it seems that the whole point of the text is to provide an arena for the no-holds-barred, willy-nilly climb to the top of the heap that unfortunately characterizes for many what it means to be an artist today. Do we want to be part of that activity? Is this the purpose our music should serve? Surely there are many shades of grey here, but I guess I'm saying that we should be extremely careful to figure out what we are saying as we say something in the manner we say it(!).

Related to this is the notion that when we seek to engage a larger audience, we are at least partially adopting the rules of extant musical marketeers. My own view is that since we are already involved in an alternative musical universe, we shouldn't be so hasty to play a game by "their" rules. For one thing, we would lose - we can't seriously compete within a structure designed for the selling of Michael Jackson. And the concept of 'competing' for listenership itself is suddenly putting our music into a strange and not-so-wonderful situation. I would rather we use our situation as an alternative musical culture to explore new possibilities for the dissemination of our music. What new channels exist? What new methods can we adopt or even invent for the distribution of our art?

I have a few pretty hazy ideas about alternatives we can explore, most of them invole some utopian vision of the Internet and the development of a range of "global villages" defined through music itself. Ultimately I would like to see music become less of a commodity of exchange and more a medium of exchange; a shift from "marketing" to "communication". How this could happen (or if it is even possible -- in my more cynical moments I really doubt it) probably involves some fairly major undermining of the division between "composer" and "audience".

Of course, all these concerns come from someone who currently has a job in academia, so they are in one sense by definition "academic". I'm not sure how I would feel about gaining market-share if I were in a different position. At the root of these comments, however, is the question of who we want to address with our music. One of my favorite teachers always stressed that "you have to write music for yourself". This must be true -- if I don't like the music I create, then I certainly shouldn't expect others to appreciate it. The thorny issue then becomes how to integrate this self into society. How do you want to be?