Author: DeanCMinderman

Location, Location

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In the beginning, all music was local. If back at the dawn of humanity a caveman came up with a particularly appealing combination of vocal melody and log-drum rhythm, it probably couldn’t be heard much further than the next cave or two over. Fast forward through numerous epochs of human evolution to 18th-century Europe, and if you wanted to hear Mozart, you still pretty much had to go to Vienna.

Things stayed like that until the 20th century, which brought a series of technological developments that made it possible for music to be recorded in one place and heard all over the world. But even as the physical form of music moved from wax cylinders to 78s to LPs to CDs, geography of origin remained a major point of classification and differentiation.

(That’s especially true in the case of American popular music, which, if one chooses, can be framed and analyzed almost exclusively in terms of cities and regions—there’s Mississippi blues and Chicago blues; the commercial country music of Nashville vs. the Bakersfield honky-tonk sound and western swing from Tulsa; hip-hop’s East Coast/West Coast/Dirty South divide; soul music from Muscle Shoals to Memphis to Motown to Philadelphia; and countless other examples. For more about the intersection of technology and regional popular music styles, check out the book Sweet Air: Modernism, Regionalism, and American Popular Song by Edward P. Comentale.)

Now, as music production and distribution in the 21st century are done increasingly in the digital world, some have suggested that the importance of place—of where the music is made—may be fading. (For example, when Flavorwire listed the most influential pop music acts of the past 15 years, note that there’s only one mention made of an artist’s geographical point of origin.)
That’s not to say that listeners’ tastes have become entirely homogenous. The Echo Nest, a company that analyzes information on listening habits, has done some interesting work looking at musical preferences by region. (Though their publicly available results so far seem confined to pop music, it sure would be interesting to see similar data-driven analyses made of the listening audience for new music, jazz, classical, and other less commercial forms.) Some of the results are unsurprising—for example, country music is popular in the south, and Bruce Springsteen still is tops in his home state of New Jersey—while others are not necessarily what you’d expect.

Still, the question remains: when computers allow one person to do everything from composition to recording to promotion and distribution from anywhere with an internet connection, what difference does it make if you’re in Seattle, San Francisco, Syracuse, or Sarasota?

The short answer is that making music is about more than technology. Even if one presumes that promotion and distribution will be mostly digital from here on out, there’s still a lot that goes into creating that music before it gets turned into a digital file.
Technology may provide the capability for one person to create music from start to finish, but (at the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious here) not everyone works that way. And for those who don’t choose to make all their music on a chip, location still matters very much, though perhaps in different ways.

In short, local and regional music scenes are where artists develop before they go worldwide on the internet. Composers and performers who are working on new ideas need other musicians, rehearsal space, access to instruments and recording facilities, and, if they plan to test out their ideas in front of live audiences, performance venues and some sort of presenting infrastructure.
So while localities and regions may be less important in terms of a specific shared sound or group of influences (although that’s still a possibility, too), I’d contend they remain essential as accumulations of a “critical mass” of resources and opportunities to collaborate.
It’s important to note, though, that “critical mass” doesn’t necessarily equate to a major metropolitan area like New York, Boston, the Bay Area, or Chicago. Here in Missouri, the Mizzou New Music Initiative is extraordinarily fortunate to have started with generous funding and an association with a major university, yet there’s no doubt MNMI has gotten a lot of help from others around the state, and benefited greatly as a result.
Some of the collaborations have been promotional, like swapping email lists, program ads, and social media mentions with New Music Circle and Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in St. Louis and newEar contemporary chamber ensemble in Kansas City.
Closer to home, this past spring MNMI kicked off ticket sales for the annual Mizzou International Composers Festival with an event at Ragtag Cinema, a popular alternative movie theater in Columbia, featuring a live performance by the Mizzou New Music Ensemble; a screening of Choking Man, a film scored by Nico Muhly, who was one of the festival’s guest composers; and a live Q&A session with Muhly via Skype.

Other collaborations have been artistic. Perhaps most notably, this past season the St. Louis Symphony performed works during their subscription series by composer, clarinetist, and Mizzou alum Stephanie Berg and Patrick Harlin, who was a resident composer at the 2013 MICF.

Being part of a community also has allowed the composers and musicians associated with MNMI to get involved in creating site-specific works for Missouri Botanical Garden, Forest Park Forever, the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, the World Chess Hall of Fame, and other institutions.

 


This past year, MNMI’s co-artistic director Stefan Freund also delved into regional history, composing an oratorio for orchestra, choirs and soloists about Missouri’s involvement in the Civil War.

And MNMI currently is part of the University of Missouri Extension Community Arts Pilot Project, a multi-year, multi-disciplinary program designed to promote economic development and tourism through the arts in Lexington, MO, a town of 4,500 about 45 minutes east of Kansas City. Composers from Mizzou have helped develop an audio tour of the town, complete with original music, field recordings, narration, and sound effects, that will be made available in digital and CD format.
While there’s no characteristic “Missouri sound” that can be identified in all these varied projects, none of them would have come about if MNMI were not part of a larger, geographically-based community. Though technology offers many promising possibilities (including, admittedly, new ways to collaborate over distance), it seems as if being in the right place—for many possible definitions of “right place”—continues to offer advantages, too.

The Media and the Message

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When I read Kenneth D. Froelich’s article “Lessons From The Central Valley” back in June here on NewMusicBox, his experiences presenting new music in Fresno resonated with my own as a presenter/producer, publicist, and music journalist and sparked some additional thoughts about audience development and the media.

(For those already knowledgeable about publicity and marketing, some of this may seem obvious or old hat. But I’ve learned from interacting with musicians, composers, and presenting organizations that a lot of them aren’t all as well versed in this sort of thing as I might have supposed, so my hope is that this will be useful to at least some of you.)

One of the lessons Froelich mentioned was to “shop local,” noting that when promoting an event, providing a local connection or angle is helpful in gaining the attention of the media. That’s true for all local journalists, not just those covering music or the arts, and there’s an important corollary to that.

“The media” is not a monolithic entity. It’s made up of a variety of outlets (each with a particular focus) and individuals (each with their own personality, interests, preferences, and so on). Knowing the specifics about each outlet and each individual can help you to target your communications more effectively, and even to develop angles and story ideas that may be of interest specifically to those individuals.

In my work with the Mizzou New Music Initiative, we’ve been fortunate to have local newspapers and radio pay a good amount of attention to our signature event, the Mizzou International Composers Festival, from the beginning.

That’s partly because Columbia, a college town with a population of 115,000, roughly equidistant from St. Louis and Kansas City, has a lot of local media for a city its size. There are two newspapers: the Daily Tribune and the Missourian, which is published by Mizzou’s School of Journalism and is not a campus paper, but rather a daily covering local, regional, and national news. The J-school also plays a role in the operation of the local NBC and NPR affiliates, and the market is served by affiliates of the other broadcast TV networks and a total of 15 radio stations.

It’s also because rather than just sending out press releases and hoping for the best, we’ve made an effort to identify and interact with specific people in the media who have taken an interest, and to keep them informed about what we’re doing.
For example, Aarik Danielsen, the arts editor of the Tribune, also is a musician and composer. When MNMI presented its first summer festival in 2010, it was clear immediately from our first contact that he had a genuine interest in what we were doing, so we were pleased to assist in arranging interviews, provide photos and links to online media, and do whatever else we could to help him cover the story.

For that first festival, Danielsen wrote a couple of stories for the Sunday edition, supplemented by online-only interviews, and he’s continued to produce extensive and substantive coverage of the festival each year. He and the paper’s other arts reporter, Amy Wilder, have written about various other events and profiled students and faculty members involved in MNMI, too.
Over at the Missourian, ongoing relationships are more difficult to develop, since the student reporters change assignments each semester and eventually graduate. However, when we learned that editor/faculty member Elizabeth Brixey had been a fellow in two National Endowment for the Arts journalism institutes and is an amateur French horn player, we began sending information specifically to her, which has led to reporters being assigned to cover several stories about the Initiative.

Now obviously, not every media outlet is going to have a musician or composer in a position of editorial importance, so we’ve undoubtedly had some good luck there. But the basic principle—look for specific people who may be interested in what you’re doing and then get information to them—still applies.

Contrary to some stereotypical views of public relations, there’s nothing inherently manipulative about this. You can’t force a reporter to cover a story—you can only appeal to their interests and then help them get the information they’re seeking. And although some journalists are understandably wary of professional publicists trying to “spin” them, most are glad to get pertinent information in a timely fashion, to have their phone calls returned and questions answered promptly, and to get some help in setting up interviews, obtaining photos, and so on.
Froelich’s essay also noted that in Fresno, “a smaller, economically disadvantaged market, nothing beats traditional media” and that social media had not been particularly effective in selling tickets for his series.

The conventional wisdom is that older people consume more traditional media like newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, while younger people flock to social media and get more of their news from the internet. While my experiences suggest that’s generally true, there’s no real reason one has to choose between traditional and social media; a comprehensive communications plan should include both.

The first year I worked on the Mizzou International Composers Festival, most of our time was spent reaching out and pitching stories to traditional media, but the social media part of our plan has grown in importance in each subsequent year.
For the last two years of the MICF, we’ve even laid out a social media schedule for the weeks leading up to it, as well as during festival week. Tweets and posts to Facebook are scheduled throughout the day at regular intervals, with enough room in between for spontaneous and serendipitous updates, retweets and reposts of select messages from various participants, and communicating with other users.

The prescheduled messages cover all sorts of topics, including links to information about each of the composers and performers; videos and streaming audio; ticketing information; background about the Initiative and the MICF; and more.
While we can’t really attribute an increase in ticket sales specifically to social media efforts, the festival has enjoyed modest gains in attendance each year, so the overall plan seems to be working.

However, the really interesting thing is that in looking at who follows our Twitter account, we discovered that a vast majority of followers identify themselves as being involved in some way with music, including many composers, but also musicians, ensembles, educators, and presenters.

So we’re now trying to find ways to make use of that information going forward—for example, how best to employ Twitter as we solicit applicants for the resident composer spots at the 2015 MICF.

If we hadn’t developed an active social media component to our communications plan, or taken the time to analyze our followers list, we might not have discovered that so many people were paying attention through that particular channel. The takeaway is that as social media continues to evolve rapidly, the benefits may not be obvious at first, but instead may reveal themselves as you go.

New Music Opportunities for Young Students Grow in Missouri

Multiple C.O.M.P. winners Menea Kefalov and Ande Siegel of Ladue Middle School, Ladue

Multiple C.O.M.P. winners Menea Kefalov and Ande Siegel of Ladue Middle School, Ladue

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Lao-tzu

Though becoming a composer or musician is a long journey, students who want to learn classical music or jazz at least have a well-defined path to follow. Take lessons on an instrument; join an ensemble or two at school; supplement that with additional performance opportunities in church, a community band or orchestra, and whatever else might be available; and a young musician can get familiar with basic concepts, techniques and repertoire in an orderly and systematic way.

While only a few may follow that path all the way to become professional musicians, many others will stay on it long enough to become the sort of adults who listen to jazz or classical radio, purchase concert tickets and recordings, and so on. Small wonder, then, that classical and jazz organizations of all sorts have gotten involved in education in a big way.

In contrast, for a younger student who wants to compose or perform new music, the path seems much murkier, or even non-existent. Until they get to college, most young musicians simply don’t get a chance to work on much contemporary music, and performance opportunities for the work of composers younger than 18 also are comparatively rare.

With music programs in many school districts already operating on tight budgets, most don’t have the resources to expand beyond what they’re already doing. But here in Missouri, educators and musicians have been developing some new ways to cultivate the composers and new music performers of the future.

The first effort is part of the Mizzou New Music Initiative (MNMI), an array of programs at the University of Missouri’s School of Music intended to make the school a center for the creation and performance of new music. While most of the Initiative’s programs are for undergraduate and graduate students at Mizzou, it actually began nine years ago with the Creating Original Music Project (C.O.M.P.), a university-administered statewide competition for student composers from grades K-12.
C.O.M.P. is open to public, private, parochial, and home-schooled students, but each student who applies must have the signature and sponsorship of their school’s music teacher. Not-for-profit groups, such as community agencies, churches, and after-school programs, also can sponsor entrants in partnership with the school music teacher, as can private teachers and other musical mentors.

The students’ work must be original—no arrangements or improvisations based on existing pieces—and teachers and/or mentors may only assist students in notating or recording the pieces.

Students in the elementary school division (grades K through five) can submit works in one of two categories, Songs with Words and Instrumental. For middle school students in grades six through eight, the categories are Fine Art Music (which includes work for string quartet, piano solo, solo instrumentalist with accompaniment, and similar) and Popular Music (rock, country, folk, hip-hop, alternative, etc.).

The high school division (grades 9 through 12) also has Fine Art Music and Popular Music categories, and adds one for Jazz. (There’s also an “Other” category, though the judges—faculty members from the School of Music—can move a work to another category at their discretion.)

Students in the Fine Art categories must submit notated versions of their work, while the entrants in the other categories may submit notation or recordings.

Composers of the top three works in each category win plaques and cash prizes for themselves and their schools, and are invited to perform their work (or have it performed, if an ensemble or additional instruments are required) at the C.O.M.P. Festival, an all-day concert held on a Saturday in April on the Mizzou campus in Columbia.

Hearing their works performed in concert is an exciting opportunity for the kids and their parents and teachers, and the event and the awards provide some strong positive reinforcement for their creativity. For the past two years, the concert audio also has been streamed live on the internet via the School of Music’s website, allowing friends, relatives, schoolmates, and neighbors who couldn’t make the trip to Columbia to hear the performance.

HyunJun (John) Yoo of West Middle School, Columbia, a multiple C.O.M.P. winner, with Jeanne Sinquefield Ph.D of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation

HyunJun (John) Yoo of West Middle School, Columbia, a multiple C.O.M.P. winner, with Jeanne Sinquefield of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation

Many of the high-school age winners then go on to attend the Missouri Summer Composition Institute (or “C.O.M.P. Camp”), which is open to students entering grades 9-12 and entering college freshmen. Students who wish to participate must submit scores of original works, and a total of 16, split into “advanced” and “intermediate” divisions, are invited to participate in a week-long program held on the campus in June.

C.O.M.P winners who are selected can attend the program free of charge on scholarships designated for that purpose, while others pay a $100 fee for the week. While they’re at camp, the students get composition lessons from Mizzou faculty and graduate students, participate in various other enrichment activities, and compose a piece to be premiered at the end of the week by a resident ensemble.

Meanwhile, a couple of hours to the east in St. Louis, a joint project between the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound and the Community Music School of Webster University is giving student musicians ages K-12 the opportunity to learn about and perform the work of living composers, experiment with extended instrumental techniques, and more.

AWS, nominally based in New York though the members live all over the country, has been coming to Missouri since 2010 to serve as the resident ensemble for the Mizzou International Composers Festival, which is held each July as the signature event of the Mizzou New Music Initiative. In 2012, with funding from the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, which also funds the MNMI, Alarm Will Sound began offering a “St. Louis season” of performances at the Sheldon Concert Hall and other venues.

Then in 2013, select members of AWS began coming to St. Louis in between concerts to work with students at the Community Music School of Webster University, which offers a variety of music classes and lessons for students of all ages on Webster U’s campus in suburban Webster Groves.

AWS oboist Christa Robinson, who had experience teaching elementary school students, worked with the CMS faculty to develop a curriculum for a series of monthly sessions designed to accommodate 12 to 15 students.

 


At the end of the year, the CMS students, who ranged in age from 7 to 17, joined Alarm Will Sound for their final concert of the season at The Sheldon. They performed Steve Reich’s Clapping Music side-by-side with AWS musicians and on their own presented John Adams’s Short Ride In a Fast Machine, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Fast Blue Village 2, Vinko Globokar’s Laboratorium, and David Biedenbender’s Schism, which was written originally for AWS to perform at the 2011 Mizzou International Composers Festival.

The program has now been formalized as a regular class that will meet every two weeks beginning this fall. Alarm Will Sound members will continue to come to St. Louis once a month to teach the group, with CMS instructors using the alternate sessions to answer questions, review concepts, and practice techniques and repertoire.

In a couple of years’ time, the goal is to have what AWS Managing Director Gavin Chuck calls “Alarm Will Sound Jr.,” an ongoing new music ensemble coached by members of AWS.  In addition, this year Chuck and Robinson also plan to get the CMS students playing some works composed by past and present C.O.M.P. winners, tying the two programs together and giving the student musicians and composers the opportunity to develop peer-to-peer relationships.

While C.O.M.P. necessarily is a work in progress as well, it’s an encouraging sign that two past winners of multiple C.O.M.P. awards now are on full composition scholarships at Mizzou, taking the next steps on a path that could lead them to careers in music. While there’s no way to know exactly where they and their peers will end up, these two programs at least have helped get their journeys off to promising starts.

Finding a True Name in a Post-Genre World

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Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, via Flickr

Writing just this week in The Daily Beast, Ted Gioia includes among his “Five Lessons The Faltering Music Business Could Learn From TV” the advice that the industry should “resist tired formulas.”

Now, no one’s really speaking up in favor of tired formulas as such, but reading on, it turns out what he’s really against is classifying music by genre. Observing that programs like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad became critical hits in part because they broke the predictable conventions of TV genre shows about cops, doctors, or lawyers, Gioia notes that “every album and song nowadays is marketed as part of a genre—rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, etc.

“But the very decision to sell songs to targeted genre fans has turned into an aesthetic straitjacket,” he continues, suggesting that the music business should “emulate the boldness with which the leading pay TV networks have sabotaged genre recipes.”
Still, even as Gioia correctly notes that there already are plenty of people making excellent music that doesn’t fit easily into a particular category, and even if you agree with the premise, the post-genre future remains at best, to borrow a phrase from the speculative fiction writer William Gibson, unevenly distributed.

Parts of it undoubtedly are widespread already. Thanks to technology, musicians and composers have access to a lot of useful new tools; computer-enabled formal ideas like the mash-up have emerged; and musicians are able to collaborate across time and space in ways that previously were impossible. There’s also the notion that by making it easy to find people with similar interests all over the world, the internet provides an alternative way to form musical communities that theoretically can make music scenes tied to geographic location less important.

Of course, the internet also can “silo” people into self-selecting groups that only reinforce their existing ideas and beliefs, which isn’t exactly broadening. And when geography isn’t the determining factor bringing musicians together, how do they find each other online? More often than not, it seems to be through shared fandom, often of specific artists but sometimes entire genres. (For handy examples of this, just consult the “musician wanted” section of your local Craigslist.)

Technology also has made the process of music discovery much easier. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, one might follow a reference to a previously unknown band or musician found in liner notes, Rolling Stone, or Down Beat to a half-dozen record stores and the library, and still come up empty handed. Now, anyone who wants to find out more about Sun Ra or John Cage or Edgard Varèse can simply type their name into a search engine, and in seconds the internet will deliver biographies, photos, journalism and critical opinion, and most important, audio and video.

So with the internet letting us hear just about any music and see any musician any time we want, for a comparatively low cost of entry, in theory it could provide an ideal opportunity to get rid of genres. Unfortunately, one thing technology can’t do is make the day longer than 24 hours. There’s more information, and more music, more easily accessible to more people than ever before, but no one actually has time to read or listen to more than a fraction of it. So we still must rely on gatekeepers and sorting mechanisms, one of which is musical genre, and radio, retail, presenters, and media all continue to categorize music according to whether it is rock, pop, hip-hop, country, R&B, classical, blues, folk, jazz, and so on.

While some musicians embrace genre labels for marketing purposes, others are understandably reluctant, or even antagonistic, toward having their music pigeonholed, or just want to make art for art’s sake. Nevertheless, presenters, labels, and media want to grow their audiences, for all the obvious reasons, and even musicians who claim to be unconcerned with commercial success still want their music to be heard. As long as that’s the case, genre labels seem likely to persist.

For evidence of that, look at what’s known broadly as “electronic dance music,” touted as a major growth area of the industry and one that seems to spin off hyper-specific sub-genres at a dizzying pace. Wikipedia’s list of electronic music genres contains 22 major sub-categories, each containing at least a half-dozen sub-genres, totaling more than 200 different varieties. Outsiders may be hard pressed to distinguish among, say, two dozen different varieties of house music, yet to those on the inside, the distinctions are critical enough to warrant coining new terminology.

If nothing else, this proliferation of sub-genre names should give listeners in the know a fairly specific idea of what to expect, and it also gives musicians and composers a wide variety of specific channels or identities that can be used to get their music to the public.

Given this example, I wonder if, rather than anticipating an end to genre designations, perhaps new music needs to cultivate a whole lot more of them, since much of the terminology currently in use is overly general at best, and vague or misleading at worst.
In marketing speak, it’s called “segmentation,” and it can serve a useful purpose in helping sellers identify potential buyers and buyers to find things that interest them. For music that’s distributed online, specific sub-genre designations could be particularly useful and can serve as keywords or metadata, helping listeners locate music of potential interest.

Even the umbrella term “new music,” while well understood by the readers of this publication, often is interpreted by others in terms of the plain English meanings of its component words, which can lead to some convoluted explanations.

In the 1990s, when I was a board member and later an administrator for New Music Circle in St. Louis, I was also playing blues and rock gigs, and I’d get into conversations with other musicians or fans in which I’d mention that I was working for New Music Circle, putting on concerts. Inevitably, they’d ask me some variation on the question, “So, what kind of music do they do?” and twenty years later, I find myself having similar conversations trying to describe the Mizzou New Music Initiative, with highly variable results.

Calling music “avant garde” or “experimental” seems to have a polarizing effect, immediately attracting interest from some while repelling others. “Contemporary classical” and “post-classical” are descriptive enough in one sense, but even setting aside the former term’s unfortunate oxymoronic quality, at least some of what we call new music doesn’t really have any relationship to classical music, so these terms are of limited use. On the other hand, the evocative term “creative music” may suggest something about the intent of those who are making the music, but doesn’t do much to locate it in terms of any specific sound, tradition, or genre.

Comparative recommendations—“If you like X, you may also enjoy Y”—can be useful, but only in those cases when you already know something about the person’s interests and preferences. That’s easy for Amazon or Google, but in casual conversation, or for a musician or composer trying to describe her latest work in liner notes, a news release, or a one-sheet, it can be little more than guesswork or wishful thinking.

Does new music necessarily need more than 200 sub-genres? Probably not, but if genre designations are going to be with us for a while, perhaps some imagination and some more colorful language could make them work to our advantage.

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Dean Minderman is a writer and musician in St. Louis, Missouri, and the founder and editor of the website St. Louis Jazz Notes. As a consultant with the firm Slay and Associates, he currently works with the Mizzou New Music Initiative and other music-related projects of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, assisting with publicity, marketing, and strategic communications. A graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, he has experience as an arts administrator and consultant, advertising writer/producer, music journalist and blogger, publicist, and event producer; and as a performing keyboard player and singer, composer/arranger, and bandleader.