Author: Meghann Wilhoite

Speak Now: It Is Time to Create

I don’t know about you, but ever since November 8 anxiety and fear have been choking my creative voice. I released my latest album in late October, and my plan was to begin work on the next album after a very short brain rest. However, I found myself staring listlessly at my computer during my scheduled creative time (after work and on the weekends), struggling to hear anything of interest or beauty in my head. All I could detect was the feedback of rage and despair—for myself as a woman and all other female-identifying people, and for my friends who experience hate because of the color of their skin or the texture of their hair—caused by the hate that is poisoning my country. In spite of the wall of pain that these feelings have put between my creative mind and my fingers, I have been reluctant to attempt to ignore them or block them out; I do not want to become an internal émigré while all that I love about my country is under active threat of destruction.

In this storm of anxiety I began to question the value of my weird, experimental synthesizer music. What change for good could I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What could my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

At some point in late November—as I witnessed other artist-friends deal with similar creative blocks—a tiny voice in my head said, “Fight!” It took me a few days to understand the meaning of that message: Now, even now—especially now—artists need to persevere and create. We need to fight the feeling of hopelessness and uselessness if for no other reason than that’s what the enemy always intended to instill in us. People of hate do not want us to keep creating; they want to silence us, because a healthy, vibrant art-life is one of the key indicators of freedom. You want to subjugate the millions? A good step in that direction is to squash out the life of your country’s arts.

Right about now you are all probably thinking of Leonard Bernstein, who said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Though these words have filled my Twitter feed to the point of oversaturation during the past couple of years, they nonetheless resonate in my head as I begin to learn how to remain in the world, engaging with the crisis, while also continuing to develop my creative voice. I think of all of the music and art that has “saved” me throughout my thirty-seven years, and I become thankful that those artists did not think to themselves, “Well, what use is my art anyway? Time to give up.” Don’t give up; someone out there needs your art. Don’t become an internal émigré; someone out there will need your signature, or your donation, or for you to be their witness.

My music will never be political. It will never directly change anyone’s mind about the importance of liberty and freedom. But it may provide comfort, or inspiration, or—if I’m really lucky—it may broaden someone’s mind. Regardless, I will continue to create, and I will continue to fight for the life of liberty in my country.

Meg Wilhoite is an editor, writer, and musician based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written about music for several outlets and occasionally makes her own music. Connect with her on TwitterTumblrFacebook, and/or Soundcloud.

Close Listening: Music and Power

Electricity Substation

Over the last three weeks, I’ve written about music and its relationship to the economy, genre, and race. In my final Close Listening post, I’ll focus on power distribution within the music industry.

Who holds power in the music industry, and how did they come by that power? I’d like to get at these questions via historiography. A consideration of the construction of the history of music is extremely important as we take stock of those who hold power and the culture with which they surround themselves.

History is a constructed, ever-changing branch of knowledge—one that often suffers at the hands of historians’ biases (see, for example, this recent piece in The Atlantic), and one that absolutely affects the distribution of power in our culture. I believe one can draw a direct line from music history’s exclusion of women composers to the lack of parity in the programming of music written by women composers. That is, the criteria by which we decide if a person’s musical legacy is handed down to subsequent generations is the same criteria by which we decide if a person’s music is programmed on a concert or recorded for an album.

Let’s take for an example the 1920 American supplement to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. As my friend Anna-Lise Santella, senior editor for music reference at Oxford University Press, informed me over email, this supplement contains quite a lot of female representation, much more than is found in subsequent editions. (She also noted that the supplement was published the same year American women gained the right to vote.) What this means is that someone, or a group of someones, made the decision to exclude many of the women represented therein when preparing future editions; the situation was not, “there aren’t any women to feature in our dictionary,” it was “these women don’t deserve to be in the dictionary” (largely a result of profession bias*). As Anna-Lise put it to me, not only do we need to write women (and people of color) back into our music history, we need to examine the system of exclusion that has plagued and continues to plague music historical publications.

History requires evidence, she continued, which is heavily reliant on archives—which, when meting out limited funds, will favor those with a higher public profile. Prior to the mid-20th century, the only people really allowed to have a high public profile were white men (see also: the Great Man theory). Even today, the other of the two “art” music positions with the highest amount of perceived power (along with the composer) is the conductor, with the top positions routinely going to men. (I’ve written about this before.)

Thankfully, within the new music scene we can already see signs of the erosion of the Great (White) Man ideology. Nonetheless, systemic bias is nowhere near its death throes and we all need to be vigilant against it. Send me a press release for a concert or festival or recording comprised entirely of male composers and I will likely grimace at my monitor and click delete.

Listen, I’m saying nothing here that hasn’t already been said; in the past month, I’ve stumbled upon half a dozen articles that address this very issue (e.g., this other Atlantic article dealing with systemic bias in the STEM fields) and probably half a dozen more are being written as I type this. The point here is to make aware those who might not realize they hold power, and to rally all of us to use our power as consumers, concert programmers, and so on, in the service of equality. Do you program concerts/festivals? Do you write music reviews? Do you buy CDs? Do you run a record label? Do you attend performances? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you hold power, and you should be taking proactive steps against systemic bias. Program, write, purchase, and attend outside the white male box (nothing but love for my many white male musician friends). Be mindful of what you vote for with your dollars and your attention.

* In a follow up message, Anna-Lise elaborated on this point:

I don’t think women were necessarily excluded as a gender but that the categories that got them notice in the supplement were later deemed not a focus for Grove…In particular, there are a lot of educators in the supplement— that was an area of music where women were dominant. But we have very few educators, male or female, in the dictionary today. And while performers still appear in Grove, obviously, there is not as broad a representation as there was in the 1920 supplement, which was more narrowly focused geographically and could accommodate more types and amounts of activity. Composers fared better overall, but a lot of women who were performers first and composers second (whether by design or by reception history) have fallen out of the dictionary…I think part of redressing the issue is taking a look at how we are evaluating who gets included in our histories, what things we think are important and influential.

As a parting thought, I would like to thank those who commented on my “Music and Race” post. You highlighted the need for an intersectional approach to the issue at hand, and gave me some great listening/research recommendations, which include:

T.J. Anderson
Renée Baker
Chicago Modern Orchestra Project
Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)
Chicago Sinfonietta
Bill Doggett Productions
Center for Black Music Studies at Columbia College

Close Listening: Music and Race

Open Sign Through The Glass Of Window

Last week I wrote about the thorny nature of genre classification in music. Today I’d like to dig deeper into the thorn bush and talk about an even more problematic form of classification: race.

At the outset, I’d like to make sure we all agree that, scientifically speaking, race does not actually exist. However, because of the actions of racists past and present, we are stuck with a society that is rife with systemic bias toward people of color (and this, of course, will not come as news to the people of color reading this post). As the author of the article linked to above put it, “Race does not exist, but racism does.” Conscious steps must be taken against the latter every day, by all of us, including becoming aware of the role race plays in the music industry.

A couple of years ago I was introduced to the music of Santigold (via my Radiohead station on Pandora; yay, metadata!), whose music I instantly classified as indie pop. After hearing a few tracks, I knew I was going to be a fan and looked her up on the internet to see if she was a new act. One of the first things I stumbled upon was a 2008 NME article in which she speaks out against people classifying her music as hip-hop and R&B (when in fact she doesn’t even like R&B) purely based on her race. She states in the article that she “made sure” her album is a pop record. [N.B.: The article’s author appears to have confused Santigold’s name and the title of her first album, Santogold.] No doubt it was in reaction to these false classifications that Santigold, in a 2012 interview with Lucy Jones, stated that her music is “genreless.”

Around the same time that I came into contact with Santigold’s music, I was also introduced to the music of Julius Eastman. As an erstwhile Morton Feldman scholar, I remember being shocked and ashamed that I’d never heard Eastman’s name before. As this post by Matthew D. Morrison points out, while we remember many of the SUNY at Buffalo Creative Associates (Crumb, Kotik, Rzewski), until very recently Eastman’s name has been largely absent from the canon of post-World War II composers. In fact, as Renée Levine Packer cites in her fascinating book on new music in Buffalo, Kyle Gann called Eastman “one of the least-recognized and most imaginative minimalists…a pioneer,” in his 1990 Village Voice obituary for Eastman. Packer’s firsthand accounts of the Creative Associates’ activities make it clear that Eastman was an active member of the group and his talents were well-received and appreciated, so why have we heard so little about him in the 25 years since his death?

These two encounters with the work of very different artists got me thinking about the ways in which factors external to the sound and production of a given piece of music might result in its misclassification—or non-classification, in the case of Eastman. This in turn got me thinking about the music I chose to write about, the pieces I suggested for concert programming, and the concerts I decided to attend (back when I was doing more of all those things). Was I unwittingly perpetuating the systemic bias I claimed to oppose with these choices?

The truth is that, while I spent quite a lot of effort making sure women musicians—particularly composers—were equally represented in my activities, I did not spend nearly enough time making sure I gave people of color the same consideration, particularly as composers. I attribute this lamentable lapse in my judgment to the two issues I discussed above, both of which boil down to one outcome: lack of visibility. I didn’t know very many composers who are people of color, nor did the press releases I received often come from or include POC composers. It was my responsibility, then, to seek out these people and rectify the situation, and I failed to do that.

We must address the fact that we are missing out on certain new music because it is being classified for different communities, or not being classified at all. This fact is likely attributable to the new music scene’s ideas surrounding pedigree and style; inclusion on a new music concert program often depends on a certain type of training and the avoidance of certain stylistic signifiers. To be frank, it should make us all deeply uncomfortable how white the new music scene is. I say this not to discourage anyone; I say it because I am invested in this scene and want to see it grow by embracing what may seem at first like unfamiliar voices.

In my next and final post in this series, I will examine the question of criteria for inclusion in more detail as I consider who the holders of power are in the music industry.

Close Listening: Music and Genre

Rainbow Loom Bands

I’ve long felt conflicted about the use of genre classifications for music. As a music blogger and sometime publicist, I found them to be useful tools; they provided a way to organize the plethora of releases I received and my ever-growing list of press contacts. However, as a musician I find them to be limiting and artificial; I don’t like having to label my music as belonging to one or even two genres when the truth is that I draw inspiration from many different styles of music. There is this split between the media’s impulse to categorize and the artist’s impulse to resist classification.

In a way, despite cyclical hunts for a better name, “new music” is the perfect term for the scene to which this website is dedicated. There is such a diversity of styles encompassed by what we think of when we say “new music” that trying to come up with something more specific feels like an exercise in futility. Of course, we use other terms as well: indie classical, avant-garde, minimalist, post minimalist, downtown, uptown, and so on, but all of these terms get us into trouble in one way or another and we mostly only use them in forums outside the scene.

I think we can all agree that the concept of genre in music can be problematic, and many of us may even consider the death of genre to be imminent. So why should we care about it, particularly within the context of new music? Because, like it or not, genre does affect our musical lives—from the way we program concerts to which record labels we consider for our albums and which outlets we contact to review our work. More importantly, while we often ask the question, “Where does this music come from?”, the subtext is usually more along the lines of, “Where does this music belong?”

Frank J. Oteri’s recent profile of Andy Milne is illustrative in this discussion. In the profile, Milne says that, though he endeavors to work outside of genre, he identifies with jazz, which I read as the answer to the “Where does this music come from?” question mentioned above. Milne then walks down the thorny path of trying to delineate the defining characteristics of jazz and settles on two of them: improvisation and multiculturalism. So, in answering the “Where does this music belong?” question, shall we then put all music that is improvisatory and multicultural in the jazz category?

As I scatter my straw man, allow me to make clear that I don’t think this is what Milne is proposing. However, it does illustrate the treacherous nature of categorization when it comes to music. For example, when I listen to a piece like this (written by Milne and performed by his group Dapp Theory):

I hear jazz, but I also hear downtown music and hip hop—at the end of the video, I even hear something that reminds me of Webern­—all layered seamlessly together. Where does this music belong? To which record label shall we send this track? Which press contact would feel this is music his/her media outlet would be interested in? When we post it on Spotify and the like, which metadata shall we choose to categorize it so that browsing listeners with similar tastes will find it? In all of this, how much should we take into account how Milne himself wants his music to be categorized?

What is the difference between avant-garde and avant-garde jazz? What is the true difference between improvisatory, aleatoric, and chance music? Can you tell these questions have been bothering me for a while?

In my former life as a publicist/blogger/concert curator/helper of artists planning out their albums, I became acutely aware of my biases and assumptions about what music belongs where. I endeavored to analyze these assumptions and take action against the false ones, but I have more work to do (regardless of the less active role I play in the scene nowadays). Because, as much as I would love to live in a post-genre world, a lot would have to change for that world to materialize. Here are some key players in the industry that would need to rethink their mode of operation for us to achieve true genrelessness:

NYTimes A&E

The Media. I’ll illustrate this with an example: I go to the Arts & Entertainment Guide in The New York Times to get concert recommendations. To the left of my screen I see a list of categories; I’m very glad someone has sorted through the 232 listings for me because, you know, I don’t really like jazz [but for the record I actually do like jazz; Brilliant Corners changed my life] so that’s seven listings eliminated. Classical & Opera seems too expensive so I decide on Rock & Pop. This is likely one of the “user journeys” envisioned by the NYT’s site developers, and it hinges on genre. To get beyond genre we need to come up with alternative user journeys.

Record Labels. By their very nature, record labels are invested in genre, and yes, labels do still play a key role in the industry. Even new music labels—home to music that pushes beyond genre—feel the need to address the term “classical” and its friend “musical training” in their about sections. If I were in an avant-garde punk band full of autodidact musicians, I would assume these labels aren’t interested in my music. Don’t get me wrong, I love these labels and think they’re doing important work, but I reject the idea that they have achieved true genrelessness.

The Market. It’s all about the metadata, which is to say, it’s all about the categories. Like it or not, metadata drives the music industry and it’s not going away. If we want to strive for a post-genre world, we need to find a way to make metadata work for us and not against us.

(Since it seems that some level of categorization is unavoidable, at least for the foreseeable future, perhaps we should rethink the genre terms that are in most frequent use. Perhaps genre should refer to process instead of style, as in indeterminate music.)

In the next post I will dig further, through the lens of race, into genre and the question of what music belongs where.

Close Listening: Music and Us

headphones and the sea

As has been discussed on NewMusicBox before, the ubiquity of music—particularly in the digital age—has resulted in significant alterations to the ways in which we as a society interact with music and musicians. This ubiquity—at a time when fewer and fewer people receive any musical education at all, and thereby understand very little about how music is made and what it is that musicians do—has in many ways rendered music qua music valueless in an increasingly fraught capitalist economy. These factors have also had devastating effects on those who make music and on their freedom to do so.

Perhaps some of you remember the case of Metallica v. Napster back in 2000. Metallica, a highly successful heavy metal band, accused Napster, a rapidly growing P2P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing company, of copyright infringement. That is, people were downloading Metallica MP3s through the service without paying for them. I was 21 at the time and firmly on the side of Napster. I didn’t have much money in high school or college, and so liked the idea of free access to music; I felt it was in the spirit of the internet itself (which I’d been using since 1995) that content hosted there should be free. (Though I never did use Napster back then because of the hair-pullingly slow download speeds for large files.) Some even claimed that Napster’s users spent more on music precisely because they were able to “preview” albums before making a decision about whether or not to trade their money for the recording artist’s musical services. And I don’t think I was alone in the feeling that when I made an album purchase the majority of my money was going to record label execs and not the artists anyway, so file sharing wasn’t really hurting anyone.

It never occurred to me back then to consider why this file sharing was happening in the first place, the answer to which I believe is twofold: 1) People can be ravenous when it comes to recorded music. Our appetite for recorded music often far outstrips our “entertainment” budgets. 2) A complete disregard for, or in some cases an ignorance of, the real, hard work that goes into recording an album. This idea that music is something musicians do “for fun,” that performing music is easy for those who are gifted, and that music making is mystical in some way all render music valueless in the context of a capitalist economy. In essence, what musicians are faced with is a society that cannot get enough of our painstakingly cultivated skill set while simultaneously treating our desire to participate in the economy (namely, by trading our services for money) as unreasonable, delusional, or even despicable.

Needless to say, fifteen years later, my views as well as the music industry have changed considerably. As a recording musician, I absolutely want to be in charge of when people may download my music for free and when they must trade money for it. But to many members of society music just happens, a constant soundtrack created by an unseen hand, so the idea of paying for the musician’s services seems redundant.

Is the idea that musicians should be allowed to participate fully in our country’s economy unrealistic? I hope not; though—barring the introduction of a completely new economy that treats musicians as valuable members of society­—I believe it will require a sea change. We will need to demystify the music industry and the nitty gritty of what it means to be a professional musician. We need:

1) Data. The people over at the Future of Music Coalition are doing important work creating better data sets about how musicians earn money from their art. A different, but equally good example of data sharing is Jack Conte’s (Patreon, Pomplamoose) break down of what it cost his band to go on tour. (Though I take issue with Jack’s final line in that post; not all of us have credit cards with $17,000 limits.) The more we know about how musicians make money, the more we can think critically about how musicians participate meaningfully in our country’s economy.

2) Music critics to talk about music and music-making in more detail. I have no problem with talking about artists’ lives, their influences, and how they fit into the broader cultural story, but we also need to be willing to talk more about the sound of the music and the details of how it was made, performed, recorded, etc. Of all the writing I’ve done about music, none has generated more interaction from readers than my blog about music theory and the band Interpol. My in-depth analyses provide hard and fast proof of the real work that goes into their songwriting.

3) Musicians to give their supporters (fans) opportunities to support them. I’m thinking here, for example, of Bandcamp, YouTube, Patreon, plus the various streaming services. People are more willing to pay for music when they believe their money is going directly to the artist, so let’s give them every opportunity to validate our economic viability.

4) Lastly, we really need to do something about those streaming services, whose business models are flawed at best (check out this article from The Guardian for specific numbers on what artists earn from streaming; this article on Pandora and songwriters is also informative). Streaming is getting a modicum of revenue to musicians (and also giving access to music to those who can’t afford to buy it) but it’s still largely a story of the rich getting richer.

To render music valuable in our economy, to reverse the devastating effects on musicians that the digital age has wrought, we have to reeducate our society. We must make our voices heard, inspire a close listening, make viable the economic status of the maker of music.

Meg Wilhoite

Meg Wilhoite is an editor, writer, and musician based in New York City. She has written about music for several outlets and occasionally makes her own music. Connect with her on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and/or Soundcloud.