Tag: politics

In It to Win It: Lessons from the Long Game

Snail run near the Finish line on road

Max Weber once described politics as “the slow boring of hard boards”; those with less patience for poetry might just call it slow, boring, and hard.

Nonetheless, I’ve found that the music community is actually uniquely equipped with the kind of long-game thinking that it takes to make substantive policy changes. That’s because there’s a basic structural similarity between the kind of slow and steady work it takes to hone your craft as a composer or performer over many years, keeping your eyes on what opportunities and challenges lie around the corner while working to address your present needs, and the slow and steady process of building movements for justice. Making an impact in either policy or music often requires the same kind of passion and perspective.

Yet for many policy areas that are important to musicians and composers, from arts funding to health care access, from media policy to affordable housing, the pace of progress can be frustratingly slow, and our institutions of power can seem remote and unresponsive. Even for issues where simple, straightforward consensus solutions exist and have been identified, it can take far too long to make those solutions real.

Here’s an example: For years, performing musicians have been frustrated by the unpredictability of airlines’ policies about flying with musical instruments. It may seem like a small thing, but for musicians whose livelihoods depend on their ability to arrive at their gig with the tools necessary to do their job, it’s been an enduring problem—one that has also impacted the composers, venues, and presenting organizations who depend on these musicians getting where they need to be. Musicians would show up to board their plane only to be surprised by arbitrary size and weight requirements, and their ability to board could be subject to the whims of gate agents. After years of advocacy, provisions to create consistent policies and allow instruments as carry-ons were attached to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthoriziation bill and signed into law on February 14, 2012. Hooray!

So, if the bill is passed, the problem is solved, right? Alas, no. Congress makes the laws and apportions funding, but then federal agencies have to implement the laws and spend that money. The FAA was given two years to prepare formal regulations, but when the deadline rolled around in February 2014, the regulations hadn’t yet been drafted, allegedly for budgetary reasons. And the horror stories kept rolling in: instruments that had to be checked and were then damaged or destroyed, musicians not allowed to board, travel plans botched.

Happily, after renewed efforts, the new regulations finally went into effect on March 6 of this year. Credit is due to the American Federation of Musicians, which has long led the charge on this issue, working with airlines, policymakers, and federal regulators to see it through to the end. (No one does tenacity like a labor union!)

But there’s a sobering element to this victory. If it can take years to really secure a win on an issue where the biggest barrier isn’t organized, emotionally charged opposition but bureaucratic process, what does it mean for issues that are more publicly contentious?

Let’s look at another issue where musicians and composers recently scored a big victory: the recent net neutrality rules, which were formally published earlier this month.

As you probably know by now, net neutrality is the basic principle that the internet should work the same for everyone, and that internet service providers (companies like Verizon and Comcast) should not be allowed to discriminate or pick favorites. This is enormously important for composers and musicians who rely on the level playing field of the open internet to reach audiences, collaborate, and communicate, especially if their work is limited in commercial appeal and unlikely to find the support of corporate backers.

This issue came to widespread public consciousness in 2014, with more than 4 million Americans filing official comments with the FCC—an unprecedented show of interest in wonky telecom policy. And ultimately the FCC voted in favor of the strong net neutrality protections that we had called for. But for a full decade before those comments flooded in, musicians, composers and other activists had been actively working on this issue. It’s been a long battle and it’s not over yet, but there are a few lessons we can learn:

You may lose a few times before you win

As part of the road to the new rules, we’ve weathered a series of serious disappointments, as when courts ruled against net neutrality rules in 2010, and then again in January 2014. When something like this happens, rather than be discouraged, you can leverage a loss as a focal point for organizing. Moments of crisis are often where values become clearest, because they remind us all what’s at stake.

Artists really can lead the way

Artists of any medium who’ve publicly demonstrated an interest in social justice issues can quickly get burdened by requests to support a deluge of causes, and it’s not always very strategic, as anyone who’s sat through a few unsuccessful benefit concerts knows. Nonetheless, the music community can lead the way on issues that impact them and everyone else. Before the issue was mainstream enough to be fodder for late night comedians, artists such as the Kronos Quartet and Vijay Iyer alongside big stars like R.E.M. laid the groundwork for net neutrality by being vocal about its implications for freedom of expression.

Coalitions get it done

An impressive array of arts and culture organizations weighed in on net neutrality, including Americans for the Arts, American Composers Forum, Association of American Arts Presenters, Chamber Music America, Fractured Atlas, League of American Orchestras, National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, National Alliance for Musical Theatre, National Performance Network, New Music USA, OPERA America, Performing Arts Alliance, and many more. Add to that list media reform organizations, civil rights groups, online activists, labor unions, and businesses large and small. Coalition work means learning to work alongside folks that you may disagree with on other issues—what other issue has brought Moveon.org together with the Christian Coalition?—but the outcome speaks for itself.

Relationships matter

It takes sustained engagement to really make an impact, because it requires building relationships with government officials, not just communicating in times of conflict. It’s harder to get stuff done if officials only ever hear from you when you’re disappointed with them. That’s why it’s important to work to build productive, positive relationships with both the folks making the laws and those who implement and enforce them, even as we work to hold them all accountable. (I love this video of FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallett being interviewed by musician/activist Rebecca Gates; he talks about the value of hearing directly from musicians and how these direct perspectives shape his thinking.)

And while I’ve been writing primarily about politics as it plays out at the federal level, this is all equally true at the state and local levels. We have more power than we often imagine, even if it takes some time to see results.

Good Vibrations: Towards a Fair Trade Standard for Live Music

Fair Trade Music 1000
Remember a time when we didn’t use the words “organic” or “sustainable” during pretty much any discussion related to cultivating resources? That time did exist, but because environmentalists won our minds, we now think about nearly all resource use in ecological metaphors. What would it take for us to have a similar evolution in thought when it comes to labor—specifically musical labor?
Digital media scholar Yochai Benkler has written about borrowing the metaphors from the ecological lexicon developed by environmental activists for mobilization in fights about culture. What metaphors can we use in music to talk about the ethical practices of our community? While it could be a cheeky rhetorical game to use the environmentalist metaphor for musical labor (musicians are the megafauna we want to give a good life in an ideal habitat), I see the most possible action in using the framework of the global fair trade movement to talk about the ethical treatment of musicians.

Fair trade deals with the ethical treatment of labor in the production and supply chain rather than the ethical sourcing of materials, so it works well for a field like music, where the primary product is good vibrations. The fair trade movement is a project 50-plus years in the making, with a core set of criteria by which to evaluate if products have been produced ethically. This system was built through the organization of producers and the education (often through marketing) of consumers, with an independent supervisory body in between. At the heart is an elaborate set of standards for monitoring and labeling so that consumers can trust that their money is actually going to support the bettering of workers’ lives.
Fair trade
This makes it easy for consumers to get involved—they just have to buy the ethical product to do good. Once the domain of religious communities, hippies, and anarchist collectives, fair trade ethical consumption has become widespread in Europe. A company like Sainsbury (a UK grocer) has moved from considering fair trade to be a luxury premium for those with a deep ethical urge to being the cost of doing business when it comes to some commodities (for instance they sell only fair trade bananas). By taking the high road, they set a standard by which competitors can also safely stock more expensive fair trade items.
I want to stress that this trajectory—something that came from radical activism in the 1960s—is now a mainstreamed part of capitalist logic 30 years later, and a general metaphor for how we know ourselves in the world. It has also lifted seven million people out of poverty, and as the movement grows, so does this number. This has all been done through the strength of serious organizing and education. To be fair, it has been at the expense of some of the more militant demands for trade justice. Fair trade campaigns have been criticized as being reformist, in as much as they’re only partially shifting conditions of inequality rather than wholly transforming them. Fair trade as it stands is not a revolution in the ownership of the means of production; it’s an ethical adjustment to capitalism. In short, it’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Wouldn’t music fans follow a similar path? We just need to give them large scale and systematic ways to get involved in supporting the ethical treatment of musicians, something they can understand easily and accept as a fair compromise. What mechanism can we give a listener so she will say, “Yes, I will pay more for this because I understand that the money is actually going to the musician, not to corporate profits or venue capital campaigns or CEO bonuses. Here is the money, I trust you to give it to the musician.”

The use of the fair trade framework for the music industry would imply enforcing a set of standards for wages and conditions that would allow musicians to live better lives, and that knowledge of this would allow presenters to exhibit their good ethics with a seal, which would then be rewarded by a paying public.

As with the fair trade movement itself, the idea of fair trade music has sprung up in different places and mobilized various groups, but none have thus far succeeded in gaining the mass necessary to push campaigns mainstream. As Frank J. Oteri wrote in his NewMusicBox report on the 2013 CISAC meeting, the concept of “fair trade” was brought up often as a good model for organizing by a number of people. Indeed, the Austrian Music Information Centre developed a rudimentary framework for a fair trade music campaign, which was active between 2007-2011.

In the U.S., the fair trade music movements are just beginning, and it is these that I want to focus on here. For the rest of this column I just want to deal with fair trade as it would work in live music contexts, primarily because this is where I have done some work as part of the Musicians Solidarity Council, which sought to bring a fair trade campaign to New York City. For live musicians, wages are usually the clear issue––with the argument being that musicians should be paid for the work they do, unless they have volunteered in advance to give their work for free. How much pay, when paid, and under what conditions are the questions on the table, with the number one being that some presenters simply don’t pay at all. While the wage issue is always foremost in people’s minds, I do think that working condition issues matter greatly as well; things like good sound quality, adequate performance equipment, safety, forthright scheduling, clear communication, and ease of access to venues are things that should be guaranteed by presenters and the city infrastructure surrounding them.

On the wage issue, one project taking shape is a fair trade labeling system for venues, showing concertgoers that the management has agreed to certain standards for how they treat and pay musicians. The system is voluntary for the venue, and carries the implied promise that ethical consumers will prefer their venue to non-labeled venues. This is a departure from the traditional union tactic of getting employers, often the venues, to enter into collective bargaining agreements. This is why it is interesting that AFM locals have been leaders in a new Fair Trade Music initiative, which was founded in Portland and has fledgling chapters around the United States.

One version of this labeling idea is run by AFM Local 1000, which is for traveling folk musicians. Just as in the early days of the larger fair trade movement, their campaign, Fair Trade 1000, is calling upon their idealist subset of live music venues to be the first to take the high road. Their standard is a simple one: pay at the 1000’s minimum wage scale. They’ve signed up 23 presenting organizations thus far. (This project is similar for music to what the Restaurant Opportunities Center’s “High Road” campaign does—certify restaurants that respect workers, and then promote those restaurants to ethically minded consumers).
While the folk scene does have its own local, I do think that new music could do something similar in asking employers—venues or presenting organizations—to sign onto an ethical pledge for live musicians. The conditions certainly are correct: a tight network of venues, highly educated players who all know one another, and a deep level of audience empathy. Perhaps all it would take is a group like the Noise Action Committee to come together to do the work. It would be well worth the time.
Seattle musician parking
The Seattle chapter of Fair Trade Music won a victory on working conditions this March when they organized to get the city to install special parking zones outside venues. Musicians there had come together to name the negative experience of loading equipment as one thing they shared collectively, and they built a coalition to push a change through the city. (Getting a $40 ticket for a gig that paid $30 is a real thing many musicians have experienced). The result is that four clubs now have a musicians-only load-in outside the venue doors from 4-7 p.m. The Portland chapter is now working on a similar campaign. It’s easy to imagine similar groups organizing for such changes, which would have minimal negative impact on the city and would greatly help working musicians, regardless of genre.

I want to stress that I think for these campaigns to succeed, they need active gigging musicians at their core. That way they can ensure that the musicians’ needs drive the work that is being done. This is a hard thing to hear, given that working musicians are often stretched thin already, but it’s especially true for freelancers and small businesses like ensembles. You have to come together collectively to determine your common grievances and figure out the best course of action. Uniting under the fair trade model is just one way to do that. We should all keep an eye on Seattle, and perhaps those who do will end up jumpstarting something similar in their towns.

Fair Trade Music’s continued successes will necessitate that they scale up, as did the fair trade movement when it went from being about hippies buying handicrafts to supermarket chains buying millions of pounds of produce. Before that can happen, there has to be demand, which means massive public outreach and education to talk about the exploitative conditions of current labor. It needs to be full of real numbers and portray all of the steps that make each part of the supply and consumption chain complicit in the exploitation of musicians. If people can plainly see the problem, and there is a feasible solution at hand, then the work is easier done. It’s not enough to have a few good venues for those lucky enough to work in their genres or live in their communities—it has to become a standard.

Dressing room, Miami, Florida

Dressing room, Miami, Florida
CC photo by Corey Doctorow at Flickr

Imagine playing across the U.S. and knowing that you’d have a dressing room, load-in space, decent stage equipment, and earn a living wage at every venue you played. It’s not that radical a demand. What it will take is some public honesty about what working conditions are like at venues, musicians coming together to organize and agitate, musicians and presenters considering their whole musical “environment” and not just their own immediate future needs, and lots of talk with the listeners who ultimately do fund musicians’ pay, be it through taxes or tickets. With all those things coming together, we could see a time in the future when the “Fair Trade Music” logo is as ubiquitous as the recycling logo, and the implications of that carrying through to better pay and conditions for all who play music live.

Composers, Meet Identity-Protective Cognition

In the recent article “How politics makes us stupid,” Ezra Klein writes about identify-protective cognition. The concept, developed by Yale law professor Dan Kahan, argues that the “most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.” He argues: “[I]ndividuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” instead choosing facts that support them.
Kahan uses this theory, Klein writes, to challenge a political concept known as the More Information Hypothesis, or “the belief that many of our most bitter political battles” are based upon one side not having enough information to fully understand the issue. He explains that our inability to agree on some of the most pressing political issues such as climate change is not due to a lack of information, but to an individual’s effort to preserve a “preferred form of social organization.” It was hard to read something like this and not want to examine my beliefs about one of the things most central to my identity and therefore my social organization: music. How might composers and audiences be understood in this context?


Programmatic music against absolute music! Atonal against polytonal! Identity-protective cognition may be heavily implicated in these compositional ideologies. As most prominently manifested by Wagner against Brahms and Schoenberg against Stravinsky, to be a composer in the late 19th and much of the 20th century consisted of aligning yourself with one of these social circles. To stray from your camp was to jeopardize your social standing—and perhaps your livelihood.

After postmodernism, compositional ideologies, though they exist, are not nearly as fundamental to the existence of a social circle. We seem to have accepted all of the music that came before us as equally valid and deserving of a response. Without going into any quality problems that may have arisen as a result, it is clear that social circles are far less bound by compositional ideology. It follows that one’s ability to make a living as a composer should be less bound by them. If true, this illuminates just how delicate society’s notions of the canon may be if its boundaries are determined not by aesthetics, but through social structures.


Classical music programming–which, like all other industries, is more or less dictated by its market (audience)–encourages over-polishing a canon at the expense of creating new work. Is there a way to understand this in the context of identity-protective cognition? Beyond our seeming predisposition to favor repetition over the new, the continued reality of constantly performing the same group of masterworks with very little variation is heavily tied up in the social reality of the concert hall, the physical manifestations of which are literally built as shrines to the supposed creators of its canon. To enjoy newness, then, is to contradict the social foundation of the classical music industry itself. To me, this argument overpowers the More Information Hypothesis, which might suggest that better educated audiences would demand more new music. Either way, this logic forces me to confront an economic reading of music creation and performance. It is the intersection of audience demand with musical supply that creates a working market, and in the case of classical music, a canon.

In a way, however, this gives me hope for new music. It suggests that the acceptance of numerous compositional ideologies signals a shift in demand towards newness, and a social circle less committed to the practices of its parents. In other words, we may be in the early adoption phase for new music.


As Klein mentions in his article, pondering identity-protective cognition “is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss.” The thought that any and every argument or claim we make should be constantly weighed for its motivating cognition is tiring, and it strikes me as a difficult task to regularly undertake. Nevertheless, it is one that seems particularly worthwhile from time to time if we, as artists, are to truly reflect the—inevitably social—human condition.


Human Pyramid

Photo courtesy of din bcn on Flickr

Collaboration is a buzz word that’s thrown around a lot these days, quite often referring to the relationship between composers and the performers for whom they write.  Adam Sliwinski began his series of posts for NewMusicBox in January by dealing with this very issue and exploring the mutually beneficial ways in which performers and composers can work together.  Most astutely, however, Sliwinski pointed out that, rather than discovering this on his own, he and his ensemble, So Percussion, are simply part of a trend that “has been sweeping across the new music world for quite a while.”  This trend is, to me, both as a composer and as an advocate, perhaps the most exciting development in contemporary music in the last fifteen years.
When I was in school long ago, the vision I inherited of a composer, while already changing, was still a somewhat romantic one in which we were expected to work in relative isolation, presenting our finished masterpieces to grateful performers who would then work very hard to present definitive performances of our work.

Well, okay, that’s not exactly true.  There was a lingering sense of this, and I still occasionally encounter this attitude among composers (and some performers) of a certain generation, but many of my teachers, particularly the younger ones, encouraged my peers and me to get out there and get to know instrumentalists, singers, and conductors.  Do you find that you’re having trouble writing a particular violin lick?  Go knock on a violinist’s practice room door and ask them to take a look and make suggestions!  Need to write a big piece for your dissertation and can’t decide whether you want to tackle the idealistic grand opera you’ve always wanted to write, or a violin concerto for your buddy who’s been hounding you for years to do it, has an orchestra lined up, and can program it as soon as it’s finished?  The opera can wait!  You decide to write the violin concerto—including some passages that are nearly impossible. Do you say, like Beethoven is said to have, “Do you think I care about your stinking fiddle?” or do you sit down with your friend and look for ways to make a passage more idiomatic?  I shouldn’t have to ask the question, yet there is a long-held and awfully pervasive attitude in some circles that the score is king, and I’ve been surprised at the number of performers who are nervous about asking for changes or offering solutions to awkward problems because they think I won’t welcome their feedback.  (Although I did have one performer recently who took this too far when, after I suggested that, of course, if some passages need to be reworked, I’d be happy to take a look at suggestions, s/he then went on to essentially rewrite the entire piece to the point that the premiere wasn’t so much a premiere performance as a premiere impression of what I’d written.  It was…odd.)

In any case, yes, this is the most obvious and immediate sense in which collaboration comes up in contemporary music, but I suggest that it’s not the only one.  Along with the attitudes I expressed in my initial, muckraking post—that a musical life is a political life—we must always remember that, as artists, we are all in this together.  In times of economic hardship, art is often first on the chopping block as a luxury item without which we can live and, conversely, is often the last such item to be added to growing budgets in times of plenty.  If we do not advocate not just for our own work but for the work of colleagues, partners, and peers, we continue to be the last line item to be added to budgets and the first to be cut.

Ultimately, what we do makes the world a better place.  While a performance does not literally put food in anyone’s mouth, the infrastructure that grows around performance venues often has an incredible impact upon a community.  I’ve never been much of a numbers person and, therefore, cannot speak to actual statistics, but in my own experience I’ve seen the transformation an arts scene can have on a community.

Three years ago, I was hired by the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington to develop and curate a new music series for them.   The Atlas is an old movie house which had burned down—though the facade remained—during the riots that swept the city in 1968.  A group of enterprising community members, led by the lawyer and philanthropist Jane Lang, bought the Atlas in the early 2000s with a plan to renovate it as a performing arts venue and anchor the renewal of the depressed H Street North East corridor in D.C. around it.  The transformation that has occurred in that neighborhood in the years since Atlas opened has been dramatic and tangible, financially and physically.  The city’s musical culture has dramatically changed as well, now that contemporary music has a wider presence in the area thanks to our efforts at Atlas.

To take the helm of a concert series—on top of an ensemble—is a great temptation for a composer.  It would be very easy to make the programming of my own work a prerequisite for a performance on my series, for instance, but this would be an obvious betrayal of my duty to my musical community. Managing a concert series and an ensemble is a rare privilege and an opportunity to make a lasting contribution to both my immediate community in Washington and the wider musical community of the United States.  Not only are we a part of a vibrant, growing scene in the District, but we are also able to provide work and exposure to some important established and emerging artists and composers.

I believe it’s an important challenge we all must undertake to advocate for one another.  The “mutual benefit balance” of which Adam Sliwinski wrote extends well beyond the immediate benefits of multiple performances and the nitty-gritty work of the composer-performer relationship.  We must see ourselves as collaborators within a much wider network of musicians and citizens, helping each other as best we can—be it through something as complex as presenting performances or something as simple as sharing each other’s work on social media—regardless of personal payoff.  The benefits will ultimately manifest themselves and reach far beyond the immediate gratification of a paycheck (although let’s not forget the importance of that paycheck, lest we get too idealistic and starve ourselves in the process) and into the realm of real, tangible cultural change.

Soul of the Nation

CD pie diagram
The artist Boris Schatz once famously said that “art is the soul of a nation.” Working as a composer and presenter of new music in Washington, D.C., where our business is the nation, I tend to think of this phrase a lot.
It may be redundant to say so at this point, but it bears repeating that new “classical” [1] music isn’t exactly a highly visible part of American culture at large (not to mention a tough way to make a living). Given the air of crisis around American classical music in general (a crisis that I, personally, find exaggerated, but that is a topic for another discussion), it seems idealistic at best, foolish at worst, to insist as I do that new music can not only play a vital role in the life of the nation, but that its role is key to the survival of classical music in the American (and, indeed, in the world’s) consciousness.

A musical life is a political life. Undertaking a life in the arts in the USA—and particularly a life in contemporary classical music—is, I would venture, an inherently political act. Ours is not to be solely purveyors of entertainment (though that is, indeed, one of our roles) but to challenge, threaten, uplift, inspire, and provide an aural experience beyond the disposably commonplace. I am not suggesting that new music [2] will or should be able to achieve the same levels of cultural hegemony (nor that it is somehow better, simply because of what it is) that more commercial forms of music are able to achieve (should we even want it to?), but it can certainly reach newer levels of cultural saturation (as it seems to be doing in a number of areas). Thankfully, there no longer seems to be much need to “apologize” for what we do, justifying it as either necessary castor oil or as no longer the uninviting quasi-noise of generations past, at least in our major metropolitan areas. (I can’t speak for the situation in smaller cities and towns away from the major new music scenes in the country.) But there is still a need for those of us who love and make this music to be increasingly proactive apologists (not apologizers, mind you) for our art and to develop radical new ways of reaching an audience that too often still feels unreachable, even while the avenues for reaching them have multiplied.

I am writing this in January 2014, having just gone through the obligatory period of begging (I’m sorry: fundraising) that occurs at the end of every calendar year. This never fails to drum up criticism and concern from various corners of our culture, criticisms that have become increasingly pervasive, especially since 2008 (just ask Bill Maher!): that the arts are not charity. We are expected to survive in the marketplace of ideas and make our money the same way that Justin Bieber, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, and Adele make their money. To a degree, these critics are right: charity should concern itself with feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and other, more immediately humanitarian endeavors. The fine arts should compete at the same level as popular music, Hollywood films, and mass-market teen fiction. The reality is, however, that in a society where education is valued only to the degree that it can provide quantifiable vocational skills that lead to some form of gainful employment, where citizens are unable to learn the value of knowledge for its own sake, where skills not immediately useful to industry are scorned, then not only the arts, but science and the humanities become disposable commodities to be ignored in the name of cold, hard profits. What, then, does such disposability say about the state of our nation’s soul?

Music and the other arts may not be able to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, irrigate deserts, or end oppression. They may not be particularly valuable other than as a background noise to revelry or as a source of advertising revenue. They may not even be able to keep their practitioners particularly well fed or housed, but they are as important to us–as a people, as a nation, as human beings–as the box office from the latest blockbuster film, the sale of natural gas, or the very air we breathe. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, art may not have particular survival value, but it gives particular value to survival.

I may be becoming something of a walking cliché, a kind of “radical chic” musician who, despite appearances of open mindedness, will come off as oddly dogmatic by saying this, but I find that I have less and less use lately for people who do not value the arts as a necessary, political, socially engaged activity. If we, as composers, as musicians, as artists, want to stay clothed, fed, and housed, we must engage–radically, vociferously, loudly, uncomfortably–with the culture at large by actively playing a role in the management of our arts organizations. In this way, we might be able to free them from the constraints imposed upon them by corporate powers through strings attached to philanthropic programs, or boards of directors eager to exert disproportionate managerial power based on monetary contributions. Rather, by actively participating in governance and developing close relationships with our boards and supporters, we will be able to impose democratic values on institutions that have–like our government increasingly seems to have done–forgotten what these are. A number of ensembles in contemporary music have notably led the charge for some time, becoming their own managers and administrators, merging the concert stage with the front office.

The musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, and many others (including my own, Great Noise Ensemble) have, for some time, taken the reins of their organizations and controlled their own destiny with only a modicum of outside help. Following this model poses many challenges, chief among them striking the right balance between administrative and creative work, which itself can be complicated when you also have a day job. It is a very tricky, seemingly untenable situation that can be almost impossible to navigate until your organization is well funded enough to adequately support you and your work. If, as musicians, we see ourselves as members not only of a performing organization but as socially engaged members of a political organization, we can hopefully effect changes that will grant our art greater visibility among a wider public. We musicians cannot afford to expect our work to consist entirely of musical work. Being socially engaged begins, as it were, at home. This means taking over responsibilities that would have been the purview of an independent administrative staff in the past. When musicians take control of their business, the issues that can too often lead to fights between labor and management begin to disappear simply because labor is management.

It is telling that most of the organizations embracing this business model are in contemporary music. Much like avant-garde composers, these institutions are in the vanguard of arts management and more traditional organizations will have (and may be starting) to take notice. Until they do, they will continue to face the all-too-common lockouts, work stoppages, and endless, season-hobbling strikes. Meanwhile, those of us in the vanguard must remain strong. We must learn, like the musicians of eighth blackbird, to be our own administrators while honing our skills as performers. We must, like the soprano Megan Ihnen or Great Noise Ensemble’s own clarinetist, Katherine Kellert, develop formidable social media and publicity skills to enhance our musical work’s impact. And, like the amazing and inspiring Claire Chase and the International Contemporary Ensemble, engage in work that is greater than ourselves and our immediate social circles, developing projects to help other musicians achieve greatness. And we must see, as the founders of the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington saw, the potential for arts organizations to serve as anchors in the economic and social transformation of our neighborhoods, our cities, and our country. Granted, the organizations I’m citing as examples began as grass roots efforts and their members were able to institute these changes from the ground up. Things become far more challenging and difficult to implement within institutions that have been around for decades with their own, highly developed corporate cultures. Indeed, many of the crises we’ve witnessed in American orchestras of late may very well be growing pains in the transition to the new administrative model, in which musicians and management share more democratically in their organizations’ governance. Time will tell if this is the case, but I remain optimistic that we will weather this storm and come out stronger for it.


1. Part of the problem is the very label “classical music,” a label with which we’ve been saddled for about a century and which just conjures musty, dusty age to me.

2. Labeling is a persistent problem. “New Music” isn’t very useful as a genre when it can refer to any music not previously heard, regardless of genre.


Armando Bayolo

Armando Bayolo is artistic director of Great Noise Ensemble and curator of the New Music at the Atlas series, both in Washington, D.C., as well as a composer with an international reputation whose works have been performed in Europe, the Caribbean, and across the United States.