Josh McNeill

Language, Music, Louisiana.

Month: January 10, 2012

Age schmage.

Colin Holter of NewMusicBox asks in a post:

Have you ever read a piece of serious writing on the attitudes of the elderly toward classical music?

And Molly Sheridan echoes the question over at Mind the Gap:

In what other market would we try and sell an experience to a rarely interested buyer while simultaneously overlooking those demographics that have demonstrated a high affinity for it?

The idea is that perhaps classical institutions should be putting their efforts into courting older people instead of hoping to attract younger people because it’s clear that younger people don’t give a crap. While this sounds like a solid idea, there are a number of aspects to it that are being ignored and even Sheridan admits that “these are not perfect questions.”

Possibly the biggest error in this line of reasoning is overlooking that everyone actually does this. As a commenter at Mind the Gap claims:

Marketers are constantly chasing the elusive younger demographic that doesn’t watch TV while ignoring the older (and wealthier) folks who do.

Remember Joe Camel? He was a cartoon camel who lost his post as mascot for Camel cigarettes because it was feared that he marketed the product too directly toward young people. I admit that I’m making an assumption here myself, but I doubt one could find any industry where a significant portion of the marketing wasn’t aimed at a demographic that currently has no interest in the product. Afterall, why bother marketing to people who will buy your product regardless? Sounds like a waste of money to me.

In fact, this even occurs in the industry that classical music most wishes it could be as successful as: pop music. I’m not even referring to boys bands and their ilk but even successful non-classical bands with a markedly less commercial approach do this. One of my favorite bands, Thursday, admits in an interview:

It’s a weird situation to be in. If we just relied on our fans growing up to have a career, it would be impossible. We’ll be playing in a town and go out for dinner that night and the waitress will have a Thursday tattoo and be like, “Oh wow, I don’t go to shows anymore or buy albums, but I still love you guys.” And it’s like, it’s nice that you still love us, but you’re not coming to see us, or getting our record. I’m sure we have a lot of fans who have since grown up and still have a soft spot in their hearts. But generally I think older people get less and less involved in music. Cause when you’re younger, it’s your whole culture.

I think it would be great if young kids were digging us, because, I don’t know, maybe I could pay rent next month.

The difference in Thursday’s case is that the aging fans they can count on are no longer willing to dish out money while classical music fully expects only these older fans to dish out money but the general idea is the same: Thursday needs to constantly court a new demographic to survive.

Holter mentions in his post that “we can agree that it is thought that the patrons of classical music in the United States are old and getting older,” which may be the most telling sign of where all this comes from. This isn’t “conventional wisdom,” it’s fact. That link, from Greg Sandow’s blog, I’m fairly certain, doesn’t even come close to all the evidence Sandow has posted over the years. While I don’t know Holter at all, even in writing, and am so reticent to pass judgement on him, I still feel inclined to speculate that his refusal to flat out accept this fact could be evidence that he wants to deny that there’s a problem. In that light, why wouldn’t the classical world spend all it’s time going after old people? If there’s no problem, if the industry can count on people spontaneously becoming engrossed in classical music once they hit 60, even those who have never listened before, then there’s really no reason to focus so much on procuring a new young audience.

And, if I had time, I might get into the fact that everything about how the classical world operates already seems geared toward old people. Just look at the programs that largely mimic the programs that were being used 60-70 years ago; is that an appeal to young people or to people who were alive back then? I’m sure I don’t need to extrapolate much further than that in order for anyone to get my point.

All Art is Theft: Tom Waits vs Ron Sexsmith

Some time ago I was listening to Tom Waits’ compilation/B-sides/album thinger, Orphans, and when I came across this song:

I immediately thought of this song by Ron Sexsmith:

At the time, going from memory, the two appeared to have identical verses in my head save for different instrumentation. It seemed so striking to me that my first reaction was to see who wrote their song first. Sexsmith released Gold in Them Hills back in 2002 while Shiny Things was released in 2006. The problem is, the album Tom Waits released this song on was only about half new tunes and half old unreleased stuff so I’m not sure which came first. Seeing as how I thoroughly enjoy both these musicians, I chalked it up to great minds thinking alike.

Today I went ahead and analyzed the verses from the two songs and came to realize that they’re not as similar as I intially thought, almost to the point where it seemed silly to compare them. Waits’ tune is in 5/4 where Sexsmith sticks to a standard 4/4 time signature. This probably goes a long way to making Gold in Them Hills sound more like a pop song while Shiny Things feels like an odd ode to Americana. I actually had a bit of trouble figuring out the time signature Waits was using. The unusual, for western music, rhythm is highly effective at turning a pretty basic chord progression and melody into something full of surprises.

The chord progressions are, in fact, pretty similar. Both are essentially sticking to a I IV I progression, extremely common in, well, everything western, only varying from each other at the end. Waits goes for a turn-around, playing a slightly different progression leading to a perfect cadence, while Sexsmith shuffles back and forth between ii and V for a while, also creating a perfect cadence but also creating the vague sense of modulating due to how long he sits in this position. Of course, these similarities essentially mean nothing given their ubiquity since the Renaissance.

The melodies are probably the most intriguing parts, and also the parts that made me think the songs were so close. They actually sound very different when listening to them one after the other but, when you look at the actual contour of what’s being played:

They have a lot in common. It’s as if, despite the fact that the rhythm of each melody is different, the key is different, the chord tone the each melody begins on is different, they still manage to recall each other. They each go up a bit, down a bit, up more, then down a bit, and that appears to be enough. It reminds me of an instructional guitar video I once saw where the guitarist explained good phrasing as only getting close to the notes you played last time you went through the melody, but not actually playing the same ones. In other words, someone can play Happy Birthday with all the wrong notes but if they get the general contour right, you’ll still recognize it as Happy Birthday.

There clearly isn’t any real theft here. I wouldn’t be surprised if neither musician had ever heard the other’s song. What’s more interesting is what this says about the creative process. Both artists probably came up with their verses independently and felt they had something good, something that expressed their thoughts and feelings uniquely, something that was theirs. Neither is particularly original, though. I’m sure there are loads of composers hundreds of years before these two that created very similar lines. The actual melody itself is not something anyone can take credit for, the way it’s put to use is. Waits gives his melody one context while Sexsmith gives his another and, ultimately, this change of context makes it feel like they’ve both done something uniquely them. Composition is really much more akin to creating collages than coming up with pigments that have never been seen before.

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