Book Review: The Triumph of Music

Peter Keepnews reviewed the book for the New York Times today. The prime focus of the review is what the book is trying to say, "not just that music is more important than it used to be, which is hard to argue with, but also that it has become the most important, or at least the most dominant, of all the arts, which is more debatable." While the review is luke warm about the book, somewhat positive but not wholeheartedly sold on its value - the premise is one I think bears some weights as the Classical Music world struggles for relevance (if not dominance) in the music market of today.

Understanding how important music is leads to the realisation that we are at a place where music affects the profits of films, beverage companies pay millions of dollars (or pounds) to stars to share associations and downloaded music is available from dozens of sources that have little to nothing to do with music other than wanting to get in on perhaps the most influential items on the market today - Music. As musicians we are commanding top dollar for entertainment. Music is integral in every form of media (yes, even printed media offer downloads or CD's as incentive to purchase their product). Music is everywhere and with iPods and personal music players music is becoming more individualized than ever before. The result, however, is that music may become invisible.

During the Christmas holidays my wife was given a couple of CD's from an artist my daughter and her both love, Seth Lakeman. Before this year, when CD's were gifted I could expect to hear the CD played on one of the house stereos before the arrival of the New Year. This year, my wife loaded the CD's on to her iPod and since she now connects that to the stereo rather than play directly from the CD's I have no idea if I've heard the music or not - as the music is constantly playing, shuffling from one playlist to another. Music is always there, and yet, is some respects less identifiable.

While watching adverts at the local cinema I often am surprised at how often the backing tracks to current hits are used as backing tracks for adverts. Is this somehow connecting the advertised item with the music, or it is just the music is currently popular and therefore the item achieves a level of assumed popularity - or even worse, is the marketeer trying to cash in on current music trends with no regard to product association??? There is probably some of all three going on, and the composer (mixer, engineer) who created the backing track is laughing all the way to the bank as they've been paid twice for writing something once.

As Goliath fell to the much smaller David, is the music industry looking to fall into a sea of ambivalence? If we continue to produce more music than people can reasonably purchase, provide new ways for the music to be involved in peoples lives to the point silence doesn't exist and still think we can call what we create unique - I think we're in trouble of suffering the same thing the financial sector is facing now - a huge crash where the market can no longer sustain so many artists in this inflated musical economy.

I don't know what the alternative is. But if Classical Music wants to avoid the demise of the music industry one thing it will need to do is ensure it strives to create something that is not just marketable, but sustainable and valuable - in a word: classic. The book "The Triumph of Music" isn't about where we're going, but where we've been. As Mr Keepnews points out, there are mistakes in the book, showing areas where the author is out of his depth in one area or another. However, it is worth a look at for nothing more to (roughly) show where we've been so we can take some pride at what we've achieved... and some warning about what may lie ahead. May we value where we've come and strive to produce more value as we move forward.

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