When I started this blog, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately, to thank me, in a way, for covering LA’s new music scene, but also, it almost seemed, to take up arms together, ask “what can we do to make things even better?” and then go out and do it. I am sure as hell glad that he did. In addition to becoming a friend, Ben has been an enormous advocate for new music here in LA, and we do, in fact, have some rad stuff in the works. Ben had talked about writing a post/essay in which to consider our local scene and offer some suggestions to take it from good to great to extraordinary. Man, am I glad that he came through and wrote what follows. Read on, then head to a concert and start talking. Here’s Ben.
Two anecdotes to set the stage:
An untold number of years ago, back when I was involved in my first upstart entrepreneurial new music project here in Los Angeles, one of my collaborators thought it would be a good idea to reach out to one of the older, more established new music groups in town to ask, you know, for advice on what the heck we’re doing. To seek any kernels of wisdom from those older and wiser on the highs and lows of striking out on your own to form a new arts non-profit.
The response: “we can’t help you, you’re our competition.”
This has stuck with me for years since because I can’t get over what a tragic answer it is. Not to get all Shakespearean, but it cuts straight to the core of one of man’s fatal flaws- the misperception of self interest. I get it: the scraps of money seemingly available to the new music musicians are so small, our instinct is to fight ever more viciously over the precious crumbs of audience members. It’s human nature. But in reality, this attitude is actually grossly self-defeating. It’s like the individual Easter Islander fighting for the right to cut down a tree in order to roll a massive stone statue miles away to erect it facing the ocean. Yeah sure it might make the individual chief seem totally awesome- until there are no more trees and the civilization collapses. It’s the tragedy of the commons – somebody should write an opera about it.
Composers in Los Angeles love to complain about never getting played by the LA Phil. They do have a point, at least in terms of the data. Esa-Pekka earned accolades and worship from New York critics for his adventurous programming of (mostly) Finnish composers + John Adams and the audiences that attended said concerts and applauded, but very few if any Los Angeles based composers ever received much (if any) love. As if adding insult to injury, The LA Phil now plans a “Brooklyn Festival” of new music, and the LA Chamber Orchestra continues to parade a familiar batch of young Brooklyn based composers across their stage.
On the other hand, we the Los Angeles composer might stand back a second and ask if we deserve it. We might individually believe our music more than worthy to grace the baton of our boy wonder conductor, but who collectively do we hold up as the best we have to offer? This should make apparent the bigger problem: there is no collective from which to choose our representative. I do believe Los Angeles and its new music makers have a wealth of exciting ideas and music. But it’s Balkanized. At least compared to the current gold standard of Brooklyn (cue choir “ahhh”), what I see is great potential in search of scene.
Maybe this is the reason why Brooklyn keeps poaching some of our best prospects. Young composers move to New York for the scene, not the weather.
So what do they got that we don’t? What are the components of a thriving new music scene? Starting from the assumption that New York has a thriving scene, as their PR people constantly tell us via twitter, we might think a good place to start would be to list all the things New York has.
1. Music publishers
2. Performance Rights Organizations (BMI and ASCAP)
3. Lots of New Music Ensembles
4. Centenarian composers with amusing stories about meeting Stravinsky
5. Lots of other composers
6. PR people
7. An audience (?)
8. Record Labels
9. Music Schools
10. Venerable blue blood investment in music
12. Agents and managers
OK. So there’s a bunch of random stuff. New York has a lot of things, neat. As the classical music business center of the country, it better. But actually this list is quite useless. It’s a business list, and Los Angeles is not about to compete with New York as the center of the classical music business, just as New York is not about to compete with LA as the center of the movie making business. Basic economic geography tells us that like businesses tend to cluster- there is mutual benefit to it. It’s why all the new tech companies are in Silicon Valley, it’s why there are all those furniture stores on La Brea. But I’m talking about artistic clustering- an art scene- and the number of agents your city has don’t matter. Basically, this list is utterly irrelevant to the fact of the LA Phil’s “Brooklyn” festival. What LA composers and musicians need to foster is a clustering of artistic creation. The agents will follow.
An art scene has a lot in common with the industrial clustering of Detroit or Boston or New York. But let’s think about what it is actually important to cluster. Seattle had a thriving grunge indie-music scene, and produced a lot of famous bands. The major record labels came to them. That should be the model.
So what is a thriving art scene? It’s a bunch of people clustering together and doing art. And then talking about it.
Here’s a new list:
1. Lots of new music ensembles
2. Lots of composers
3. Lots of people (mostly the same people from parts one and two) talking about it
4. An audience (?)
Now most likely this is something that happens organically, and can’t be prescribed for a city by a central planner writing an obscure blog article. But think of this as descriptive rather than prescriptive. And it’s already starting to happen. Enough elements of this list start firing, and what does it add up to? Hype. And what follows hype? All the other stuff from list one. Larger monied institutions. Audience members who aren’t actually musicians themselves. PR people. Hipsters. All looking to milk some of hype for themselves.
There’s something to this about the biological imperative for creating art in the first place. That’s another blog post.
Here’s what you can do to help: first, stop sitting in your room complaining that nobody is playing your music or that you have no where to play your instrument. Get out there and make it happen. We need a lot of ensembles looking to put on concerts. This is a lot of work. But as groups trail blaze a path, venues start to learn, and it gets easier. The next step is easy though: where there are new music bands putting on concerts, composers will follow like attorneys chasing ambulances. And the two actually form a symbiotic relationship. The composer looking to get his or her own piece played by an ensemble is a reliable audience member. In fact, they are probably the early adopter audience member. When you only have three audience members, two are the significant others of the band members, and the third is a composer.
But don’t get depressed. We all have to start somewhere. Just remember, one or two bands playing in isolation a scene does not make. Don’t forget about step three. It’s the most important. LA already has a bunch of groups and a bunch of composers.
Talk about the concerts you see. Put on lots of concerts, and talk about them. If you are so inclined, blog or tweet about it. Or just talk to people in the old fashioned way, like in the middle ages. It’s the appearance of activity that counts, but not just your activity. The scene’s activity.
It’s ok that your motives are selfish- you hope to get plucked out of the cutting edge scene by monied institutions who can help your music reach wider audiences. But to have any chance of that, you first need a hyped scene and you need to be an active part of that scene. Go to concerts! I simply cannot understand composers (and they are numerous) who do not go to concerts. Don’t you like music? Why the heck are you putting yourself through all of this work if you don’t? And once you do, be selfless in your promotion of others’ work. Especially if you like it.
The more it seems like something is going on, the more others will want to be a part of it. It’s human nature. Nobody wants to be left out.
The crazy thing about thinking of two small fledgling new music groups in the same city as each others’ “competition” is that a single group could never possibly meet the musical needs of any true music fan. We are bands, not soft-drink companies. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are not each others’ competition, at least not like Coke and Pepsi are. People might choose Coke exclusively over Pepsi as the cause of their Type II diabetes, but nobody chooses The Beach Boys as their band to the exclusion of all music. Nobody has ever said “Nico Muhly is my composer, please take your business elsewhere.”
It is through the confluence of artistic activity that aesthetic direction is established, a scene is hyped, and ultimately, young talented composers stop moving away from Los Angeles to start their careers but to it. So if you want a true scene, it’s time to come down out of your closely guarded aesthetic towers, your new music fiefdoms, and start attending each others’ concerts. It’s already happening. You are the audience and the creator. You are also the publicist. Talk about what you’re doing. Argue about it. Remember, you’re selling cool. It’s the perception of cool that the audience and money will follow.
And oh yeah, there might even be some great music made in the process. Who knows.
Ben Phelps is a composer and percussionist based in Los Angeles. Visit him at benphelpscomposer.com.