Where Are The Mozarts Of Today? Probably Online...
An Additional Argument to articles by Kenneth Lampl and Fernando Rivas
by Tim Birkett
A while ago, a question was posed on this site: "...but where are the Mozarts of today?" by Dr. Kenneth Lampl, and Fernando Rivas offered a response to it. Both articles made some interesting points, but neither seemed to provide a compelling answer. Dr. Lampl asserts that it is not possible to judge today's music using the standards or comparisons to the "greats" (Mozart, Beethoven, et al) were subjected to. His main assumption is that during the time that the "greats" were alive, they were part of a "culture of imperialism" where the monarcharies of the time were able to dictate who became popular or rose to the level of "greatness." They were able to do this because they basically controlled the media of their time. In this way, the monarchies were able to create a unified cultural perspective that everyone of their time saw through. The difference today in his view is that there is no unified cultural perspective due to the freedoms that the medias of the world have in comparison to the 18th and 19th centuries. We are now in a culture of capitalism, where the public has more say on whom or what becomes labeled "great."
In Mr. Rivas' response, he offers a somewhat sinister notion that there still is a culture of imperialism at work, but is run by corporations motivated by money. Composers who are not affiliated/signed to a major record label have little to no chance of even getting noticed, let alone have the chance to become a "great" composer on the same stature as Mozart and the other "greats" of the last couple centuries. Mr. Rivas contends that in today's culture, "greatness" is now determined by how many albums are sold as opposed to any artistic standards. Mozart and Madonna in the same sentence if you will. Some people would be able to make that stretch, while many others would not. In conclusion, Mr. Rivas says that the "great" composers are working in film music and advertising writing scores and jingles. In many ways, this is true (John Williams, Bernard Hermann, and Danny Elfman for me come to mind), but it was worded in a way that made his statement sound something like an insult, but that could also be perception.
Both sides of this debate have merit, but there is now a middle ground that has been emerging in the last several years. When it comes to composers getting noticed, technology has started to level the playing field if composers are able to use it. There are several new avenues emerging that can give composers the chance of getting their music to a wider audience, as well as more public performances, sometimes even without the help of a record company or other benefactor. The prospect of exposure and more chances of public performances increase the chances of gaining fame and possibly being considered "great," but the definition of fame and greatness is different than it was in the time of Mozart and the other "greats" of the last couple centuries.
In the present time, fame and greatness is mainly related to how much the sales are or how much money is made on a particular piece of music, whereas in Mozart's time it was more about how much work a person was getting, and the number of performances, innovativeness, and audience reaction to their works. Since the composers were being taken care of by their benefactors, monetary gain was not the deciding factor in fame, as many of the "greats," as is sometimes not mentioned, ended up dying destitute and poor. As monarchies declined and democracies came into being, monetary gain became more of an indicator of fame, although not necessarily of "greatness." As music in general split into different styles (classical, jazz, rock, metal, punk, etc.) each emerging genre had it's own standards that defined what "greatness" was, and to most of the general public ("Joe Public," if you will) the only to really determine what was "great" music was with album sales and radio airplay.
With the emergence of record companies it became harder for artists and composers to get their work out, and "fame" is only gained by a few that are promoted by the companies. So, as Rivas stated, record companies became the defacto tastemakers for the general public. The decision process on what music was considered "great" fell to groups like the RIAA (Grammy Awards), CMA, and academia, who used varying methods to determine "greatness." Concepts like artistic merit, creativity, innovativeness, AND record sales were taken into account. As the 20th Century closed, various associations, radio broadcasters, video channels, and record companies had replaced the monarchies of old in determining greatness, although with no consensus with many composers/artists that were being called "great." By Lampl's criteria, no one compared to the "greats" of past eras, and Rivas seemed to think that new "great" composers are being imposed on to the public.
Starting with punk rock in the late 1970s, a revolution has slowly been taking hold with independent musicians. Rather than going through the process of trying to get signed to a record label, artists are basically doing everything on their own, from the obvious creating of new music all the way to getting albums made, and handling their own promotion and distribution. With the advent of the internet in the late 90s, and the home recording boom of the '00s have made it possible for composers/artists from all genres to go it alone without the help of record labels. Now it is possible for composers to have full recording studios in their offices, as well as have large (digital/virtual) ensembles at their disposal, much like the "greats" in eras past. And composers and artists of all music genres are taking full advantage of this "D.I.Y." ability.
For example, the continuing improvements and affordability of virtual instruments now allow composers to create large scale works that sound realistic in their home studios that they can put out on their own without having to wait to get a large ensemble to perform it to hear it. This technology also allows composers to incorporate electronic sounds and effects with acoustic instruments in ways that were almost impossible before. Once composers have a piece done, they can post it to various websites for the world to hear it. In this way, composers can get their work out into the public consciousness and get some exposure. With this exposure, composers have a better chance to get their music heard, which could lead to more public performances of their work. This kind of exposure is unprecented in any time in history, and composers must use this to their advantage. By using this technology, composers can write pieces of any size and be able to have them heard by people all over the world. While this kind of exposure will give artists exposure that the "greats" could have never gotten in their lifetimes, this still does not guarantee fame, let alone greatness. Achieving fame, as defined by sales, will still take the assistance of a record company, although that could change as time goes on. Not only can composers put their music on different websites to get exposure for their music, they can also charge for downloads of the music, and get revenues from their music. At the present time, revenues are still relatively small, and there is the ongoing problem with illegal downloading. At some point in the future, though, it is safe to say that this problem could be fixed, and putting music online for profit will become a more stable platform for composers to make a living with their music. For composers who also want to have physical CDs of their music to sell, CD duplicators are now relatively inexpensive pieces of equipment that can fit in an office, and there are still distributors that are more willing to work with independent artists as well. At the present time, the revenue that can be generated selling one's music independently is relatively small, but there are indications that things could change in the coming years in that regard, and composers are starting to take advantage of these innovations.
The question of "greatness' still lingers, though. As the Internet continues to change how music is distributed, the definition of fame is changing almost back to what it was in the time of Mozart, with composers able to put their own music at will. Critical acclaim, innovativeness, and awards will still be used partially to define "greatness," as well as personal tastes of the listener. For many composers, though, they will not be compared to the "greats" and spoken of in the same conversations with them until they have died. Historians and musicologists could become the final determiners of who gets mentioned with the greats of the past, for good or ill. Is this fair? Will some deserving composers end up not being in the conversation? Will other composers end up being called "great" composers when they may not be up to that lofty standard? New times, and many of the same questions. Even with the technological advances in the way that music can be presented, there will be, as there has been in the past, composers that who are not totally recognized by the general public in large (outside of a few who are "hip" to what they are doing, a "hardcore fanbase" if you will) until that composer is gone and is unable to capitalize on the recognition. At the same time, there will be composers that are called "great" composers now, but as time moves along, their status may be downgraded. And still there will be composers that will be either never mentioned in the conversation or forgotten. The process of determining fame and greatness will be just as unfair to some as it has been for literally hundreds of years.
As mentioned earlier, though, composers have at least a somewhat better chance for some recognition and possible fame/greatness if they can utilize the technology that is available to them to get their music heard. Large numbers of composers are already making use of these things, and in the next few years we will probably start hearing stories of composers who were found on Myspace, Facebook, etc.. This is already happening in other genres, so it's a safe bet that it will spread to all genres of music in the very near future, if it hasn't happened already.
The "Mozarts of Today" certainly do exist, but it is up to the listener to find them out, and the historians to put them into the context of our musical landscape later. More importantly, it is essential that composers take advantage of the opportunities that the home recording revolution and ability to get music to the public via the Internet. As long as composers are putting out quality music and making it available for people to hear, they have an excellent chance of gaining some type of fame, and the exposure that the internet can bring increases their chances of being recognized nationally and globally, and, while not the same thing as "greatness," at least puts them into the debate. The challenge for composers in this day and age is to work to get as many people as possible to hear their music. The idea of the solitary composer struggling in obscurity will soon become a thing of the past, as it is possible for him/her to at the very least be heard. And that's the first step...