The Answer is Blowing in the BrassWind

The New York Times CityRoom Blog reported that New York City’s iconic percussion store Drummers World is closing as of Dec. 28, 2011. For drummers, this store was indeed a “mecca”–every visit to New York required a stop at Drummers World, if not always to purchase something, then just to commune with fellow enthusiasts and bask in the glow of the exotic and the commonplace instruments, with the ever-present potential of finding something new or unique.

Taken by itself, this closing is somewhat shocking. New York City can’t support a specialty shop for percussionists ranging from progressive rock icon Bill Bruford and the late jazz great Louie Bellson to members of the New York Philharmonic? At $14,000 a month rent, I guess you need to sell a lot of djembes and tom toms to net that kind of rent, and much more to pay the salaries for the owner and employees to live modestly in Manhattan or the surrounding boroughs. Or maybe it’s just easier to log on to and wait for the UPS truck to pull up with your djembe.

Well, the percussionists are not alone. In the summer of 2011, The Woodwind and Brasswind stores in South Bend, Indiana closed up their brick and mortar shops and are only selling online (which follows filing for bankruptcy in 2006). Most professional wind players in the United States have all been customers of these iconic music stores. (When I was younger and living in the Detroit area, horn players traveled to South Bend to visit the stores in a virtual pilgrimage of sorts, coming home with blessed talismans–i.e. trombone mouthpieces or saxophone reeds–that were carefully chosen from an enormous inventory and were thus destined to lead to marked technical gains, or so the theory went…) If misery loves company, then all we need is an unhappy bassist and pianist, and we’ve got ourselves a big band full of hurt.

This may not be a harbinger of doom and gloom for the music business. This could all be part of the much needed restructuring of the business model for a niche market towards online sales, which should make these businesses profitable and therefore solvent. It could also be a function of the impossibility of running a niche market business in a high rent, high tax, high cost of living environment like New York City. I’m sure the truth is that it is some combination of the above.

These store closings also support a thesis that the latter half of the 20C represented an “arts bubble” that is now bursting, and bursting quickly in these hard economic times. I discussed this in a previous post (Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Strike Up the Band). Here’s an excerpt from that post:

“…a book that I think everyone in the arts should read entitled “Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding” by the late Alice Goldfarb-Marquis.

In the book, she details how a surge in public funding for the arts occurred in the middle of the last century, which created an artificial demand for artists and arts organizations of various types (dance, music, theatre, etc.). Thus, in current parlance, an “arts bubble” was created which relied almost solely on donors, both public and private. She also identifies how those benefactors began to move away from arts funding in favor of other charitable donations (hospitals, education, etc.) that provided them with the visibility and cachet that the arts no longer provided.

Brian Wise, writing online for New York City’s classical music station WQXR, wrote in an article entitled “Classical Music in 2010: Joyful Noise, Troubled Silence” positing that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is perhaps a harbinger for orchestras around the country. Goldfarb-Marquis’ book, however, was published 15 years earlier in 1995, at a time when funding was already waning. It seems that the situation is now exacerbated and accelerated due to the recent recession. The difference from previous recessions is that, if Goldfarb-Marquis was correct, the arts won’t recover as they have previously because the large public donors will not return in force.

Gene Morrow, Executive Director of the Gotham Early Music Scene, commented on Wise’s article as follows:

“Large-scale symphony orchestras populated by well-paid musicians in stable careers and heard/supported by musically literate patrons may be, like many other sectors of the American economy, a 20th-century aberration from the norm. Historically and in most other genres, neither musicians nor audiences had it so good.”

An “aberration from the norm” is another way of saying that the last 75 years have truly been a bubble, which supports Goldfarb-Marquis’ analysis and thesis. Additionally, the historical aspect of this reading is correct–very few musicians prior to the 20th Century ever generated an income stream capable of supporting a family, much less the kingly sum of $130,000 (approximate average yearly salary and benefits of a Detroit Symphony Orchestra member). Those that were able to generate a meagre income, did so through the patronage of the church or the aristocracy.”

Still, if these stores can’t turn a profit, it’s hard not to see that as a reflection of diminished customer purchasing power which in turn implies diminished customer income. I’ve written about related issues in previous posts (Jazz in Crisis Part I and Part II, and Prey For Play), so I won’t go over this in detail. Suffice to say that the entire music industry needs to come to grips with the technological changes that have occurred since the advent of the internet in the 1990s. Some businesses are doing that, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, academia is not following suit. Universities are still training people for careers in orchestras and operas, or to be post-bop jazz players, which is fine, except that the opportunities for income generating careers in those areas are on a steep hairpin diminuendo. To make matters worse, the oversupply of jazz and classical labor is driving down whatever salaries remain.

These types of closings are exactly what we might expect as this industry contracts in response to decreased funding from private and state sources. This doesn’t mean the industry is doomed, it means the industry is changing. At the same time, paradoxically, there is more music being created and distributed than ever before–more styles, more genres, more free recordings, more bands, more performers, more of everything than ever before. The whole field has, in one sense, been completely leveled and liberated. But this liberation is not without cost; the styles that used to carry some high- or middle-brow cultural cachet (and could therefore attract funding), no longer have the power they once had. People are constructing their own musical worlds based on what they value, not on what someone else is telling them they should value. In short, music is thriving like never before, it’s musicians, trained in conservatories and universities, and many record labels, who are having trouble generating income. This is an entirely different problem, one which the vast majority of musicians in centuries past dealt with in a “matter of fact” manner by simply doing something else for a living.
Many musicians today are doing exactly that–I personally know of a dozen or more who have pursued other careers to make a living. Most are still involved with music, some are quite successful from an artistic standpoint, and, to a person, all of them are happier having left the traditional, pre-fab career tracks that they were on. In this sense, musician and audience behavior is similar: they are both creating their own, unique musical worlds, all in response to the increased freedom and accessibility of our digital, online age.

Back in the 1980s, I worked in various R&B, jazz, and pop bands with a great bassist and guitarist, Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar, Grady). Gordie reveled in being an iconoclast, and one of his provocative sayings back then was “Brass is dead; buy a synthesizer.” Well, it hasn’t quite come to that yet, and I’m sure it never will. The Brasswind and the Woodwind aren’t dead, they’re online. Drummers World is gone, but in its place are dozens of specialty websites that cater to even more exotic and narrow niches.

Thus, while the arts bubble bursts, and the tech revolution continues unabated, the music industry restructures itself; from record companies to retailers, new and profitable models are appearing. Pop music groups (and a few classical artists, mostly in the New Music genre, but some orchestras and opera companies as well) are also adapting. The traditional training grounds (colleges and universities), however, have yet to make any major changes to their curricula in response to these enormous changes in the music industry. How will these insulated and famously sclerotic entities respond to the inevitable decreasing enrollment in the coming decades? That’s hard to predict, but respond they will; the Piper, after all, must be paid.

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2 Responses to “The Answer is Blowing in the BrassWind”

  1. Interesting entry, Kurt.

    There’s no doubt that the 21st century represents a new reality.

    A part of that new reality will be a greater globalization of [art and pop] music and the technology mentioned in your article will be an enabler.

    As in many other areas – the EuroAmerican view and practices will not be as dominant as they were in the 20th century.

    The beauty is that we have a world wide network to work with. We just need to get past our old-fashioned ideas and aspirations about playing in bars and/or tenured symphony gigs.

    There’s a much bigger world out there with lots of other possibilities.

  2. Nice article Kurt. I think that musicians have one advantage over the rest of the working population. As a group musicians were the first to be exposed to the ‘permanent freelance/make your own luck’ economy. This economic landscape is now creeping up on every other profession including teachers and lord forbid lawyers!

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