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31 July 2007

Opening Doors to New Music

Frank Oteri Image: Frank Oteri  

May 2007 will mark the eighth anniversary of the launch of NewMusicBox, the web magazine from the American Music Center (www.newmusicbox.org). When I first arrived at the American Music Center in November 1998 with the charge of creating NewMusicBox, I had little to no experience with technology or the Internet, only a deep knowledge and passion for contemporary American music.

It is a remarkable door opener, but there needs to be something inside to make it worthwhile opening that door more than once. Back in 1998, I barely knew how to send and retrieve email, which was also the case for most people both within the music community and outside of it. But, since then, there has been a total sea-change in how technology interfaces with everyday life all over the world, although the United States has arguably been the eye of the technological storm. But both then and now, we have endeavoured to treat the technologies we use to spread the word about contemporary American music as a means and not as an end. It is a remarkable door opener, but there needs to be something inside to make it worthwhile opening that door more than once. We discovered that the technology of the Internet was the necessary door to get into contemporary American music at this juncture in time.

It’s one thing to claim something is fascinating, it’s quite another to offer people a sample of something and allow them to discover it’s fascinating for themselves. Through Internet-based formats, you can do more than describe music: you can actually give examples of it: be it images from musical scores or the streaming of audio and video recordings of live performances. This allows a completely new kind of advocacy, one in which you can actually back up a description of a piece of music with the music itself.

Prior to our launch of NewMusicBox, media coverage for contemporary American music was negligible. With few exceptions, only composers with the biggest names could ever imagine being the subject of a profile in a newspaper or seeing most of their compositions reviewed. The few magazines that covered this music with any depth from an American point of view had all folded. By that point, all American-based classical music publications – apart from a couple of shoestring-budgeted monthly CD review compendiums and a handful of specialist, academic journals – had all gone out of business. Radio airplay of music by living composers was so infrequent as to be a cause for celebration whenever and wherever it happened, even if it happened to occur in the middle of the night at a college station in a small town. Television was – and still is – a one in a million pipe dream, even public television.

With a web magazine, we were able to create our own media outlet and spread the word without having to worry about mundane things like galleys, print-runs, distributors, sales, and outlets – all the vagaries of contemporary capitalist society. We could be available on demand twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, already in the offices and homes of anyone with a computer and a modem. If for some reason you missed a back issue, fine, we’ve archived everything from day one. Of course, not everyone had a computer and a modem at the time. But in the past eight years, all of this has flipped, and now the Internet has fast become the most viable marketplace as brick and mortar outlets continue to disintegrate.

The chance encounter that makes someone a fan of contemporary music in the first place is a trickier thing to manufacture in a virtual environment. In addition to NewMusicBox, the American Music Center's own site (www.amc.net) hosts an eloborate online portal for information about contemporary American repertoire. It’s like an extremely handy library card catalogue, only infinitely more malleable. Visitors can search for music using any instrumental combination, duration, year of composition, stylistic trait, and beyond. Since many of the files include excerpts from the score as well as audio samples, the material can be instantly experienced.

Many people are frightened by the seemingly imminent demise of music in a tangible form. Although I’m not completely convinced that the days of a physical carrier for music will ever completely be at an end (I’m a pretty hard-core record collector), the death last year of Tower Records was a wake-up call to anyone who believed that a mainstream, business-as-usual approach could still be viable after the triumph of the niche fifedoms that the Internet has wrought.

Perhaps the best thing that the new online media can provide us with is a viable global community, the fulfillment of Marshall McLuhan’s prognostications. In the world before the Web, a niche was marginal and not economically viable. But if one percent of people are interested in something around the world, the total sum of all those one percents is suddenly larger than the population of most countries and is suddenly a demographic. Since the Internet is designed to be an interactive medium, there is no longer a need for media to be passively experienced. If you don’t agree with a review of a piece of music you’ve read on the Internet, talk back to it; most blogs allow for that. Then again, start your own blog.

In the United States today, many of the top names in musical criticism actively blog since the new format allows them a much better outlet to express themselves than the limited column space most newspaper editors will offer them. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman (pacificaisle.blogspot.com), The New Yorker’s Alex Ross (www.therestisnoise.com), and former Village Voice new music critic Kyle Gann (http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic) are three of the most prominent classical music critic bloggers who focus primarily on contemporary music. Other originally lesser-known critics such as Marc Geelhoed (www.deceptivelysimple.typepad.com) and Steve Smith (www.nightafternight.blogs.com), who now writes for The New York Times, have used their blogs to establish themselves as important critical voices and have reached a national audience. The writings that appear on all of these self-produced sites compliment rather than compete with their published writings in newspapers and magazines. The blog of Timothy Mangan, music critic for the Orange County Register, is actually hosted by the Orange County Register (blogs.ocregister.com/mangan), which is a clear indication that such a confluence is a win-win situation.

‘Chatter’ (www.newmusicbox.org/chatter.nmbx), the blog on NewMusicBox, has new content written every weekday (Monday through Friday) by a regularly rotating cast of five different bloggers as well as the occasional guest blogger, all of whom have very different takes on the new music scene in this country. Each one usually generates lively discussion from contributors all over the country, and at times, from around the world. By being able to come together this way, an active community for new music is flourishing. It is a great way to gauge what the pressing issues are for people on the front lines of this music in ways that traditional journalism could never approach. And, we are not alone. There are several other interactive blog sites, such as Sequenza21 (www.sequenza.com) that provide a wide array of composers, performers, and other new music enthusiasts an outlet to voice their concerns. Many composers and performers are also independently starting their own blog sites in addition to their promotional websites, sometimes even linking them through such widely trafficked portals as MySpace (www.myspace.com), which began as a clearing house for aspiring young pop stars.

Of course, the problem now is that because media is so accessible, anyone can publish. But if everyone is busy publishing, is anyone actually reading what is being published out there? Luckily, someone can discover an article you’ve published by entering an instantaneously answered Boolean search query in Google. This not only makes your article a worldwide commodity, it also means that old content – if still maintained online – stays alive in ways that were never imaginable in the days of microfilmed back catalogue library archives. Sites like the Seattle-based ArtsJournal (www.artsjournal.com) are valuable portals that consolidate and call special attention to important arts-related articles in the English language from all over the world.

But a serious area that remains in limbo is the whole economic structure of Internet-based content. These days the media, both the old fashioned-kind and web-based, is filled with news about litigations over various forms of unremunerated use of music on the Web (illegal downloading, etc.), but that’s just the tip of the financial iceberg. Most writing done on the Web is not paid for, which means that the already marginal livelihood derived from making and writing about this music has eroded even further. At NewMusicBox, we commission a steady stream of articles that we publish, but as a highly visible web magazine in this new Internet-driven environment, we’re also bombarded with unsolicited content almost daily. Of course, time and budgets are finite, and not everything we get is relevant.

There’s potentially an even bigger problem, however, that has yet to be fully addressed since it is far more amorphous. The chance encounter that makes someone a fan of contemporary music in the first place is a trickier thing to manufacture in a virtual environment. Internet radio offers possibilities for listeners that make most of what we now call terrestrial radio seem puerile by comparison (earlier this year the American Music Center has itself launched Counterstream Radio (www.counterstreamradio.org) – a 24/7 station devoted to contemporary American music), but no one’s figured out a way to recreate the joy of randomly spinning a radio dial and discovering something completely new in the middle of an otherwise completely boring road trip.

Ultimately these new means of distribution should complement older, effective methods rather than completely replace them. In the case of a magazine, a webzine can never completely replace the joys of serendipitously thumbing through pages, although the website for the Canadian magazine Floe (http://floemag.com) offers an intriguing simulacrum. However, a webzine can stimulate listeners with audio samples and even video, something much more effective and engaging than the pages of playing vinyl that sometimes appeared as backpage cutouts in music magazines. We are definitely living in exciting times and I eagerly await experiencing the new online incarnation of Sounds Australian Journal!

Frank J. Oteri, a New York-based composer, is the American Music Center's Composer Advocate and the Founding Editor of its Web Magazine, NewMusicBox (www.newmusicbox.org).


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