We often think of great art as priceless, isolated from market pressures—or at least that in the ideal world it would be. We complain that contemporary music is dumbed down for the audience just to make money, as if commercialization leads to debasement of the art form. I myself have committed the snobbery of denouncing symphony orchestras for putting on pops concerts where they play music from popular movies and video games. Musicians lament that the high standards set by the great composers of centuries past are being lowered. But the truth is, when you look at the history of classical music more closely, you find that the greatest composers that we still revere today were very much commercialized. Like other entrepreneurs, they saw a market demand, and used their creative genius to meet it. In the process, they made money and often lived quite well, and consumers received some wonderful works of art that we still enjoy today. This win-win interaction was made possible by the system of voluntary trade known as Capitalism.
Now, I won’t deny that market pressures can at times be detrimental to music, but I want to argue that they can also have a positive impact. Let’s look at composers of classical piano music as an example. Many of them could outperform most other pianists of their day. Had it been up to them, they probably would have stuck to writing complex pieces that only experts like themselves could play. But they still had to make a living. In fact, like the rest of us, they preferred to make a little more than just a living wage. So they followed the money, writing sheet music for average pianists.
In the mid 18th Century (and for all of time before that) no one had the luxury of radios or mp3s—the only way to listen to music was to have someone play it. This necessity inspired a lot of people to become musicians, and it meant that they needed sheet music to play from. Composers and their publishers recognized this demand from the market and created a product to fulfill it. Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, and numerous other pianists each wrote dozens of pieces for amateur pianists. Historical evidence shows that they did this mostly for the revenue. Yet they produced works of incredible aesthetic quality, which earned them great fame and wealth. Mozart recognized that it was often more difficult to compose simple yet profoundly beautiful music than to compose complex arrangements for professionals.
Had they received grants from a foundation or government to compose whatever they desired, they probably would not have produced as many lasting masterpieces that mediocre pianists like myself can enjoy. I’m eternally grateful for the commercial demands that pressured musical geniuses into making great music available to the masses. It has enriched my life as well as so many others.
Clearly, the world we live in today is much different, and I’m no expert. But certain genres of music have been greatly distorted by inorganic incentives and are suffering as a result. Instead of endlessly lamenting the current state of affairs, perhaps we should recognize the positive impact of market forces as we contemplate the future of music and art in general. As Jeffrey Tucker explains in an article about the future of Classical music, “this sector of life has been ever more removed from the commercial world through state education, subsidies, union control, copyrighted and monopolized musical scores, a culture of the entitled guild. None of it has worked and, needing to pay the rent, there has been a steady stream of young musicians leaving years of conservatory training to enter some other profession like making lattes.” Perhaps if we allowed this rich genre to evolve naturally with the market, we would see a revival.
Let’s reconsider the stigma we attach to “selling out.” Let’s seek to understand what has produced great music in the past so that we can move towards a brighter future.
This post was inspired by a lecture by Paul Cantor, part of the Praxis curriculum.