Monday, December 15, 2008

Concerto for double-dipper


Much coverage elsewhere of Donald Rosenberg's lawsuit against the The Plain Dealer newspaper in Ohio. Rosenberg is a music critic on the paper, and he was reassigned to other duties after posting critical reviews of performances by the Cleveland Orchestra under its music director Franz Welser-Möst. This has prompted the critic to sue his paper for $50,000. Now, I too have written critically about Franz Welser-Möst and his orchestra. I also staunchly defend free speech, and I wish Donald Rosenberg every success in his battle against big media. But I do think the Plain Dealer case is about much more than one journalist's right to pen a critical review. I have only read the media reports of the Rosenberg case. So the following comments apply generally, rather than in any specific way to the Cleveland action.

Anyone with experience of the music industry will know the relationship between critics and commerce is not an entirely platonic one. I have written here about how, when working for EMI, I gave the music press a slap-up lunch at a top London hotel to encourage them to write nice things about a new Karajan recording. Later, when working for electronics giant Grundig, I instigated one of the first commercial sponsorships of a classical recording. It was the 1980 EMI recording of Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The conductor was a youngster I thought had potential called Simon Rattle. But the reason I arranged the sponsorship was to sell hi-fi equipment.

Free lunches, free concert tickets, free CDs, free books, commissions for sleeve notes, broadcast work, and overseas trips to hear wunderkind are a fact of life for journalists. And we have to accept that double-dipping is one of the few perks of the underpaid and undervalued music critic. But recently things have changed. Funding for classical music increasingly comes from public and corporate sources whose objectives often don't include making great music. Super agents not only control orchestras, soloists and tours, but also some of the venues. Orchestras own their own record labels and opera houses are in the video business. Venture capitalists run the once-great record companies. Broadcasters run music festivals, they control young artist development programmes funded by global financial services giants, and they hire critics to front their programmes.

These same critics write for newspapers that are part of media conglomerates whose advertising revenue comes from the very corporations that fund the music. The media conglomerates also own ratings driven radio and TV networks that broadcast music, and that have huge investments in music related web sites. In some cases, as in Cleveland, senior media figures sit on orchestra boards. And the lubricant for this huge engine of self-interest is the good review. The surprise is not that the Plain Dealer conflict happened. The surprise is that it didn't happen earlier.

Readers will now expect me to deliver the predictable punchline that music blogs are the solution to this sordid mess of conflicting interests. Well, sorry, they are not. Increasingly music blogs are being used as viral marketing for the commercial activities of the blogger, and good luck to those who do it. Readers who persevere to the end of my long paths will have noticed that for a while I've been tackling the problem of conflict of interest in the small print. I'm not doing it for altruistic reasons. I'm not doing it because I expect others to follow suit. I'm doing it so readers can follow my tentative attempts to jump on the double-dipping bandwagon.

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6 comments:

Dennis said...

As a lawyer, I'm more interested in the legal aspects of this case. Since when is breach of "commitment to independence by caving into outside pressure" a legitimate cause of action? "Committment to independence?" A paper's committment is to whatever the publishers decide is the policy of the paper. If it were Breach of Contract, then the critic might have a case. Does he have a contract with the paper guaranteeing him the orchestra beat? If not, his claim that they breached some vague "committment to independence" by reassigning him seems laughable as a legal cause of action.

Free speech doesn't mean one has the right to demand that one's work be published by any particular publisher. It is no violation of first amendment rights for a publisher/paper to reassign an employee whose writing it disapproves of. If he doesn't like his new assignment with the Plain Dealer, he's free to self-publish his music reviews or seek employment from a new publisher/paper willing to print them.

Pliable said...

Dennis, thanks for that thoughtful response. As I said I have considerable sympathy for Donald Rosenberg. But the knee-jerk reaction to this case by some bloggers does seem to confirm the old saying that, for every complex problem, there is a solution that is quick, simple, and wrong.

sfmike said...

What Dennis said. My experience over the last three years, as a noncommercial journalist who doesn't take ads or engage in viral marketing for my own projects, has been fascinating.

Because newspapers are shrinking and the p.r. machinery at cultural institutions need to pitch to someone, I've been receiving lots of "free" stuff offers. The only ones I've accepted are free tickets in exchange for writing about a concert or exhibit or what have you, and even that has a few caveats. If it looks like I'd probably hate the cultural event, I decline. Life is too short to be writing about bad art.

Unfortunately, that's part of what professional journalism critics have to do, and after meeting many of them closeup over the last couple of years, I'm fairly horrified. So many of them seem to rot into petulant prima donna personas who demand a certain level of obeisance by the army of p.r. people who are trying to get them to write nice words that will help sell stuff.

Blogs are definitely not the solution to "a sordid mess of conflicting interests," but you and I and our compatriots are definitely part of a different vision about how to share information.

Pliable said...

Mike, thanks for another thoughtful comment. I am going to use your words 'Life is too short to be writing about bad art' in my header soon.

It is refreshing to see readers thinking beyond the quick and easy 'free speech' response. It is also interesting that most of the knee-jerk reactions are coming from double-dipper land -

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/tomserviceblog/2008/dec/12/dan-rosenberg-cleveland-orchestra

Jessica said...

Pliable, do you seriously expect a blogger who has written a book or several not to use their personal blog to promote it? Get real!

Pliable said...

Jessica, take a minute to read what I actually wrote. Which was -

'Increasingly music blogs are being used as viral marketing for the commercial activities of the blogger, and good luck to those who do it'.

It is a commentary on what is happening on music blogs. As your comment confirms, they are becoming marketing vehicles for commercial projects.

I actually say 'good luck to those who do it'. There is not one word of criticism of what is happening, just a statement.

Why the sensitivity?