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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