Monday, January 08, 2018

The law of diminishing musical returns

One of the classical music industry's many paradoxes is that contemporary business practices such as marketing and branding are de rigeur, yet elementary economics are ignored and sometimes even deliberately defied. A recent Overgrown Path post linked the economic concept of the tragedy of the commons - when the result of all members of an interest-based community trying to reap the greatest individual benefit from a shared resource results in the degradation of that shared resource - to the detrimental impact of new technologies such as streaming. While an earlier post pointed out the basic rules of supply and demand mean that the grossly inflated supply of classical music to a market with static or even declining demand is an accident waiting for a place to happen.

Another economic law, that of diminishing marginal returns, states that there is a point beyond which the level of benefit gained is less than the amount of additional resource invested. News that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO) and its incoming music director Jaap van Zweden are to live stream a concert performance of Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre for free on Facebook has been greeted with widespread approval. But that approval overlooks the all too evident oversupply of streamed Walküre in various forms: as an example a YouTube search for 'Walküre' returns around 191,000 results - see header graphic.

The NYPO performance will also be available after the concert as an on-demand video stream on YouTube as well on Facebook and the orchestra's website. The availability on YouTube of Walküre 219,001 means the law of diminishing marginal and musical returns undoubtedly applies. So not only will the benefit gained from the Facebook Walküre be less than the amount of resources invested, but, more seriously, the value of the resource - classical music - is eroded. In a market where supply exceeds demand - and that is the case with music in the digital age - the value, both monetary and perceived, of the oversupplied resource declines. Which is precisely what is now happening to classical music. But it is not the NYPO with its large endowments and loyal subscribers that is hardest hit by the falling value of classical music. As the devaluation trickles down the supply chain it hits the less well-upholstered ensembles and artists at the bottom of the music food chain hardest. So what is the music industry doing to counter the damaging loss of value caused by oversupply? The solution du jour is to further increase the supply by giving valuable resources, such as the NYPO Walküre, away for free on Facebook. Go figure....

The YouTube availability of Die Walküre is undoubtedly inflated by the popularity of the Ride of the Valkyries. But the plenitude of Wagner is small beer compared to the chronic oversupply of Mahler: a YouTube search for 'Mahler Symphony' returns no less no less than 698,000 results. In a thoughtful email* longtime Overgrown Path reader Antoine Lévy-Leboyer highlighted the inconvenient truth of the oversupply of Mahler as follows:
One of the themes that is really important is indeed about the impact of technology on music. I am not talking about the use and abuse of social media nor the quality of new sound formats, I am talking about the fact that music is all too easily and readily available on too many medias. Streaming free or fee services are making of performances, as well as works and artists, a replaceable commodity. There is too much music available these days. Mahler fatigue comes because of saturation. You rightly advocate neglected composers like Nielsen, but we are going to be swamped soon with too many recordings of even these composers. The impact of the opening of Nielsen's Third Symphony will start waning in the same way as as has happened to, for instance, Mahler’s Second Symphony. Soon this will be also the case for Lutoslawski & Janacek".
Antoine concluded his email with these wise words: "So in 2018, my new year resolutions are to reduce listening to music but ensure that if I listen less to music but that when I listen, regardless of where I am, I will concentrate and focus as if I am in a concert hall". Amen to that.

* Antoine Lévy-Leboyer's email has been lightly sub-edited by me in the interests of clarity. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

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