Composer Was A Rock Star Of Their Day? Rock Stars Aren’t Even The Rock Stars Of Today

I often read about classical music composers being the rock star of their day, but don’t often get a lot of detail about what that meant. I just happened upon an article in Lapham’s Quarterly about Franz Liszt which pretty much shows that fans haven’t changed much since the 19th century when people collected his discarded cigar butts, silk gloves and broken piano strings.

Before a concert Liszt mingled with the audience, charming them with his witty remarks. He had a semicircle of chairs placed around the piano on stage so that illustrious guests could sit near him and converse with him between pieces…He brought his silk gloves on stage and threw them down to be fought over by audience members. Women were said to carry his discarded cigar butts in their cleavages. When he broke piano strings, as he often did in his performances, people collected the broken strings and had them made into bracelets. There was even a phase where Liszt invited listeners to write a question for him (on any topic) on a slip of paper and put it into a hat, from which questions would be drawn out for the great man to answer from the stage.

The article says Liszt was the first to organize a program where he was the headlining soloist versus a night which included performances by different people. And some contemporaries regarded his early work as “sheer racket” so there are numerous parallels with rock music and stardom.

Though, as I am sure many before me have pointed out, while there are claims about composers being the rock stars of their day, audiences today aren’t permitted to have the same relationship with the composer as the audiences of their day.

One of the most obvious counters to claims that 200 year old music should be viewed as relevant today because it was the pop music of 200 years ago is that music styles falls out of favor over time. I mean heck, saying someone was the rock star of their day itself is arguably a dated reference since rock isn’t really a mainstream music genre anymore.

So if an appeal is made to potential audiences to view a composers music as the equivalent of current pop music because the composer was the celebrity of their day, people should at least be given the opportunity to freely react and interact as they would to a pop idol.

I have mentioned this basic idea before in a post about a Utah Symphony Orchestra’s (USO) advertising campaign where they had musicians made up as members of the band KISS and had a tagline about their musicians being rock stars. I was concerned people would be disappointed by the difference in energy between a KISS concert and a USO concert, not because orchestra music isn’t as hard driving as rock, the same audience members can equally experience a frisson listening to both, but because they wouldn’t be able to express their appreciation as frehley. (homophonic pun intended obviously)


Maybe The Cult Rules Aren’t As Important As We Thought

Seema Rao at Museum 2.0 shared notes from a session she conducted at the Museum Computer Network conference last week titled “Are Museums A Cult?”

The answer, as I am sure you have anticipated, is that they definitely can be for the same reasons theaters, operas, ballets, orchestras, etc can be. As you read her notes, you can see how easy it is to substitute your own discipline in.

I got to museum bc I loved art. I loved the ideas around art and I loved sharing those ideas. I figured everyone here was the same—excited to share. Then, I got into museum work. I found that people were only excited with sharing if they could control every aspect of learning. Sharing with parameters is not true sharing.

It was disheartening. I realized the field often preferences things to people. Given the capitalistic matrix we live in, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. I was also saddened.

And I wasn’t alone in my disillusionment. Everyone I knew was wondering if they were in a field that was problematic. We went into this field for good. And we were wondering, if somehow, our idealism blinded us. If we were on the side of the good.


As a field, we’re in a crisis. Why? Because of the system. It’s trained us, not unlike a cult, to question only enough to keep the system going. It requires sacrifice from most people, and certainly doesn’t sacrifice for Us.

The system sucks. The system gives a few people great tax breaks by giving a few more people the chance to do scholarship. It’s a system reinforcing scarcity. And like all hierarchical systems, it needs a whole lot of other people to get less, and have less say.

This is a conversation that has been ongoing for some time now. While it can feel dispiriting to feel you are working in an industry that is so slow to change, there are organizations and programs that are working toward a more productive relationship with audiences.

A week ago, a new orchestra entity had their first performance in my venue attracting an audience of 900 people. The philosophy of the programming is essentially “not your grandparents’ orchestra” in an attempt to attract new audiences. Based on attendance demographics and surveys, it has started on the road to achieving those goals. Some responses said they didn’t care for the program mix and there were a comments about educating attendees in proper applause etiquette, but those were much fewer than you might imagine.

There were far more notes about people not wearing their masks in the audience chamber–that might have been more a reflection of cocktail consumption since we didn’t experience any resistance to mask wearing at the door.

Strange as it may seem to say in the middle of a pandemic, it is actually encouraging to learn that the programming may factor less into the decision not to attend than lack of social distancing and mask wearing. I would rather be stricter with masks than about when you can respond to hearing something that moves you.

If the people who are showing up in numbers at the fringes of a pandemic threat aren’t reacting negatively to a change in programming philosophy, the resulting word of mouth may literally enable an organization to change the narrative about themselves.

Can the cult persevere if the cult practices don’t seem that important any more?

Bach Is Raking It In On Spotify

h/t to Alex Tabarrok who posted about a story on how much money classical music composers would make from Spotify streams of their music.

Using the estimate figure of $0.0037 (£0.0028) in earnings per stream, and calculating for inflation, the website revealed the following ranking of classical music’s highest paid Spotify composers.

Top 10 classical composers based on 2021 earnings

Bach: 6.7 million monthly plays, $299,329 (£222,327) annual earnings
Beethoven: 6.5 million monthly plays, $286,353 (£212,689) annual earnings
Mozart: 6 million monthly plays, $266,649 (£198,054) annual earnings
Chopin: 5.4 million monthly plays, $238, 290 (£176,990) annual earnings
Debussy: 4.6 million monthly plays, $204,259 (£151,713) annual earnings
Vivaldi: 3.6 million monthly plays, $159,975 (£118,821) annual earnings
Schubert: 2.9 million monthly plays, $127,017 (£94,342) annual earnings
Brahms: 2.6 million monthly plays, $113,871 (£84,578) annual earnings
Handel: 2.519 million monthly plays $111,832 (£83,063) annual earnings
Liszt: 2.516 million monthly plays $111,746 (£83,000) annual earnings

In case you were wondering, Bach’s “‘Prélude’ from Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major” is his most frequently played piece; Beethoven’s “‘Adagio’ from his ‘Moonlight’ Sonata No. 14,” is his most popular piece.

Tabbarok mentioned that as composers would actually get less money than reported since composer royalties are actually a smaller percentage of a play. With the possible exception of Debussy who did record his own music, the millions of plays reported are recordings by myriad entities rather than the composers. If Spotify/recording technology and the composers existed contemporaneously, a recording of their personal performances would be available for play.

An Orchestra Where You Don’t Have To Read Music? Depends On Who Is Invited To Play

H/T to which included an article about the Philadelphia Public Orchestra, (PPO) being billed as the World’s First Public Orchestra. The way the article describes it, this is a pretty radical departure from the Western organizational and operational model.

The PPO will have a bottom up approach where the musicians choose the composers suited to their needs rather than the musicians being chosen to suit the composition. Similarly, the musicians will guide and administer the direction of the organization.

The Philadelphia Public Orchestra’s manifesto, written by Meyers, makes it quite clear that the musicians themselves will eventually and collectively steer the ship: “After the orchestra has been established for at least one season, the orchestra members ideally take control of all decision-making.”


“So yes, we launch it together, and there can be an advisory board to help it exist, and then the orchestra should take over and let the musicians, the performers, think of who they might like to ask for a commission, what themes are interesting to them. …”

The structure also seems designed for the inclusion of musical styles and instruments outside of the traditional Western orchestra in that its not necessary to read music.

“The bottom line is, this is a public orchestra, where people can come together and participate from their own comfort zone and within their own traditions,” Tidd explains from Rotterdam, where he’s on tour. “People who read music represent a very small percentage of the music happening in the world, including in America. Some people learn stuff by ear. Others use modified forms of written music — chord charts, graphical scores, all kinds of things. Removing the need to read music makes it more universal.”


To some extent, says Tidd, the application process will prioritize those who have never played in a traditional orchestral setting before and haven’t had access to this kind of project.

“We’re not trying to have 25 members of the Philadelphia Orchestra here,” Tidd emphasizes. “This orchestra will be very diverse.” (As of 2020, the Philadelphia Orchestra had just three Black members.)

It will be interesting to see who applies to play. The Philadelphia area has a plethora of cultural and musical traditions, but I would imagine they will have to continually practice some degree of outreach and invitation to a wide variety of musicians in an attempt to attract the breadth of participation they probably desire.

The ensemble will likely need to also engage in a lot of work to find some common ground upon which to operate. One of the last shows we had prior to Covid was a group of Tuvan throat singers. They mentioned that when a national orchestra was being formed in Tuva one of the issues they ran into was that since everyone’s instrument was made to suit the preference and physical stature of the performer to some degree, there wasn’t a common tuning standard. Now obviously this was only an issue when trying to perform a formal composition. Tuvans have long met and performed their traditional songs in large groups without the difference in instruments being a factor.

The PPO could easily end up being comprised of musicians performing on instruments originating from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Africa, Oceania, Indigenous people of the Americas, etc. As the article says, some traditions use notation styles that differ from Western music and others don’t use written notations at all.

I don’t have any doubt that the PPO can arrive at some extremely interesting compositions, but there will probably be a continuous, evolving conversation about what the vision of the ensemble and the music is supposed to be. Should every musician perform in at least one piece per concert, for example? Will there be a focus on music and/or instruments from a specific part of the world or demonstrations of cross-cultural works that might surprise audiences? (Do Balinese gamelan and mariachi mix well?)

Actually, Jon Silpayamanant is the person who would know better than I how these negotiations can be accomplished. He has been writing about the music practices of many cultures and bringing them together in performance for a couple decades now.

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