A classical music blogger survey

Pictured: Opera Obsession and I talking about Robert Lepage

Do you, like I, regularly commit the sin of blogging about classical music? Bloggers have a reputation as people who say much while knowing little. I have met many conscientious and knowledgeable bloggers and believe this to be a false charge. (I recommend reading Lisa at Iron Tongue of Midnight’s recent entries on the classical blogosphere for more thoughts on its place in the musical ecosystem. Part one and part two.)

But in the interests of exploring who is doing all that writing out there, I’m conducting a survey. If you have a classical music blog, you should fill it out! It has some general questions about your musical background, a section on what you blog about and your interactions with the Classical Establishment, and a bit about demographics. You can fill it out here. The survey is in English but is open to blogs written in all languages and locations. I’d like to wrap it up around May 14 and will publish a report on the results soon after that. Thanks!

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  1. I admit knowing noting whatsoever. Nothing wrong with just liking the "noise" in my opinion. But then, I gave up being a blogger a long time ago.

    By the way, excellent blog you have. I visit all the time.

  2. I don't doubt that you and other classical music bloggers know how to play musical instruments and have studied music theory. I think those things are also true of the most committed segments of the classical music audience, and I suspect that's the segment that cares enough to blog about the topic.

    What I don't see in most classical music blogs is any awareness of how the art form works as a business. Even here, when you veer into that territory ("Why does the Met charge so much for tickets? It's cheaper in Europe and I like that cast more!" or "Why don't they program more post-Puccini operas at the Met?") I sense a massive disconnect between the world as it should be and the world as it is.

    Your blog, and most of them, read like the writings of a devoted fan who thinks that the most important thing in the industry is presenting art that is good, but I'm afraid that some experience trying to market classical music on a large scale might leave you and your fellow bloggers with a distinctly different impression.

  3. And what should the top priority be if it isn't presenting the best quality performance, then? If we all truly have abandoned the idea that artistic quality is the single most important factor, what we should all be striving towards, and incidentally the one that will in the end fill up seats, then it's even worse than I thought. But you know me, I'm naive.

    For a critic, I think it's important not to focus unduly on the sausage-making. I don't see how my goals in describing and critiquing performances would be aided by greater attention to Industry Issues.

    I never asked why the Met's tickets were so expensive–I said, "this might have something to do with lack of public funding and an expensive production." I just wanted to show with some numbers how expensive they were, particularly for Americans who might not be aware.

  4. I'm sorry, I should have explained myself more clearly: I thought it was interesting that you present musicology studies–and experience playing an instrument, or singing–as the strongest criteria for making a classical music blogger "qualified". Since so much of what you discuss has nothing to do with music theory or how well one can play a particular instrument, I thought it was odd that you didn't include any sort of real-world experience in the other aspects of  the business of classical music – fundraising, artistic planning, marketing, audience research, dramaturgy, etc. – in the survey. Of course, there are observant and intelligent amateurs who write about every industry, and it may be that you are one of those–or even that you do have some firsthand knowledge of the industry you're writing about, and it's just not coming through in your posts.

    Take, for example, your self-description as a "critic." Since presumably this blog is self-published, what makes you a "critic" and not an "opinionated audience member"? Is there a difference? Is your blog more relevant than other blogs because of some specific secondary degree you've acquired, or number of private lessons you've had in some instrument? If you can sing well, should I care more what you think about, like, Alan Gilbert's programming strategies for new music? It's a strange distinction to draw, and I think one with a heavy bias.

    Anyway, good luck with the survey. I've enjoyed reading!

  5. I'm sure you work in "the industry," and I think it's quite sad if you think this kind of process stuff is so much more important than the quality and content of the actual art that you are ostensibly devoted to producing. But I'm naive, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I'd like to remain an outsider, because being an insider sounds awfully depressing.

    But I've never written about Alan Gilbert's programming strategies for new music! I've never written about administrative and structural things like fundraising or audience research! I wouldn't presume to know about those issues. I write from an audience member's perspective about whether I like what is onstage on any given night or not, which is what I think most print critics do too? Has Tommasini or Zachary Woolfe or Alex Ross worked in arts administration? I don't think so. And all of them have written occasionally more process-oriented pieces than I ever have. (Granted, usually with original reporting, which I have done only here in a very limited way.)

    I ask about musical education in part because it is relatively quantifiable. And, since most blogs are primarily oriented towards saying whether a given performance is good or not (I ask about what kind of stories the respondents write in the survey as well), musical background seems relevant to writing this kind of thing.

    I can see the "critic" thing getting to you, but it's an honor I have perhaps in excessive pride given myself because I try to write seriously and use the same criteria someone writing for a print publication would. And I think I've gotten a pretty good readership because I strive for that.

  6. According to Wikipedia: "A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgment."

    I'm quite sure that most people who care enough to blog about opera know exactly why Met tickets cost so much and why they don't do many "post-Puccini" operas. It's not that we literally do not know the reasons why, it's that we don't understand why the management seems to be unwilling to reexamine it's approach to spending and building a season.

    I have worked in the opera sausage factory (albeit as an apprentice – so I had to 60+ hour weeks for less money), I have a lot of friends and colleagues involved in the arts and arts management, I work in marketing (though not for the arts, yet), and I've got some decent academic credits to back my music/theatre cred. (though it does not compare to Zerbinetta's), and I find her writing to be quite trenchant.

    We know fundraising and marketing is complicated and you have very diverse fan-bases to appeal to, but many major American houses (especially the Met, these days) seem to take such a ham-fisted and defensive position when dealing with its mass of critical fans. It's like when a parent suddenly becomes petulant and puerile during a fight with their child – the child is inevitably disillusioned.

    I agree with Zerbinetta – being on the inside is awfully depressing.

  7. While I would agree with the responses in part, I wonder if Anonymous is nevertheless making something of a valid point. Let us look at opera for example: If a good musical "background" is important to bestow some form of "validity" upon the commentator, would this then be the only thing or would we need to extend our "validation" criteria (if seeking – or at least "justifying" "authority" – is what is being sought and I think ultimately it is within the context of the reason for initial survey)?

    Is, for example, an extensive knowledge (with formal learning) of dramatics, theatrical aesthetics and semiotics also needed?

    Would anyone commenting on a performance of the work of of Beethoven or Schubert need to display an intimate knowledge of the Romantic movement (in music, literature, philosophy and society as a whole – especially German Romanticism)to generate "authority"?

    Would anyone commenting upon a performance of Tristan und Isolde need to demonstrate all of the above plus an intimate knowledge of Greek drama and philosophy, the work of Hegel (and the "Young Hegelians"), Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, what was known of Buddhist thought in 19th century Germany and other more "esoteric" areas popular at that time? Plus an intimate knowledge of the history of performers, staging, etc?

    I know one or two people who do believe all of the above is important. And if not, which is more important then the other?

    I think that what I am ultimately trying to say is, while your rational and research is valid to some degree, where do we stop in the search to assert "authority" or at least "validity"?

    Being unpaid and "fans" of music, opera, etc, makes bloggers different from paid "critics" who must attend and then comment on performances that, given the choice, they might not. The blogger" is free to only comment on areas that interest them and of which they are likely to have more than an "outline" knowledge of.

    The paid critic may also also need to respond, on occasion, to demands the of an editor whose greater vision must include the economics of the publishing industry – including advertising.

    Final point, many "popular music" critics and journalists – but also highly influential and considered "authorities" at various times – have traditionally had little to no technical knowledge of music. Critics such as Paul Morley, Charles Shaar Murray, Paul Rambali, etc.

    Anyway, again, interesting post and idea and thanks for letting me comment.

  8. I admit to having something of an agenda (we all do!) but honestly I'm surprised that just having a survey to see who is out there should prove so controversial.

    Wagnerian, while print critics are held to standards that many bloggers don't pay mind too, I'm not convinced that the ontological status of their reviews is necessarily inherently different. Someone blathering on about Siegfried is, at the bottom of it, someone blathering on about Siegfried whether it's in the Times or herzeleidestraum.livejournal.com (note: not a real blog. but it should be one.).

    I'm not trying to bestow a prize upon the Most Educated Blogger. I'm trying to find out whose voices are being heard and where they are coming from. Anon made all sorts of assumptions about my background, some of which were accurate and quite a few of which were not (I work in music, for one thing–I'm not just an enthusiast). Ultimately this does NOT matter for my writing–obviously I have not built my blog on my own credentials.

    But yes, I DO think that musical background matters. Basic aural skills, the ability to read music, and time spent playing in ensembles drastically alters your experience of music. (Early musical training also make it much more likely for you to be interested in music as an adult! Remember this, parents.) So I am interested in how many bloggers, particularly those who like me focus on critical writing, have technical musical training.

    I would like to remind you of what Michael Kaiser wrote in everyone's favorite blog post:
    "Most serious arts critics know a great deal about the field they cover and can evaluate a given work or production based on many years of serious study and experience. These critics have been vetted by their employers.

    Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater or ballet or music does not mean they have expert judgment."

    OK, there are lots of problems here, but in my experience the good bloggers I have met have lots of expertise. And I want to see if I can get some statistical proof of that.

  9. Zerbinetta: Thank you for your reply and by the way, I don't think your survey is controversial. I think you are receiving a number of replies because it is a very interesting one and well conceived – as your posts tend to be.

    I do however, think it throws light on the fact that perhaps different people have different ideas about what sort of background a "critic" or commentator should have and indeed, that people with different "skill sets" may bring different things to a commentary.

    A good knowledge of the technical skills involved in music may indeed be important but to me so is a good understand of a number of other factors – including those I mentioned regarding Wagner above. Of course not having such a gasp of said skills does not mean that the critics views are invalid but only that they may be different or not as extensive as those of someone that does have them.

    What is more important when reviewing a production of Rheingold for example: that it begins in E flat and that this is sustained for 4 minutes or so (depending on the conductor) – arpeggio – the introduction of the Bassoons four measures in, etc or the the various interpretations of its meaning that have been given over the years? Or the fact that Wagner claimed that it came to him in a dream and the importance then given to his dreams per Cosima's dairies? Or the fact that Wagner seemed to have a particular "agenda" – common to the Romantics – in constructing his biography in a certain manner and thus his tale of the E flat may not be true and thus any interpretation based on this origin may be much different to that commonly accepted?

    I think also, the best music critics are those whose technical knowledge is not even obvious in their commentary – they write for everyone after all and the best writers can translate the technical into a form anyone can understand – which you are very good at oddly enough.

    As to: …"These critics have been vetted by their employers."

    Oddly, one often wonders. I was discussing a performance recently with a very good critic – with more extensive academic knowledge of music and theater then most people writing – and we were both bewildered by professional critics response to a performance wherein the performer at stages – to use a colloquialism – "couldn't hold a note". yet was being described as "sublime"!

    PeterP, (although I don't agree fully with all of his comments in the example he uses) makes an interesting comment on the type of credentials often missing from the resume of opera critics here http://thewagnerblog.com/2012/05/the-met-ring-and-critical-incompetence/

    And even more interesting for me in his "rebuttal" A.C. Douglas (for the record I enjoy the writing of A.C. Douglas, peterp and Alex Ross) says of Lepage "… (he)has little understanding of the _Ring_ beyond its fairytale surface, and little — one is tempted to say, no — understanding of Wagner music-drama as an artform.". Perhaps supporting – in part at least – that a good critic needs an understanding of a large number of factors – not only the technicalities of the music itself.

    But I shall still look forward to the results of your survey. Indeed, I shall sit here patiently playing Blues Harmonica on my old Hohner – badly 🙂

  10. Wagnerian, I think you're imposing too high a standard for basically anyone who isn't a Wagner fanatic. Critics have to cover a lot of different sorts of music, and while some expertise in theater would be preferable I chose to focus on the more universally applicable basics rather than subject-specific knowledge. Since we are commenting on musical performance this would be stuff like, are those horns coming in late? Are the strings in tune? (I agree that I wonder about some pro critics' ears all the time!) Musical training helps with those things. On a larger level critics have to both assess and educate, and I think you're tipping the balance too far in favor of the latter. Reviews are not 100% history lessons.

    I would also point out to Peterp that I made many of those points in my review, have taken Theater 101 (and 202 and 302, worked quite a bit in tech), and have no idea how understanding the mechanics of 3D projections would contribute anything to anyone's understanding of the Lepage thing.

  11. Classical music will always be a true form of art. It is saddening that today's music has changed so much. This "dub-step" stuff is so disappointing. Bach and Beethoven would be rolling over in their grave if they heard some of the stuff that is being played today. The music I create is influenced by classical artists, however is totally different. People just need to respect classical music more than they probably do!