Musical Gentrification

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got lots of time to think, to ponder questions old & new.

One of my oldest questions is the conundrum of popularity in music. It’s a complicated phenomenon, and I’m not saying I understand it. But I’m thinking about it a lot right now, as we wait to see what will survive the pandemic.

Artists & the companies that employ them are taking a beating. Artists are sometimes getting little or nothing for concerts or shows for which they prepared and even memorized their part: that were never performed. Companies are having a rough time, losing revenues while somehow wondering when things will open up again.

The headline employs an analogy that may be stretching things. Let’s see.

When we speak of gentrification we usually think of a neighbourhood like Queen St West or Yorkville or Cabbagetown:

  • At one time in the past the buildings in that part of town were less valuable, less developed: because the only people who wanted to live there were the Bohemians, the artists & the fringe members of society.
  • Those interesting denizens of the fringe brought something to those neighbourhoods, helping to change them into something they could no longer afford.
  • Yorkville & Queen West & Cabbagetown were improved by clever entrepreneurial approaches to real estate; or in other words real estate was treated not as a human need but as a commodity, and leveraged over & over.
  • And before you know it, the people who made those areas interesting –let’s call them “Bohemians”—were squeezed out. Artists haven’t been seen in Yorkville except as employees in one of the stores. I remember working in the Classical Record Shoppe in the 1980s, when Yorkville was already seriously gentrified, and artists were still to be found in places like Queen St West.

If I may insert a radical thought parenthetically, why do we call it “profiteering” when someone buys up all the toilet paper or sanitizer during a public health emergency, and then turns around to sell it at astronomical prices: but society calls it “clever” when housing is treated the same way, at a time when we have people living on the street or in tents under expressways?

Isn’t that also profiteering? But excuse me for the digression.

We see something similar in music, and I’m not about to point fingers or criticize anyone, not when so many artists in every discipline are struggling.

I saw this graphic on social media a few weeks ago, and saved it, knowing I wanted to pair it with this piece: when I finally figured out what I wanted to say.


The charming person (sorry I don’t know their gender) says the following:

Every time I hear someone say “My main interest these days is in reissues of the standard rep. Little interest in new music/artists”, I feel that classical music dies a little bit more!

Let me unpack the ideas in the analogy a bit more before applying it to music.

Is real estate a commodity or a public right? Or perhaps it’s both. But right now it’s hard to remember the first without the other intruding.

I am reminded of Wagner’s Ring¸ where we see the beautiful gold in the Rhine river, protected by the Rhine Daughters: who celebrate its beauty. The end of the first scene of Das Rheingold is like The Fall in the Bible, where a kind of innocent paradise is wrecked by the theft of the gold & making it into a ring, changing the world in the process.

Here’s a glimpse of Patrice Chereau’s view of this scene: one heavily informed by George Bernard Shaw’s analysis in his essay The Perfect Wagnerite.  Chereau (employing Shaw’s analysis) shows us the deeper structure, the politics manifest in Wagner’s opera.

And then of course the big four opera cycle is all about the implications of that change, because the guy has turned the lump of gold into a ring. It doesn’t matter if the ring is beautiful, not when it has power, the powers of commerce & trade as Shaw  showed us.

So let me re-frame the question I posed before about real estate, that Wagner asked in Das Rheingold.

Is music or any of the arts there for the sake of art, to enrich humanity, if you will? Or is it a commodity, meant to make profits that enrich some people? YES I totally get that people have to live. I have been paid for my labors as a composer, as a musician, even as an actor or as a designer. And I’ve been paid to teach, to be a critic, a writer, a commentator.

You can’t help have noticed that we’re in a period of upheaval, as many business models are being revised. If you can sell online you’re probably enjoying a surge in sales. If you can’t somehow sell online, you’re probably seeking to find ways to reinvent your business to sell curbside. And of course there are also proprietors who don’t face crises, who are doing well in the pandemic.

What’s to become of the arts? Must the business model be to sell what people want most? The composers of new works –the ones I spoke of in that quote above—face a daunting time if they’re not well-established. It’s a difficult time to break into the arts, although it helps if you have lots of real estate or something that people already want to buy from you.

I’ll stop writing for now although I can’t stop thinking about it.  I was mostly seeking to pose some questions, to throw out some ideas. I don’t have answers, indeed I’m not sure I am even asking the right questions.

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Dance, theatre & musicals, Essays, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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