1: Greetings / An organ to grind (against celebrity)

Comments on an article about the futility of Juilliard's old ways, the allure of celebrity and prestige, the creator economy, and the mysterious value of a music education

Friend, however you found this newsletter, whether or not we know each other personally, I thank you for being here. I didn’t intend to begin experimenting with this newfangled platform until April, hoping to get certain other matters out of the way first, but recently an article came out in Rolling Stone that got my wheels spinning—or organ grinding, so to speak. I'll get to that in a moment.

I intend for this newsletter to be an exploration and weaving together of various things I care about. Now, the umbrella of "things I care about" is subject to whimsical forces and tends to mutate over time. "To every thing there is a season," said the unnamed Preacher; and this is a season in which I find myself preoccupied with the subjects of creation, technology, our relationship to work, and—with caution—spirituality.

Expect fragmentary notes on all or none of these from the point of view of a rather wide-eyed millennial who fled an old, crumbling world and now finds himself in a strange land.

1.

The aforementioned article is called "Juilliard Must Modernize, or It Will Disappear," written by one Emma Sutton-Williams. The theme is tried and true, regardless of your interest in the world of music education: instead of Juilliard, imagine the university, the church, the library, or any other such old, venerable institution that now seems irrelevant next to much trendier options. 

The author, no doubt a highly skilled violinist, recounts her embarrassment at nearly turning down a recording gig with Bruce Springsteen because she had no idea who Bruce Springsteen was; she then reflects on her estimable Juilliard education, the years spent mastering Bach and Paganini, and argues that the modern-day conservatory must embrace pop culture if it wishes to educate musicians who will be relevant to the marketplace. She declares that we must innovate, decrying the “classical purists” who “clutch their hearts in disgust at the mere suggestion of their holy shrines teaching business skills like freelancing or contemporary styles like pop, rock, or electronic music.” 

2.

It still happens: a young musician finds me on Instagram or wherever and, after mentioning his accomplishments, asks about getting into the composition program at Juilliard and finding employment as a composer. I know my true feelings about this subject, but the truth is revealed instead by what we do, isn’t it? And in this case, no matter how much I can talk about the futility of a music career, nor how much I sneer at the notion of “passion,” I hesitate to discourage anybody from wanting the path less trodden—less trodden anyway than the ones typically on offer and pushed on us by material pressures. All things considered, a musician’s work cannot be reduced to a job.

Sutton-Williams asks, “But why is [Juilliard] continuing to prepare brilliant students to only enter the world of dying orchestras with downward spiraling funding without helping them explore other genres or expand their skill set to survive a changing market?” Appropriately, she brings up that classic New York Times article from 2004, “The Juilliard Effect: Ten Years Later,” which reports on the state of the Juilliard class of 1994: a mere 11 of 44 had ended up employed full-time as orchestral musicians.

Like it or not, higher education has indeed at some point assumed the role of providing job training to society at large. We rely on it as a way to improve our material lives and increase our social standing. The problem is that it’s not very effective even as it comes at an extreme cost; just look at the state of student loan debt in the United States, about $1.56 trillion in 2020. Why shouldn’t those investing their time and money in a university education expect significant returns? The fact remains that for most people, high-status employment is conceivably the only path to a stable and respectable life.

She goes on, “If only 25% of Wharton’s business graduates found full-time work, wouldn’t that ring alarm bells for the school?” Yes, it should, and it defies all good sense when it doesn’t. A scholarship donation campaign at the end of 2020, signed by Christine Baranski, reads, “The year 2020 has asked more from each of us but, despite it all, students at Juilliard are forging ever forward in their artistic pursuits with an inspired sense of discovery”—in this economy? Why? But here, again, we see that the weirdness of what people actually do points to some obscured truth, which some of us may still sense: that a music education at a place like Juilliard, much like a university education, cannot be reduced to mere job training.

3.

The marketplace being what it is, how must the music conservatory of today adapt? Sutton-Williams asks us to “consider that the geniuses we hold in high regard from ages past—the very ones we teach in classical schools now—were trail-blazing innovators in their time. We must become innovators, as well, before we fossilize.” The first point is true enough; I suspect Beethoven if he were alive today would find himself terribly out of place at Juilliard.

The second point—that we must become innovators—is not so disagreeable either, if rather banal (ironically) in this day and age. What’s curious is what exactly Sutton-Williams offers as models of innovation; they suggest to me that she means something else.

Consider this statement, for instance: “I still know many classical musicians who brush off pop artists as hacks made wildly popular by uncultured audiences.” But is this brushing off of pop artists a function of opposition to the new, or is it of opinion regarding quality? What follows is more telling: “In conservatories, that attitude persists, despite decades of massive album sales, huge tours, and raging festivals attesting to the appeal of stars like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, The Weeknd, and Springsteen.”

I think Sutton-Williams is appealing not so much to innovation, as to celebrity and prestige. Here’s another example:

How should classical musicians reckon with the ground shifting beneath their feet? One example: Facing a silent Broadway, Jonathan Dinklage, the concertmaster of Hamilton — and brother to Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage — has found success running a weekly recording schedule for ABC’s hit series The Good Doctor from his daughter’s nursery in their Central Harlem apartment, filling all the roles of a string section with the added help of a cellist.

And another:

And moving into new genres doesn’t mean severing classical tradition. Sergei Prokofiev, the late Russian-Soviet composer, is survived not only by his masterpieces but also by his grandson, Gabriel, who creates turntable compositions performed from Royal Albert Hall to East London night-clubs.

And another:

. . . composer, singer, and violinist Caroline Shaw winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices.” Her music is a breath of fresh air, opening a window on classical music as she allows pop culture to waft in with unexpected ease wielding her creativity with open-mindedness. Proven by her musical collaborations with Kanye West, writing film scores, and even singing at the Kennedy Center with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds, Shaw’s talents are limitless and show exactly the type of unbiased thinking we need in today’s conservatories.

Notice that last, curiously written sentence: limitless talent, proven by association with Kanye West, and so on. All the same, I understand what she’s saying. Juilliard is a brand, designed to attract high achievers and Type-A strivers from around the world who, whether they admit it or not, seek status.

So while Sutton-Williams’s proposal speaks the language of artistic innovation, rule-breaking, and trail-blazing—well, to what end? Its telos has nothing to do with musical technique nor expressive content, but rather—and the article’s title says it all—the maintenance of Juilliard as brand, precisely by ensuring that its students go on to be associated with celebrity or become celebrities themselves. It’s about trading one set of signs for another, the smashing of yesterday’s idols for tomorrow’s; hence guilt and shame over not recognizing the new idols sooner. All the while, the “holy shrine” itself is untouched.

Instead of the “ground shifting beneath their feet,” something casts a large shadow over our old temples and their priests. To me, a far more interesting question is: why do we have to preserve them at all?

4.

Lockdown conditions globally over the last year have greatly accelerated the ascendance of what is now known as the creator economy. As traditional employment becomes out of reach (and frankly unappealing) to more and more people, present technology enables ostensibly anybody with the talent and motivation to turn their passion into a living. Content subscription platforms like Patreon, Twitch, OnlyFans, Substack, and many others have skyrocketed in popularity lately as creators increasingly seek to control their own destinies, as it were, and manage their audiences directly.

The creator economy also serves those looking to learn anything under the sun, for whom schooling may be inadequate. Whether it’s songwriting, music production, video game design, marketing, web development, machine learning, managing one’s finances, or building a social media following, somebody has probably already published a course on Udemy or Gumroad.

For better or worse, the creator who thrives in this new ecosystem is not necessarily the most technically proficient nor the most credentialed. They may be friends with neither any elite institution nor famous pop star. The scope of their interests might be narrow and non-mainstream: if 1,000 or even 100 “true fans” can provide a decent living, why look to celebrity culture to see what one is or isn’t missing, or apologize for what one likes and doesn’t like?

My point here is not to prescribe the creator economy as the solution for would-be classical artists. Much like real-world economics, it isn’t perfect: a high level of income inequality is a continuing issue, for example. Encouragingly, in a late-2020 article that made the rounds in the creator economy space, Li Jin argues that “The Creator Economy Needs a Middle-Class” and outlines several ways by which present and future platforms might encourage a more robust class of creators who are neither celebrities nor starving artists. This acknowledges that not everybody can and should try to become an “influencer”—rather, that for the rest of us, publishing on these platforms might lay the foundation for a comfortable, middle-class income while staying true to our passions and interests.

How all this overlaps with entrepreneurship is worth noting as well: artists could stand to learn more about innovation from entrepreneurs of varying degrees of success (not entrepreneurship classes) than from pop celebrities. The startup world, for instance, is famous for bleak numbers: “9 out of 10 startups fail” is the oft-quoted statistic. Winners may enjoy status, but one would assume those playing the long game are driven by more substantial forces than the guarantee of any outcome; until a win comes, if it does at all, the work is obscure and unglamorous.

5.

Considering current trends, what does a school like Juilliard offer that justifies its continued existence? If not a path to celebrity, how should it view those who decide to go by different measures of success, who will never record with Bruce Springsteen nor win a Pulitzer?

I wouldn’t presume to answer these questions for anybody else. I look back fondly on my time at Juilliard for reasons that become increasingly personal as time goes by—certainly not because it improved my upward mobility (it didn’t). But if I were to do it all over again, I would probably focus on becoming as prolific as possible, and finding my crowd. So I humbly submit to my young, ambitious friends on Instagram: should this path open up to you, you will have to discover your own reasons as well, and weigh them carefully against reality. But I hope you temper any desire for prestige or status—it’s not enough.


If you like what you’ve read, I thank you for your time and hope I’ve given you yet a new thing to look forward to: please consider subscribing. I haven’t decided on a posting schedule yet; it will probably be sporadic at first, but if I don’t lose interest I’m sure I’ll settle on a rhythm of some kind. Meanwhile I can be found through my website, where I post much more regularly and without regard for any audience.
– J. C.