Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gross

Zachary Woolfe has done a great service in digging into the backstory on the Met's shutdown of Brad Wilber's Met Futures page, for fifteen years(!) an invaluable source of information about future Met schedules (also h/t to parterre, of course). Reuters' Felix Salmon, primarily known for patiently explaining stuff about bonds to me, also weighs in.
The Met's pretense was that possible errors on the site somehow gave them the legal whatnot to request he take the site down. As Woolfe's piece makes clear, this is basically a gentle way to say "you are contrary to our corporate directives to control all information and you wouldn't last a second contesting this":
“I don’t know the facts of the situation involving the Met,” the noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said in an email, “but as a general matter the Met has no legal right to control what is said about it unless the material published is libelous or written in a way to suggest falsely that the Met itself is the author. Material in the public domain may freely be described so long as the copyright laws are adhered to and non-defamatory material from sources may be published whether or not it was confirmed.”
I mean, obviously. In what America could a site like that be "libel" while the RNC's press releases circulate freely?
Not that it's a hill to die on or anything--its opera, and there are more important things in the world, etc. But that's what's so gross about it. Here's a site for the hobbyists, for the hard core that don't do the institution any economic favors but nonetheless carry the flame for opera as a great tradition for the listeners, not just the musicians--as an art form too beloved to be contained in the glossy morsels served up by one PR department. Its proof that the enterprise has a "constituency" and not just a subscriber base. And it's part of what makes New York far and away the greatest opera city in North America. (You don't see anyone committing to a Lyric Futures do you?)
But the Met's behavior isn't surprising or unique here--its just another symptom of the increasing dominance of marketing and PR prerogatives among classical music institutions. To the extent that "buzz" is a factor in reeling in an audience, it's nothing the machine can't generate on its own--and the machine can ensure that buzz is delivered in slick luxury packaging consistent with overall branding principles. One would like to be able to make some sort of statement about how an institution treating its most devoted fans like crap can only make for bad business but it doesn't quite wash. Opera's "fanboys" just don't deliver the goods.
But to channel a little Sandow: it's also hard to see how the increasingly hermetically sealed worldview of big-time classical PR, with its inexorable drive to erase all vestiges of a critical faculty in its audience, its flagrant abuse of superlatives, its need to turn the dark, messy, somewhere on the autism spectrum world of classical music into a Louis Vuitton handbag ad--its hard to see how that kind of PR will ever be terribly successful in facilitating new audiences' love for the art. Those who love it will still come, of course--but they'll love it in spite of its packaging.
P.S. Apparently Opera Tattler seems to be keeping up with San Francisco's futures seasons, albeit less comprehensively. Beware!

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