Thursday, June 21, 2012

Debating "indie-classical"

If you haven't seen it already, Maura Lafferty and Nico Muhly are having a nice civilized exchange about the utility, justice, etc. of the term "indie-classical." Nico's response (here, to Maura's defense here) focuses on what is lost in reducing art to facile categories, and touches on the deleterious effects this can have on composers tempted to internalize their assigned genres.

Towards the end, he seems to hint that this state of affairs may be more or less necessary, and good thing we have professionals who are interested in doing it. Boundaries are important, of course: civilized people in adult conversations should clearly avoid talking to each other like walking press releases (unless you're in DC where that just means you have your shit together). But marketing doesn't deal with individuals, it deals with People. And People, unlike individuals, respond to, if not the lowest, then certainly a lower common denominator. Figuring out how to artfully play to that in a way that gets the message to people you want to be reaching is just a fact of trying to spread things to any audience that numbers in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But that bigger debate really goes beyond the narrower question of what rankles about "indie-classical," i.e. the term is not about describing how a certain type of music sounds, but about situating a product within a matrix of Stuff White People Like. Maura makes a case for indie-classical as a way to align new music with the same aesthetic of authenticity and anti-corporatism that drives our insatiable desire for, among other things, heirloom tomatoes and stuff on Etsy. And while there is certainly an appealing logic to this, is new music really going to find a home as aural wallpaper for discriminating hipsters? It seems like you might move a few CDs at the unwitting margin with this strategy but you're not likely to generate the kind of loyal fan base that keeps coming back because they actually like the stuff.

So yeah, "indie classical" sucks, but not because it is a crime to engage in some expedient oversimplification for PR purposes. Nico's own fleeting attempt at this in his response--to paraphrase, "Elizabethan choral  goes minimalist"--might sound a bit cheap relative to what he actually works on, but hey, you obviously want to ensure that anyone intrigued by that phrase is getting marketed to real hard, right? No, "indie-classical" sucks because it is a copout, a lifestyle marketing term when what we need is a way to describe the actual music in a way that a receptive audience gets the message.