Gold in them thar toobs?

Think “orchestral institutions” as “artists” in this article and some interesting questions emerge:

Are we finally entering the age of the digital cultural entrepreneur (DCE)? That is, has it now become possible for a gifted artist or writer to control the reins of his or her career from a laptop, scheduling gigs, selling books or recordings or images both digitally and physically, receiving payments, interacting with fans, and avoiding the “middleman” of the whole formal culture industry altogether? And, more to the point, is this possible for someone who doesn’t hit the Fifty Shades of Grey jackpot, but merely has a sufficiently large core of faithful supporters and fans?

Savants have been predicting the emergence of the DCE for some time now, and have called attention to the pioneering efforts of writers like Cory Doctorow and musicians like Jonathan Coulton — or rather, have called attention to Doctorow and Coulton, because there haven’t been too many like them. And this is the key question: Will the self-managed DCE career continue to be a rare thing, or is it scalable?

…Consider a few examples. The singer/songwriter Erin McKeown has recently been very forthcoming about how much money she makes through online sales and where it comes from: a reasonable and fair about from iTunes, very little from Spotify, and of course nothing from the default source for online music, YouTube. Robinson Meyer has already written in these pages about a similar breakdown for cellist ZoĆ« Keating.

…In light of all this confusion and uncertainty, writers in particular, and some other artists as weell, are thinking less in trms of career paths than of projects — with Kickstarter as one prominent model — and collections — with Etsy as the place to go. But of course Kickstarter and Etsy then just become a new kind of middleman: not alternatives to tradtional publishers or galleries, but new versions of them. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Not really: but Kickstarter and Etsy and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing are all, in some sense, your boss. What if, for a particular project at least, you want to go it alone, to be a truly DIY DCE?

“Disintermediation” is an attractive concept until one tries to replicate what intermediaries actually do. It is a lot easier to sell downloads through iTunes and one of their content aggregators (AKA “labels”) than it is to set up a website and handle the details (including, most critically, payment) oneself. But any intermediary ends up being a curator and promoter, if only by default. Sites like iTunes don’t have the power of the old record labels to actually decide who gets to sell recorded product (at least not collectively), but it may be there’s not much difference between not selling recorded product at all and selling very little of it.

Fortunately, very few people in our business ever believed that there was a pot of gold at the end of the Internet. The real question remains whether or not having product available online (whether for sale or for free) can help drive ticket sales and donations to any substantial degree, and the jury remains out on that question.


About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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