Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Classical Music, and why you might not want to follow your passion…

I’m sure most of you have seen the recent Jim Carrey commencement speech (or at least the shortened clickbait version).  If not, here’s the short one:

Archived Video link

While it is inspirational and uplifting if we put aside some of the issues of privilege in Carrey’s situation which I’ve been having discussions about with some folks elsewhere, this Salon.com piece, Dear graduates: Don’t follow your dreams (A commencement speech for the mediocre), by Tim Donovan reiterates what I’ve talked about regarding Survivorship Bias in two previous posts. Interestingly, Donovan’s piece isn’t specifically a response to Carrey’s speech as the post was published two days prior to the Maharishi University of Management Graduation.

Continue reading “Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Classical Music, and why you might not want to follow your passion…”

Covers vs. Originals: Why classical musicians might not want to think like rock bands

In the previous post in this series I mentioned that I would be exploring narrow ideas of “Success” in discussions from some Classical Music Crisis folks. I brought up the phenomenon known as Survivorship Bias and how our models for success can be skewed by survivors while missing possibly more relevant data that can be learned from “failures,” which are far more numerous. In this post I’ll be discussing one of the perennial debates that local band musicians love to have, Covers vs. Originals, and how that fits into the wider debate of “Success” and modeling Rock/Pop band marketing, entrepreneurial, or gigging strategies.

Continue reading “Covers vs. Originals: Why classical musicians might not want to think like rock bands”

Survivorship Bias: Why classical musicians might not want to think like rock bands

This is going to be the first in a series of posts exploring narrow ideas of “Success” in discussions from some Classical Music Crisis folks.

Survivorship bias also flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain. You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.

Continue reading “Survivorship Bias: Why classical musicians might not want to think like rock bands”

Negativity Bias and the “Classical Music Crisis”


Marketing consultant, Mark Schaefer, discusses how Negativity Bias can have a profound effect on how we perceive industries and businesses in a world of social media. He uses the recent #McFail incident to illustrate how the bias operates:

And even when one of their social media experiments did not go as planned, the company had something like 79,000 tweets and 2,000 of them were negative. So on one of their worst days, they had a positive sentiment analysis of 97.5 percent. In any company I’ve worked for, that would be cause for celebration.

And yet the all headlines focused on the failure. It will probably be a case study discussed for years alongside the Gap logo debacle. That may not be fair, but it’s what we need to anticipate from our society as we lay our social media plans over this layer of Negativity Bias.

In other words, the insignificant number of negative tweets had a greater impact with regards to traditional news media than the far more numerous positive tweets. This simply tells what we already know, that negative news sells much better than positive news.

Placed in the context of the Classical Music Crisis, it should be no surprise that the Doom and Gloom talk has gone back for, well, centuries. One of the reasons I posted the “Classical music is the sum of all its institutions” blog is precisely because we have this tendency to focus so much on the small subset of institutions which happen to be making the news because of how poorly they may be doing at the time. Any good news about the field gets lost in the shuffle.

But why is that? Schaefer gives one possible reason:

One of the most interesting talks at SXSW was between Billy Corgan of the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, and author Brian Solis. In the talk, Corgan hypothesized that artists take less risks today because of a realization that one embarrassingly human moment will get tweeted and go viral — and possibly kill a career. Before the social web, these moments might be laughed about and become part of band legend, but today it can be career-defining. He wondered aloud about a world where artists would be nothing more than politically-correct robots.

But this is more of an Post hoc ergo propter hoc explanation. The Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, puts the Negativity Bias in the context of evolution:

Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

In the context of the small number of troubled organizations, which get the majority of press, this makes much sense especially as we can see how these have been discussed. These “failing” organizations (and often the failing is simply a temporary acute instance) are almost invariably referred to as “threats” to Classical Music, or as symptomatic of the “threat” of the industry as a whole to the evolution of Classical Music (or a narrowly perceived view of the future of Classical Music).

The overestimation of threats is easy to see. What about underestimating opportunities? Since much of the discourse has to do with how much this small subset defines the whole field, then the opportunities for change are informed by the subset to the exclusion of viewing the change that is happening (as well as the things that aren’t changing much while remaining to be successful). By defining the problem this way, it’s easy to see how we can easily underestimate resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). Talk about declining and aging audiences, and donor fatigue would fall apply here.

The thing is, this Negativity Bias works so well in conjunction with another related bias, the Availability Heuristic. When we use anecdotes to support a point, we’re using the Availability Heuristic Bias.  When we use immediate examples that come to mind, that’s the Heuristic Bias. If those immediate examples happen to be the ones supplied to us in Negative media portrayals of select organizations in trouble due to the Negativity Bias, then I think we can see pernicious feedback loop we have going for these kinds of discussions of Crisis.

This is not to say that talk about how healthy Classical Music is are any better–simply citing examples that come to mind about great things that are happening in the field, or about organizations which are doing well, definitively show that the field is just fine and peachy. This Pollyanna-ish viewpoint (also referred to as the Positivity Bias) is just as prone to the Availability Heuristic and as I said in my previous post the negation of both these viewpoints is perfectly compatible. Both the Negativity Bias and Positivity Bias can be amplified by the Availability Heuristic.

These are just both sides of the same coin which Philip Tetlock‘s research describes regarding experts’ (in)ability to make accurate predictions:

The aggregate success rate of Foxes is significantly greater, Tetlock found, especially in short-term forecasts. And Hedgehogs routinely fare worse than Foxes, especially in long-term forecasts. They even fare worse than normal attention-paying dilletantes — apparently blinded by their extensive expertise and beautiful theory. Furthermore, Foxes win not only in the accuracy of their predictions but also the accuracy of the likelihood they assign to their predictions— in this they are closer to the admirable discipline of weather forecasters.

The discourse about the field is constantly being defined by both these sides. And the problems and/or solutions to it are constantly being informed by small subsets of the whole field which tend to rely on information given us by biases which are systemic to the groups of people (Tetlock’s Hedgehogs) involved in the discussions.

As Stewart Brand states about Foxes versus Hedgehogs

Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

We need more Foxes in these discussions, but until then, we probably need to stop giving so much force to the Negativity Bias.  We can’t control how often bad news gets near unilateral focus in the media, but we can control how skeptical we receive the news, especially as it pertains to making big and grandiose claims about the future of this industry.

What is Classical Music?


One thing that I’m struck by in nearly every conversation about the state of Classical Music, whether online or in real life, is how differently folks define what it is.  Usually that definition is implicit and easily understood in the statements made, and other times it seems like some clarification is needed. A recent conversation on my Facebook page really brought out some of these difficulties in navigating how debates devolve into wondering what the hell everyone is talking about when discussing the state of the field.

While most folks won’t give two bits about what Classical Music denotes, those of us concerned about the future (or event present and past) of the field have some vested interest in delineating the discourse. In some cases, it’s a monetary interest.

As I said in my last comment on that Facebook thread:

There are several definitions of what constitutes “Classical Music” and when most folks talk about its death they usually mean a fairly narrow range of organizations and musicians involved in the scene. For example, while many folks wouldn’t include symphonic film and video game scores as “Classical Music” there are others that do. Depending on whether we include those things, that gives us a very different picture of how much the genre is still very much a part of everyday lives. It’s an issue of perspective and we in the field have differing ideas about that and what might be considered a “Crisis” in the field.

Notice that I qualified film and video game music with “Symphonic.” There are, obviously, tons of scores for both (and here we could include TV show or scores incidental music for Theater) that aren’t Symphonic, or that don’t use what we’d typically refer to as Classical Music instrumentation (in chamber ensemble or solo forms) such as the score by the Boston Cello Quartet for the video game Of Orcs and Men. No one, for example, would claim that the score for Pulp Fiction is a Classical Music score, while on the other hand, the arrangement of the score by my group il Troubadore for a Chicago production of Bard Fiction, could (arguably) be considered Classical.

Even with things we’d typically consider Classical Music we have issues with perspectivization.  For example, in most debates about the “Death of Classical Music” talk invariably turns to the SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets)–and even there most of the focus is on Symphony Orchestras.  All connotations referencing HIP (Historically Informed Performance) ensembles and orchestras, New Music ensembles and orchestras, Chamber Music Groups, Vocal and Instrumental Recitalists, Choral Ensembles and the vast number of freelancers who primarily do special events rarely factor into the discussion. Neither do the thousands of school and University Orchestras, Concert Bands, Choirs and Community Orchestras factor into these discussions.

By focusing solely on the SOBs, claims about the direction or relevancy of Classical Music, as well as the solutions for reversing these trends, bear little relation to the field as a whole. Couple that with the fact that most talk about the Popular Music and Entertainment Industries, which relies on our knowledge of Pop Superstars rather than the vast majority of local band musicians that don’t play for stadium sized crowds nor get the same level of media exposure, we have a recipe for using solutions that work for a small subset of one industry to revitalize another. Of course, as most of the readers of this blog knows, most of those techniques and solutions are no longer working (or never worked in the way we thought) for the Pop Music or Entertainment Industries either, so it’s a moot point.

In other words, by selectively defining the field (e.g. Classical Music), it becomes easier to selectively define its problems (e.g. “in Crisis,” “Dying,” “in Decline”) and the solutions (e.g. Popular Entertainment Industry Models) to those problems.  And if those solutions are borrowed from another selectively defined field….

I believe we all understand what most folks mean when we say Classical Music or Pop Music, but in the end what we’re really talking about are issues of categorization and how we as humans tend to conceptualize things without explicitly defining them (hence why I said these things are implicitly in the definition).  In my blog post about what prototype theory has to say about polyphony and counterpoint, I discussed how a specific connotation or subset of meanings become substituted for a whole and that’s what’s happening here.

In essence, the discourse has been delineated in very specific ways by very specific parties for very specific purposes. In response to this, John Chittum posted a call to arms to show the breadth and diversity of the Classical Music field:

Ok, enough of the anger and vinegar. How about a more productive response.

One of the issues that’s happening is the label “classical music.” What does it mean? In some conversations, people make it mean “orchestras classical series concert.” At other times, it’s the entire area of instrumental music.

“People” outside our “clique” don’t seem to know what it is, or so claim certain pundits. So, let’s be progressive and productive!

If you participate in something you consider “classical music,” be it experimental, fusions with lots of different genres, romantic flavoured, anything at all, hop on twitter (or here), put a tag to something you’re a part of, as a performer, composers, improviser, engineer, whatever.

Put up a link and use the hashtag #IAmClassical

Let’s fight all these accusations and silliness by showing the breadth of what this idea encompasses! There are so many wonderful things happening, so many groups large and small doing GREAT! Let’s show the world!


The world of Classical Music is far more vast than what most of us think and if the health of the field is solely determined by the Cherry-Picked SOB stories (I couldn’t resist), then that says as much, if not more, about who is doing the Cherry-Picking.