Sunday, September 04, 2016

When thinking tanks

A recent Twitter exchange about the number of music blogs that have thrown in the towel got me thinking about why. I know I'm not posting at quite the rate I was in e.g. 07-08. But things change: in the world, in the virtual world and in yourself. In 2004, when I launched JDCMB on a whim, many other blogs were starting up. We were full of optimism: the Internet was a brave new world and we were excited about trying to make something wonderful out of it.

Unfortunately we reckoned without the pernicious effects of two vital points: 1. Anonymity, 2. Giving Things Away For Free. Twelve years on, the first can make people's lives a misery. It has contributed to the extreme polarising and poisoning of public debate, all the way from the comments "below the line" to presidential elections. The second is threatening our ability to make a living. And we have to face up to the fact that we've contributed to this ourselves, simply because it is so thrilling to be able to reach the reader right away, at the touch of one button. That hurts.

So what is stopping us blogging?
1. Trolls. I switched off the comments boxes a long time ago. Luckily we can have good discussions on Facebook, where people have to say who they really are.
2. Disillusion. Big one, as you'll see above.
3. Priorities. Big one too. I'm 12 years older than I was and, to coin a phrase, I'm looking at work-life balance.
4. Time. There's ever less of it.
5. Making a living. Necessary. I rather envy those older writers who have the luxuries of time and, I hope, a pension.
6. Anxiety, stress and what's now sometimes termed "overwhelm". Modern ailments, but real.
7. Watching your profession, which was thriving and perfectly viable when you went into it 25-30 years ago, shrinking around us year by year. (See 6.)
8. Brexit. WT actual F? (See 6.)
9. Rise of fascistic leanings in countries far and near. (See 6.)
10. Wanting to do something that lasts, in an ephemeral world. Blogging is very ephemeral. (It's also addictive, so probably won't go away entirely.)

If the blogosphere were a street of cafes, I guess mine would be the one that's been around for longer than some others, but maybe hasn't been painted for a few years. There's a fence outside and signs saying Beware of the Cats. There's a bookshop, magazines to leaf through, and a noticeboard about our concerts. I'm not open all hours; just a few days a week. But core customers come back because they like the ambience and the food. If I'm cooking, I try to create nourishing, organic fare. The cafe hasn't been forced out by the big chains, the high-sugar model, or the IEDs occasionally left under the windows, because it and its customers are cool about keeping on doing their own thing and not sweating the small stuff too often. Beyond the fence, as some neighbours close down, others move in with new recipes and interesting, fresh flavours.

In the musical blogosphere, matters have evolved. Our expectations perhaps need reassessing, since the discourse tends to go round and round in circles. For example, we know that classical music is not by nature "elitist" - after all, that word was scarcely used in musical contexts before the late 20th century - but everyone has a different explanation for problems arising in this sphere and many have agendas of their own to explore. No one area has a monopoly on needing to be "fixed"; everything is related; there aren't any simple solutions. Classracegendereconomicstalentslogpushyparentseducationschoolscashgovernmentamateursculturedifferencesplaygroundbulliesclothingclappingmobilephonestvcrispsdrinkssnobberyinvertedsnobberyhallscarparkspromsstreaming, and much more, all exist at once. What's really needed - to explore the whole lot together in real depth, in the context of the big, exciting, messy collisions of contemporary society - requires not so much a blog as a book around the length of the Chilcot Report.

Sometimes the discourse does make an effect. Today The Observer declared that there are plenty of women conductors around and that to suggest otherwise is an outdated view. (I'm not entirely convinced the problem is definitely fixed now, forever, and forever more, but we've certainly gone a good way.) It's a fine example of a case in which yelling loudly has helped to do some good: waking people up, making them think, see, then do something.

But meanwhile, certain other powerful ideals - music for peace, music for social change - haven't worked quite so well. Music is great, but it demonstrably does not bring actual peace. Music can keep kids off the streets in challenging places; so can sport and good schooling. Music can do wonderful things for young people's development, powers of concentration and school results; yet governments still don't want to give it adequate support and encouragement, despite all its benefits. From the other side, the behaviour of certain members of the profession can occasionally leave you wondering whether the benefits of musical study really are all that substantial. Some musicians I know are among the most excellent human beings in the world. Others aren't. That's true of many other professions as well.

Yet while we argue, the one thing that doesn't need to be fixed is the music itself; it just goes on being wonderful, and more and more fabulous musicians keep emerging into the light. Perhaps we just need to shut up and listen to some.