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Being a Classical Musician in the Era of Clickbait

I love Netflix. But when this is your nightly go-to, we have a problem.

I love Netflix. But when this is your nightly go-to, we have a problem.


WHAT HAS FASCINATED ME about the era that we find ourselves in today is the reign of click-bait. There are entire industries and well paid careers built upon figuring out how to get people to fucking look at a company for two seconds. Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook engineer, marvels that the greatest minds of this day and age are thinking about “how to make people click ads.” 1

But why is this so profitable?

Not too long ago, we were in the Information Age–the predominant scarcity in the developed world was information, and it was valuable knowing which toothbrush to buy and which blender is the best one. But now, with Wikipedia and Google and Yahoo! Answers 2, information is incredibly abundant. Now, we live in an economy of attention; the primary goal of business now is not your money; it is your eyeballs. Your clicks. Their TV Ratings. Michael Bay has perfected the exploitation of attention to an art, eschewing the art and subtleties of narrative and instead focusing his energies on the spectacle of giant robots and attractive not-very-clothed women. 3

One of the reasons classical music is losing its societal heft lies chiefly in its structural defiance of the attention economy. In a world where Netflix and Youtube load up videos automatically for us, 4 and your Facebook newsfeed offers a seemingly infinite number of videos and articles for you to peruse, 5 classical music seems antiquated with its model of showing what it wants to, when it wants to, 6 and you’re going to sit in a concert hall and listen and you’re going to like it.

Whether or not this is a sustainable model for classical music’s future (I have mixed feelings) is a topic to be breached in a separate blog. For now, I want to talk about our attention sp- WAIT THERE’S A NEAT PICTURE AHEAD DON’T CLICK BACK TO YOUR FACEBOOK TAB YET!

Cool, thanks for sticking around. 7

The combination of the rising capabilities of immediacy and the attention economy has shrunken the attention span of the average human. Take a look at how our attention spans have withered collectively by A THIRD(!) over the past thirteen years 8:

Clearly, we as artists experience a striking dilemma in today’s world: with so many options and a shrinking attention span across the board, how do we get people to pay attention to us? There are quite a few potential ways to address this, but for now I think it’s important to address not how the general public uses its time, but how we use our leisure time as musicians–the time that is spent away from the workplace or practice room or theory classroom.

Leisure As The Key to Productivity

“Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good books, good pictures, good plays, good company, good conversation, what are they? They are the happiest people in the world.” – William Phelps Lyons

While now it seems like we exist in a black hole of cat videos, Kardashian/Miley news stories, and Candy Crush, society was not always this way. Historically, the use of time for leisure has been justified when used as a way for humans to enrich themselves to become better and more productive members of society. 9 In fact, before science and the arts became professionalized, a great deal of human ingenuity surfaced in our free time. Ben Franklin invented the freaking lightning rod because he was curious about electricity, not because he felt obligated to or it was in his job description. Elon Musk used his free time dabbling in programming and reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and now he’s a billionaire who will probably be the reason we are able to colonize Mars.

To frame it another way, there is a wide berth of self-help and “productivity hacks” and practice techniques for the musician and even the every day human to figure out how to most efficiently use the time that we are in the practice room or studying out of a textbook. But what if our best work is done outside the practice room?

Research shows that what we choose to spend our leisure time doing is crucially important. We are sharper after we exercise, more able to “zone in” when our weekends are spent reading instead of Netflix-binging. In a landmark study in Germany, those who used leisure in these constructive ways produced greater amounts of flow 10 in their daily lives. Those who used leisure in less constructive and more passive ways, such as television, produced significantly less flow in their life. 11

Changing Ourselves to Change the World

We decry the lack of people in our seats, but often I think we cheat both ourselves and the general public by succumbing to the very industries in our own daily lives that people choose over us. Smartphones and computers and the internet are not inherently evil, unlike many anti-technology articles that have become prevalent as of late. As Mark Manson says, 12

The problem is not the technology itself, it’s how we choose to use the technology. Is it serving us or are we serving it?

These are the new challenges new generations must face. Our grandparents had to learn to master their time and their energy in order to take advantage of the labor economy. Our parents had to master their minds and their problem solving in order to take advantage of the knowledge economy. We must learn to master our focus and our self-awareness to properly take advantage of the attention economy.

Limitless access to knowledge brings limitless opportunity. But only to those who learn to manage the new currency: their attention. In the new economy, the most valuable asset you can accumulate may not be money, may not be wealth, may not even be knowledge, but rather, the ability to control your own attention, and to focus.

Because until you are able to limit your attention, until you are able to turn away, at will, from all of the shiny things and nipple slips, until you are able to consciously choose what has value to you and what does not, you and I and everyone else will continue to be served up garbage indefinitely. And it will not get better, it will get worse.

In the future, your attention will be sold. And it may be that the only people able to capitalize, are the people that can control their own.

As classical musicians, we provide a structured opportunity for people to control that attention. Those who sit in a concert performance, who take some time and sit with only one thing to focus on, are demonstrably better off for that time. Societies generally tend to be in trouble when people turn to non-enriching things as a principal source of their leisure.

"Damn, why is he going slower than rehearsal? Might not be able to get three episodes of House of Cards in before bed tonight at this rate..."

“Damn, why is he going slower than rehearsal? Might not be able to get those last three episodes of House of Cards in before bed tonight at this rate…”

Through endless training and dedication, investment of our time, even through sacrifice of more lucrative opportunities – we give society the gift of focus. We provide a sweeping moment of history and emotion, and at its most raw level, an opportunity to feel vulnerable. But when we default to Netflix-binging and YouTube surfing, we ourselves feed into the industries; we not only make our own net quality of life worse, we also bring down society as a whole, too.

If we cannot control our attention, we cannot credibly persuade others to do the same for us. If in our own lives we do not treat our attention as valuable, there is no substance in our demands that classical music is worth giving a shit about. That a jazz jam session can be a more fun and enriching use of our time and money than bar-hopping. That taking your friends to listen to chamber music can be an experience that will stick with you in a way that the next Hunger Games movie probably won’t.

It may feel inadequate or cheap to address an arguably global problem with a broad swath of “watch Netflix less”, but if we do not find ways within ourselves to enrich our own lives through productive leisure, we cannot hope to affect any meaningful change in society’s fabric. The way I see it, we’re up against an incredibly entrenched system of immediate gratification. Classical music is an industry that provides massive returns to society, but is caught in an inflexible business model that makes it difficult to adequately convey those benefits to the world today. We have to figure out, at least a little bit, how to handle ourselves before we can hope to break ground to everyone else.

So, even just for a day, put down your cell phone. Take a walk. Read a book. Write. Call someone you haven’t been in touch with. Hell, invite your friend to a concert. Give yourself the gift of attention, and you’ll be better equipped to give it to someone else.

Maybe they’ll come on their own next time.

Notes:

  1. Elon Musk, Ashlee Vance, 12
  2. Trying to keep a straight face.
  3. Also see: Fast and Furious, 50 Shades of Grey
  4. There is no universe where you can say “I’m so glad they made it so that the next Orange is the New Black episode plays without me having to click PLAY NEXT EPISODE” without experiencing some self-loathing.
  5. The irony that you likely came across this blog through a Facebook link is not lost on me. But hey, I didn’t say it was a bad thing…
  6. As in, repertoire lists are set more or less in stone before each orchestral season, as are performance dates.
  7. I know, I know, you clicked on your Facebook tab anyway. Thanks for coming back, in that case.
  8. http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/infographic-shrinking-attention-span-n110801
  9. Many of the ideas in this section originate from the work of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, also known as “Um, that guy that wrote about flow with the long last name”
  10. The feeling of being “in the zone.”
  11. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199707/finding-flow
  12. I will link a lot to Mark’s work in my posts. Sorry. You’re welcome.

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