Does music need gatekeepers?

It would be impossible for me to react to Sal Nunziato’s guest column in this morning’s New York Times without risking a little hypocrisy.  For while my ideology disagrees with Mr. Nunziato, much of my professional and personal life has been devoted to doing just what he wants more of.  How do I square that?  Let me give it my best shot.

In the column, Mr. Nunziato, an online record dealer, pines for the pre-internet days when record label executives — “suits,” he calls them — winnowed out the superior music from the inferior.  Now, he says, “the Internet has become a forum for all, regardless of talent. Anyone can be a writer. Anyone with GarageBand can make a record.”  His closing paragraph:

I would never discourage any musician, however green, from making music. But I would strongly discourage most from releasing that music just because they can. It seems like a kick to the faces of the genuinely talented and deserving, all because of a technicality called the Internet. Where are the suits when you need them?

Exactly.  And we, or more likely, someone who appoints himself to do so, should now also determine which authors may publish books, which winemakers are allowed to market their wines, which restaurants are permitted to open, right?

Wrong.  No artist should be prevented from making his/her music available because someone else deemed it unworthy.  Most of the music Mr. Nunziato would squash isn’t going to reach a significant audience anyway, so what’s the big deal?  If he feels overwhelmed by the choice he now has, that’s his problem, not the artists’. My music listening is not in the least diminished by the thousands of probably mostly junky albums I’ll never hear.  And the same technology that permits anyone, “regardless of talent,” from being a recording artist has, through preference algorithms, on-line marketing and dumb luck, introduced me to some music I like very much.

Yet of course, I was myself a musical gatekeeper throughout my radio career, when I decided what music my listeners heard, and what music they didn’t.  And I still man the gates of the chamber music series I program.  Hypocrisy?

I don’t think so.  For while I was and am responsible for the quality of what I program, in no way can or would I prevent any listener from going beyond my offerings to discover other music on their own.  In fact, the new technologies that make it easier for listeners to do so also made my radio job easier.  For not only did I have a wider selection to choose the best from, I also could advise listeners to make their own individual journeys of exploration through styles and eras that weren’t going to get much play on my show.  Not enough Renaissance polyphony or 20th-century modernism on the air?  No problem.

In the end, Mr. Nunziato’s worldview, one in which “product is foisted upon the masses whether we want it or not,” is the same tired anti-modernity that too often passes for wisdom in the Times and other gatekeepers of smart opinion. (Here’s an earlier blog in which I take on two other iterations of the same kvetch.)  As a proud member of the masses upon which this “product” is foisted, I say bring it on.  I’m perfectly capable of deciding which to sample and which to ignore, and so are you.

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