Yo Yo Ma, Antonio Damasio

World renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma (left) and University Professor Antonio Damasio engage in a discussion about the role music plays in society.

Photo by Steve Cohn, courtesy of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

A few weeks ago I had the fortune of meeting Yo Yo Ma, the master musician and cello player who probably needs no introduction at this point. It was a semi-private event hosted by the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, where Mr. Ma and Dr. Antonio Damasio spent a few minutes talking about the nature of music and its relationship to the scientific process. (Lesser known to the public, Yo Yo Ma happens to be on the board of the institute, hence the connection.) A press release put out by the university can be read here.

It was a nice place to start off the fall season for Tangerine Music Labs, since we recently had gotten organized and was ready to start putting our work out in the public. Yo Yo Ma was as humble and gracious as I’ve heard from various anecdotes over the years, but was nonetheless articulate and eloquent in the way he presented his ideas about the music-making process. (Where words didn’t suffice, he had a cello in hand in order to do impromptu demonstrations.) After doing some research on his Silk Road Project, I knew there was something about the way his mind worked that was quite extraordinary, but that afternoon the reasons for it became very clear.

One thing he mentioned that stood out in particular: “At 49, I finally realized the reason that I enjoyed being a musician — it was that music could be a tool for understanding people — about the reasons why they thought and acted the way that they did.” (That wasn’t all that long ago, even though he had obviously accrued many years of success earlier in his life.) Like most musicians and artists, he too had periods in his life where he questioned the “usefulness” of his craft, despite the successes that he was seemingly having on the surface. In a world rife with war, economic turmoil, violence, and poverty, how can one justify rubbing a few strings together as making a real contribution to society at large?

Yo Yo Ma is, in addition to being a cellist, a fairly adept improviser, so I had a lot of questions regarding that and his opinions about the future of classical music when I first came in. But that response focused the discussion in a direction where most of what I wanted to ask got answered, either directly or indirectly. Like him, I’ve played with a lot of different kinds of people in a lot of different styles throughout the years, and had struggled to come up with an understanding of what it really all meant. But Mr. Ma articulated what had always been sitting in the back of my mind: that art was essentially about people, and music was a tool for achieving meaning and understanding in ways that couldn’t be done purely through the activities of everyday life.

The Value of Music

Smithsonian Institution / Foter

In a world where we now have access to over 6000+ languages, 200+ national identities, and hundreds of musical styles all at once, chances are pretty good that you’re going to run into ideas and people that aren’t entirely of your own kind. You may occasionally have to work or live with people whom you know nothing about or have strong disagreements with, for extended periods of time. Because of this, there’s now a strong need for people to learn how to overcome cultural barriers and establish meaningful modes of communication both politically and culturally, which Mr. Ma seems to address through his work with the Silk Road Ensemble and other inter-cultural projects. In this sense, the value that he provides for society seems fairly obvious and non-controversial.

But these kinds of high-profile, international-level events aren’t always going to be accessible to most musicians out there. What should most performers, educators, composers, and ensembles try to do in their own local communities and projects? I use the word “value” because it’s a term that entrepreneurs often use in order to establish a case for building a certain product or service — “value” is what is created when an entrepreneur fulfills a “need” of a customer in some significant way. What sort of “value”, then, do musicians provide? What “needs” do they really address?

Out of all the questions relating to music entrepreneurship that I found asking myself and others, these were the ones that forced me to pivot from one model to the next the most often. (The sheer amount of bad ideas that I’ve accumulated over the years had turned into a fairly impressive collection, if I could say so myself.)

Most people know by now that the “value” of music has plummeted in recent years from all sides of the fence. Musician wages are down, people are now less likely to pay for musical services more than ever, while labels have been struggling to find sustainable business models that would allow them to survive, even for the short-term. (Music-based startups have an unusually high failure rate, even among the entrepreneurial community.) And there seems to be a budding consensus that the quality of music in virtually every genre has gone down overall, as evidenced by the fact that young kids are listening more and more to “the classics”, seemingly unable to find a (lasting) movement that they can call their own.

Solutions to these problems seem far-fetched at this point, largely because of the mutual distrust that currently exists among the parties involved. Musicians don’t trust technologists (low wages), technologists don’t trust labels (evil middlemen), labels don’t trust musicians (offering only contract and short-term work), and the consumers don’t seem to trust anybody enough to actually want to pay for anything. It’s not unusual for investors to avoid the music business altogether because they see the situation as being essentially hopeless. Thus the downward spiral that many people in the industry often find themselves in, regardless if they happen to do good work or not.

In an indirect way, however, Yo Yo Ma had an answer to this, too. When it comes down to it, everyone is really just looking to create some kind of meaning in their lives. And music can be instrumental in making that happen, if the musician can earn enough of the audience’s trust to want to become a part of the process. When music makes a connection to people in a way that goes beyond entertainment or luxury, then it can comfortably establish itself as a “need” rather than a “want”. This is easier said than done, of course, especially since the current climate tends to make the establishment of such connections a very difficult task.

But if nothing else, it gives us a reason to try something different than what came before. And there are signs that music that focuses on the “meaningful experience” will have a higher chance of being successful in the near future, for reasons which will be explained below.

Finding Meaning on the Internet

h.koppdelaney / Foter / CC BY-ND

We (in the industrialized worlds) now have access to more music than we ever had at any point in the history of humanity. In the old days you were lucky to get a hearing of music here and there from your nearby temple or church as part of a religious service, or maybe an occasional song from a minstrel during a community or festive event. Today music can be acquired virtually everywhere, anytime, at very low costs. If you’re not happy with what’s currently out there, you can even decide to make your own songs, even without any formal musical training.

As consumers, we have technology to thank for that, since it was the largely the advances made in networking and software that had allowed for these developments to occur. But aside from a few exceptions here and there, today you rarely hear people speak of music in spiritiual terms, unless they’re referencing something that’s specific to a religious event. For the most part, music has been attempting to sell itself as objects to be bought and sold, focusing on its novelty, fidelity, and technique, rather than being understood for its underlying meaning.

Lady Gaga is currently the most prominent example of this idea put into practice. As Jon Caramanica of the New York Times writes, “her songs are perfectly blank, mere skeletons to drape herself around.” And it’s true — you don’t walk away from any of her songs with a greater understanding of anything in particular, and that’s the whole point. The difference between Lady Gaga and her predecessors (both in pop and in performance art) is that she’s refreshingly honest about that particular fact, and uses that nihilism as a justification for delving into the absurd.

These songs have the potential to entertain, and can serve a purpose for listeners who’re just looking for a distraction from the toils of everyday life. But without the intent to convey a meaningful experience or message, they’re inherently unable to transform or give inspiration to listeners in any significant way. And that is what has largely been missing from the internet for a while now — it’s not that meaning doesn’t actually exist, but that the vast majority of works that contain them gets buried amongst the noise of everything else.

The Politics of the Internet

Marc_Smith / Foter / CC BY

After decades of what could probably be called “virtual anarchy”, in recent years a new left-right political axis seems to have emerged out of the fray: liberals vs. libertarians. The ideological differences between the two has largely to do with government oversight and taxation (more vs. less) but its divide can also be explained in technical terms — liberals see the internet as a centralized system that runs on social and governmental infrastructure (true), while libertarians see the web as a decentralized network that connects people on an individual basis (also true). Many or most of the disagreements that happen on the internet, at its core, exist because of this fundamental difference in interpretation.

Within this model, the libertarians can actually be considered the “progressives” of their time, since they’re the group currently most likely to advocate and directly implement newly developed technologies and policies of an “experimental” nature. Traditionally liberal groups — most of which have pledged their support for the current Democratic party — can now be considered “conservative” in the sense that their ideological references come from past eras (the 60s, pre-industrial and “indigenous” cultures) and tends toward the belief that technology is something that needs to be regulated, rather than left to its own devices.

What of traditional conservatives, then? As the recent identity-crisis of the Republican party shows — the emergence of the Tea Party, the elections of fringe third-party candidates, its loss of appeal towards minorities and women, and so on — is a sign that the new axis is now making its way into the world of “real” politics, so to speak. While the libertarians slowly chip away at the identity of traditional conservatives, traditional liberals are now attempting to make sense of their newly formed “progressive but conservative” status. The two party system is here to stay, but the identities of each party is likely to look very different in the near future as they struggle to make sense of the changes that are being put into place.

The ideology behind the democratization and commercialization of the internet was a simple but ambitious one: equal access, equal opportunity, unlimited expression and civil liberties for all, no matter who you were or where you came from. Liberals and libertarians rarely ever agreed on economic issues, but these were tenants that both sides could embrace as part of a larger, more universal political identity. It was the ideal of the Tabula Rasa put into direct practice, and many of its followers became the “technologists” that we know of today.

The last few decades have shown that the movement was very successful in achieving many those goals in more ways than one. The web has given all kinds of people — artists, doctors, scientists, managers, politicians, accountants, journalists, writers, businesspeople, leaders, philanthropists, blue collar workers — a place and a platform to make their voice and opinions heard. The world is, however, also full of criminals, murderers, rapists, drug dealers, human traffickers, liars, trolls, thieves and other generally unpleasant kinds of people, many of whom were also “empowered” by technology in the same way as the others were.

The long-standing policy toward these problems had been to let things “sort itself out”, guided by the belief that humanity/the marketplace/darwinism would correct most of its issues on its own accord. Technologists tended not to discriminate against whom they sold their product to, afraid that taking a moral stance on any issue would reduce their chance of acquiring customers. “Who are you/we to judge what people do?”, they might say.

In cases of more heinous crimes (e.g. murder, rape) this point of view may come across as being abhorrent, but with certain issues — like drug decriminalization and same-sex marriage, for example — the line gets a little bit more murky. There’s a point to be made that some laws are, in fact, unjust and should be ignored. In the unregulated environments of the internet (especially in its early days), this ideology resonated strongly with the numerous impromptu communities that were being formed and was largely left unchecked and unheeded.

The “Meritocracy” of the Internet

The internet, however, has a dirty secret that most search engine companies (even Google) probably wouldn’t want to admit — the fact that for many years it was entirely possible to game the system in order to gain higher rankings and exposure on its search results. (More information about the topic can be found in the history of SEO if interested.) The musical equivalent to this development can be traced to the rise and fall of mp3.com, a site that initially advertised itself as an ardent promoter of independent music but was eventually shut down because of excessive abuse and gaming.

In these circumstances what usually happens is that the high-ranking “winners” in internet-based lists end up being:

1) Incumbents who already have name/brand recognition.

2) People who hack/game the system.

3) People/institutions with huge budgets who can afford to buy their way up. (Often coincides with #1.)

Looking at just the results of what ranking systems produce, it becomes clear that there’s nothing really inherent in the system that gives independent artists enough of an advantage to challenge the status-quo in any significant way, and this reality is also mirrored by the economic situations that society finds itself in today.

The exception to these incumbency-biased results are the hackers (#2), who had the knowledge and ability to “cheat” or manipulate the system toward their own advantage or agenda. Over the years this phenomenon has turned into a cultural narrative in it of itself: hackers are now celebrated as being the new revolutionaries of the digital era (e.g. Zuckerberg, Snowden, Assange, etc.) because of their ability to challenge the incumbency in a way that yields real results.

In music, however, it’s very rare for these skills to coincide with artistic ability. So what you end up seeing on music sites and search rankings are things you’re already familiar with (a significant reason why the “retro” movement was able to sustain itself for so long), sprinkled with a lot of quality-questionable material that probably got there by some illicit means. Perhaps this is how the world works now: the reality of free-market competition manifested in its raw, digital form, and rules be damned. But this tends to undermine the argument that internet search results are based on quality or “interestingness”, as it had always been advocated by search engine companies. Convinced that their search results were a mirror reflection of their own tastes, however, people had no choice but to accept that what they were seeing was “fair”, unknowing of the battles being waged in the background of their computer screens.

“Moral” Technologies

Going forward, there are a number of reasons to be optimistic, however. In recent years there has been a considerable shift in tone from the technology industry in regards to how to handle and organize web-based content systems. Google has heavily revised their algorithms and the handling of their search engines, which has made it much harder for abusers to inflate their rankings artificially. They now heavily monitor their sites for people who violate their terms of service, and have established manual screening procedures for policing and enforcing existing copyright laws.

The recent establishment of spaces like YouTubeSpace LA also suggest that Google may be interested in having greater involvement in the content-creation process, rather than seeing themselves purely as a content distribution system. Though they seem to be doing it with a degree of caution at this point, they seem to be taking the step in the right direction for establishing a meritocratic system in the space of content creation. Even in the startup community, “meaning” is now becoming the buzzword for the next big opportunity for entrepreneurs to pursue in the near future.

All of this, however, adds a dimension to the internet that didn’t exist previously — a moral one. The days of internet companies sitting idle while letting people do whatever they want are largely over, for better or worse. Implicitly or explicitly, companies will be taking a more active role in guiding the user’s experience towards “desirable outcomes” that are more reflective of their institution’s values, ideals, and goals. Meaning, after all, cannot exist in an environment where anything and everything is possible for it’s own sake — decisions are given weight only when it comes at the exclusion of others.

Some may interpret this change with a sense of lament, saddened by the fact that the internet’s true “pioneering days” may be over. But this is a necessary step for the medium to take in order for it to evolve into a system where “meaningful experiences” can be found more often and more reliably by ordinary people. Technology, after all, does not create meaning in it of itself, people do. And for people to find meaning in their lives, they need other people — not machines or algorithms — to guide them towards the light.

The alternative is…well, to let things “work itself out” on it’s own, as it has always been done. But that approach has a tendency to take its toll, especially among the young and impressionable. Without meaning there is no hope, and without hope, the reasons for a continued existence becomes nothing but illusory.

– – –

There are a number of pessimists out there who take the stance that people don’t really “know any better”, and that the demand for deeper meaningfulness simply doesn’t exist in today’s nihilistic cultural landscape. This argument, however, can often become self-fulfilling especially when the system itself is designed toward such outcomes.

It could be argued that the renewed interest in entrepreneurship is, in itself, a sign that the public is yearning for something that currently isn’t being satisfied by what the internet has to offer. So it’s not a question of whether or not the demand for meaning exists or not — it does, has, and always be there as a constant — but whether or not artists and technologists are willing and able to create something that truly satisfies that need.

During the talk, Yo Yo Ma had explained that getting someone to listen to your music was an act of trust: that if you were successful in getting an audience to really listen to you, the music could get directly into their minds, allowing them to own what you’ve created. He also said, however, that establishing that connection was one of the hardest problems that most musicians face when they present their work to the public — it was not something to be taken for granted, nor assumed easy to do.

In the music- and noise-saturated environment of today’s world, most of us subtly train ourselves to block out 99% of the sounds that we hear throughout the day. It’s become fairly easy to hear something, but not necessarily listen to what it’s true meanings and intensions are. And this may be the real reason why making music now is harder than ever: musicians now have to overcome layers of skepticism and indifference that have become embedded into the cultural process as a medium in itself.

But real meaning is something that’s unmistakable — if you give it, the response is mire likely than not to be a very powerful one. And it’s somewhere in there where the next generation of entrepreneurs are likely to find opportunities for the next stages of technological development.