The Sound of Music


Let’s step back a few centuries, back into the Renaissance and the 17th century. Back then, music as a cultural product thrived, next to all the other arts. And, like painting, sculptures, or architecture, it used the same model: patrons, who sponsored the musician, and had him perform for the patron, their family, and their friends. Needless to say that music was not a mainstream consumer product: only the very rich could afford to sponsor their own artist, but at least, while having a patron, the musician wouldn’t need to worry about getting an income. They would simply rely upon the patron to pay for their bills and expenses, and to provide them a room with a clean bed and some food — and then focus entirely on their art.

There was also “mainstream music” to a degree: Church concerts, at least in Europe. Here the “sponsor” was the Church itself — they had a budget, raised through donations and other forms of monetary contributions, which allowed the church to hire a permanent musician, who would perform for free every Sunday. All the big masters tried at some time to get a job as maestros at some church — a good paying job, and much more regular income than having a patron, although it also meant composing much more liturgical pieces. A further alternative was provided by universities and other music schools, also regular paying jobs.

It’s only much more recently — starting at the end of the 18th century, but mostly during the 19th century — when the model changed. When it started to be clear that there was a mainstream audience for non-liturgical music, musicians became hired artists for shows: the business model of the Opera was born. With forms both for the common people and the nobility, operas were usually ran as businesses (although many enjoyed sponsorship by princes and kings; however, later in the 18th century, many operas were ran by merchants and businessmen): the audience would pay an entrance fee to see the show, and the musicians, director, and composer would all get a cut from the proceedings. Great opera composers and scriptwriters were hired (and paid in advance) to create masterpieces that had instant commercial success; but sometimes they experimented with new composers (ironically, as my friend Lillie Yifu points out, the most known opera pieces nowadays, from composers we recognise as “grand masters”, were largely ignored in their time — the mainstream, as today, basically watched junk). Business prospered as music became entertainment (still to be had for free inside churches; but available for a small fee on opera houses).

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