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Is Music in Trouble?

Mises Daily: Thursday, July 29, 1999 by

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VH-1’s "Save the Music" campaign is one of the latest in the series of pointless celebrity causes. The idea seems to be that celebrities should raise money and convince individuals to donate old band instruments to defunct or financially troubled public school music programs in order to save them in spite of the ignorance and shortsightedness of the school officials who cannot find the money in their budgets to sufficiently fund music programs.

While watching the parade of celebrities on VH-1’s "Save the Music" broadcast touting the benefits of public school music programs, I could not help asking myself: (1) Is music really in trouble? and (2) If music is in trouble, can public-school music programs save it?

The proliferation of cable networks devoted almost exclusively to music like MTV, VH-1, and the various country music networks would suggest that music per se is doing just fine. Recordings of all forms of music are also doing quite well too, benefitting enormously from easy retail access via the web and music superstores. Neither is there a shortage in live performances (although music unions do their part to restrict the supply when they can).

The unavoidable truth any "Save the Music" campaign must face is this: Never before has there been such variety and expanse of musical repertoire available to so many.

So what’s to worry about? It seems that public-school music programs are not always winners in the political struggles over school funding. But that does not translate into trouble for music itself. It means that a certain form of training and a certain style of music may be in the process of being squeezed out by other forms.

Why should taxpayers be forced to pony up to fund more public school programs when they could be using that money on their own musical leisure? Instead of pouring more money into marching bands and jazz bands, they could be buying CDs and concert tickets. There is no a priori argument that the musical displacement should run the other way: that people should be robbed of money that could be buying CDs to pay for more elaborately equipped high-school bands.

Moreover, the arguments put forth by "expert" celebrities as to why we should save these public school music programs don’t hold up. It is claimed that music education has been shown to help children learn basic math. The problem is that basic math should have been learned by the time most students pick up a saxophone.

Billy Corgan of the band "Smashing Pumpkins" lamented that the world may lose the next Mozart or Beethoven without public school music programs. He didn’t mention which public school music program produced the original Mozart and Beethoven. Like all artistic geniuses, their talents were not cultivated in government programs but through private instruction, the patronage of benefactors, and massive personal effort.

The most absurd statement made by any of the would-be saviors of music was delivered by Natalie Merchant (formerly of "10,000 Maniacs") who posited that a couple of Apache helicopters should be melted down to make tubas and the like. Set aside the technical difficulties of such a task. Why must tax dollars necessarily be spent on either helicopters or tubas? If the money were returned to the taxpayers, they would have more to spend on whatever goods and services are desired most by consumers. That way people can have their tubas and/or helicopters depending on their own personal values.

Considering the weakness of the celebrities’s reasoning, I suspected that something else must be behind this strange campaign. Perhaps the true motivation is the fear of liberal elitists (such as supporter Hillary Clinton) that there will not be enough musical automatons to staff their beloved and government-subsidized professional arts programs without public-school music programs.

The fallacy here is that government must be responsible for the cultivation of art, and hence must subsidize it from one end of the structure of production to the other, else art will die out. The truth is that great art does not require government subsidies, and quite often such subsidies contribute to the proliferation of styles that lack genuine creativity and artistic merit.

We can debate all day what constitutes artistic merit, and we can even concede that it is a nebulous idea. But that fact only strengthens the case: lacking some absolute standard, government-appointed bureaucrats and public-school administrators shouldn’t presume to say that unless their artistic priorities prevail, art will be no more.

I, for one, would like to revel in what the free market in music has wrought. Here we find creativity in all styles made available according to the tastes of the masses as well as the most obscure niche market. Whether your interest is in the electric guitar (Eddie Van Halen taught himself how to play), the classical orchestral repertoire (high schools focus on winds and percussion, not strings), or new symphonic music (which doesn’t fit on a football field), the market economy is the venue that makes its production and promotion possible.

Public school programs, on the other hand, concentrate on a narrow range: that is, for the most part, on band and choral music pleasing to the middle-class parents who attend the programs. As a result, truly interesting styles and displays of exceptional talent are typically not cultivated in high-school music programs.

What Ludwig Von Mises said in his masterwork Theory and History applies many times over to the public-school music programs:

"Education rears disciples, imitators, and routinists, not pioneers and creative geniuses. The schools are not nurseries of progress and improvement but conservatories of tradition and unvarying modes of thought. The mark of the creative mind is that it defies a part of what it has learned or, at least, adds something new to it."

The above passage could have been written specifically to critique the shortcomings of public-school music education. If one concedes the possibility that there is anything ground breaking going on in music today, one can rest assured that it is highly unlikely to be linked to a public-school music program.

There are, of course, some great musicians in high schools. There are great directors who introduce students to challenging music and cultivate real talent. There are ensembles that genuinely excel. But to the extent that they do, they do not need the pressure group of musical celebrities to intervene on their behalf.

The great mistake of statists from time immemorial is to insist that their own personal views of what is and is not important should be projected onto society at large and imposed via the most direct route, the state. They will not permit their priorities to take a back seat to more pressing needs.

It is the function of the market economy to sort out the priorities, and to the extent that public funding overrides that market mechanism, resources are wasted, as they have been in public schools since their inception.

No matter what your tastes, there is no reason to panic for the future of music. And if a certain kind of music depends on ever-higher subsidies from education bureaucrats, you can be sure it has no sustainable future.

Myself, I am perfectly content to bask in the power of Metallica’s "Fuel" or Bob Seger’s "Roll Me Away" while hoping I never have to be subjected to a version of those songs played by a high school marching band.

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GREG DAVIS is an educator at a charter high school in Phoenix, AZ.


Read Who Should Pay for Art? by Michael Levin and Strike Up the Band by Shawn Ritenour.