Monday, December 20, 2010

On having a schtick

...or how to brand yourself as an important classical musician.

I wasted a good deal of time the other day watching videos of Glenn Gould. No, not wasted. Invested. Don't get me wrong, this man is an artiste (I use the French to show that I mean it. I show that I mean that I mean it by referring to French as "the French.") Glenn Gould is a master. And like all great masters, he also has a great schtick (from the Yiddish).

1. Know yourself.

If you ever want somebody to make 32 short films about you, you also need to figure out a schtick. Because here's the thing: there are any number of young pianists at Curtis that can play all the right notes in Beethoven Opus 35, and they regularly win various piano competitions that (unless you're a pianist) you probably haven't heard of. So what makes Gould so captivating? Because he stretches the rests just a little bit longer? Maybe. But let's be real, when we talk about about Gould, are we really just talking about his tempos and his rest stretchings? His performances are about much more than the piece, they are also about him. This is why some people hate them so much. Like any good politician or celebrity, he inserts himself into the discussion. His public persona and his actual performance of a piece are inseparable- they are part of the same schtick. For Gould it's so natural, it's very easy to forget it's happening, though not for everybody.

2. Know your target audience

Now most super famous soloists have a schtick of some sort. A hook, if you will. A tag-line that the media can run with, so that people can understand where they're coming from- in one sentence or less. Brevity is key, and if its subject is predominantly musical, you will only get so far ("prefers pieces in the key of B-minor" is not the most powerful choice). This also applies to composers. You've got to have a thing. Steve Reich wears a baseball hat, and invented minimalism sort of. Golijov is all crazy cosmopolitan, you know, and does world music. Michael Daugherty's schtick is kind of subtle, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that he's gigantic (*insider composer humor). Lang Lang is that flamboyant Chinese pianist. Sometimes it's enough just to come from some exotic country and to be really, really, incredibly good looking, like the Beatles, or so I'm told. Your schtick doesn't have to be hard to understand, or politically correct. In fact, the fewer words it takes to describe it, the better. That way people will remember it easier. And if it can somehow fit into a larger cultural stereotype, excellent! Like, I suspect many Americans generically expect Chinese people to be good at piano, just as 1960s American girls generically expected British boy bands to be phenomenally sexy (or so I imagine). It just feels right. You don't want people to have to think too hard about it.

3. Take advantage of your toolbox

Glenn Gould's thing is that he's freaking nuts. And he loves Bach, and he's not afraid to show it. But what else would you expect from someone who's nuts? Or maybe it's just that music affects him that much. By implication, more than you. In other words, he's a crazy genius.

4. Be consistent

He only plays piano from the same old custom-built chair (it's a trademark). He was a self-professed hypercondriac, always wearing gloves and wool coats, even in Miami. He (famously) sang while playing, and claimed he was incapable of stopping. He had multiple comic musical-personalities he somehow convinced the CBC to record and broadcast, and he had a minor second career as a nature film maker. He seduced composer Lukas Foss's wife, who left Foss for Gould (and later returned to him) in a classical music sex-scandal the likes of which our business rarely enjoys so publicly. And most of all, he famously swore off live performance at the height of his popularity (three years before the Beatles did), sending the value of his brand into the artistic stratosphere.

In other words, Gould's a marketing genius. He understood that to be a truly marketable classical musician, it takes more than just being really good at your instrument (though that's a necessary requirement). You've got to have a brand. And Gould built and maintained his brand with exceptional skill. He fit so perfectly in with what we wanted to believe a crazy genius was like. It all just fits so seamlessly into our western narrative of genius.

Ever since Beethoven invented the "crazy genius" schtick at the turn of the 19th century, it's been a very popular marketing strategy for many young composers, artists, and performers. I'm not sure that many have pulled it off with quite the success of Gould since.

More recently the crazy genius schtick has fallen somewhat out of fashion. Many young composers today seem to be opting for a more "crazy GQ" persona. Of course, if somebody tried to be Gould today, they would be ridiculous. He already owns that niche. It's the same reason why it would be hard for a baseball-cap-wearing minimalist who writes for keyboard percussion to make a mark, or a second international super-star flamboyant Chinese pianist. It's trademark infringement! But mostly, the marketplace just isn't big enough to support copies. You're gonna have to develop your own brand.


  1. right now, I think it's that I'm the guy with a snarky blog that I don't update enough and I like circus marches. I'm still refining it.

  2. Actually I read it yesterday but I had some thoughts about it and today I wanted to read it again because it is very well written.