A Richard Murphy Musicology Colloquium by Professor William Robin of the University of Maryland School of Music entitled: “There’s Money in New Music”: Bang on a Can and the Post-Gorecki Record Industry in the 1990s.
“The classical-record industry has made a startling discovery,” proclaimed New York Magazine in March 1994. “There’s money in new music.” An unforeseen, smash hit success had ignited the revelation: Nonesuch’s 1992 recording of the Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, which would ultimately sell a million records. In response, RCA/BMG, Philips, and Sony all launched their own contemporary music lines.
For the classical industry, Górecki’s Third participated in the same phenomenon as crossovers like the “Three Tenors,” projects aimed towards yielding substantive profits amidst a landscape of corporate consolidation and declining CD sales. One beneficiary of this moment was the upstart composer collective Bang on a Can, which netted a major contract with Sony Classical in 1995.
This paper reveals, first, how recordings of contemporary music in the U.S. transitioned from a non-commercial service for composers in the 1980s into a potentially profit-making enterprise in the 1990s and, second, how Bang on a Can used the recorded medium to strongly assert its institutional identity in this newly speculative marketplace. I trace the history of Bang on a Can on record, from its early participation in Composer Recordings Inc.’s edgy imprint Emergency Music; through its two Sony albums; to its reinterpretation of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports; and, finally, to the founding of its own independent label, Cantaloupe Music.
More broadly, I argue that this new dialogue between contemporary music and the record industry presents a clear example of how neoliberalism transformed new music in the United States. Just as Congress was arguing over whether the National Endowment for the Arts should be eliminated and American artists left to compete in the free market, major record labels were newly extracting profits from a traditionally non-profit sector.
About the Presenter:
William Robin is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland’s School of Music. His research explores how institutions structure the creation, dissemination, and reception of contemporary classical music in the United States. He completed a PhD in musicology at UNC Chapel Hill in 2016, and is currently working on a book project on the composer collective Bang on a Can and new music in the 1980s and 1990s.
Recent publications include an exploration of the term “indie classical” in the Journal of the Society for American Music, and an article on new music and neoliberalism in the Journal of the American Musicological Society.
As a public musicologist, Robin contributes to the New York Times and the New Yorker, receives an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014, and tweets avidly as @seatedovation.