Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

Smoke Free
“Smoke Free” (1999)
{cigarette butts and wood, 45″x67″}
by John Salvest
(courtesy Rudolph Projects)
Photo by Melissa Richard

How Far Away are Handlers in the Classical Music Industry from their Political Counterparts?

“Sometimes I just get a reaction, like, who appointed you spokesperson for classical music?” Albert Imperato erupts in mid-thought. Since leaving Universal Classics earlier this year to form 21st Century Music Management with partners Jessica Lustig, Glenn Petry and Dan Lerner, Imperato has been driven like a man possessed.

It’s an enthusiasm all too rare in classical music–a personality-driven spokesman born of the post-Carville era of image handlers, with one major difference: Imperato to all appearances is exactly the kind of True Believer that the Carville-surrogate in Joe Klein‘s Primary Colors makes fun of. Not content merely to speak for their clients, Imperato & Co. sets the agenda. They are on a mission to streamline the disparate images from artists, record companies and performance venues into a coherent message about classical music. And if you want to play on their team, only “TBs,” it seems, need apply.

It’s also a world away from the back-room, cigar-chomping impresarios who stayed in the background, pragmatically pulling the levers for their clients’ careers. At one point, artist appearances were bartered like political endorsements (“Yeah, you can have the star, but you have to take our new guy first”), with the human capital either voters or audience members, depending on the field. Under the benefit of master pragmatist Sol Hurok, Isaac Stern‘s musical recognition made him a genuine public figure able to command public attention. What would it take for that to happen today?

“To transfer that visibility to the public arena, an artist is going to need a certain vision and a lot of dedication,” says Tim Page, a cultural critic for the Washington Post. “They also need a solid support system in place to keep that person doing whatever that person did that appealed to the public in the first place.”

“There could be another Isaac Stern today,” says artist publicist Mary Lou Falcone, “but it would take someone at the top of the field, who is respected worldwide, and is both passionate and articulate about their cause. And those people are few and far between.”

Could that person be “made”? To some degree yes, but the media landscape is not what it was. Since Stern’s days saving Carnegie Hall, pop culture has raised the bar for classical music, and there are many more artists even in the classical realm clamoring for attention.

As in politics, media strategy is about clarity and focus, about distilling the image into sound-bytes and easily digestible visual nuggets. That’s the primary goal, anyway. How those nuggets get put to use comes later. “We are there to provide guidance,” says Falcone, “and part of that is identifying where an artist’s outside passions lie outside of music.”

In other words, thinking and strategy vary with each client who walks through the door. It’s an uncanny contrast with 21C, where clients like countertenor David Daniels, violinist Leila Josefowicz, composers Michael Daugherty and Steve Mackey, and the vocal ensemble Chanticleer seem as if they are being groomed for a greater cause.

“Everyone has tunnel vision to some extent,” says Imperato, who also works with the American Composers Orchestra and Universal Classics. “Record labels only care about their own discs, venues promote only their own concerts. You have pocket organizations that only promote new music. We want to get the major players in the classical music field together, identify what our collective goals are, and put these people in a national forum.”

Falcone, for her part, identifies with that enthusiasm — she too had championed a pet project she calls “a Peace Corps for music education” where college graduates could sign up for two years of active service in elementary schools. But her plan would have required a state-by-state effort to put into effect, which was not conducive to running a full-time publicity firm.

Admittedly, not every artist is camera-ready, and just because they can’t command a national press conference with a few phone calls doesn’t mean they should stay out of the political process if they feel the call. Sometimes smaller strategies are more effective than larger ones. “[NEA Chairman] Bill Ivey has made it a point to meet personally with every Senator on Capitol Hill,” she says. “It’s when you go one-on-one with someone that you really make an impact. And if you don’t have entré to a Senator’s office, find someone who does, like the NEA.”

Imperato, though, is trying to raise the national classical music consciousness with both guns blazing, borrowing elements he likes from the Country Music Foundation, which he credits with “turning a regional music and turning into a national hit,” and of course, Hollywood, the standard bearer of popular culture. At a Conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League earlier this year, Imperato and Lustig discussed some of the lessons classical music can learn from Hollywood.

“First, when you go to the movies, you sit in the same sections no matter if you’re rich or poor,” Imperato says. “It’s a democratic environment that really helps build a community. Also, there’s a seasonal awareness. We have our summer festivals, but Hollywood has made Memorial Day in many ways a bigger holiday than Thanksgiving, and its all a triumph of marketing. And also the movies–and any other artist field–are a celebration of the new. In our business, the new is the least likely thing to keep the organization going.”

Plenty of crucial questions are left unanswered–particularly when it comes to who is going to pay for things like those full-page ads that Imperato envisions in the manner of the America Federation of Teachers. But 21C Media sounds less like a traditional consulting firm than a full-blown political movement, and in a two-party system where classical music and new music meet so rarely, the system could stand a little excitement.

From Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington
by Ken Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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