Claire Chase and the Winner-Take-All Economy

Claire Chase and the Winner-Take-All Economy


Photo by Rich Brooks, via Flickr

In June of 2013, Claire Chase delivered a convocation address to graduates of the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. In this speech, she eloquently laid out her case for the exciting possibilities of, as well as the need for, entrepreneurship in music. As she said, “Whether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us. Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and for one another…. In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.” Anthony Tommasini wrote about the address for the New York Times. “In that convocation speech, which caused a stir on the Internet, and through her work, Ms. Chase, 35, has been making the most positive case I have heard for the new entrepreneurship.” It was also this speech that was the primary impetus for me to write these four essays.

Before diving into her speech a bit, let me first say that I do not begrudge Claire Chase any of her success. She is a phenomenal musician and an astute businesswoman; the more I’ve read about her and learned about the International Contemporary Ensemble, the more impressed I’ve become. I have an enormous amount of respect for Chase. I just don’t share her perspective.

In her convocation address, Chase outlines several points on arts entrepreneurship. If you’ll forgive a long quote:

The capacity that we have today in this room, with the number of people calling themselves composers and musicians in the year 2013, with the technology that can potentially connect us…the capacity that we have to produce our own and one another’s work is staggering. The traditional classical music and arts management structures have dissolved. The traditional record label structures have crumbled. You now don’t need a producer to make a record. You don’t need a promoter to find fans. You don’t need a presenter to present your work. So what happens when the line between the artist and the producer has disappeared altogether? When the artist needs no outside entity to legitimize or stamp approval on her work, but when she can simply give it to the world based on her own impulses. What happens to the work that we will produce? What will it sound like? What will it look like? What of it will withstand the test of time? Well, this is our era. This is your stage. And anything is possible.

The Hope of the Long Tail

It is in this that we again see the hopeful promises of technology. When you can make music much more cheaply than in the past, when you can distribute it around the world for free, then we can all find a fan base to support our art. This thinking represents the “long tail” theory of economics.

In general, this means that relatively few artists and organizations dominate the market while a large number of others jockey over a small percentage of market share. The good news is that because the cost of production and distribution has gotten so low, it is possible for a greater number of goods to become economically viable. Moreover, because technology also allows for considerable connectivity, niche products/producers are able to find niche audiences, and both sides win.

This does happen sometimes, with one example being Erstwhile Records. I’d actually be surprised if many regular NewMusicBox readers were familiar with this imprint. Yet this label, which focuses heavily on electroacoustic improvisation, has been around since 1999 and has released nearly 100 albums. They have managed to build a devoted following to sustain their limited operation despite not being widely known outside a specific audience.

Unfortunately, such stories are not usually the case. Instead, the promises of the long tail are not often met, and if anything, the long tail is only getting shorter and more crowded.[1] Robert H. Frank, professor of economics at Cornell, speculates as to why that may be the case. “One possibility is that today’s tighter schedules have made people more reluctant to sift through the growing avalanche of options confronting them. Many consumers sidestep this unpleasantness by focusing on only the most popular entries.”[2]

He goes on to write that our connectedness enhances our perception of popularity. Alan B. Krueger, professor of economics at Princeton and chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, discusses the popularity problem in the context of the music industry. He cites an interesting experiment in which a control group is given true information about the popularity of certain songs and an experimental group has that data reversed.

In the alternative world that began with the true rankings reversed, the least popular song did surprisingly well, and, in fact, held onto its artificially bestowed top ranking. The most popular song rose in the rankings, so fundamental quality did have some effect. But, overall…the final ranking from the experiment that began with the reversed popularity ordering bore absolutely no relationship to the final ranking from the experiment that began with the true ordering. This demonstrates that the belief that a song is popular has a profound effect on its popularity, even if it wasn’t truly popular to start with.[3]

I would hope, and I think audience demographics bear this out, that those interested in new music or classical music in general tend to be more educated on the subject, but I do not think our community is immune to such psychological effects. When artists become more popular, whether organically or through some notable press, we tend to view them as better even without having heard a note of their music. And when a listener has a nearly unlimited amount of music at his or her fingertips, it takes a real effort to look beyond those at the top.

Winners Take All

An alternative to the long tail theory is the winner-take-all model. While both perspectives acknowledge that the market is dominated by a few, the winner-take-all model suggests that things will only get worse for those on the other end of the graph.

Scalability is an important concept in this line of thinking. Consider the touring career of Paganini. Despite his enormous popularity in Europe, he could only perform for a limited number of people, especially given the speed of travel. But with the rise of recorded music, an artist’s potential reach grew exponentially, allowing those at the top to dominate a much larger share of the overall market.

But surely this applies to only recording revenue and the like, yes? Live performances are not nearly as scalable as digital media. Yet when competing to get the attention of presenters, an artist still has to face the dominance of bigger names in the market. When looking for grants to fund entrepreneurial endeavors, new organizations are competing against that same name recognition, and while kickstarting projects has become an increasingly viable option, you still have to convince your donors that your project is just as worthy as the three other big-name projects they’ve helped with in the last few months.

Sam Reising, in a thorough and well-written article for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine, takes issue with the winner-take-all model. He writes, “Proponents of this theory forget that there is an active aspect in forging a career in the arts. They seem to believe that if you are a great composer or performer, people will come flocking to you with commissions and performance opportunities…. There must be an entrepreneurial middle step.”[4]

I agree, at least in part. I don’t believe that the cream will inevitably rise to the top given current market situations, and obviously there was a point in time when virtually no one knew who Claire Chase was. My contention is that even if the step between becoming good and becoming known is somewhat based on entrepreneurship, we must recognize that the same tools that allowed Chase to succeed are making it increasingly difficult for others.[5]

And it isn’t just entrepreneurship that fills in that middle step.

The New Gatekeepers

The internet is not nearly as democratic as we tend to believe it is. While almost anyone in the world can see what you produce, that doesn’t mean that anyone actually will.

Duncan Watts, a mathematical sociologist and principal researcher at Microsoft Research summarizes the problem:

We may be seeing the replacement of one hierarchy with another hierarchy. We may be seeing the replacement of one set of gatekeepers with another set of gatekeepers…. But we’re certainly not seeing an egalitarian world where everything has the same chance to become known or accessible. [6]

Claire Chase is incorrect when she says that “the artist needs no outside entity to legitimize or stamp approval on her work.” True, an artist needs no permission to produce her own work, but to disseminate that work today absolutely requires help from cultural gatekeepers. A New York Times review is no longer a prerequisite for notability (even if those who can still put quotes from The Grey Lady in the first paragraph of their bio), but there are still important bloggers, reviewers, and even Twitter users who can greatly raise the profile of an artist. Grassroots viral growth, while it exists, is exceedingly rare.

Arts management and music label structures have indeed undergone a seismic shift in the last decade, but their replacements are not necessarily better or more egalitarian. Without the support of the new cultural gatekeepers, to say nothing of the still powerful old-media giants, it remains exceedingly difficult to separate oneself from the background noise.

The Failures

“Popular perception has not caught up with the emerging research,” writes John Wihbey, managing editor of Journalist’s Resource, based at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “We often judge the Internet based on the relatively few stories of success—where democratization seems to operate—rather than the millions of failures. Viral is the exception, big broadcasts—and lonely voices whistling in the digital hurricane—are the norm.”[7]

I think that Claire Chase has in some ways been blinded by her own success, and the rest of us along with her. It is natural to see the success of entrepreneurial organizations such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and declare them the new path forward. But we know little of the myriad failures that have come in its wake.

Still, we cannot easily erase the realities of our situation. There is a narrow path to success in this model, and even perhaps some room for the long tail, but the more we speak of entrepreneurship as our great hope or even our calling, the more we reinforce a system that benefits only a few. We are subsuming a mindset that places little value in our work and then wondering why no one cares about what we do.

If a touch of entrepreneurship is how we survive our present situation, so be it. But I do not believe entrepreneurship holds great promise for our future.


1. Anita Elberse, Blockbusters, 2013, p. 161

2. “Winners Take All, but Can’t We Still Dream?”, New York Times, Feb 22, 2014

3. “Land of Hope and Dreams: Rock and Roll, Economics and Rebuilding the Middle Class.” Remarks prepared for delivery on June 12, 2013.

4. “The Failure of Music Education,” Issue 8, August/September 2014. I regret that I did not have time to read this before my previous post was due. He goes into considerably more detail about the entrepreneurship programs that universities offer than I did and argues strongly for greater adoption of such programs. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a contributing editor for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, and Reising is on staff at New Music USA.

5. There are other avenues of revenue that help insulate classical musicians from the winner-take-all economy. Private teaching, for example, is not scalable. Even when the possibility of Skype lessons is factored in, one teacher still has a limited number of hours for teaching.

6. John Wihbey, “Rethinking Viral: Why the Digital World is Not as Democratic as We Think.” Pacific Standard, June 9, 2014.

7. Ibid.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

23 thoughts on “Claire Chase and the Winner-Take-All Economy

  1. Phil Fried

    I found this posting baffling to say the least. I do agree with many of the basic points, the more things change the more they stay the same ( new gate keepers or old etc.), but are we talking about entrepreneurship for composers, or presenters?

    There is a difference.

    To my mind composers success is based on their ability to get sponsorships from; colleges, universities, awards, performing groups. So while it is possible that some composers will never have to be entrepreneurs, most performing groups, presenters, and performing institutions will.

    That’s the other confusing thing. How is it that the paid subscription”I care if you listen” magazine isn’t exactly the kind of entrepreneurship that Ms. Chase had in mind. Monetizing a blog?

    The problem for the recent artists is that activity by itself counts more than any other factor for grants and sponsorships. It follows that those journalists who detail artists activity also have importance. Like it or not music journalists can also be entrepreneurs.

    1. Andy Lee

      I don’t see as much of a distinction between composers and performers in this regard. Yes, the sources of funding are a bit different, but there remains traditional funding for both as well as more entrepreneurial avenues. When the question is boiled down to “how do I get money?” I see a decent amount of overlap between the two.

      I also wasn’t contending that the ICIYL Magazine (and having ads on the main website) wasn’t an entrepreneurial activity, and it may even be the sort of thing that Chase had in mind, generally speaking. My point, which is reinforced by this example, is that the chance to actually earn a living or even part of a living from such endeavors is minimal. To the best of my knowledge, and guessing based on knowing Thomas a bit, the Magazine and blog aren’t making much money at all. I’d be surprised if it was in the black financially. Thomas works exceedingly hard on putting that all together, and has invested a lot of his own money to make it happen, but I don’t know that he’s even recovered what he’s put in. That’s pure speculation, and it may be that investment will pay off in the future, but for now I’d guess that it’s more a labor of love than a money-making endeavor.

      As to your final point, I’d say that those who succeed are those who can best capitalize (using both meanings of the word) on success. Activity feeds that to an extent.

      1. Phil Fried

        I don’t see as much of a distinction between composers and performers in this regard.

        Andy, I said presenters (institutions), not performers.

        Why turn a blind eye to the fact that almost all the sponsors of artistic activity are involved in business. We can say that composer X (or violinist ) doesn’t make money from entrepreneurship, but if he/she is on any college faculty their employers do. Of course entrepreneurship by proxy may seem ridiculous, yet, if said college, or school, uses composer X in brochures and advertisements to attract new business (students) then the idea kind of sticks.

  2. Warren

    I look forward to the fourth essay. This article was probably the most convincing yet, especially when you cite the number of “lonely voices whistling in the digital hurricane.” Tackling the great, implicit lie of entrepreneurship (that all you need is a little marketing and management) is important, because myself and countless other composers have fallen into the trap of “I just need a good website — then I’ll get recognized” or “I just need a good social media presence — then I’ll get recognized” or “I just need a reference — then I’ll get recognized” but when is enough enough?

    I think the most difficult part about this whole issue is that we don’t really have an answer for what comes post-entrepreneurship. How can the system be made more fair? How can we remove the winner-takes-all system and still have room for actual success? What would a system like that even look like, and more importantly, how could anyone make a living within it?

    And then there’s the troubling idea of “if your music has any worth, you can be successful with entrepreneurship,” which rings too strongly of “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” As you identify, there are many ways entrepreneurship actually disenfranchises artists.

    1. Andy Lee

      You’re right in that we don’t have an answer to what’s next, and for all the rapid change that has come in the last decade, I think that much more is in store.

      That said, I think we’re starting to get to the point of realizing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The internet is not the wild west; it’s been settled by big money just about every respect.

  3. J. M. Gerraughty

    I’ve been reading these essays with great interest, as I’ve been skeptical of the “entrepreneurial model” of composition for some time. I think it makes a lot of sense if you’re part of a small group that wants to operate like a band, but what if you’re a composer who wants commissions from more traditional groups?

    I’d be very curious to know exactly who the new gatekeepers are, and how I can show them my stuff! Like Warren said, I’ve been putting in the hours with social media, getting myself a pretty website, but feel like I have nothing to show for it. You still need a “golden ticket” of some kind, and I’d love to know what that is!

    1. Andy Lee

      I really wish I had an answer for that, because if I did, I’d start a business selling that answer to musicians. :p

      The gatekeepers have changed, and perhaps even fractured a bit, which makes them a bit more difficult to pin down. That said, I’m sure you could come up with a shortlist in no time. Another part of the problem, though, is that now such gatekeepers are inundated. If we as ‘consumers’ of music have a hard time weeding through everything, imagine having all of that sent to you directly? Part of what I may or may not get into with my next post is the endurance it takes to get attention. In fact, things are so bad that just sticking around for years and continuing to put out stuff is seen as a badge of credibility.

  4. Ya'akov

    Claire is, I believe, speaking to an additional skill set that, while once viewed as very separate from artistry, can now be used very much at the service of it, and should therefore be cultivated. To me, this is not a promise that she’s made, not some egalitarian beacon that she’s held out for us as composers, artists, writers, etc. This is simply a reality that is worth being aware of.

    She is suggesting that in the space that is now opening up in the early wake of classical music’s traditionally elitist structures, we are afforded, for the first time, the ability to truly build something from the ground up. She has embodied that practice by commissioning new projects from lesser known composers, as both a soloist and as director of ICE. We have a new opportunity, as a community of musicians, to reject the older models of presentation in favor of something new. How this can be done without entrepreneurship is unimaginable to me.

    There is no doubt that with the increasing use of technology, the creation and dissemination of music becomes so easy and cheap that the market (or whatever we can call it) has become very dense and vast. Add to this the (exciting!) increase in young musicians becoming engaged with contemporary music, new music ensembles on the rise, more and more aspiring composers, etc (and all of this is great, of course) – these all make it increasingly difficult to sift through, to find the best. This new influx of music does certainly create hierarchies, new hierarchies, hierarchies to be aware of to whatever extent one considers them important (if success is on one’s radar, then I assume one should consider them rather important). This is, to my understanding, precisely the role of entrepreneurial and fresh thinking. (**Perhaps I have missed the thrust of this piece, in which case apologies, and perhaps it can be kindly salvaged for me by someone?) Claire is not suggesting that since the old models are in the process of disintegrating, we now have an easier shot – in ways, I think she’s arguing that there’s more work to be done now more than ever. Without the structure, how does one create a scaffolding for their own success and the success of their peers? By creating new structures! Will new hierarchies be instated? Assuredly so. Each generation/wave of composers will need to be more and more keen to these, and more and more creative with respect to how to overcome them. I suppose there is a sort of dialectical movement in this process, whereby there is constantly a sense of movement and shifting, undoing and replacing. Entrepreneurialism shouldn’t be treated teleologically, but rather as a movement towards opening space. One is inclined to say that if we are smart, the opening will get larger, the audience will continue growing, and success will be discussed solely in terms of merit. In this egalitarian, utopian meritocracy music is simply appreciated without being filtered through layers and layers of nonsense. But that would be too focused on an end-goal – and besides, is that even necessarily utopian? I think reorienting this idea of entrepreneurialism towards the sense of being keenly aware of the structural gaps in one’s own time and participating in the creation of new structures to fill them, will better suit, at the very least, my humble interpretation of Claire’s thinking.

    1. Andy Lee

      This is very good, and I think if you and I were to sit down for a drink and a conversation, we’d find much to agree about.

      As to the nature of what Chase is saying. I agree that she is saying that now we have more work to do and a new set of skills that need to be developed in addition to being a fine musician. I think when she says, “Whether we like it or not,” she acknowledges that. At the same time, I hear from this speech (as well as others I’ve watched such as this one) great hope and promise in our new reality. Yes, it is exciting that we can build organizations from the ground up, but she also seems extremely excited about the possibility of new technologies. I may be conflating her optimism with the optimism I hear from so many other corners of the music world, but after watching her speech several times I find it does have this egalitarian ring to it. I’m trying to balance the equation a bit and shed some light on what I see as the darker underbelly of all this.

      I really liked your description of these changes as “movement and shifting, undoing and replacing.” That speaks to me much more clearly than saying that “Classical music is just being born,” as Chase did. I think her perspective is more revolutionary, and I think the reality is not quite that. But a keen entrepreneur, such as herself, sees opportunities where others do not, and she deserves all the credit for what she’s accomplished.

      I think a slight clarification on (what I hoped to make) the thrust of my piece would be that I’m saying that entrepreneurship under current conditions will favor the very few and marginalize the vast majority. I’m not saying it isn’t a path to success, but I see it as the great hope that others seem to.

  5. R

    I think this essay makes some important points, but you are using Claire Chase’s speech and her work as a straw man, and strongly mischaracterizing it. Chase simply argued that the old models don’t create viable career paths anymore, and that artists must make their own paths. Her path includes broadening the circle through commissions from emerging composers, including many more women and non-white composers than anyone else commissioning today. Characterizing this as “entrepreneurship” and the work of a “businesswoman” isn’t quite right- it’s working in an agile way to make a career, even when that means working as your own fundraiser, booker, publicist, librarian, and more. It’s disappointing that in order to make some reasonable points, you’ve tried to tear down the work of someone whose work has directly created viable careers for dozens of musicians and composers, and indirectly contributed to the success of many, many more.

    1. Andy Lee

      First, at no point was I trying to tear down Chase’s work. What she has done with ICE is nothing short of remarkable. I am in awe of what she has accomplished. Where I disagree with Chase is on the promises of entrepreneurship and technology in the future. Where she seems to see great promise and a more level playing field, I see success for a few and the marginalization of many.

      Concerning the straw man, I asked myself repeatedly while writing this piece if that’s what I was doing. I argue against myself for virtually ever sentence during the writing process, and there was a lot left out because I felt I couldn’t defend the position or was improperly characterizing the opposing viewpoint. You may feel that I failed in that attempt, but I worked hard to base what I was writing directly based on what she had said.

      Also, I wasn’t the one who characterized Chase’s career as entrepreneurial, she did that (in addition to countless other organizations). When I used the word “businesswoman,” I’m working off her official title in ICE, “Artistic Director/CEO.”Morever, she said ca.10:40 in her speech, “The music that we’re making today doesn’t have a name… yet. The businesses that we are creating to support that music don’t have names yet. How marvelous. We get to make them up.” She is directly talking about creating business and taking the title of CEO, so I don’t think that businesswoman, in addition to artist, is a misnomer.

  6. Sugar Vendil

    Excellent post.

    I’m all for self-producing and making things happen on your own…at the beginning. At some point, however, an artist needs to make that leap–as ICE has–where they are pursuing bigger opportunities (i.e., reaching out to presenters, applying for every opportunity possible, getting management, etc.) and getting those stamps of approval. I don’t think Claire Chase or other artists are wrong when encouraging entrepreneurship, but unglamorous details are oftentimes left out.

    I also think that aside from being encouraged to start their own ventures, artists can also be encouraged to take an active role in being part of an existing venture. Not everyone is meant to be a leader.

    1. Andy Lee

      I think where ICE differs from what you might expect is that even at this level of success, it is musicians who hold most of the professional staff positions. Only 1 of 9 staffers, the business manager position, seems to have an extensive background on the business side of things. But yes, I think that most musicians would prefer to have others step into those roles once they become successful enough.

      Unglamorous details… seems a pleasant way to put that. :)

  7. Andy Lee

    Great line: “There’s a moral imperative [in capitalism] to succeed or give up, and succeeding means growing – bigger audience, more profits, bigger budgets. To keep making art that isn’t successful by a conventional definition is an affront to a capitalist ideology – unless it can be recategorized as a hobby, a consumer activity.”

  8. John Porter

    For those who think that entrepreneurship is marketing and management, well, of course they would object. And to think that entrepreneurship is a middle step, is in my view foolhardy. It’s not about the technical issues of resumes, or marketing, but being good at understanding and developing networks, funding sources, new sources for performance, etc. In a profession that is as disrupted as any including publishing, journalism, television, etc.., you have to see yourself as a locus for advancing your career. And anyone who thinks that they’re going to get a publisher who will do that for them, has been poorly educated, prepared, and is well positioned for failure, no matter how good their music is.

  9. Andy Costello

    You did a lovely job in challenging the talking points of Claire’s speech while maintaining recognition of and respect for her achievements.

    Something worth mentioning: Graduation speeches are a special animal. The occasion is celebratory by nature, and that will influence the tone of the talk. Personally, I have no clue what I would deliver to an audience in that context. It would be very difficult to not speak in broad strokes, and with blanketed optimism.

    Personally, the best speeches I’ve heard/read are from comedians. They have a carte blanche to be as real as they want, and feel less pressure to produce deep life truths.

    Anyway, my point is, context matters. If Claire published this as an editorial in a reputable business journal, I would react in the way you did in writing this article. With that said, words matter, no matter where and how they are presented, and I’m glad you’re bringing forth the elephant in the (college auditorium) room.

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