Rich Kids and Music

There’s been some back and forth in the UK between an MP and James Blunt about Blunt’s (and others’) elite socioeconomic status pre-career and how he’s part of a burgeoning class of privileged upper-middle-class bourgeois musicians.  The New Republic added to the debate, positing:

The children of the middle and upper classes are beginning to reassert a much older order. In the arts generallymusic, theatre, literature for sureit is clear that cuts to benefits, the disappearance of the art school (where many a luminous layabout found room to bloom) and the harsh cost of further and higher education are pricing the working class out of careers in the arts and making it increasingly a playground for the comfortably off.

Blunt asserts that all of this is merely people being envious. But, in my experiences as a musician from a not-rich family, there’s a lot of truth to what is being said.  When I was in undergrad, I worked at a music camp over the summer.  It was one of those places where wealthy families from Boston and New York would send their kids to “summer” with us locals, and it was like walking through a J. Crew/Ralph Lauren/Vineyard Vines catalog in real life.


I had never really grown up around people more or less substantially well-off than me — Nashua, NH is a pretty middle-of-the-road kinda place, with a homogeneous population.  It was here that I became acquainted with the class of people who could afford to be musicians — you know, without incurring a second mortgage in student loans.  It blew my mind.

What also blew my mind was that, aside from preppy dress-up nights at New England summer camps, rich kids look pretty normal.  That is to say, they don’t walk around all day looking like this:

Wait…you mean they don’t wear tophats?!

You’re more likely to encounter a rich kid in a t-shirt than in morning dress.

This is what I fundamentally don’t understand about allegations that classical music is elitist — or rather, more elitist — than popular music.  Popular music is increasingly made by wealthy people who can afford the time, lessons, and equipment.  Look at Taylor Swift or Vampire Weekend — they had significant resources that allowed them to get where they are today.  How do these artists speak for the common people any more or less than a classical musician with those same advantages?

Put another way — What’s more elitist: a classical musician $100,000 in debt after a decade of conservatory training, or a guy whose parents paid the tuition, room, board, and pocket money for his English degree at Brown while he comfortably strummed his guitar to local notoriety on the circuit?

All the talk about “classical music needs to be in bars,” or “tuxedos are too fancy for regular people” is meaningless.  Rich people music sounds the same as poor people music.  It happens in the same places.  It looks the same, draped in the same sweaty, ironic t-shirt.  The difference is that rich people are the only ones who can seem to afford to make it.

The baby boomers tricked us into thinking that “revolution” will always look like it did in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s — that skinny kids in t-shirts in a bar will always be the underdogs inevitably overtaking the fat cats with their suits, ties, and classical music, because those kids are singing the music of the common people.  Well, those fat cats’ kids, armed with their parents’ money, have hijacked the music of the common people, and nobody seems to notice.

Seems to me, the best way to be punk right now is to put on a tuxedo and listen to some Mahler.

  5 comments for “Rich Kids and Music

  1. 02/24/2015 at 7:04 am

    “This is what I fundamentally don’t understand about allegations that classical music is elitist — or rather, more elitist — than popular music.”

    I think this is based more around non-musician’s perceptions rather than truth. Once upon a time there were much more “commoners” in classical music halls than there are today. Hell, there were “lower class” folks at Beethoven’s symphonic premiers that were hooting and hollering DURING the performances.

    Classical music has become associated with all things “fancy” – string quartets in fancy dining halls, classical music in fancy car commercials, classical music in Rolex commercials, etc. ect.. After a while people as a culture begin to assimilate this into their generalizations which fuels there perceptions of genres they have little personal experience with.

    That’s my two-cents, anyways…

  2. 02/24/2015 at 7:37 am

    A few disagreements:

    First off, I don’t know that the Brown-attending strawman holds up all that well, unless you’re going to argue that pop music is exclusively the province of the same privileged class that generally enjoys opportunity in classical music. Taylor Swift and Vampire Weekend are valid examples, I suppose – but what about Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Eminem, (newly-Grammyed) Beck? It’s not true that all successful pop musicians come from that level of privilege.

    I’ll buy for the moment the premise that participation in classical music is contingent on the same level of material privilege as participation in pop music (although I have some serious reservations about that). But that notwithstanding, the level of accessibility of pop music vs. the level of accessibility of classical music is important here. I’m talking concrete accessibility – the ability a person has to see and hear and experience the music. Let’s say you can’t afford a $35/person symphony ticket for your family – you probably still have a car radio and access to Top 40. Not to mention geographical limitations on the accessibility of live classical music, extremely limited chances to learn about classical music (something I think we take for granted a lot)… It’s all well and good to say that classical music as an institution is less elitist than pop music. What exactly is it that we’re doing to prove it?

  3. 02/24/2015 at 9:20 am

    Good points. My Brown strawman isn’t meant to encompass all the people who make popular music. I’m trying to point out what I think is an inherent contradiction of popular music’s “of the people” cultural stance with the kind of financial backing that is becoming more and more necessary to have in order to make it. Classical music is the same in a lot of ways, but there’s a blanket assumption that classical music is made by elites, for elites, which people inside classical music know to be false.

    Classical music does not have the same accessibility that popular music has, for certain. But you could say the same thing about water parks vs playgrounds. Water parks aren’t ubiquitous, it costs more to get into them than playgrounds, and yet we don’t sit outside water parks and seethe about them being only for the elitist snobs who can afford them.

    The larger point I want to get across (which maybe doesn’t come across as well as I thought it did when I was writing) is that classical music’s “elitism” is conflated with baby boomers’ sense of revolution. And, for whatever reason, it’s stuck. If classical music is going to survive, we have to figure out a way to untangle it from these past associations.

  4. 02/25/2015 at 2:59 pm

    I strongly agree with the overall sentiments of your post. The Brown Strawman (which is now eternally your personal contribution to analytic philosophy) holds true as a generalization for an unknown, and I’d assume large, amount of indie rock. Beyond that, the sociological problem behind the traditional label system is fierce, and hilariously, well given by Gene Simmons in a recent interview. He said that the reason that rock is dead is that the baby boomers could get a Gibson and a Marshall, work it out in a garage, and Boom!, record deal on their merits of their craft (artful or not). He is sad for our decentralized music economy because he is sad for the kids who would have been supported by the machine. Sure, the label system MADE a Beck, as an A&D risk calculation; they MADE a Kanye. Neither has been in the middle or working class since.

    On a bigger scale, “elitism” means something different in the classical and pop worlds. The Pop Music Stawman (since we’re not allowed to make generalizations here) who has access to a radio, likely has access to a classical station as well. They would never choose to listen to it unless they feel like feeling elitist (a desideratum and outcome put forward by all of the empirical sciences when observing taste and its biological effects). The Classical Music Stawman would, on the other hand, feel like they were slumming with pop music, relying on the Highbrow/Lowbrow duality. There were a handful of old people sleeping through an Andras Schiff performance I attended the other night… If I told them that the people with money were in indie rock now, they may very goddamned well go sleep through a Vampire Weekend concert.

    Now if we’re sufficiently done making speculation on taste and reception through the lens of elitism… Let’s just try to agree to that it takes a lot of time to master any of the musical crafts (performance, analytic, pedagogy…) and that that investment is NOT provided by our current social world. You get the means to practice music through economic stability, but some kids in the conservatory have to pay to be there and defer the instability. A handful of my friends from the university have made lucrative pop and jazz careers after having Dad pay for their education. Almost everyone from the lower class backgrounds in my department 5 years ago are now in the retail and service industries. Elitism doesn’t play too much of a role in that outcome, but class mobility does.

  5. 03/05/2015 at 10:56 am

    I would love to study composition at a conservatory for grad school, but as I work at my pop’s auto repair business in Brooklyn, NY, and contemplate the $38,000+ sticker price, I find it hard to justify the financial risk…

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