In the 1976 docudrama All the President’s Men, Watergate informant Deep Throat offers some advice that would later become a celebrated catchphrase: “Follow the money.” The same advice might be given to those contemplating the research presented by William Robin in his 2021 monograph Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace. As this book and other recent studies demonstrate, following the money has emerged as an invaluable tool for scholars of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music.1

Industry tells a story about cultural production in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s (sans political scandal). It focuses on the intersection between previously overlooked funding and programming initiatives and the activities of new music organization Bang on a Can (BoaC), founded by David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe in 1987 to explore the emergence of the eponymous “new music marketplace.” This concept developed as “institutions and musicians came to believe that the survival of contemporary composition depended on reaching a broad, non-specialist audience” (p. 2), concurrently with diminishing Cold War–era funding opportunities. The book is essential reading for scholars of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century music. While a gap in the study of contemporary music production has been addressed to an extent by other recent scholars, Robin works with a depth of engagement and a generosity of purpose that, without being sycophantic, reveals Lang, Gordon, and Wolfe to be both artistically idealistic and economically pragmatic.

Robin’s main argument builds upon the uneasy dualism of musical experimentation and market savvy emblematized by BoaC, asking how an organization that fashioned itself as a group of “renegades that stormed the musical establishment” (p. 11) might also be understood as an heir to late twentieth-century institutional infrastructure and systems of patronage. BoaC’s success, he argues, should be attributed to both the group’s commitment to an aesthetic that “sought to cultivate new audiences for difficult music, rather than cultivate easy music that would appeal to new audiences” (p. 12), and its willingness to orient its funding, performance, and marketing practices toward the requirements of the new music marketplace. In other words, despite the group’s supposed rejection of moribund institutional rhetoric (including uptown/downtown compositional debates), BoaC was very much a product of the music institutions and cultural forces that helped produce the new music landscape in which it thrived. Moreover, BoaC’s actions set a standard for the ways in which subsequent contemporary music groups have been expected to market and fund new music.2

Through a short introduction, seven chapters, and an epilogue, Robin draws on previously unexamined grant applications, extensive personal interviews, and press reception to reveal how the chameleon-like BoaC presented an image of antiestablishment, avant-garde experimentalism while operating with economic and rhetorical savvy in the neoliberal marketplace. Chapter 1, “Academics,” challenges the familiar narrative of the US university being the exclusive preserve of the “Cold War academic avant-garde” (p. 24). Robin shows how Lang, Gordon, and Wolfe’s time at Yale University dramatically shaped their fusion of aesthetic eclecticism and marketplace-driven pragmatism. In doing so, the chapter brings attention to institutions such as Yale whose schools of composition did not fit into the modernist aesthetic of Babbitt, Carter, and Wuorinen, and yet also played a significant infrastructural role for young composers. Professors Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick oversaw a loosely enforced rotational system of composition instruction, one that allowed for a “pluralistic attitude” (p. 28) toward composition—that included minimalism—leavened with a healthy dose of pragmatism and professionalism. Robin also expounds upon the Yale student performance collective Sheep’s Clothing, whose activities he reads as a major influence upon BoaC. Founded by Bresnick’s undergraduate students in 1978, Sheep’s Clothing held annual all-night concert marathons, as well as other events that Yale graduates—including Lang—participated in. The Sheep’s Clothing marathons brought together an eclectic mix of styles, but resemblances between the undergraduate group and BoaC ended with the leftist politics that were one of the former’s key components. Given this new context, we might understand BoaC’s separation of certain experimental practices from the political ethos behind those practices as foreshadowing similar divisions between politics and practice exhibited in contemporary experimental performance.

Chapter 2, “Horizons,” considers the influence of the organization Meet the Composer (MTC) in shaping the marketplace turn of the 1980s. As a major funding initiative, MTC supported crucial programs such as the Composers Performance Fund and the Orchestra Residencies Program and published major trade resources. Robin draws attention to the role played by John Duffy, MTC’s supervisor, in establishing the rhetoric of the marketplace turn among commissioning institutions, composers, and the public. Perhaps the most visible example of Duffy’s advocacy was the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons festivals, a flagship project of MTC that served as an important precursor to BoaC’s first marathon concert in 1987. Lang’s work under Druckman in organizing the 1986 Horizons festival and his relationship with Duffy played a crucial part in BoaC’s early years—so much so that Lang’s Horizons experience was mentioned in early BoaC grant proposals. Moreover, the experiences that were not included were just as important, having illuminated the hierarchical industry practices that BoaC hoped to eradicate through its (future) organization.

Chapters 3 and 4, “Festivals” and “Funding,” examine the crystallization and subsequent growth of BoaC. The popular press and BoaC-led narratives have emphasized the role of the first marathon in “[imagining] a new kind of new-music community that would merge the two disparate scenes of uptown and downtown” (p. 90). Robin, however, argues that this programming decision should instead be read as a deliberate moment of self-fashioning that expressed the aesthetic priorities of Lang, Gordon, and Wolfe, while also manifesting the curatorial control that has driven the organization since its inception. Although BoaC did not merge the personnel of uptown and downtown, the resulting musical idiom was historically significant: “they combined academia’s notated scores written for virtuosic, classically-trained performers with the minimalist rhythms, cross-genre influences, and amplification of experimentalism” (p. 99).

In “Funding,” the book’s pursuit of financial issues broadens in scope. Robin argues that rather than shaping precise aesthetic developments, the culture wars determined how cultural institutions functioned, failed, and in the case of BoaC “flourished” (p. 106) during the 1990s. This chapter should be required reading for any student of late twentieth- or twenty-first-century US musical institutions. Robin’s analysis contextualizes the efforts of such organizations within the shifting landscape of public funding, demonstrating how these politically driven changes “intensified … new music’s marketplace turn” (ibid.). His painstaking examination of materials from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) archives reveals how BoaC’s early attempts to diversify programming aligned with the multicultural values of the granting institution. BoaC procured additional funding at a time when uptown ensembles like the Group for Contemporary Music failed to secure NYSCA support because of their neoconservative insistence on a narrow definition of musical “value” that systematically excluded most composers who were not white and/or cis male. BoaC was not immune, however, to substantial changes to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), such as the eradication of individual artist fellowships. In response, it created the “People’s Commissioning Fund,” a fundraising initiative that allowed the organization to accrue larger numbers of marketplace- and access-oriented forms of public funding, even as it essentially replicated the services previously provided by institutions like the NEA at a higher cost.

The final three chapters expand upon the funding streams that supported BoaC during the era of NEA austerity and beyond. Chapter 5, “All-Stars,” analyzes how the All-Stars, BoaC’s touring ensemble, represented a shift “from emphasizing how [BoaC] bridged stylistic divides within new music … to instead emphasizing how they blurred genre boundaries between contemporary classical music and rock” (p. 140). Robin carefully draws out the tensions that arose between the founders and the All-Stars. Although the All-Stars as a funding stream represented an “in-house band” (p. 142) in terms of marketing, rehearsal practices, and performance sans conductor, the ensemble itself had little control over the repertoire it played.

Chapters 6 and 7, “Lincoln Center” and “Record Labels,” explore the ultimate institutional moves of BoaC: its collaboration with Lincoln Center and its forays into the profit-driven record industry. The 1994 Lincoln Center collaboration induced anxiety on both sides of the aisle. Would BoaC’s move to the established presenter space (and its resources) mean abandoning its DIY ethos? Or, conversely, would the marketplace-oriented ensemble’s partnership with Lincoln Center signify the further commercialization of high art as critiqued by neoconservatives like Samuel Lipman? Both BoaC and the Lincoln Center used the partnership to cultivate divergent modes of institutional dramaturgy.3 In BoaC’s telling, Lincoln Center was “entirely bereft of new and unconventional musics”(p. 171), a lacuna that the partnership would remedy. Per Lincoln Center, however, the BoaC partnership strengthened a wing of market-oriented new music programming that already existed. Moreover, BoaC’s argument about the necessity for the partnership was somewhat paradoxical: by partnering with the Lincoln Center, the organization would legitimize composers who would otherwise be excluded from the elitist space—a rhetorical twist that, as Robin points out, strengthened the very institutional clout of presenters like Lincoln Center that BoaC had previously critiqued.

Chapter 7 examines how BoaC’s endeavors in the recording industry complemented its work with the All-Stars and Lincoln Center. While specialist recordings disseminated by a range of nonprofit labels and service organizations were made with distribution access in mind, successful minimalist releases on labels such as ECM and Nonesuch—and the astronomical sales of Górecki’s Symphony no. 3 in the early 1990s—formed a parallel market that hinted at an alternative commercial landscape. In response, the nonprofit label Composers Recordings Inc. launched several imprints in the early 1990s, including Emergency Music, with whom BoaC recorded in 1992, 1993, and 1994. Subsequently, BoaC jumped to Sony Classical, and then to the Philips imprint Point Music, before founding its own boutique label, Cantaloupe Music, in 2001. As Robin details in the epilogue, while BoaC adapted to and indeed was a part of many institutions that sought to shape the new music marketplace, the model of practical entrepreneurship, branding, and canny adaptation represented by the group has since become a standard way of making money with music in the twenty-first century. “But,” he concludes, “it’s also a crowded market … opportunities have proliferated; stability remains elusive” (p. 227).

Industry is a history first and a scholarly analysis second. There were moments when, recalling the critics of BoaC’s later marathons, who derided the “established” aesthetic of the Lincoln Center series, I wanted the story told by Industry to be less slick, with room for more rogue notes, critical theoretical foregrounding, and nuance addressed to a specialist audience. This was not the book Robin chose to write, however, and for that, readers—of the specialist and nonspecialist ilk alike—should also be grateful.

Robin’s study does more than just “follow the money.” Rather, it asks what it means to be a composer who wants to make money in the marketplace. In doing so, the book makes an important contribution to critical conversations about contemporary composition, identifying the marketplace turn as a necessary precedent to the entrepreneurialism critiqued by scholars of twenty-first-century music.4 By making the market a central concern of his study, rather than expecting individual artists to succeed where governments have failed, Robin is able to move past polemics and instead engage deeply with how new music was funded in the 1980s and ’90s. His book presents a nuanced rejoinder to recent scholarly works that, by focusing on the choices of individual artists and small ensembles as emblematic of neoliberal systems of production and consumption, inadvertently draw attention away from the inequalities of the systems themselves and place the responsibility for change at the feet of the artists rather than those with cultural and economic capital.5 Of course, as Robin acknowledges, Lang, Gordon, and Wolfe are now mid-career representatives of an institutional establishment that can indeed engage in such important work. To that end, his impassioned argument for the establishment of a Composers’ Union as initially conceived by Duffy offers one such solution to the overwhelming challenges facing new music. By contextualizing the early-career decisions of BoaC’s founders within the changing cultural and funding landscape of the 1980s and ’90s, Industry reveals the arts funding terrain to be less monolithic than straw-man critiques of new music and ensembles might have readers believe. Following the money may not solve the challenges of funding scarcity. But understanding the origins of the new music marketplace is a start.

1.

See Michael Sy Uy, Ask the Experts: How Ford, Rockefeller, and the NEA Changed American Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); Katherine Baber and Patrick Warfield, eds., “Papers from the Frederick Loewe Symposium in American Music,” special issue, American Music 35, no. 1 (Spring 2017); and Eduardo Herrera, Elite Art Worlds: Philanthropy, Latin Americanism, and Avant-Garde Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

2.

See William Robin, “Balance Problems: Neoliberalism and New Music in the American University and Ensemble,” this Journal 71, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 749–93; and Judith Lochhead, Andrea Moore, John Pippen, Marianna Ritchey, and Anne Shreffler, “Forum: Boundaries of the New: American Classical Music at the Turn of the Millennium,” Twentieth-Century Music 16, no. 3 (October 2019): 373–455.

3.

See James Steichen, “The Metropolitan Opera Goes Public: Peter Gelb and the Institutional Dramaturgy of The Met: Live in HD,” Music and the Moving Image 2, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 25–31.

4.

Two representative examples are Andrea Moore, “Neoliberalism and the Musical Entrepreneur,” Journal of the Society for American Music 10, no. 1 (February 2016): 33–53, and Marianna Ritchey, Composing Capital: Classical Music in the Neoliberal Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

5.

A notable exception is John Pippen, “The Boundaries of ‘Boundarylessness’: Revelry, Struggle, and Labour in Three American New Music Ensembles,” in Lochhead et al., “Forum: Boundaries of the New,” 436–42.