The Birthday Project

by Barry Drogin

There is, fortunately or not, a natural dichotomy between the music business and music culture. In my unpublished manuscript, Play, this was one aspect of what I termed the sociological why and the aesthetic what. For a previous generation, some saw this as a choice between the music that they wanted to write versus the music work that they had to perform to get paid and make a living. For the more naive, there was no music business, no business models, just a mystical lottery that, supposedly, awarded quality. For them, to paraphrase what E.B. White wrote about New York City, one came to the music business to be lonely and to be lucky, and you did not survive in the music business if you were not lucky. Others made their own luck, or created their own business models, or were masters of music business politics, or attached their music to other businesses (like theater or film).

There are no purists; both the creators and the audience are trapped in this dichotomy. Even the most die-hard music lover makes financial decisions about what he or she can afford or, for the rich, who they should endow.

It can be easy to forget that the creators started out as music lovers. They consumed music voraciously. Then they discovered the pleasures of creation (or, for performers, of re-creation), and chose to cross the line over to the music business, to identify themselves as composers or performers or critics (or teachers or therapists, I suppose).

What came along for the ride was a consciousness of aesthetic judgement and discernment that made the act of musicking hard. The "high" of music became harder to obtain. Music became work.

Interestingly, I entered the music business without the pretensions of cultural double-speak – I declared myself a "non-academic composer" and a "for-profit musician" and concentrated on business models while simultaneously retaining my identity as a music lover. Lukas Pairon once wrote to me privately that he felt opera houses should be run by music amateurs – he was talking about retaining or recapturing that original love of music that had been lost in the transition. (In his own words, he clarified that the word "amateur" had two meanings, one of the "'non-professional' being still close to his or her personal subjective being" and the other from the origin of the word meaning "someone who loves.")

Aside from lifelong partnerships between individual composers and individual performers, the music business does not easily allow for the existence of friendship. There is a world of cultural distance between the populist Aaron Copland promoting American music and assisting young composers and, for example, the Bang On A Can marketing strategy.

Perhaps it also comes down to what kind of person you are. To be nice for the sake of being nice, to be generous and kind and to express love without thinking and acting politically is a sure way to be eaten alive by the music industry.

I gave up the music business in 2008, but I did not give up music. As I approached 50, I had to find out whether any of my music colleagues were also, simply, friends.

With the birth of my first-born, I celebrated publicly by creating The Lullaby Project, a competition for older composers that also attempted to promote my aesthetic love of a cappella music. I received scores from strangers from around the world. When nobody "won" (to win, the lullaby had to put my son to sleep), I divided up the prize money and gave the award to everybody who entered. This had nothing to do with business, but it did give me great pleasure.

Naively, thirteen years later, I devised The Birthday Project, an opportunity for my "friends," including music colleagues and those with no connection to music at all, to, either publicly or privately, make me feel like I existed. Unlike The Lullaby Project, The Birthday Project was not publicized to strangers.

Here is the original text of The Birthday Project e-mail:

When I was interviewed on Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar Radio Show, I was asked, "How come a guy who’s so full of energy and loud and stuff and talks without ceasing writes such a very, very subtle melodic form?"  I answered, "Because just as my electrical engineering career has absolutely nothing to do with my music, similarly, my music has nothing to do with my personality.  I am, in person, quite a boring person, and in my music I get to become a non-boring person and become, maybe, the true self inside."

As I contemplate the approach of my 50th Birthday on May 2, 2010, given the closing of my professional music business in 2008, I ask for your help in recognizing and celebrating my true self.  Thirteen years ago, after my first son, Max, was born, I created a competition and call for scores called The Lullaby Project where I invited composers to contribute a cappella lullabies.  The Birthday Project is simpler and less defined.  Here are some suggestions: Please be thoughtful.

Whatever you do, tell me whether your contribution is public or private (otherwise, any contributions will be assumed to be private).  E-mail contributions (or links to contributions) to or snail mail to 720 Greenwich Street, #5T, NY, NY 10014 USA.  Deadline is May 2, 2010.

Barry Drogin
The outcome was devastating. None of the narcissistic bastards invited to participate in The Birthday Project "got it." A few sent me a simple "happy birthday" – and, by the way, did you know I have a concert coming up? The great majority provided no response whatsoever.

What should I do? Should I just cut them permanently off of my mailing list, ignore them for the rest of my life the way they had ignored me? Should I send them a final e-mail telling them to fuck off?

I created an e-mail with no subject line and three links to YouTube videos. The first was to a performance of What I Did For Love, the English Non Regrette Rien:

The second was to a performance of Easy to be Hard:

And the third, which struck just the right mood, was to Liza Minelli’s performance of Bye, Bye Blackbird from Liza with a Z:

It didn’t work. Musicians hear music, not words. Once again, they didn’t "get it."

In response, here is one last YouTube video.

Postscript: Not suprisingly, two of my non-musical friends did "get it," and surprised me further by paying tribute to my Jewish identity. One response came from a Spanish friend raised Catholic who discovered she was a marano. The other came from a professional secular Jew (she earned her living promoting the idea of "cultural" or "humanistic" Judaism). Apparently, I do exist – just not in the way I had ever hoped to.

And I'm not the only thoughtful person left on this planet.

Barry Drogin
May 29, 2010

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