Illustration by Otto Erdesz
I’m interested in the current culture of the violin craft, in the market as well as the plight of the individual craftsperson. I’m curious to explore how larger social and economic systems interact with and affect the way we think about ourselves and our field. If we are to accept that we are living in a kind of end stage of Neoliberal capitalism then we have to imagine that many of our structural, financial and cultural institutions as well as accepted realities are becoming obsolete as well. So many fundamental societal systems, such as policing, justice, business, politics and education, rely too heavily on unexamined principles and often times ineffective or corrupt practices. These state, private and cultural institutions continue to persist despite the fact that the concepts and practices behind them are clearly often unfair, failing, and destructive. As citizens fighting an increasingly losing battle to live the American dream, it is all too easy to get lost in the daily details of survival. Underlying issues and concepts often go unexamined in the rush of daily life and in the world of truncated digital discourse. There is a feeling that the world is changing around us, exactly how is unclear, and the sense of uneasiness and fear is palpable.
If the very underpinnings of our economic system are betraying us, if they are truly creating a system where the benefits accrue to a terrifyingly small elite at the expense of the rest of us, if we are following all the rules yet still slipping backwards, where we work and work but cannot afford the cost of living, then surely it is time to look at the foundational meta issues rather than only focusing on fixing the end results. We must see the changes for what they are: the consequences of a failing system and think rather than re-entrench – for we face real dangers.
There is a concept in American capitalism that this is a culture of competition of new ideas, but that rings false. American institutions are more interested in business as usual. Cultural and economic power, here meaning mainly fame and wealth, trump any ideas of true, equal competition. Capitalism, at least is how it’s practiced now, seeks mainly to narrow and control people’s choices. So the true purpose of the free market is to prevent people from making choices except for those that are presented to them. This kind of consumer conditioning, where there is the illusion of choice without much consideration of why and what we feel driven to consume, creates an environment of unconscious, often times self-destructive, behavior. Noam Chomsky has said, “Markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices…The point is to create uniformed consumers who will make irrational choices. That’s what advertising is all about.”
“You don’t only have explicit rules. You always, in order to become part of a community, you need some implicit unwritten rules which are never publicly recognized but are absolutely crucial as the point of the identification of the group,” states Slavov Zizek. The real problem is when members become overly identified with the implicit rituals of a group because that’s when they begin to lose a healthy distance. It is when this unquestioning immersion takes place that actions can become hurtful and self-destructive. These two sets of rules, implicit and explicit, can work alongside one another in a complementary way, each legitimizing and making space for the other, the net result being the perpetuation of potentially corrupt and hurtful systems. Here many participants are able to articulate the seeming hypocrisy of such systems, but whether they are capable of truly challenging or questioning is not guaranteed. It is easier to find simple justifications and rationalized explanations than to face uncomfortable realities.
Hannah Arendt wrote that in the absence of healthy beliefs and communities, where we find people feeling vulnerable, lonely and constantly put-upon by the society around them, totalitarian systems can arise. Without positive outlets for organizing the meaning of our existence, the very real suffering of life becomes increasingly inexplicable and intolerable. Arendt believed that where there is a loss of “the meaning of life” through family, traditions, and community, people are more likely to be attracted to movements which provide life purpose. If we are so starved for meaning that we seek our identity through movements, we are more likely to find ways of ignoring or even seeking to destroy, evidence that may be contrary to our ingrained beliefs. Her idea was that people prefer a world that may be filled with readymade lies which feed our deep need for belonging and give us readily comprehensible explanations for the very real problems and complex crises of life. Because we need to feel safe, secure, and not alone in a dangerous world, systems of explanation can become deeply entwined with our identities, so much so that anything that threatens false narratives so neatly provided by power structures must, at the very least, be marginalized, or at the very worst, crushed absolutely.
Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Diaries, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” There is a real sense now that the times are somehow changing, that a new order is coming into being. The signs are everywhere but they still defy coherent analysis and there is no consensus on where we are going. If we truly are in the process of systemic change in our politics, economy and society, then we must imagine that the way we do everything, including how we run our businesses or practice our craft must evolve as well. The quandary is, how do we change?
University of California, Berkley anthropology professor Alexei Yurchak published a book in 2006 about the final twenty years of the Soviet Union called, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation in which he describes the psychological results of a political and economic system that was obviously failing, but where the majority of the citizens of the USSR held fast to the belief that everything was working as normal because they could not imagine an alternative. He dismisses binary narratives of the end of the Soviet Union, such as East versus West, Good against Evil, or even Truth versus Propaganda. Instead, he points to the post Stalinist USSR as a society increasingly interested in what he refers to as “performative” authoritarian social activities and forces as opposed to “constative” concepts of meaning. Here, in the absence of a powerful leader like Stalin who stands above and apart from the official canon, as it were, editing and shaping the deeper meanings of the State’s actions and deeply held beliefs from an elevated, enlightened perspective, the USSR was transformed into a society where signs and symbols as exemplified by propaganda posters and art, official media, and public activities such as parades and participation in the Komsomol, became more important than the original ideals of Soviet socialism. The result was a society not simply of explicit and implicit rules, where people kept their true opinions to their private selves while knowingly participating in what they consciously considered a totalitarian system out of fear, but one where the vacuum of real meaning provided a space for new ideas and ways of thinking for citizens, even while willingly participating in the official actions of the state. Thus, when Soviet Union did finally collapse, many found themselves both taken by surprise and completely unsurprised at the same time.
Filmmaker Adam Curtis uses Yurchak’s term as the title of his 2016 BBC documentary. In “Hypernormalization”, he outlines a world that in the last half century has transitioned from a complex network of planning, policy and realpolitik to a system based almost entirely on pretense and profit. In this new “post political” world, financiers and corporations hold the reins and politicians are reduced to simple managers. Speaking about the finals years of the Soviet system Curtis states, “The Soviet Union became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart. But everyone had to play along and pretend that it was real because no one could imagine any alternative…you were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it. The fakeness was hyper normal.” As the society became more and more dedicated to maintaining the pretense of normalcy in the absence of corrective policies, the more the system unraveled, and the more the pretend “fake society” became reality.
The parallels to the current situation in the US are clear. As the old ways of doing things fail or become increasingly dysfunctional, when real change is needed, this is precisely many decide to either just soldier on as if everything were normal, or rededicate themselves to tradition. Even protest against the status quo is mired in outdated traditions and practices. However, if we use Yurchak’s more sophisticated analysis of human behavior, we perhaps see that there is a growing conflict and distance between how Americans actually participate in society in their everyday activities, and the actual values and meanings behind them. There is a sense that as we go through our performative duties, where we fully embrace the current way of being culturally (including economic norms), we are at the same time unsure of what we really stand for as a people and as a nation. In this situation, some people do in fact retreat into simple, more traditionally approved explanations, while others fill this confusing, undefined space with new and progressive discourses, and still more simply struggle to live their everyday lives within the outdated confines of a crumbling system. Both major political parties have failed their constituencies. The liberals have sold themselves out while the conservative movement in America, having won most of its battles, and finding itself without any real enemies to rally against, has begun to show more clearly its true exploitative roots. Both red state and blue state supporters are having trouble understanding that they have been taken advantage of and that white privilege is not enough protection as the capitalist system finally begins to consume them as well.
The way the violin business is managed is the result not of academic education and study, but of long and slowly evolving tradition. Students at vocational violin schools are taught only the rudiments of violin making, and almost nothing about how to market their instruments, survive in a competitive workplace, or run a violin shop. Because there is a lack of published economic theory or academic tradition, those new to the business learn informally from colleagues or employers. In many ways they are like police recruits who after graduating from the police academy learn the way policing really works on the streets, in fact being initiated into it like a gang, with its own set of rules and traditions, secrets and taboos. Much of our system may be corrupt, but not always by definition or by mere existence – it’s just that our current system tends towards corruption. In this gray space we call the violin business it’s more common that new members are corrupted or are taught to put up with certain irregularities, because, “That’s how it’s done”. As I’ve written in previous essays, certain belief systems within the Violin Business become permanent, with members of the trade feeling the need to tow the party line as it were, rather than examine principles they take for granted. So many in the field depend on unexplored myths and traditions for their very identity that they are incapable of critique or reform, much less revolution. The same could be said of music students, teachers and professional players. Those who are in fact aware of problems and have real critiques, mainly players and academics, often feel hesitant to voice their views publically or too forcefully for fear of retaliation that would threaten their professional standing and economic situation. So we have a system of self-censorship precisely when we need more open questioning.
In our field one example of this is in the creation of certificates of authenticity. As the supply of golden period Italian instruments and 19th century French bows dries up and disappears from the market, a new surge of enthusiasm for over-certification rises, feeding a market traditionally hungry for items that dealers have spent several generations glorifying and representing to musicians as the ne-plus-ultra of violin and bow making. This is exactly the time when skepticism of identification and provenance should be on the rise, alongside newer more scientific methods of dating and identification. However, the truth is that no amount of tests can replace true connoisseurship – science can never replace deep study and experience of the individual, it can only act as an assisting force – the true problem is human nature, commercialism and the manipulation of the market by its participants in an environment almost completely devoid of considered public critique. In this volatile, desperate environment, the skeptical expert is increasingly under threat.
The view of the luthier from the outside as reflected in the numerous boring, repetitive, and overly reverential news articles and broadcasts show, is that makers are participating in a wondrous antique world of craft and tradition, carefully bringing to life beauteous culturally superior art tools for the creation of haute-culture through the medium of the most important of all styles of music: Western classical compositions. Many new makers deeply feel this fantasy as well, picturing themselves in the sanctum sanctorum of their meticulously organized ateliers, filled with exotic tools and wood, channeling the ghosts of the Italian masters of the 17th and 18th centuries, as solitary craftsmen and women in the solemn, sacred act of creation though the grounding of working with one’s hands. The world of advertising within the violin business reflects these fantasied projections as well – just page through any issue of Strings or Strad Magazines to see the fancy fonts and symbols, stylized depictions of violins and their constituent parts (f-holes, scrolls etc.), and the photos of well-dressed men contemplating magnificent Stradivari violins in rooms made to look like the well-appointed interiors of 18th century European mansions.
The reality, of course is more mundane and more difficult. New makers have very little idea of how to sell their instruments. They find themselves confronted with a system dependent on dealers who most often take their instruments on consignment, at up to a 50% commission, maybe rarely purchasing them wholesale, not to mention a field filled with fraud and outright thievery. Nobody knows who they are, they have no reputation yet, and they quickly realize that it’s almost impossible to sell instruments directly to musicians. Instead of questioning the status quo or banding together to demand a better deal, they depend mainly on their personality and individual fortitude to somehow make their way forward. They also often find ways to shorten the time it takes to make their violins and bows in an effort to increase production. Those who succeed do so not because their instruments are necessarily superior to others, but because they push harder, are better salesman, or just get a lucky break. This is not the kind of market where the cream rises to the top, not a cooperative meritocracy, but an expression of a kind of voracious individualism. Just because a maker makes a lot of noise online and/or creates a “big splash” with the musical community by putting immense effort into marketing doesn’t mean their instruments are the best. Fame does not always mean merit, because it is manly created through marketing, and those who become the best known makers are not necessarily the most worthy. It’s important to point out that just because certain makers have a big name, industry defined “success” doesn’t mean they are doing well financially.
This culture definitely affects attitudes within the business and how its internal hierarchies are created and maintained within the trade organizations such as The Violin Society of America and the Federation of Violin and Bow Makers here in the US as well as at independent, workshop based programs such as those held at Oberlin College every summer for the past twenty years. While there is a lot of cooperation and assistance and mentoring available, especially on technical craftsmanship issues, the truth is that it’s really up to you and your own devices whether you make a living or not. The culture of the business provides a clear, well-travelled path to what is widely considered success for modern makers: massive self-promotion and seeking to sell one’s instrument for as much as possible, for the culture believes that higher the price a maker commands, the better their instruments or bows. Maker’s prices have risen over the years, not usually due to demand as very few makers have anything like a waiting list, but due to increasing costs of living, the need to make some money after dealers take their large commissions, and the overall low rate of sales. As more and more makers appear and the more and more shops & dealers enter the crowded marketplace, competition becomes the medium through which makers succeed or fail. Instead of prices falling due to greater numbers of new instruments and bows on the market, prices have risen because many makers are struggling financially and need all the money they can get in the increasingly rare event of a sale.
Maker’s organizations, like the VSA and the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers in the US, have done very little historically to address these deeper issues. In fact all-volunteer groups like these are responsible in many ways for the official culture of the violin business and all its constituent beliefs and practices. It is amongst the mainly male leaders, officials, speakers and elite members of these organizations that the culture of the trade is interpreted, institutionalized, passed down to the members and further perpetuated. While it may be acceptable to argue over proper rehairing techniques, a public debate over ethical issues of the violin market and member behavior is nearly nonexistent. It’s also interesting to think of these organizations as primarily fame producing institutions, which exist in many ways to validate and codify artificially created homosocial hierarchies of industry approved success. While there is certainly an educational component to these associations, mainly focused on technical issues, they manly serve as platforms for ambitious individuals dedicated to the status quo. The irony of this generation of reverential self-importance by the leading organizations of the violin business is that the very people the field theoretically exists to serve, namely musicians, remain in large measure completely unaware of their very existence.
With regard to sales, the culture is completely unregulated and prone to corruption. Most collectible items of value have resources available to help judge value. If you like vintage watches for example, there is a blue book where you can identify the model and year of your old Rolex and then determine its price range depending on condition. The closest thing the violin business has to blue books are auction results which are challenging to analyze for the inexperienced. With an increase in more retail style auctions like Tarisio and Beare, which are designed to appeal to musicians rather than dealers, auction results are less likely to be an expression of current wholesale values. If uninformed salesmen simply take a Tarsio auction result and double it, the result is obscenely high retail pricing. The problem with pricing is that the price of something like a violin is whatever a dealer convinces a musician to buy it for. Legally, issues of false identity are more important than price gouging but even misattribution is difficult and expensive to prove in a court of law. There is also not enough connection between use value and exchange value. If you were to ask a dealer how a rare, perfectly preserved early 19th century French bow played, they are very likely to say, “Who cares?” The overemphasis on the antique and historical nature of instruments and bows skews and distorts questions of actual function. Some will say that the work of certain makers is better regarded and therefor more expensive because the majority of musicians who have played these bows and violins prefer them to all others. There are certainly examples of this, and musician’s preferences definitely have an effect on the market, but it is important to accept that valuation in the violin business is mainly a top down affair, where dealers have an outsized role. I have known many, many players who have been taken advantage of by violin shops, often times with devastating financial and emotional results. How long are willing to put up with such a pernicious culture?
As we move forward into uncharted waters, as citizens, business owners and crafts workers, there is an urgent need to reconsider past practices and beliefs. Are we really comfortable with a business that mirrors some of capitalism’s worst excesses? Do we want to continue to operate in a climate of greed, competition and self-importance? As we and our customers struggle with an increasing sense of precarity on so many levels, it is more important than ever to find different and creative ways of running our businesses and meeting the needs of our clients. It is necessary to resist the increasing emphasis on dealing and all the potential ethical and legal problems it entails, and refocus on our craftsmanship, expertise and the level of service we offer. New forms of education and cooperation must be considered, with an emphasis on fair pricing, ethical practices and openness. It is necessary to resist the selfishness of our current system and break down internal hierarchies and barriers, all of which make us increasingly limited and obsolete. We require a more courageous critical view and far less soft-focus flummery. There is also a need to find ways to resist the total commodification of stringed musical instruments, for these are indispensable cultural tools designed for the creation of artistic expression, rather than financial products of investment. The project of fabricating consumerism, manipulating markets, and maximizing profit despite the consequences for others is a dead end game. Profit almost always wins over social responsibility in Capitalist systems. There is a real sense that things have gotten out of control, that our economy and politics no longer serve the human race, and that survival is becoming more important than living with dignity. Now is the time for unconventional thinking, even subversive thought, because without the imagination of resistance it will be impossible to create new ways of being, to try and thrive rather than simply survive.