Patronage and Gender

Reflecting on the role of patronage and gender in the world of music.

March 2021

The discussion of patronage was an interesting subject which I had not previously given much thought to, but I found to be both an intriguing and influential aspect of music.  When I stop to consider outside forces in music, I think about the time period, what was going on in the composer’s life when he/she wrote the music and past and present personal experiences of the composer.  I never think about who is commissioning the music to be written in the first place.  I found it quite fascinating that many women were patrons of notable musicians and composers, and I grew curious enough to investigate some more modern examples.  Patronage is a subject which I do not typically spend time considering and adding the role of gender to that is even less likely to cross my mind.  However, the past several weeks have shown me a new perspective which I find valuable and unique in how it challenges me to consider other outside forces influencing the writing and performing of music.

The most striking reading for this unit was the Babbitt article and his argument that highly influential music would not be possible without patrons.  This started my thoughts going in the direction of patronage, leading on to the specific role of women patrons as well.  In the last line of his article, Babbitt says that without substantial and public financial support, “music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”  In the overall sense of music and patronage, I disagree with this statement.  I think that music will always continue to thrive and impact individual lives as long as there are people who will continue to make music and share it with others.  As I see it, the more important and relevant question would be how musicians are able to get their music out in the world with the help of certain patrons, rather than debating whether or not music would reach anyone at all without patrons.  Considering this, I next look at the examples we discussed in class and how many patrons were women.

Back in the 1700s through early 1900s, the role of women was not as public as it is now.  Given this reality, whether you agree with it or not, it makes sense that women were primarily patrons rather than musicians/composers.  I do not approach this question as whether women receive equal opportunities as men.  Instead, I have been considering the role of gender in patronage as something interesting to observe change over time, as societal values shift and evolve.  During this time, women mostly ran households and raised children.  That’s just how things were, and I do not mean that in a negative way at all.  Women’s roles were not the same as they are now.  So, even though women in the musical world tended to be patrons, that was not a bad thing.  However, there seem to have been some relationships which were not what they should have been.  The example that sticks in my mind is Nadezhda von Meck’s support of Tchiakovsky.  As we discussed in class, this was an unfortunate situation in that Nadezhda was looking for more than just a musician to support financially.  She appeared to have been looking for friendship, at least, and Tchiakovsky did not appear to have the same desire nor respect for Nadezhda’s wishes in this regard.  I think this is a very human mistake, not special to patrons and musicians, and is simply unfortunate and really such a loss that this relationship was based so firmly on the financial support provided.  Human relationships, no matter what the situation, ought to be more personal.  With the story of Nadezhda and Tchiakovsky, that is what strikes me the most, that patronage could be so much more than this basic financial support.

As I moved past the general question about the significance of gender in patronage, I began to look at more modern examples, some we discussed in class and another that I found in researching for this paper.  My focus shifted slightly to how patronage has gone from the common scenario of women patrons to looking at some forms of patronage today.  In class, we touched on a situation with Amy Grant.  She is a Christian artist, but as she continued her career as a singer-songwriter, her music became less obviously Christ-centered.  Between 1985 and 1987, Grant released a few albums which stirred up great debate about the genre with which her music is primarily associated.  The Tennessee Encyclopedia states that she “broke the contemporary Christian mold” as she wrote new songs which were “produced with the pop mainstream in mind”.  I am a fan of some of Grant’s older, Christian songs, and I found this story absolutely fascinating.  It brought some relevance to this topic of patronage, which was just a vague subject for me before taking this class.  There was such a dramatic issue when Grant stepped outside the lines, so to speak, of what her patrons expected of her.  This also led me to wonder who her patrons were.  I came to the conclusion that the record company, maybe an agent, fellow musicians with whom she played, and the audiences and fans which supported her would all fall under the category as patrons.  It’s not the exact same idea as the strict patronage sense, which was around in the 1700s, but if you consider patronage as a way of supporting an artist, I believe all of these groups would be included.  Along these same lines, the idea that audiences and fans can be a sort of contemporary patron is an idea which I looked into even further.

As I began working on this paper, I recalled a singer who is fairly popular on YouTube and something that he always says in his videos.  Peter Hollens primarily sings a capella covers of a wide variety of music, including folk songs, instrumental soundtracks, pop, Broadway and Disney.  I believe a friend recommended him to me once and I find his harmonies, all done by himself with multiple recordings put over each other, very clear and interesting to listen to, as it is fairly easy to pick out the separate parts.  I remembered in recent weeks, though, that at the end of his videos he asks viewers to “support his art on Patreon”.  So, I did some more digging. 

Patreon was a network put together in 2013 by Jack Conte, a YouTube musician, and his college roommate Sam Yam.  He came up with an idea to have his fans pay him directly so that he could earn enough money as well as give his fans a way to engage with his work in a more hands-on form.  Today, over 200,000 artists are financially supported by more than 6 million patrons, who are simply fans who want to help.  Now, I admit, this sounds almost too good to be true, and there are obviously going to be issues which are not clear right from the start.  However, I am utterly fascinated by this system!  It’s truly amazing to think how patrons went from being primarily women with a passion for music and a desire to support aspiring musicians to an organization where anyone can create and anyone can support as they please.  While this is not the only form of patronage in the modern world, I think it is a very good example of how much the role of patrons has developed and become a part of everyday life.  If I wanted to, I could go on Patreon and become a patron for Peter Hollens or the Pentatonix.  This system includes graphs and statistics sharing details such as how many followers/patrons an artist has on various platforms (YouTube, Twitter, etc.) along with summaries of the artist’s earnings both per video and per year.  Not only are there ways for countless fans to actively support their favorite musicians, but they also have access to information which lets them know how that artist is performing and being compensated.  Patreon is a contemporary model of patronage and symbolizes how this area of music has evolved.

Back in the 1700s, many musical patrons were women.  Today, there is a tendency to discuss this as an equality issue.  I would argue that it is more important and relevant to look at how patronage has changed over time, rather than dwell on what today’s society considers unfair to a specific group of people.  Gender did play a large role at one point, but I think that over time it has become less of a trend, unless society makes it the primary focus for debate.  As I reflected on the idea of patronage, I ended up with three main “pillars” to symbolize the different movements, if you will, of developing patronage.  My first example of early and traditional patrons is Nadezhda von Meck, who I think is a good image for discussing the typical women patron role during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Jumping to the 1980s, I love the example of Amy Grant and how her not so clearly Christian songs stirred up a concern among her patrons and fans about what she was producing.  This situation serves as a picture of how artists can break trends.  Finally, the founding of Patreon in 2013 is a fascinating culmination of years of technology and innovation among artists and entrepreneurs.  Patronage began as an area primarily dominated by women, but over the years has become much more fluid and accessible to the everyday audience member.  Gender did play a role in past years, but I think that role has since been removed from the scene.  Discussing and researching historical and contemporary musical patronage has truly been fascinating and has led me to consider it as another aspect of music of which I had previously little to no knowledge. 

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