In the first part of this series, I acknowledged that there may be something wrong with the pursuit of luxury as exclusionary and materialistic, and that orchestras, at least, are right to be suspicious of it. But I also suggested that the things we most highly value are often those things that are surplus to our basic needs precisely because they reach beyond niggling reminders of our material world to present us with something that transcends our time and place in it. This class of surplus things we might call meta-luxury because, though they represent luxuries in the sense that they exceed our basic needs, what we value in them lies beyond anything we could define as material luxury. Classical music is only one example of this special category of things, but it is a particularly apt example because music itself is essentially nonmaterial.
Perhaps for this very reason Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins chose a Stradivari violin as the striking cover image for their book Meta-luxury. Even more telling, of course, than a book’s proverbial cover is what’s inside it. In this case, inside the book classical musicians feature in three of ten conversations with inspirational people throughout the world whose legacies, practices, and achievements embody the values and principles of meta-luxury. Ricca and Robins set out, roughly within the disciplines of business philosophy and branding strategy, to understand the nature of enduring and iconic success—especially in light of the changing attitudes of today’s consumers, who face a marketplace glutted with meaningless luxury and materialism. Their discoveries about meta-luxury describe a deeply rooted culture of excellence, and lead them quite naturally to classical music.
It is absolutely critical for those of us who go about the business of classical music, and who strategize its future, to understand what exactly it is that makes classical music valuable to those we need to and hope will invest in it. That, in turn, must translate into our unwavering commitment to a positive vision. It is not enough, for example, for us to resolve to move away from an ill-suited association with the vulgar materialism of luxury. We should know specifically what we are moving towards; otherwise our moving is only a wandering; or else it is not really moving at all, and we only stand around kicking at the box we busily congratulate ourselves for having just got out of. And we must have no illusions or flippancy about the direction we choose. Rejecting the “elitist” luxury of fine wines in the lobby, for instance, in favor of something we may think of as more populist—say, peanut shells on the floor—is not rejecting materialism, but in fact only changing the flavor of it. We must look much deeper than that to understand our strategy. In business we should be guided always by principles that describe the thing that we are about—in our case, with the thing that classical music is. And if our original instinct to reject luxury is correct, that is because classical music is certainly not just one more flavor of materialism.
I suggest that, like Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins, we will discover a natural harmony between the principles and values that describe classical music and those that define meta-luxury. Even more significantly, I propose that we will also find that those principles and values resonate most deeply in our human nature, transcending all the boundaries that so worry us when we contemplate the problem of luxury—boundaries such as age, race, or class.
We might agree that we already have a general consensus about what luxury is. We are much less familiar, however, with the idea of meta-luxury. It is tempting to assume meta-luxury is really just some kind of mega-luxury. So perhaps we should begin by making the distinction plain. In their book, Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins offer us a vivid and practical comparison:
‘Luxury’ is often self-proclaimed status; meta-luxury is always a restless pursuit. ‘Luxury’ is often about showing; meta-luxury is always about knowing. ‘Luxury’ is often about stretch and surface; meta-luxury is always about focus and depth. ‘Luxury’ is sometimes about ostentation; meta-luxury is always about discovery. ‘Luxury’ is often merely about affording; meta-luxury is always first and foremost about understanding.
It becomes clear in this light that meta-luxury is not just more or bigger luxury, but something that exists in a realm beyond it—in the same way that meta-physics exists beyond physics. It moves according to a different set of principles and embodies a very different philosophy.
Ricca and Robins go on to identify Knowledge, Purpose, and Timelessness as the three principles that drive the creation of meta-luxury. It’s important to remember that what drives the creator of meta-luxury is not the thought or idea of meta-luxury, per se, but rather the relentless pursuit of human achievement—and we can understand that achievement as the result of a tireless pursuit of knowledge, purpose, and timelessness. The creator of meta-luxury, too, is reaching for something beyond purely material manifestations.
From the very beginning, man has cherished and sought after knowledge. It was the Tree of Knowledge, after all, for which he gave up paradise. Our libraries are full of books, but it is not the paper or the ink, however old, that makes them a treasure. It is the knowledge contained in them—hard won, pressed by time from the toil of human experience—that we consider priceless. And it is the value of that knowledge that makes it sacrilegious to burn a book—any book. We send our children, at whatever cost, to get an education because we know that knowledge is what will make their lives better—and not just in material ways. It is like the rising tide that lifts all boats.
And what is the tradition of classical music if it is not a repository of knowledge? From the instruments, some of which are still carefully crafted according to specifications mysteriously perfected ages ago, to carefully preserved compositions that chart, for instance, the developments in polyphony or the art of the fugue over the course of centuries, to the expertise and musicianship of the instrumentalist who learned under the watchful care of a master and spent untold hours in disciplined practice as now his own students do…to the tradition itself—the continuous and intimate relationship that the music has had with our history, with our dreams, our triumphs, and our tragedies…what is this but a most exquisitely complex repository of knowledge?
We have nothing to do here but to be what we are. The music only survives if the knowledge does. We all know this and always have.
Knowing just that, perhaps, is part of the conviction of purpose that drives the classical musician. But we know our purpose is more than that, too. It is also the purpose of mastering the practice and performance of these instruments and this music, learning to deserve this repertoire and our teachers, becoming a part of the legacy, and taking our place in the living tradition. It’s nothing less than a focus of purpose that compels the musician to spend a lifetime in the practice room when so many easier and more flirtatious diversions are always at hand. Likewise, it’s purpose that makes the devotee overcome life’s myriad little hurdles to find his seat in the hall on a Friday night and to sit, enchanted, through three movements of a concerto he’s never heard before.
Classical music is not a meandering even if there is a fair amount of serendipity involved. It is mostly a striving, with a purpose to be part of this thing that is bigger than you and that extends behind and before you.
And this leads naturally to the subject of timelessness. Music doesn’t necessarily belong to the moment in which it’s born. It is, of course, a product of the particulars of its birth, but it is also something universal. Much of the classical music born in our day will be forgotten and even more of it will never be heard. That is true of all eras, and our canon—like all canons—represents a small selection of the music that is our inheritance. It is the selection of music that has survived the amnesia of ages, the ravages of history, and the fickleness of fashion. And there will be a canon that has survived the ages to come, too.
But what is most astounding is that we can be more familiar now with a Bach cantata than almost anyone living in Bach’s day might have been. Bach wrote his music “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Did his contemporaries consider him irrelevant because he wasn’t writing music to address the problems of his age? Maybe we can imagine that they did. But when we turn our efforts toward the task of making ourselves relevant to a specific time, we risk forfeiting the timeless. It is because Bach recognized and reached toward the universal with his music that he is still relevant today. In fact, he is not only relevant, he is one of the most loved and respected composers of all time.
Classical music is essentially timeless. It lives only in the moment when it is being played and listened to. And when we bring a score to life again, we are playing the very same notes that were played perhaps centuries ago. Each musician brings to the performance something personal—and so does the listener. Like the composer, we participate in the miracle of touching the universal through the particular. And long after we and our world have passed away, the music will continue to live for as long as there are hearts, minds, and hands that learn to play it.
Returning to the earlier, only slightly exaggerated example where we considered replacing fine wine with peanuts as the theme of our concert hall’s repast, we might now consider the strategy in a different light. Before choosing between “luxurious” wine and “populist” peanuts, we might look more closely at the values and principles that guide the creation of a fine wine and compare them specifically with those that go into producing a roasted peanut. And then we might ask ourselves which of the two offerings harmonizes with the principles and values that create, say, a violin, a musician, a symphony, or an orchestra. As Ricca and Robins point out:
[I]t is difficult not to see the paradigm of meta-luxury manifest itself in some of the world’s most respected wine-makers, where the wealth and depth of diverse competences, often passed on from one generation to the next for centuries, blend with an intrinsic conviction about wine being the celebration of the fullness of life in the creation of rare masterpieces, some vintages remaining as benchmarks. Knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.
But read it again. Who can doubt that what they describe is exactly what moves those who really appreciate wine, just as it is exactly what moves those who really love classical music? It was never about status or ostentation for the aficionado of either. Instead, it was always about inspiration, discovery, and dedication. It’s quite possible, of course, to find those who drink fine wine for the show of it, or who attend symphony concerts for the same reason. But they are to be distinguished from those who partake out of genuine love. The future of our orchestras depends on the latter. They are the ones who will return again and again, who will bring their children and their friends, and who will deem us worthy of their philanthropic investments. They are the ones who understand and value us as a unique achievement, because their love for us is born of another, deeper love for the nonmaterial things that we embody: knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.
So, returning once more to our example, if we reject wine as a symbol of snobbery and luxury—or reject it in parts by offering the offensively simple and uninspiring choice of a Sutter Home “red” or a Yellow Tail “white”—in our concert halls, then for the sake of the pettiest interpretation of the choice at hand we will have at once misunderstood wine’s appeal and its real nature, misunderstood classical music’s appeal and its nature, and worst of all undeservedly underrated the universal aspirations and individual motivations of our human nature. We will have reprimanded those who most cherish us for a materialism that is not theirs. And we will have judged those who do not yet love us to be incapable of rising beyond the material appreciation for peanuts or the churlish reaction against ‘luxury.’ We will have certainly abandoned the thing that classical music most essentially is—that doorway that opens for each of us onto the nonmaterial world.
No one in business needs to be told that a mountain of misunderstandings and misconceptions is not a strategy for success. But business-wise, what is success in the paradigm of meta-luxury? It is precisely what orchestras and our great musical institutions already know it to be:
The right term to describe meta-luxury would, in fact, be one that is now abundantly used in other contexts—sustainability. In meta-luxury, business results are meant to sustain—and never to drive—the enterprise’s mission and ethos. Economic success is therefore a requisite and a consequence, but not a primary objective.
None of us chose a career in music because we wanted to be fabulously wealthy. In fact, the miracle is that we went into music despite the fact that we might have preferred to be filthy rich. But there was something more important to us than material gain.
And orchestras, too, exist not to accrue handsome profits, but to sustain themselves. They sustain themselves in order to sustain the art form in perpetuity. Again, we hear the echo of the thing we already are. We might do well to look more closely at this paradigm we so perfectly and naturally fit. And in the next installment of this series, we’ll do just that by examining what Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins describe as the pillars of meta-luxury.