1 September 2016

Free pianos for everybody!


The sound of the piano is everywhere.

From the ethereal simplicity of Satie’s Gymnopédie drifting across a shopping arcade to the occasional Chas and Dave classic clunking amid the clamour of a busy market square, street pianos are becoming an established feature of our cities. These free-to-use pianos apparently started accidentally with a discarded piano in Sheffield but the fad has now spread across the globe. The most famous example is perhaps the upright donated and signed by Sir Elton John which now sits in London’s St Pancras Station and replaced the original piano which had been battered into dereliction by thousands of passing fingers. The new one is black and glossy and a sign of things to come.

The appeal of free-to-play pianos is immediately obvious. There is something quasi-mythical about what they accomplish. The innocuous pedestrian revealing themselves to be a virtuoso before disappearing back into the crowd is a potent archetype. It is the Man With No Name who stops at a small town and clears it of its villainy. It is Clark Kent transforming himself into the guy with the laser-pointer eyes. It is Odysseus finally revealed to Penelope’s suitors. You might think that overstates it but in a world of Periscoped reality fed straight into social media channels, the street piano might be a person’s chance to redefine who they are. It is the modern equivalent of Excalibur in the stone: a challenge potentially offering some not-too modest reward to anybody who dares stop and test their strength.

Or that, at least, is how street pianos are portrayed in the many Youtube compilation videos. Watching those impromptu concerts, you begin to think that street pianos are uplifting and provide transformative moments when plodding reality is sparked into something that rightly deserves the name of ‘life’. Street pianos bring culture, surprise, relief, and a little hope. Think about it a little deeper, however, and you begin to realise how pernicious they are.

‘By creating a place of exchange, [the piano] invites the public to engage with, activate and take ownership of their urban environment’ says the website of Luke Jerram, the artist behind the most well known of the street piano projects. The words are typical of the slightly baffling pseudo-complexity that’s usually scribbled beneath ‘art’ these days. Street pianos are really much simpler to understand if you see them as another manifestation of modern web economics, where the talk is about ‘taking ownership’ even as we give ownership away.

As Andrew Keen explains in his book, The Internet Is Not The Answer: ‘for the labour we invest in adding intelligence to Google, or content to Facebook, or photos to Snapchat, we are paid zero. Nothing at all, except the right to use the software for free’. So too does the right to use a piano for free come with a price. Street pianos might be to busking what Uber is to the taxi business. They attempt to convince consumers that we should rate ‘cheapness’ over ‘quality’. Why pay a penny to the talented young busker when the half-decent amateur can play all the same notes, though perhaps, in the words of Eric Morecambe, not necessarily in the right order? If filling a space with sound is all that’s needed, does it really matter who makes that sound?

Increasingly, the public space is being filled by cheap sound. True buskers already face the challenge of lesser buskers who use backing tapes and heavy amplification to drown out the competition. Now they also have the street pianists parodying their efforts, as if to say that anybody could become the next Ed Sheeran, BB King, Tracy Chapman, Rod Stewart, Edith Piaf, Janis Joplin, or Justin Bieber, all of whom started out busking.

The path from semi-professional to professional is already narrow but it narrows significantly when rank amateurs are invited to play the A&R game. This is a true of all creative markets where over saturation is already the enemy of quality. Everybody with access to a keyboard believes they’re a writer in the same way that anybody with access to a piano might think they’re born for the concert hall. It has become nearly impossible for publishers, whether it’s the BBC, Random House or Sony Music, to spot the emerging talent. Street pianos are a symptom of this culture of surfeit. In an ideal world they would highlight the precocious talents. In the real world, they merely emphasise the ubiquity of competence. They are the vanity press of the music industry; measuring abundance but not quality. For every Henri Herbert astonishing the crowds with his frenetic boogie woogie there are a thousand people playing uninspired Oasis covers.

The problem might be partly down to the audience’s relationship to the true busker. Joshua Bell stood in the Washington Post Subway station in 2012 and played for 45 minutes with only seven people in a thousand stopping to listen. If we are unable or unwilling to discern true talent, then perhaps the future does belong to the Uber drivers of the concert hall. We want Paul Potts rather than the lesser known names of Jonas Kaufmann or John Tomlinson. If Il Divo are feted as true musicians and film theme music ranks as ‘classical’, then doesn’t it suggest that the music really doesn’t matter? In a world in which nobody knows anything, then anybody can be something and, increasingly, they are. Amateurism destroys the notion of professionalism so our novels are written by talk show hosts and pop stars design our fashions.

Less cynically, we might hope that quality still matters. It’s just that it rarely seems to be the case and what is happening to the arts today might happen to another jobs sector tomorrow. Perhaps accountants will be encouraged to ‘reclaim their environment’ by doing a little unpaid work in a free-to-use ledger system parked on a station concourse. Plumbers might like the chance to do some free plumbing; decorators given a ‘street ladder’ as well as a can of paint and paintbrush in order to paint a station wall. The creep of amateurism is slow but pernicious. Companies already farm out jobs to the amateur world. The coins in our pocket might well be designed by bored pensioners and public walls are often covered by the murals of school children. Why develop talent when you can simply launch a competition to find somebody new? The open-to-all competition is replacing the act of putting jobs out to tender. Architects are asked to submit their designs for buildings never knowing if they’ll get paid for their efforts. Designers are expected to design logos with the winner getting the job which is now described as the ‘prize’. Even the BBC weather no longer need to pay for professionally-taken photographs when Neville from Glossop is only too happy to send in his latest pictures.

‘I get so angry about this because you’re undercut by all the amateurs,’ said science fiction writer Harlan Ellison in one of his most famous rants. ‘It’s the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals.’

It is true. This is the great get-it-for-nothing culture where the long tail of rank amateurs can produce content cheaper than the skilled journeyman or woman. After all, what do you prefer to hear: a mechanical rendition of a David Bowie classic or a well played original composition? Who wants originality that’s hard to produce when something derivative is made so easily? No matter how anodyne or poorly written, a remake of Are You Being Served will attract more media coverage and a bigger audience than a comedy show written by new writers. Creativity is made handmaiden to fame or it has no value at all. Del Boy’s autobiography currently rides high in the charts but don’t hope to find the name of its real author. Who even needs an author if the public are willing to believe a book written by a fictional character? Even Robert Ludlum carries on producing best sellers nearly sixteen years after his death.

Free-to-play pianos might appear to be a pleasant addition to a shopping centre but that belies their purpose, which is to change the relationship between creator and audience. It is to break the positive feedback loop by which creators create and audiences pay them to carry on creating. S.J. Perelman once said that ‘I loathe writing. On the other hand I’m a great believer in money.’ Most buskers, writers, artists, and craftspeople understand that dynamic. It is the dynamic that made our civilisation flourish creatively for centuries. We should cherish it more than we do.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.