Igor Levit in the Attention Economy
A bit of Beethoven here, a recital there—that doesn’t interest me,” the pianist Igor Levit said five years ago. Instead he wanted to become a thought leader, like Bob Dylan. Levit was reading Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone. “People like [Dylan] didn’t see music as a separate reality,” Levit told me. “They arrived on the scene and wanted to reach the top, to have their voices guiding people in how to think.” This was the cusp of the era of fake news, alternative facts, the politician as reality TV personality. We were talking in a small cafe in Hannover, Germany, close to the conservatory. Levit struck me then as a talented young musician who was beginning to assert his individuality through politics. He felt constrained by the profession of the pianist and the recognition it could give him. At the time, his publicist offered interviews with Levit with the note, “Igor Levit has opinions on many things, not just music.”
Since then, Levit has burst forth from the narrow confines of the classical music industry. He is a friend to media personalities and politicians. Journalists ask his opinion on climate change, the rise of the far right, books, the ideal body weight. He works with artists and comedians, performs at the Bundestag in Berlin and for the Greens. In England, he’s enraged Brexiteers; in the U.S., he’s “The Pianist of the Resistance.” His media presence has reached the critical mass at which coverage leads inexorably to more coverage. In articles, Levit is generally presented as a solitary figure. The classical musician with political views; the modern incarnate of Beethoven; the only pianist who tweets.
But the real reason Levit stands out is the extent to which he embodies the late modern laws of singularity. “In the mode of singularity, life is not simply lived, it is curated,” writes the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz. More than the man at the keyboard, Levit wants to be an outstanding climate activist and consumer; peacemaker and activist; citizen and artist; statesman and rebel. And he wants the world to watch. “The goal of the late modern subject is to perform his unique self to others, who become his audience,” Reckwitz writes. “You can only be attractive if you’re authentic.” In a highly competitive market, Levit is the prototype of the successful “cultural entrepreneur.” He has combined the varied aspects of his personality into an authentic brand.
“Men press forward to the light not in order to see better but to shine better.” —Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, Volume Two
“The attention of others is the most irresistible of all drugs,” writes the philosopher Georg Franck in an essay on the attention economy. “It surpasses every other high. That’s why fame is more valuable than power, celebrity more sought after than wealth.” We want to be present in the consciousnesses of other people; we learn to appreciate ourselves through their care and attention. “I exist but only if you notice me.” That’s not celebrity sleaze; it’s the human condition. Complete indifference to what others think is the rarified territory of Zen masters and hermits. But, in classical music culture, the search for attention is still considered a distasteful anomaly, a distraction from the truer task of music-making. The performer as selfless servant of the composition: it’s a comforting story that musicians enjoy telling one another. As if politicians ran for office just to craft effective policy, or soccer players trained their entire lives only to achieve the perfect arcing shot. Among musicians, saying that a colleague does something for attention or recognition is still an insult. It’s a Catch-22: to be successful, a musician needs to perform for the attention economy. Simultaneously, they have to act as if the only thing they care about is the content of the music.
In an industry of clearly defined roles, the most modest aesthetic choices are enough to unleash hysteria: think of Teodor Currentzis’s Doc Martens, Yuja Wang’s couture dresses, Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s bare feet. Levit’s innovation was to flip the switch on a culture traditionally suspicious of the “I,” making his affective experience the perpetual focus. Some musicians are suspicious of any personal question; Levit asks, “What would the composers be without us?” They dispute the details of historical acciaccaturas; he says, “The composition is 50 percent, the other 50 percent is me.” They dive into manuscripts and read biographies; Levit finds the key to the work within himself. “There’s so much happening in such a short time,” he says of Beethoven’s music. “That’s exactly what appeals to me. That’s how I am, that’s my personality: very quick in thinking and acting.” Levit swears and doesn’t shy away from slang. Over time, his style has solidified into a rhetoric of authenticity by which banalities are treated as profound statements. “I prefer questions to answers.” “I’m always changing.” “Beethoven’s music is about humanity.” “Schools should teach a subject called empathy.”
Classical music has always been subject to an economics of stardom. The most successful artists jet around the world’s great concert halls, while the rest book gigs at schools and churches. It’s a platitude that it’s not enough to be a great performer. “Artists have always…worked for two markets at once,” Georg Franck, the philosopher, has said. “On the first, a service such as a work of art or a discovery is traded for money. On the second, opinions are traded for attention.” But the internet has changed the equation. Our brains have a finite capacity for stimuli, while the number of things competing for our attention has increased beyond all reckoning. As the fight for that precious resource gets dirtier, the few things that don’t get drowned out are the ones which find ever more aggressive ways of asserting themselves.
In the race for attention, Levit is a bit like Usain Bolt: he always seems effortlessly ahead. Most musicians are still looking for agents, begging for concert announcements in their local papers, wondering whether they can afford to overhaul their websites. Levit has 46,000 followers on Twitter, a calendar full of prime time TV appearances, and a new, stylish homepage developed by one of Germany’s top web designers. He’s already tweeted about the scandal of the day while most performers are still busy with their morning scales.
Of course, Levit isn’t the only classical musician who is highly active on social media. But many of his colleagues focus their social media strategies on stylish clothing, sold-out halls, private jets, family photos—an atmosphere of permanent, sterile success. A series of well-lit pictures without opinions or distinguishing qualities is only half the battle when it comes to succeeding in the attention economy. That content might keep the fans engaged, but it doesn’t lead to media coverage, and certainly not to status as a “thought leader.” To win those resources, musicians must trade opinions for attention.
Twitter is an extremely efficient at organizing this market. That’s especially true because it’s disproportionately used by the kind of people who structure the discourse: journalists, politicians, columnists, opinion-influencers. The platform is not demographically representative. Its political consensus is set by a minority of hyperactive users with comparatively radical political views. “The Twitter agenda had little, if any, relationship with the public agenda,” one study found. The defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in the recent UK elections shows the extent to which Twitter and reality diverge. So it’s astonishing how often journalists and other researchers use the platform for reporting and as an informal barometer of public opinion, as the media expert Sascha Hölig has written. Spending too much time on Twitter is like being in Plato’s cave: the shadows on the wall start looking like reality. Miniature online scandals are covered with the same breathlessness as genuine societal upheaval.
Levit is one of the few classical musicians with a hyperactive and prominent Twitter account. That has empowered him further, because others want to buy his soaring attention stock. Levit and many journalists, in particular, are good friends, praising one another online in turn. The musician and the reporters share similar views and the same interest in increasing their “reach.” While many classical musicians are still waiting for writers or agencies to “discover” them, Levit is once again a step ahead. He realizes that the best way to attract interest in yourself is to be authentically interested in others. When journalists write about him, he almost always retweets the article and praises its author, allowing them to bask in his reflected limelight.
A large part of the classical music industry has long been content with the ideology of “simply serving the music.” That has led to complacency in coverage of musicians; whatever image the performer hopes to project is accepted as reality. In interviews with Levit, I often get the sense that both interviewer and interviewee are spinning the same yarn. Levit’s main rhetorical strategy is to passionately refute arguments whose proponents are unclear. (“Music can’t be a substitute for calling racism racism,” or, “The idea that art is an excuse for not engaging is utterly ridiculous.”) But instead of pressing, journalists leave their natural skepticism at the door. The phenomenon is reminiscent of what Georg Franck called the privilege of the genius, as pertaining to Albert Einstein. “Einstein loved to play the role of the genius and talk about God and the cosmos, though not with more insight or competence than others,” Franck writes. “But because he was Einstein, his thoughts are quoted as if from a higher authority, even though he gained his authority in a completely different field.”
Levit’s self-stylization as the only political classical musician is also often taken at face value. In fact, there are many examples of politically engaged musicians and ensembles, of all stripes: Iván Fischer, Gabriela Montero, Valery Gergiev, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Daniel Barenboim, Lisa Batiashvili, Yo-Yo Ma, Fazil Say, András Schiff, Alban Gerhardt, the Refugee Orchestra Project, The Dream Unfinished...
“He sees it as his duty as a citizen not to hide away with his music,” claims a documentary about Levit on one of Germany’s largest TV broadcasters. Another station calls him “one of the most influential political voices of his generation.” Die Zeit writes that Levit “appears to want to compensate for the silence of his colleagues by getting involved especially often.” He has “politics that do not merely flavor his outspoken Twitter feed but inform his musical identity,” according to the New York Times.
In a piece on Levit, the Süddeutsche Zeitung writes with a tone of reproach that “most of his colleagues avoid day-to-day politics; they act apolitical, certainly out of fear for their careers.” If careers can be said to depend at least in part on presence in the public sphere, then now the opposite is true. Musicians who take stances on current political debates, or connect their artistic processes with politics, are most likely to appear on the Culture page. German publicists, at least, tell me about a “Levit effect”: interview requests, sent to musicians, on political issues. What does the violinist from the ex-USSR think of Vladimir Putin? Is the Ukrainian pianist for Kyiv or the separatists? How has Trump affected the immigrant artist in America? If the artists don’t want to answer these questions, the interview offer is often rescinded.
The intermingling between a superficial politicization of art and the attention economy—an economy in which eyeballs and likes can now be converted directly into cash—raises questions. If all politics is reduced to the politics of the personal creed, the instant moral reaction, what happens to the more subtly transformative political aspects of art: its space for the vulnerable, its acceptance of confusion and ambiguity, its empathy for the complexities of the soul—all things that “don’t pay” online? Are only those who tap into a stream of up to the minute political opinions, and share those opinions on certain popular platforms, truly political? As one website claims, “Igor Levit is the most political classical music star, because he is always getting involved in the current political debate on Twitter.”
Like all capitalist structures, the attention economy creates asymmetries. “A thing that, for whatever reason, doesn’t become singular will remain invisible in the background and attract little to no attention,” writes Reckwitz, the sociologist. “It appears worthless.” Compared with Levit and others who have achieved singularity, most classical musicians are treated as an amorphous blob of apolitical virtuoso robots. This asymmetry is compounded by an excess of supply: each year, increasing numbers of classical musicians enter a market that is largely saturated, a fact demonstrated by sinking fees. For many musicians, the feeling is one of frustration. They’ve spent lifetimes dedicated to making themselves musically unique—only to realize that it’s not enough. The equally necessary work of performative individuation is just beginning.
It was always naive to bet on musical quality alone. But waiting to be “discovered” is increasingly risky, because there are so few people left to be discovered by. Classical music is largely marginalized in traditional newspapers and magazines. Essays on music and concert reviews are nonstarters on social media. A minuscule group of full-time classical music writers feel pressured to get clicks through coverage of superstars, while a larger cohort of freelancers turns to work with labels, publicists, and institutions to pay the rent. As traditional mediators fall away, musicians are increasingly taking their public reputations into their own hands: curating the good reviews, building a fan community, being radically transparent. All of that costs time and energy. And few people are as good at it as Levit. Reckwitz’s description of the “avant-garde strategy” for singularity reads as if it was written about the pianist: “Confidently following a personal vision, in order to provoke an initially skeptical audience—and then either failing or finding great success.”
Levit’s career is a stark demonstration of the dissolving boundaries between art and commerce, journalism and public relations, particularly in Germany. Bayerischer Rundfunk, a public radio station, has produced a 32-episode podcast with Levit. Each episode he discusses one Beethoven Piano Sonata with the host. The show is produced “in cooperation” with Levit’s label, Sony, where he released his complete recordings of the Sonatas a few months ago. Besides running on a publicly funded radio station, a publicist has been hired to promoted the podcast (as well as the album). The agency calls it “one of the most important releases for the Beethoven Year 2020.” The products have reached a saturation that money alone could never buy.
The laws of competitive singularity are forcing most musicians to play this game, even if it’s just because they see their competitors’ success. Others have decided to opt out, returning to the old excuses: I speak through my music alone; I’m here to serve the composition. Sometimes, when most people are speaking almost constantly, the silence of the holdouts sounds even louder. “Talking is a waste of time,” Kirill Petrenko, the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, has said. He hasn’t given an interview in 10 years. That’s a luxury available to very few people: those who invested early in the attention economy and are now living off the dividends. ¶