Saturday, September 16, 2017

How did something so promising go so wrong?

Since 1995 - the last time I produced a movie (To Die For) - the digital distribution of most popular forms of art has reinforced the popularity of a small group of artists and cast almost all others into shadow. To be a young musician, filmmaker, or journalist today is to seriously contemplate the prospect of entering a profession that the digital age has eroded beyond recognition. The deeper you delve into the reason artists are struggling in the digital age, the more you see that Internet monopolies are at the heart of the problem and that it is no longer a problem just for artists.
That quote comers from Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture ... by Jonathan Taplin. Its title comes from the Mark Zuckerberg quote "Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren't moving fast enough". In his book Jonathan Taplin points out that the five largest firms in the world measured by market capitalisation are Apple, Google/Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and goes on to ask about the Internet "How did something so promising go so wrong?" Back on digital planet earth the London Symphony Orchestra's concerts with Simon Rattle are available without payment live - i.e. in real time - and on demand for 90 days on YouTube and live on Facebook.

As Jonathan Taplin explains, YouTube is the largest music streaming site in the world, with a 52 percent market share, but it generates only 13 percent of streaming revenues. He goes on to point out that more people than ever are listening to music, reading books, and watching movies, but the revenue flowing to the creators of the content - i.e. musicians etc - is decreasing while the revenue flowing to the big four platforms - YouTube, Facebook, Google and Amazon - is increasing. Are those who are trumpeting that "the biggest threat facing musicians and their work is Brexit" living on the same digital planet as the rest of us?

No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

There should be no demarcation lines in music

My suggestion in a recent post that we are using a too narrow definition when discussing new audiences in particular and classical music in general leads me to Lalo Schifrin's Jazz Mass. In a Facebook comment on this thread Joshua Cheek astutely observed that "'crossover' is a dead end... it has become a genre unto itself". In crossover the imperative of the audience takes priority over the imperative of the music. But in the Jazz Mass art most definitely takes priority over audience despite Lalo Schifrin's reputation for acclaimed movie soundtracks. His Jazz Mass fearlessly challenges comfort zones: it incorporates contemporary modes, improvisation is a key feature and the Credo is aleatoric, with breathing cycles determining changes in vocal pitch and dynamics.

The multifaceted and mystical flute virtuoso Paul Horn commissioned the Mass - which is sung in English - in 1964. His LP recording seen above, which was titled Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts as it does not strictly follow the structure of the Catholic Mass, won two Grammys. In 1998 Lalo Schifrin directed a concert recording in Cologne with the WDR Big Band which is equally commendable; this release used the less opaque title Jazz Mass.

There are many other notable examples where the demarcation line between jazz and classical has been crossed. George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was originally commissioned for solo piano and jazz band by Paul Whiteman, and only later orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. Dave Brubeck studied with Darius Milhaud, and György Ligeti acknowledged the influence of Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk on his Études for Piano. André Previn has recorded a number of successful jazz albums; his 1956 My Fair Lady with Shelly Manne and Leroy Vinnegar became a best-seller. Leonard Bernstein championed jazz, and on his 1956 Columbia spoken word LP "What Is Jazz?" he argued against the critics who preached that jazz is not art. In the 1950s Randy Weston's jazz trio was resident at the Music Inn resort in the Berkshires where its audience included Leonard Bernstein and musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The trio's bassist was the African American musician Sam Gill, who went on to become principal bass for the Denver Symphony. In the photo below Sam Gill is playing with Thelonius Monk (piano), Kenny Dorham (trumpet) and Willie Jones (drums) at Tony's, Brooklyn, NY.*

New audiences remain top of the agenda, yet Lalo Schifrin's Jazz Mass is another work that is unfairly denied an audience. As jazz great Michel Legrand explained: "To me, both jazz and classical music have the same goal. There should be no lines of demarcation between them, for the end result should simply be - good music."

* Sam Gill photo credit The Hospitality Suite. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mahlerian in scope yet denied to audiences

Composer anniversary celebrations are another of classical music's big new ideas that has been quietly dropped. Which is a good thing: because in their ham-fisted execution they did no more than further expose grossly over-exposed composers such as Shostakovich and Mahler. But if handled with flair and finesse they could have done the valuable job of showcasing little-known and deserving composers. Such as Richard Arnell, the centenary of whose birth falls on 15th September. Even at a time when just a few composers dominate the concert repertoire Arnell's neglect is puzzling. He wrote big meaty symphonies that would surely appeal to today's Mahler-saturated audiences, and his trans-Atlantic provenance frees him from the dreaded 'English composer' label.

Despite this there were no Arnell symphonies at the BBC Proms in this his centenary year, nor have any of his symphonies ever been performed at the Proms. And in his centenary week he does not qualify for the BBC Radio 3 composer of the week slot, nor do the station's schedules list broadcasts of any of his music. Instead Radio 3 devotes air time to two more Mahler symphonies conducted by the omnipresent Simon Rattle. But all is not lost, because, as ever, those on the fringes are treading where the mainstream classical media is too myopic to tread. WWFM broadcasting in the New Jersey area and online is running an Arnell marathon on September 14 from 6.00 to 11.00 AM presented by Ross Amico, and conductor Warren Cohen, who knew Arnell, is being interviewed on WWFM between 8.00 and 9.00 AM local time tomorrow September 14th.

Born in London in 1917, Richard Arnell followed Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Sir Arthur Bliss to the States in the late 1930s, and, like Bliss, found himself marooned on the wrong side of the Atlantic when war was declared. He settled in New York for the duration, and became a member of the Greenwich Village circle that included Virgil Thomson and Mark Rothko. Among the works that Arnell composed in New York before he returned to England in 1947 were his first three symphonies (plus much of his Fourth) and a film score for the US Departure of Agriculture documentary The Land. Paths auspiciously converge here as the suite from The Land was given its premiered by African American conductor Dean Dixon and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942. Among others who championed Arnell's music in America were Léon Barzin, who gave the first performance of the Fourth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in 1948, Leopold Stokowski, who gave the premiere of the Black Mountain Prelude with the New York Philharmonic in 1949, and Bernard Hermann. In the UK Arnell's advocates included Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Thomas Beecham.

Despite advocacy by these musical luminaries, concert performances of Richard Arnell's symphonies are today as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth. But we are very fortunate to have a magnificently played and recorded cycle of the symphonies by Martin Yates - who is doing so much for neglected music - and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on the independent Dutton label. Passing on Arnell's monumental wartime Third Symphony for the 2017 Proms season was a huge missed opportunity. It is late-Romantic in tone, Mahlerian in scope and duration with a fifteen minute slow movement that Visconti would have adored, while hints of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, David Diamond and William Schuman betray its Stateside genesis. But perhaps it is good that it did not receive a Proms outing; because its dedication to "the political courage of the British people" would almost certainly have triggered yet another battle of the flag-waving loonies.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why you should never trust marketing experts

In a typically perceptive comment on Facebook about my classical music is not a lifestyle accessory post Joshua Cheek muses " do we recruit potential listeners and patrons to the current resources that are already available? Between streaming services like Spotify, Naxos Music Library and Primephonic, damned near the entirety of the Western classical canon is available..." Which prompts me to suggest that we are using a too narrow definition when discussing new audiences in particular and classical music in general.

Recently there has been considerable focus on Classic FM prompted by the station's success in attracting a young audience. In their haste to spread the misguided dogma that the future of mainstream classical depends on a crossover from smooth classics, the experts overlooked the following statement in a Guardian interview by Classic FM's managing editor Sam Jackson: "There is a far bigger audience crossover between us and Radio 1 than there is between us and Radio 3". This leads to a hypothesis that deserves serious consideration; namely that the audience crossover from outside classical music is more important than crossover within classical.

Sam Jackson highlights the crossover between BBC Radio 1's rock audience and Classic FM. Which may explain Classic FM's success in attracting a younger audience, as 41% of Radio 1's audience is in the age group 15-29, compared with the UK population average of 21.5%. There have been attempts by the BBC to leverage this crossover in recent Proms seasons with a Pet Shop Boys commission and an Ibiza anthems concert. But the results were were so cringe-inducing that these projects quickly joined the Strictly Come Dancing and Sherlock Holmes Proms on the scrapheap of classical music's next big things. Executed with more finesse was a 1970 Prom that brought together rock/jazz band Soft Machine and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert which included music by Terry Riley and exponent of electronica Tim Souster, and by members of the band.

In his comment Joshua Cheek refers to the riches contained in the libraries of Spotify, Naxos Music Library and Primephonic. One of the many disappointments of the digital age is that the music industry has singularly failed to capitalise on the huge opportunity offered by this breadth of on-demand music. Instead of the promised long tail of music we now have a short head which is the fiefdom of a few celebrity composers and musicians. This hegemony is reinforced by a music press which is in the service of those who profit most from the short head, the corporate labels and other music establishment institutions. They have the Mahler, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Kaufmann and Rattle bases very well covered. But what our brave new digital world lacks are the mavericks who relish the challenge of going against the flow on the margins of art music. Like former West Coast Editor of DownBeat magazine, mean guitarist and champion of minority genres Lee Underwood who co-authored jazz flautist and genre-busting improviser Paul Horn's acclaimed autobiography Inside Paul Horn.

Inside Paul Horn tells the story of the album seen above. This was an unplanned recording which in 1968 captured Paul Horn's spontaneous solo improvisations under the dome of the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra. His improvisations explored the dome's 28 second reverberation time, a unique acoustic created in the 17th century to enhance Qu'ranic recitations. When he returned to the States with the tapes Horn took them to Dick Bock, the founder of Pacific Jazz Records. Dick Bock was, unlike recent senior figures in Univeral Music and other corporate labels, no philistine; in fact he had been the driver behind Paul Horn's groundbreaking India and Kashmir albums. But when confronted with Horn's oddball Taj Mahal improvisations his response was "Let me run it by my marketing people and see what they think". The opinion of the marketing experts was "The music's too sparse and low-keyed, not exciting enough... go into the studio and add a few percussion sounds, maybe some bells, gongs, a few finger cymbals-you know, jazz it up a little, make it more commercial".

But Paul Horn was not prepared to jazz it up a little. So he took the album to Columbia's subsidiary label Epic which released it unaltered as Inside the Taj Mahal*. Those sparse and low-keyed sounds pioneered the New Age music genre which despite commercial exploitation and consequent devaluing has influenced the development of art music. Inside the Taj Mahal was in the vanguard of the music therapy movement, was one of the first essays in soundscape recording and a precursor of the now fashionable 'slow radio' movement. The album went on to sell more than 750,000 copies, and in a CD coupling with Inside Taj Mahal 2 (which was recorded in 1989) remains in the catalogue today. That is just one of many reasons why you should never trust music marketing experts. And yes, I have to confess that in another life I was a marketing expert in EMI's International Classical Division.

* The album was originally released with the title Inside, but this was later qualified with Taj Mahal as Paul Horn built up a catalogue of 'Inside' projects including Inside the Great Pyramid. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

What classical music can learn from Airbnb

In the early days of music blogging – which is now more than ten years ago – there was a lightness of touch that has long since disappeared. We blogged simply to share our discoveries and to share our experiences. Music blogging was a forerunner of the sharing economy, a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human, physical and intellectual resources that later spawned hugely popular innovators such as Uber and Airbnb. But today things are very different and music blogs have transitioned seamlessly from the sharing economy to the me economy. With very few exceptions music blogs and their associated social media feeds are now written with the sole intention of promoting personal careers, and shared discoveries have been replaced by undisguised plugs for personal appearances, performances, recordings and books.

This shift from the lightness of sharing to the heaviness of self-interest is usually explained away as an inevitable reflection of changes in the way we communicate. But is it? Is classical music, or any other art form, just about selling? Is it just about bums on seats, reader numbers, and volume of likes and re-tweets? Is it not about building something worthwhile, from which the positive metrics will then flow? In his influential book Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow founder of the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain Chip Conley talks about wanting his hotel guests to check out feeling “a better version of themselves”. How many musicians, and concert promoters have as their conscious mission for audiences to leave the hall feeling a better version of themselves? How many music writers want their readers to end an article feeling a little wiser?

Yes, this all sounds like hokey corporate-speak; because it is. But it works very well for millennials, and they are the prime target as classical music searches for a new younger audience. Chip Conley went on to become Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy for Airbnb which is one of the biggest success stories in the millennial market. Airbnb has tapped the massive and highly lucrative market offered by the 'explorer' mind-set – travellers who want to venture beyond the sanitised and commoditised world of chain hotels. Who in music writing, or coming to that concert and recording programming, is catering for the 'explorer' mind-set? Where have all the discoveries gone? Gone to sanitised and commoditised concerts. Gone to Mahler symphonies, every one...

Pioneers of the sharing economy such as Uber and Airbnb are categorised as market disrupters because they overthrow the established order through innovation. It has been said so many times that classical music must change to survive. But where are the disrupters? The last industry-spawned disrupter was Naxos which was founded by Klaus Heymann in 1987. Naxos not only disrupted the CD market with its highly successful budget priced catalogue, but also disrupted the business model of the recording industry by pioneering the use of low-cost offshore orchestras. Not to mention disrupting the cosy relationship between journalists and the classical establishment by successfully suing Norman Lebrecht.

Since 1987 the disrupters that have reshaped the classical industry have come from outside; most notably streaming services such as Spotify. In contrast, internal industry forces supported loyally by cohorts of onside journalists - think Sinfini - have all been directed at maintaining the stultifying status quo in the form of more power for the celebrity musicians and their secretive agents, bigger and more expensive vanity concert halls, maintaining profligate funding levels for the privileged few, paying lip service but no more to ethnic diversity etc etc.

Classical music can learn a lot from the hospitality industry. Most notably that if you do not innovate and disrupt from within, someone will do it from outside. Classical music has a choice. Start changing the status quo from within. Or watch as a bulldozer forces its way in from outside and reshapes the classical landscape.

Photo shows Airbnb listed music studio and artist space in Joshua Tree, CA. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.