Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Classical music should embrace marginality

Regular reader Bernard Tuyttens gives us the heads-up on the post below from A Sweet Familiar Dissonance as a contribution to the current debate, or should that be despair? about the changes to BBC Radio 3.

Tom Strini suggests that the best thing for the future of classical music would be to "embrace its marginality." I tend to "flip-flop" on this issue (if you'll excuse the expression) though most of the time I try to keep a positive outlook. I would like to think there will always be a few people who love classical music - maybe enough to keep it alive indefinitely - but the world we live in is discouraging to a classical music fan. "Singers" who can't read a single note of music make millions of dollars and fans dismiss as "boring" anything that requires the least bit of thoughtful attention. People who have never bothered to listen to even one complete symphony - people who, in fact, may not even realize that the five minute excerpt on some "classical for dummies" CD is not the complete symphony - have already passed judgement on the entire rich and exciting thousand year history of classical music and actually believe they are fully qualified to do so.

Marketing is the primary culprit in this apparently bleak situation. The goal of marketing is to get people to buy - to spend their money without thinking. No matter how much they appear to be appealing to your intelligence, the fact is, intelligent thought is the number one enemy of marketing. Music, like everything else, has become a product to be sold so it is packaged to attract immediate attention, not to satisfy over the long run.

But, in addition to dumbing down the audience, marketing has turned us all in into scorekeepers. We know that number recordings sold or number of dollars made is not an indicator of quality but, nevertheless, we wail about the unfairness of an industry that rewards an untalented, thin-voiced bimbette with vast riches and popularity while real musicians with many years of training and practice remain in obscurity and often have to take other jobs to make ends meet. We should keep in mind that economics has never been and never will be fair.

If classical music is destined to be marginal it is not the only artform of which this is true. I would like to think that truly intelligent people will eventually get bored with most commercialized forms of entertainment - though it may take quite a while with so many things competing for our attention - and will seek other options. When they do, they will find not only classical but a number of other genres, some even more obscure, in which quality is still important. As Strini notes in the article, we have many more choices now and
each slice of pie is thinner than it used to be.

Maybe it will be a healthy thing if the music world becomes more like the book world. Some people read mysteries, some read romances, some read science fiction, some read westerns and so on. Millions of people read Stephen King but there are hundreds of other authors who are each read by only a few thousand devoted fans and they keep writing, perhaps dreaming of greater fame but still happy to perform for their limited audience. So maybe we all need to stop thinking in terms of marketing success and just enjoy the music and, like a good book, share it with a few friends.

Now read about Peak Melody

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Konrad von Swalwagner said...

As someone with a decent knowledge (for a lay person) and great appreciation of economics, I beg to disagree with the assertion that "economics has never been and never will be fair." Economics is not fair or unfair; it is people who imbue economics with morality, but saying that economics is unfair is similar to saying that statistics (or mathematics in general) is cruel or prejudiced, whatever that might mean.

Pliable said...

Thanks for that Konrad.

I'm just relieved somebody is interested in something other than a Joyce Hatto post.