2013 will be a bumper year for composer anniversaries, with Wagner, Britten and Verdi among those vying for media attention. But what do composer anniversaries actually achieve? Received wisdom tells us that they fill concert halls and woo radio audiences, and as a result ‘raise the profile’ and ‘increase awareness’ of the birthday boy in particular and classical music in general. But there is another view that says these anniversaries achieve little more than further raising the profile of already highly visible composers at the expense of those more deserving, while in the process providing a nice little earner for record companies, concert promoters and other intermediaries. As an example the Britten100 celebrations are being fronted by Albion Media, an international PR and media agency that also represents orchestras, musicians and media owners - a volatile mixture of interests that could, possibly, encourage hagiography at the expense of more balanced critical reassessment.
It is very difficult to find any facts on what composer anniversaries actually achieve, which is very convenient for those in the commercial-intermediary complex who are jumping on the anniversary bandwagon in increasing numbers. But there is one independent empirical measure of ‘profile raising’ and ‘awareness increasing’ that has been puzzlingly overlooked - or perhaps not so puzzlingly in view of what it tells us. Google Trends measures ‘interest over time’ by tracking Google search terms, and maps trends rather than absolute numbers. It is a fallible measure, but is still a lot less fallible than the opinions of self-interested music industry ‘experts’. Below are the Google Trends for three recent anniversary composers, Gustav Mahler and Franz Liszt in 2011 and John Cage in 2012 to date. All show large short term spikes corresponding to the actual anniversary date; but none show any significant longer term upward trend. In fact Mahler, who in 2011 had the benefit of a second year of massive anniversary exposure (over-exposure?), shows a downward trend in ‘interest over time’, while all three composers approach the year end with interest in them diminishing. Which rather confirms the comment on Facebook by an Australian reader that "My reaction, at the end of the [anniversary] year, is to decide I don't want to hear his/ her work again for quite a while".
A similar trend is also evident for lesser known composers, who it would be thought would be more responsive to increased exposure. Below is the graph for interest in Percy Grainger in 2011 - the fiftieth anniversary of his death when his music was featured at the BBC Proms and elsewhere.
In a 2010 post which explored Google Trends I asked “Could it be that classical music does not respond to mass marketing techniques?” Well, the graphs above suggest that classical music does not respond to the composer anniversary farrago. But there is evidence that classical music does respond to other pressures. Below is the much more positive interest trend for an established composer who did not have an anniversary in 2012. There are lessons that can be learnt from what triggered this self-evident tipping-point, but they will have to wait for another post. Meanwhile would any reader like to make an informed guess via the comments who the trending composer is?
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