Thursday, September 11, 2014

Beware of classical music's new silly conventions


Speaking at the recent Salzburg launch of Deutsche Grammophon's Discovery classical music streaming app DG president Mark Wilkinson asserted that "The digital audience is our audience". If we leave aside concerns that the Discovery app - £2.59 a month to access more than 450 albums - will destroy rather than creates financial value, Mark Wilkinson's sound bite requires closer study. Speaking in a 2010 radio interview with me, the composer Jonathan Harvey said, quite rightly, that "nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by rather silly conventions, which we all tend to think are sacred". But in the intervening four years since that interview, the debate about classical music's silly conventions has been hijacked by a small but vociferous lobby that advocates abolishing a narrow range of concert hall conventions to further their own commercial agendas. This lobby is led to Universal Music's Max Hole, who has been dining out for years on his stories about classical music's silly conventions. The irony is that Max Hole is right, but he has been targeting the wrong conventions: what he should be targeting is fashionable silly conventions such as the one peddled by the president of DG - a Universal Music label - that the classical music audience is 'digital'.

Studying the facts - which music industry executives seem puzzlingly loath to do - proves Mark Wilkinson wrong. As highlighted in a previous post, the audience for CDs, not streamed music, is the most important recorded classical music market in fiscal terms, and will remain so for some time. But another silly convention rears its head here - the mythical 'digital audience'. Talking about a 'digital audience' as a separate entity to a 'non-digital audience' is nonsense. All recorded music delivery platforms - CD, download and streaming - rely on digital technologies, and from 1979 onwards vinyl LP's were cut from digital master tapes. And my inbox currently attests to yet another silly convention, that if you query any aspect of this binary hegemony, you are a luddite who does not embrace digital. Which, yet again, is nonsense - RTFB. However, the difference between embracing and fixating on new technologies is at the core of many of classical music's current problems.

In his spirited defence of collectable music formats Alex Ross highlighted the silly convention, that CDs are "space-devouring, planet-harming plastic objects". The extension of this convention is that those who still buy CDs are to despised and dismissed. This latter is more than a silly convention: it is a deeply unpleasant sentiment that found expression in this tweet by a Independent journalist: "My column on the problem with classical music and how a large proportion of [BBC] R3’s audience should hurry up and die....". That silly - no sorry, loathsomely stupid - sentiment morphs into the dogma that the only good audience is a young audience, and that the current ageing core of mature concertgoers is no more than cannon fodder to be sacrificed in the battle for the elusive digital audience. Again this dogma is proved wrong by facts: mature audiences are classical music's revenue earner, and, like CDs, they show no sign of relinquishing their preeminence.

Which leads to the ultimate silly convention, that there is any such thing as a single classical audience, yet alone a single digital audience. There is, undoubtedly, a large market for classical music, but there is no single mass market. Classical music is granular and is made up of lots of connected but different niche markets. Which means there is no 'one size fits all' classical music, and no 'one size fits all' delivery platform for recorded classical music. We need Harrison Birtwistle and we need André Rieu, and we need CDs, downloads, streaming and vinyl. And we also need young and mature, knowledgeable and neophyte concertgoers. Because when classical music is homogenised for the elusive mass - read digital - market it loses its essential appeal. Which explains why so much classical music today is bland and unappealing. Which, in turn, explains why classical radio in the UK lost one million listeners in just twelve months.

Venerating 'digital audiences' is just another form of the elitism that Max Hole professes to despise so much. Jonathan Harvey had it exactly right: nobody should be deprived of classical music. Least of all by silly new conventions which the high priests of Universal Music and other sects have declared sacrosanct.

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3 comments:

Qi said...

Thank you so much for writing this essay. I have railed on about many of the same issues to my colleagues for some time, but as you presciently observe: "Studying the facts - which music industry executives seem puzzlingly loath to do.." I find myself bashing my head against the wall.

In recent months, a new bottle of snake oil has been sold to a number of classical labels, mainly the critical importance of being "retweeted" by iTunes. The sheer number of man-hours being invested in crafting the perfect 140 character cipher (with all the relevant hashtags, "@s" and what-have-you) is mind-numbing. And for what? the hopes that the very entity that first destroyed the CD retail trade, and who is now in the process of killing off their own iPod Classic with 160 Gb of memory in order to force listeners to abandon ownership in favor of a new streaming model (via their recently acquired Beats Music service)? The new tech can be helpful; I often use Spotify to preview potential purchases... of CDs! As for Pandora, that entity ought to be euthanized! I previously posted an account of my own attempt at music discovery on that digital sham, specifically when I was searching for "Chinese Traditional Music." The first album that played was John William's score to "Memories of a Geisha" and the banner image for the entire channel was a detail from the movie poster featuring a BLUE-EYED Zhang Ziyi. Well, at least Ms. Zhang IS Chinese. I suppose I ought to be grateful that Richard Clayderman didn't show up in greater number.

Your conclusion has application far beyond the classical market: ALL MUSIC "...is granular and is made up of lots of connected but different niche markets." But in the current state of collusion between the surviving three major labels conglomerates, techcoms and Tech manufacturers, diversification is NOT a virtue and pretty much ALL audiences that choose not to be funneled into a touch-screen universe are being to they "should hurry up and die."

Thank you again for saying with such eloquence what I have felt for so long.

Dave MacD said...

I do not listen to CDs. Ever. I don't even have a great way to play CDs. My computer does not have a CD drive. I find physical media to be cumbersome and annoying. If an album comes on CD only and no digital formats, it is unlikely that I will ever hear it.

Pliable said...

"... but there is no single mass market. Classical music is granular and is made up of lots of connected but different niche markets. Which means there is no 'one size fits all' classical music, and no 'one size fits all' delivery platform for recorded classical music. We need Harrison Birtwistle and we need André Rieu, and we need CDs, downloads, streaming and vinyl."