Monday, September 08, 2014

This digital fixation is damaging live classical music

A personal view: the fixation to "digital" solutions in the world of (performing) classical music continues to be a damaging distraction - partly because the economic realities are so little understood or examined. Digital streaming has been shown to destroy, rather than create, financial value in recorded music: and when I read comments from "music lovers" describing how they'd rather spend money on the Berlin Phil digital concert hall than on tickets to hear their own local live performances, I start to wonder if it isn't damaging the financial value of live performance as well.

And yet it's received opinion in the sector that "digital" is the miracle technology that will save the finances of flagging promoters and ensembles - though no-one can say precisely how. It stems from incomprehension: I'm reminded of the adage about "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". In parts of the classical music sector, digital technology is still perceived as a magical pot of gold. Just one that no-one has yet worked out how to open.

To be fair, plenty of concert and venue managers are very aware that this is not the case. Yet major state funders such as the Arts Council England continue to insist, over and over, on the vital importance of "digital" (digital what, exactly, is rarely specified; the magic word is itself sufficient) and expect client organisations to continue making costly sacrifices to that particular golden calf. Public money (and all the real creative opportunities that it might make possible) is being squandered on "digital strategies" that are at best almost wholly ineffective; at worst actually damaging the long-term value of the art form that they're supposed to promote. As I need hardly tell you...
That comment was added to The original master tapes have been sadly lost by 'Halldor', which is the online alias of someone with considerable experience at the sharp end of classical music. The view that digital streaming destroys, rather than creates, financial value echoes my post lamenting the damaging oversupply of classical music, and the relevance of Halldor's comment is underlined by my recent analysis of classical sales trends, which identified how streaming has eclipsed all other methods of music access. Revitalising classical music requires complex and long term solution, and an evangelical belief in the 'silver bullet' of digital solutions, particularly on the part of agenda-setters such as Arts Council England, is at the best misguided and at the worst damaging. Particularly because, as Halldor points out, no one can say how digital solutions will actually revitalise classical music. And particularly bearing in mind that the only authoritative research on this topic suggests that the currently fashionable belief in digital solutions may be no more than "wishful thinking".

The key word in Halldor's comment is 'fixation'. Of course digital solutions have an important role to play in the future of classical music: this debate would not be taking place without the digital solution of blogging, and hybrid services such as the Naxos Music Library are valuable resources. But what has been lost is balance, with digital fixation replacing plural approaches. During my recent visit to India I was struck by how digital solutions have been assimilated into everyday life without dispensing with the richness and ambiguity of the analogue world. Our young Ladakhi guide on the overland trip from Delhi to Leh was a committed Tibetan Buddhist with a degree in electronic engineering, who mixed writing online poetry about impermanence with maintaining his cousin's trekking website, while at the same time taking a distance learning degree in philosophy. In the priceless Full Circle Bookshop in Khan Market, New Delhi, the 10-day MBA sits alongside Everyday Osho: 365 Daily Meditations For The Here And Now, and both titles attract the same buyers.

One of the books I brought back with me from India was Sudheendra Kulkarni's Music of the Spinning Wheel. In it Sudheendra Kulkarni proposes a connection between the power of the Internet and Gandhi's teachings on self-sufficiency and mutual co-operation. While this optimistic thesis may be difficult for cynical Westerners to accept in totality, it does contain the important messages that the potential of digital technologies can only be unleashed when they are combined with counterbalancing analogue values. In Gandhi's teachings these analogue values are symbolised by the charkha - the spinning wheel - which represents self-sufficiency underpinned by mutual co-operation. In the frantic search for new audiences classical music has lost the balance between digital solutions and analogue reality - between virtual concert halls and the human interplay of experiential live music. Schadenfreude needs to be indulged in very sparingly. But Halldor's comment did remind me of my 2010 heretical re-working of Britten's celebrated Aspen Award acceptance speech:
Anyone, anywhere, at any time can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only - that they possess a computer. No qualification is required of any sort - faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Thanks to the internet music is now free for all. If I say the computer is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a computer. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.
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1 comment:

Callum Hackett said...

There are two things that come to my mind on this issue which may make me sound as though I am playing devil's advocate to myself - a sign that there is no reasonable answer that declares digital listening emphatically 'good' or 'bad'.

The first is that there is a false equivocation in our perception of the internet which touches everything, not just music. We 1) observe that the internet connects more people than ever before, and 2) assume that this means more people than ever before have the ability to form their own audiences. In fact, because of the way our attentions are focused (particularly through mass social media), the internet has become a massive force for centralisation. Even digitally, fame still begets fame and the 'American Dream' version of internet communication - that you can reach the people you need to reach if only you try hard enough - is a myth except for the lucky.

At the same time, we have to remember to not be concrete in our conception of what music is, and what musical experiences are. I do think there is something to the "holy triangle" of composer, performer and listener, but I would stop short of saying that we need an "effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket" for us to be able to appreciate this trinity. The most obvious argument against this is that this image attempts to solidify a version of concert-going that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries and by no means was, or ever should be, immutable. Change may not always be good, but we shouldn't look to history as the natural and only way of things.

More important to me are those other aspects - the preparation, the programme homework, the sharpening of the instincts - which are all possible with digital listening, and which I make a part of my daily quasi-religious listening regime before I settle down to a late-night Digital Concert Hall performance, as there are no ensembles within affordable distance of me who will perform the Ligeti, Lutoslawski, or even the Britten that I've been reading about and trying to inhabit.

If live performance is to rejuvenate itself, it needs to make itself more relevant to the life of now. Why should any of us pay to travel to hear a mediocre Beethoven cycle when Spotify has what it has? The answer is that there is no reason why we should - at least after we have heard Beethoven live the first five or ten times - but that there is still plenty of brilliant music (not all of it necessarily contemporary) that only live performance can give us, but which it is not giving us currently.