Sunday, July 26, 2015
Classical music is backing the wrong kind of streaming
By supporting Spotify, Apple Music and similar services the classical music industry is backing the wrong kind of streaming. But let me make clear at the start that the purpose of this post is not to condemn music streaming. In fact my thesis is that streaming in a very different form holds the key to classical music's future. Streaming is nothing new; in fact the concept of streaming - at the heart of which is a steady and continuous flow of ideas - has been with us for at least four thousand years. At this point I turn to the Bhagavad-gītā, but please don't leave me; music streaming has its roots in the contemporary knowledge tradition of binary technology, and the Bhagavad-gītā is just another rather older knowledge tradition. The fourth chapter of the Gītā tells us in Sanskrit that Evam paramparā-prāptam, which translates as 'In this way, by handing from master to pupil, the knowledge is passed down'. It is then then explained that sa kāleneha mahatā yogo nastah parantapa - 'However in the course of time this succession became broken'. In Vedānta a mantra is defined as a vibrating sound with the potency to liberate the mind. This wide definition extends beyond the familiar chanted mantras to include any sound that can liberate the mind; so within this definition falls every masterwork of classical music. But the Bhagavad-gītā then tells us that if the potent sound is not passed down through a recognized succession - also known as line of transmission - it will not be effective.
Let's now try to translate this ancient wisdom into contemporary language. For potent ideas - of which classical music is a supreme example - to retain their potency, they must be handed down through a continuous chain of transmission. And the Bhagavad-gītā tells us that if this chain is broken, they lose their potency . My proposition is that this loss of potency is the reason why classical music is struggling to engage with contemporary audiences. Music streaming, which treats the music as a discrete 'object' divorced from sensory contact and context, is just one example of how the train of transmission is being broken. Concerts stripped of reinforcing conventions and rituals are another example. The enforced demise of music education, in which important ideas are transmitted from teacher to pupil, is yet another, as is the swing from live to recorded/streamed music as the primary method of consumption. While the advent of the teenage/twenty-something celebrity musician - where media appeal trumps maturity - and the parallel loss of so many great senior artists is an example of the weakening of the interpretative chain of transmission.
Digital technologies are not inherently bad: in fact they have an important role to play as a distribution tool. What is inherently bad is the binary thinking that slices and dices the complex interdependent process of music making into convenient bite-sized chunks for mass market consumption. Instead, what classical music needs is literally joined up thinking, with potent ideas flowing in an uninterrupted stream from composer to musician and on to listener. But re-establishing this flow requires a dramatic change in mindsets. Vedānta and the other ancient traditions of Buddhism and Sufism all stress the importance of subjugating the ego. Despite received wisdom, classical music's current problems are not caused by the external factors of shifting demographics and shrinking funding: instead they are caused by an internally driven shift away from art towards ego. Today the links in what should be a closely interconnected music delivery chain have separated, with each link becoming a discrete mini-brand that devotes its energies to differentiating itself from those around it. Celebrity musicians assert their status by demanding rock star fees, orchestras and radio stations fight to win the largest audiences, record companies chase sales at the expense of everything else, festivals battle it out for the title of biggest, while journalists will do anything for an exclusive. In classical music 2015-style everyone wants to be a winner, and the music is the loser.
A common defense of classical music's current ego-driven business model is that it has always been that way. However that defense is flawed. Of course there have been giant egos such as Liszt, Stokowski, Karajan (whose vanity I had personal experience of) and Callas. But they were the exceptions in an industry where ego tripping was seen as an indulgence rather than a prerequisite. Today, the ubiquitous dualism of winner or loser is breaking the vital train of transmission. With those at the bottom of the music food chain fighting for survival, the only way that classical music can stop itself plunging into an ego-driven dark Age of Kali is by change starting at the top. And, thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope where it matters. The Berlin Philharmonic's appointment of a new chief conductor from outside the ranks of celebrity maestros is a courageous and prescient move. When Kirill Petrenko was appointed to the Berlin Philharmonic, Norman Lebrecht expressed the view that Petrenko "will need to change fast". As usual Lebrecht had it totally wrong. It is not the low profile Kirill Petrenko who needs to change: it is classical music.
That header image sampled from the poster for the 1967 Mantra Rock Dance has a particular relevance to this post. The happening at the Avalon Ball Room in San Francisco introduced A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to the West. He went on to establish the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and his advocacy of music, in the form of the Hare Krishna mantra, was taken up by influential figures including George Harrison. The anthology of this thinking titled Chant and Be Happy, which was one of the sources used in this post, is recommended. 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.