Thursday, March 10, 2016

There are lessons to learn from the failure of Sinfini Music


When a high profile project goes belly-up there is usually much public debate about why the project failed and what lessons can be learnt. But not so with the Sinfini Music website which was launched with much fanfare, and promised to 'cut through classical', but which has now quietly disappeared. Readers will know that Sinfini divided opinions sharply, but that should not be a barrier to discussing what went wrong. The website was financed and controlled by Universal Music; this group has an annuual turnover of £3.5bn, and not only controls more than 50% of the recorded classical music market, but also through vertical integration controls the classical supply chain from music publishing through to concert promotion. Sinfini was funded for three years at a level other websites would die for, it recruited top media professionals from BBC Radio 3 and the Royal Opera House, and commissioned modish writers including Norman Lebrecht, Jessica Duchen and Paul Morley. A small fortune was spent on graphic art some of which adorns this article, Sinfini websites targeted the Australian and Dutch markets as well as the UK, and there was even a Sinfini record label. No official figures are available, but it is not unreasonable to estimate that the website burnt through around £1 million in its short life*. Sinfini Music was obviously a very big hitter indeed, in fact it was one of classical music's biggest marketing initiatives in recent years. So what went wrong?

The story has been doing the rounds that the failure of Sinfini was due to personnel changes within Universal Music following the unfortunate early retirement through ill health of ceo Max Hole. But this explanation is difficult to believe. Yes, politics are a fact of life in major record labels. But would Sinfini really have been axed if it had been achieving its self-professed objective of helping new audiences discover the very best of classical music? - an objective which translates into plain English as selling more Universal Classics' recordings. The answer has to be no; so we must conclude that despite more than adequate funding, despite generous helpings of dumbing down, and despite being the very model of a modern marketing campaign, Sinfini failed to sell enough classical music to justify its continued existence. Now if that is not a lesson for the whole classical music industry, I don't know what is.



It is now standard practice to apply consumer marketing techniques to classical music, and Sinfini was an example of the currently fashionable technique of native advertising - surreptitious mixing advertorial and advertising content. During my career I worked both in classical music and fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) marketing, and the conclusion I reached was that classical music does not behave like a consumer product such as cornflakes. So my proposition today is not only that FMCG marketing techniques such as native advertising are an ineffective way of promoting classical music to new audiences, but that this type of marketing actually produces a negative reaction in the crucially important established audience. In applied psychology cognitive dissonance theory recognises that individuals seek consistency among their cognitions (opinions); which means when there is an inconsistency (dissonance) between cognitions, something must change to eliminate the dissonance. The remorseless hyping of classical music's next big thing inevitably creates dissonance when experience fails to match expectation. A good example is Valery Gergiev's tenure at the LSO, when to eliminate the dissonance between experience and expectation both the orchestra and the audience voted with their feet.

Clearly audiences need to be told about forthcoming concerts and record releases, and the merits of those performances need to be communicated by effective promotion. However, forcing classical music into a consumer goods behaviourial model is misguided. But this approach has become prevalent because the senior management in record/media companies has come up through rock music; which is a totally different genre that does behave like consumer goods. Given the obsessive search for new audiences, and given the failure of much-hyped initiatives such as Sinfini, it is surprising that more effort has not been devoted to identifying a valid behaviourial model for the classical music market. I am confident in my view that classical music cannot be marketed as a consumer good, but I am much less confident in expressing a view on the behaviourial model that does apply. However, in the hope of stimulating constructive discussion, I am proposing that the solution to the challenges currently facing classical music may be found not in contemporary marketing dogma but in perennial wisdom.



The demand for consumer goods is volatile in the short-term, and can be stimulated at brand level by promotion and advertising. My proposition is that demand for classical music fluctuates in longer-term cycles, and that these cycles are insensitive to standard promotional techniques. Classical music is not a brand, and the cyclical demand for it at the macro level is determined by a complex mix of cultural, demographic, and technological factors that cannot be changed by conventional marketing tools. An analogy would be the Hindu cycle of four yugas or epochs, although the cycles in the classical music market are measured in years or decades rather than centuries. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s classical music experienced an auspicious and extended Satya Yuga (era of truth and perfection) as the market was stimulated by the arrival of the LP and then stereo, and concerts benefited by a widening of the repertoire that embraced new 'discoveries' such as the music of Mahler and Bruckner. In the 1980s the launch of the compact disc marked the end of the beneficial Satya Yuga, and the Tetra Yuga dawned when virtue diminished as piracy arrived on the back of digital technology. In the 1990s classical music entered the Kali Yuga - the age of darkness and ignorance - as the perfect storm of demographic change, technology driven piracy, mismanagement in the record industry, and diminishing external funding eroded the income stream of major performing ensembles.

In 2016 we are still in Kali Yuga, and there is no sign of that changing soon. One important lesson from the failure of Sinfini is that it is wrong to simply blame external culprits such as poor management and inadequate funding for classical music's present difficulties, because Sinfini had generous funding and strong executive management support; yet it still failed. Another important lesson for an industry obsessed with things digital is that Sinfini was 100% new media, but it failed. New media is a powerful tool in the right hands, but in the wrong hands it is doomed to fail. Classical music needs to learn these lessons and accept the cyclical nature of the market; which means the smart thing to do is to ride out the current downturn by tackling core problems such as excess capacity and profligate spending. This is not a nihilistic view, because in cyclical markets downturn is always followed by upturn. But the music needs to be given space to speak for itself, and the industry must stop smothering the music with every promotional gimmick it can find in a futile attempt to reverse the irreversible. In a post about the Mahan Esfahani's brouhaha in Cologne I recounted the old advertising adage that says if you shout too loud, people won't listen. In my view that is what happened at Sinfini Music - the website shouted so loud the audience couldn't hear the music. When will they ever learn?


* More on my £1 million estimate via this link and on how for a lucky few there is no difference between failure and success via this link.


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3 comments:

ColeRH said...

These longer, in-depth analysis posts are always among my favourites. Really thought-provoking stuff, Bob.

The irony with Sinfini Music - and I followed your coverage of that endeavour from the very beginning - is that in the past 6 months they were publishing some really great pieces. Which is the last thing I expected, frankly.

Even though I was fully aware of their conflict of interest (thanks to this blog), the Bjork interview, the funny pieces (re: page-turning) and opinion pieces (re: concert etiquette) were excellent. The last one became hugely popular on Facebook. And, most important, it raised a worthwhile discussion.

Don't get me wrong not everything was great. I loathed the composer interviews. They always chose "fashionable" 20-somethings whose music was consistently lightweight...and who looked good in photographs.

But - to me, a passionate long-term music lover, their best pieces were a lot more enjoyable than most of the Guardian's music coverage, to take just one example. I love the Guardian as a newspaper but I can't stand their classical music coverage. It's so predictable. Ditto the NY Times. Don't get me started on the Daily Telegraph and the Independent.

It seems to me - and I've experienced this many times in my field (computing) - that when a new boss comes in, the first thing he does is to cancel the pet project of the old boss, especially if it "reduces costs". Win-win.

Although you make an impassioned case for classical music not being a commodity, and that therefore this was the wrong way to go about things, I thing that – like all art – classical music both IS and IS NOT a commodity. It’s not JUST a self-fulfilling activity. It’s a business.

With respect to SM’s demise, something tells me Occam's razor may be the best tool: the simplest explanation might be the best. Although Sinfini Music "failed" in the sense that it was dismantled, it certainly didn't seem like a "failure" near the end, quality-wise. Quite the contrary. Which, to me, is sad.

Personally, I'll miss presence of their best articles on social media. I'm sure I'm not alone. I read both this blog and Sinfini, and I enjoy the contradiction. Life is full of grey.

Re: the lack of Sinfini lament: maybe people won't admit they liked it, so that they don't appear naive about Sinfini's agenda? If so, that's a shame because to pretend that they offered nothing of value is disingenuous.

Pliable said...

Thanks for that contribution ColeRH, it is exactly the constructive discussion that I hoped this post would stimulate. Your observation about how Sinfini's articles increased in authority towards the end is interesting. Perhaps they had started to see the error of their positioning and were trying - albeit too late - to rectify this.

Pliable said...

ColeRH's assertion that " -like all art – classical music both IS and IS NOT a commodity. It’s not JUST a self-fulfilling activity. It’s a business" is true and important. As I say in the post "Clearly audiences need to be told about forthcoming concerts and record releases, and the merits of those performances need to be communicated by effective promotion" and classical music acts as a commodity at a micro level, i.e. selling the merits of an individual concert or recording.

But virtually all this micro level marketing activity is simply moving existing demand from one commodity - recordinbg label, concert series etc - to another. There is no evidence that generically classical music behaves like a commodity, and as the Sinfini saga illustrates, there is no evidence that generic marketing of classical music expands the market.

As explained in the post, my thesis is that the overall level of demand is determined by cultural, demographic, and technological factors that are beyond the reach of conventional promotion. Moreover, and this is a very important point, attempts to market classical music generically can actually reduce overall demand by alienating the important and over-looked existing audience.