Thursday, June 16, 2016

There is nowhere near enough success to go around

My recent question as to whatever happened to the future of classical music has gone unanswered. So in the absence of exclusive revelations from the inside track cultural commentators I am forced to conclude that the Bristol Proms suffered the same fate as Sinfini Music - another big new idea that wasn't quite big enough to survive the perpetual game of musical chairs at executive level in Universal Classics. But this is not the time for schadenfreude. Because classical music needs to change, and if we drill down through the inevitable corporate posturing and ego massaging, both the Bristol Proms and Sinfini Music offered a worthwhile challenge to some of the art forms silly conventions. So the purpose of this post is not to gloat, but to ask if there are any lessons to be learnt from yet another failed attempt to reach a new audience.

In the absence of any inside information I have to conclude that the Bristol Proms, like Sinfini, was a heavily funded initiative to promote musicians signed to Universal Classics. The unfortunate departure of Max Hole due to ill-health was clearly a factor in their demise, because he championed both initiatives. But it is fair to conclude that the return on the investment - reportedly several million pounds in the case of Sinfini - was not big enough. Because if there was any evidence at all that these initiatives were indeed reshaping the future of classical music, the plug would surely not have been pulled – with or without Max Hole.

Based on this conclusion I suggest there are two lessons to learn from the failure of both the Bristol Proms and Sinfini Music. The first is that the future of classical music lies in the hands of classical musicians, and not with media corporations or any other third party. Of course productive partnerships are needed. But classical music has shown itself to be all too willing to sell its soul to the corporate devil in return for the promised rewards of scale. Which is a mistake: both because the ambitions of corporations and art forms are very different – an example is how the Proms have morphed from being a celebration of classical music to a celebration of the BBC brand – and because increased scale is the wrong goal to aim for.

This obsession with increased scale provides the second lesson from the demise of Universal Music's big new ideas. In his thoughtful book Messengers Julian Sayarer points out that “there are seven billion of us kicking around and nowhere near enough success to go around”, and proposes that an obsession with unachievable success lies at the heart of many current problems. Nowhere is the infatuation with scale more evident than in classical music, with metrics of scale - big new mass market audiences - driving every strategy, and symbols of success - Rolex maestro role models, winner takes all talent competitions, and designer pad envy - dictating the tactics that underpin the strategy of increased scale.

A future for classical music built on ever increasing success and scale is an impossible dream. Because there is nowhere near enough success to go around; particularly when the supply of classical music is allowed to increase unchecked despite there being no parallel increase in demand. And to make matters worse the limited rewards of success are heavily skewed towards an elite clique of lavishly renumerated, ever-younger, white, and - until recently - male musicians. Multi-media concerts, jargon-free websites and other convention-busters have a role to play in the future. But what is far more important is the rethinking of long term objectives. Classical music must forget about thinking big and changing the world, and instead focus on thinking small and changing someone's world.

Libby Purves joined the BBC in the same year as I did. Back in 1972 attitudes towards scale, success and audiences were very different. I suggest that the key to the future of classical music cannot be found in the big new ideas of corporate gurus, but in this perennial wisdom expressed in her book Radio: A True Love Affair:
To run radio you must be like an old-fashioned publisher, a 1930s Gollancz or Faber & Faber, working on faith and idealism and wanting to share what you yourself love. All that you can do is to make - and publicise - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile.
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