Thursday, October 13, 2016

Classical music's social media conundrum

Why are classical musicians and journalists so good at promoting themselves on social media, but so bad at promoting deserving and little-known music? That question is prompted by listening to Lyrita's new budget-priced 4 CD anthology of British Symphonies. Since 1959 Lyrita have worked tirelessly to showcase the treasures of British music, and they have been almost a lone voice in their advocacy of music beyond the warhorses of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Holst. The lamentable neglect of so much fine music is highlighted by an analysis of the number of performances of the symphonies on this new release. The Proms are recognised worldwide as a great British institution, and the archive of Proms performances provides an invaluable barometer of music fashions. Of the thirteen symphonic works showcased by Lyrita just under half - six to be precise - have never received Proms performances. (Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, one of those works is Malcolm Arnold's Sinfonietta No. 1.) And of the thirteen composers showcased, one - John Joubert - has never had any of his music performed at a Prom. Which is particularly ironic as Joubert is the only living composer among the thirteen. Another composer - William Wordsworth - has only had one Proms performance of his music, and another three - Cyril Rootham, Grace Williams and Humphrey Searle - have had less than ten performances.

By comparison the 2016 Proms season alone included five Mahler performances. Which is exactly the same number as Grace Williams' music has ever received at the Proms. That observation inevitably leads on to the argument that the neglect of so many composers simply reflects their failure to compose masterpieces. But does that highly subjective measure really matter? Quite rightly the commissioning of new music is seen as an essential function of the Proms? But how many masterpieces are produced as a result of Proms commissions? Very few; but again, does that really matter?

Championing new music is, thankfully, still seen as an essential function of the Proms and other major festivals. But, perversely, with a few notable exceptions championing neglected music is not. The lack of box office appeal is usually cited as the reason for excluding composers such as Cyril Rootham. He is one of the twelve of the composers featured by Lyrita who are sadly no longer with us, as are many other neglected composers from Britain and beyond. One of the many inequalities of social media is that the dead cannot promote themselves. Whether we like it or not social media is a powerful tool, and classical musicians and journalists have leveraged social media very successfully to promote themselves. This despite much of their work being, just like that of neglected composers, somewhat short of masterly. If just part of this very effective self-promotion was switched to promoting neglected music a virtuous circle of mutual benefit would be triggered. If classical music really wants to change it must stop thinking 'me' and start thinking 'us'. And if you don't believe me please buy Lyrita's British Symphonies anthology.

A requested review sample of Lyrita's British Symphonies was used in writing this post. 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.


Pliable said...

Joshua Cheek comments via Facebook:

Many thanks once again to Bob Shingleton for another insightful critique of how classical music has dropped the ball on social media - and social media potential as a whole.
This is not a new theme either for Bob or myself, and I would definitely include World Music, especially non-Western, non-mainstream World Music into this critique as well. While there are a handful of artists and bloggers/writers who have capitalised on what social media can do for themselves personally, as Bob points out, far too many classical artists and composers and World Music musicians confront the possibilities of social media with a mix of annoyance ("I don't have TIME to waste of Chatsnap or Bookface or whatever it's called"), and lack of comprehension ("we've done a campaign have not sold a SINGLE CD! What's the point?"). Or, in the case of a number of truly excellent World Music artists either have NO social media presence or a minimalistic website/FB page in their native language only!
By way of contrast, here in Ameria right now we are in the heat of Grammy season. While many classical artists, especially those based in Europe a most every serious World Music aficionado dismiss the Grammys as Bob has so eloquently put it "That annual orgy of self-congratulation by the remnants of the American record industry" and lacking in credibility, the level of activity and energy those seriously competing would amaze most classical and World Music artists! True, the majority of what is being submitted is, to quote Bob again is "somewhat short of masterly", but day after day, these artists are on virtually every social media platform, posting, responding, interacting, promoting. I cannot even imagine how these people have time to even function in a daily routine with some much energy expended on social media! That doesn't even take into consideration the post cards, thousands of promos, one sheets, and little disposable tchotchkes they send out by the ton! Most will not win and cut their losses. But what IS gained is a growing profile among their fans and peers.
I can only imagine how the musical landscape might possibly change if the artists I love and really want to hear and support spent one tenth of the effort on self-promotion/social media that these Grammy hopefuls have. Perhaps the problem of mediocrity and homogeneity of our current music scene might even be altered to become something a bit more vibrant and exciting.

Graeme said...

Do you have any figures for performances of Proms Commissions? How many times has Birtwistle's Pan been performed, let alone Malcolm Arnold's Hornpipe, or Malcolm Williamson's audience participation opera about the Roman conquest?

Pliable said...

Graeme, that information is available on the Proms archive website linked from my post:

Harrison Birtwistle Panic (I assume that is the work you meant) - 2 performances

Malcolm Arnold Fantasy for Audience and Orchestra, Op 106 - 1 performance

Malcolm Williamson The Stone Wall - 1 performance