Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why you should never trust marketing experts


In a typically perceptive comment on Facebook about my classical music is not a lifestyle accessory post Joshua Cheek muses "...how do we recruit potential listeners and patrons to the current resources that are already available? Between streaming services like Spotify, Naxos Music Library and Primephonic, damned near the entirety of the Western classical canon is available..." Which prompts me to suggest that we are using a too narrow definition when discussing new audiences in particular and classical music in general.

Recently there has been considerable focus on Classic FM prompted by the station's success in attracting a young audience. In their haste to spread the misguided dogma that the future of mainstream classical depends on a crossover from smooth classics, the experts overlooked the following statement in a Guardian interview by Classic FM's managing editor Sam Jackson: "There is a far bigger audience crossover between us and Radio 1 than there is between us and Radio 3". This leads to a hypothesis that deserves serious consideration; namely that the audience crossover from outside classical music is more important than crossover within classical.

Sam Jackson highlights the crossover between BBC Radio 1's rock audience and Classic FM. Which may explain Classic FM's success in attracting a younger audience, as 41% of Radio 1's audience is in the age group 15-29, compared with the UK population average of 21.5%. There have been attempts by the BBC to leverage this crossover in recent Proms seasons with a Pet Shop Boys commission and an Ibiza anthems concert. But the results were were so cringe-inducing that these projects quickly joined the Strictly Come Dancing and Sherlock Holmes Proms on the scrapheap of classical music's next big things. Executed with more finesse was a 1970 Prom that brought together rock/jazz band Soft Machine and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert which included music by Terry Riley and exponent of electronica Tim Souster, and by members of the band.

In his comment Joshua Cheek refers to the riches contained in the libraries of Spotify, Naxos Music Library and Primephonic. One of the many disappointments of the digital age is that the music industry has singularly failed to capitalise on the huge opportunity offered by this breadth of on-demand music. Instead of the promised long tail of music we now have a short head which is the fiefdom of a few celebrity composers and musicians. This hegemony is reinforced by a music press which is in the service of those who profit most from the short head, the corporate labels and other music establishment institutions. They have the Mahler, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Kaufmann and Rattle bases very well covered. But what our brave new digital world lacks are the mavericks who relish the challenge of going against the flow on the margins of art music. Like former West Coast Editor of DownBeat magazine, mean guitarist and champion of minority genres Lee Underwood who co-authored jazz flautist and genre-busting improviser Paul Horn's acclaimed autobiography Inside Paul Horn.

Inside Paul Horn tells the story of the album seen above. This was an unplanned recording which in 1968 captured Paul Horn's spontaneous solo improvisations under the dome of the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra. His improvisations explored the dome's 28 second reverberation time, a unique acoustic created in the 17th century to enhance Qu'ranic recitations. When he returned to the States with the tapes Horn took them to Dick Bock, the founder of Pacific Jazz Records. Dick Bock was, unlike recent senior figures in Univeral Music and other corporate labels, no philistine; in fact he had been the driver behind Paul Horn's groundbreaking India and Kashmir albums. But when confronted with Horn's oddball Taj Mahal improvisations his response was "Let me run it by my marketing people and see what they think". The opinion of the marketing experts was "The music's too sparse and low-keyed, not exciting enough... go into the studio and add a few percussion sounds, maybe some bells, gongs, a few finger cymbals-you know, jazz it up a little, make it more commercial".

But Paul Horn was not prepared to jazz it up a little. So he took the album to Columbia's subsidiary label Epic which released it unaltered as Inside the Taj Mahal*. Those sparse and low-keyed sounds pioneered the New Age music genre which despite commercial exploitation and consequent devaluing has influenced the development of art music. Inside the Taj Mahal was in the vanguard of the music therapy movement, was one of the first essays in soundscape recording and a precursor of the now fashionable 'slow radio' movement. The album went on to sell more than 750,000 copies, and in a CD coupling with Inside Taj Mahal 2 (which was recorded in 1989) remains in the catalogue today. That is just one of many reasons why you should never trust music marketing experts. And yes, I have to confess that in another life I was a marketing expert in EMI's International Classical Division.

* The album was originally released with the title Inside, but this was later qualified with Taj Mahal as Paul Horn built up a catalogue of 'Inside' projects including Inside the Great Pyramid. 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.

No comments: