Rock idols and the Harry Potter fallacy

Independent feature writer and fellow blogger Jessica Duchen gets a double-pages spread in today's Indie on the Sting Dowland and Paul McCartney Ecce Cor Meum discs, and writes - 'I'm willing to stick out my neck and say that whether or not you like the results, and whether or not it's fair, both Sting and McCartney have done something worthwhile. They've broken the mould; they've kept pushing the boundaries; and though the results may be patchy, in the main these albums work because they're fuelled by genuine creative drive. If Sting and McCartney can bring creativity, conviction and communication centre stage then, like it or loathe it, let them try. '

I have no problem at all with the classical ventures of these two rock idols, if you can get your record company to record your Dowland or new choral work good luck, whoever you are. But let's not kid ourselves that these two efforts reflect anything other than 100% commercial agendas. If Paul McCartney really wanted to put communication centre stage he could have underwritten a performance of a little known and deserving contemporary choral work (let's take Rudolf Mauersberger's sublime Dresden Requiem as an example) in London, he could have made sure the hall was full by promoting it in the media, and he could have persuaded his record company, EMI, to record and really market the results. That way new audiences would have experienced real creativity, conviction and communication. Meanwhile Sting could have put his efforts behind persuading (and funding) an online archive of the BBC's contemporary music riches similar to that hosted in Finland by YLE, and he could have persuaded some of his super-rich rock buddies to fund the first year's composer royalties to allow free downloading - now that would be breaking the mould.

Jessica also trots out the old canard that the McCartney piece "could prove to a large number of otherwise hesitant listeners that new works in a classical idiom can engage with them". I'm afraid it just doesn't work like that as the book industry found out with the Harry Potter fallacy. J.K. Rowling's books have sold millions, but if you analyse the sales for the industry over an extended period no more books are sold across the total market. It is a fallacy both that Harry Potter readers go on to Jane Austen, and that more books are sold because of the Harry Potter titles. McCartney and Sting fans will buy these two discs; good luck to them, and I am sure they will enjoy them. But let's not pretend this is breaking any moulds or pushing any boundaries.

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Anonymous said…
I entirely disagree that Sting & McCartney are motivated by money-making. Both are artists of conviction and have attempted work of integrity. This is the glass-half-full explanation for recording (and performing) these works I prefer.

However, I entirely agree that the music will not break boundaries on a broad scale. The involvement of high profile popular musicians might but the works themselves will not.
Jessica said…
All I said was 'let them try'! It's when people stop trying that you really have a cultural problem. Besides, if I was Sting and I wanted to make some more money, recording lute songs by Dowland would not seem like the most obvious way to do it.
Pliable said…
I do like this piece over on Arthur Clewley's Diary , and not because it says that I know what I'm talking about, or because it features a YouTube video if you follow the link. I like it because the last paragraph is extraordinarily perceptive (and true) for someone claiming to be pig ignorant about music:

I should say at the start here that I am utterly pig ignorant about music but I'm going to write about it regardless so here goes. The elizabethan answer to Leonard Cohen is at number 24 in the album charts thanks to the world's most famous schoolteacher after Mr Chips and Mr Pudding. I haven't heard it but I'm sure it's very good as pop stars of the old school are often much more knowledgeable about earlier music than the kind of people who will scoff and say he should stick to doing stuff about teachers having affairs with pupils and prostitutes. I will probably end up buying it as long as he has avoided the dreaded 'crossover' mutant monster of jazzing up classical numbers with pop beats and offending everyone who really loves music, be it pop music or classical. Crossover is the ladyboy of the music world. Many people want to shag someone of the same sex, many prefer the opposite to them, both are part of life's rich tapestry but who wants to shag someone with bits of both, who wants to shag something whose top half is Sarah Brightman and whose bottom half is Russel Watson?

I was reading an article over at Overgrown path where someone who does I think know what he's talking about talks of the Harry Potter syndrome. Harry Potter books sold millions but didn't really impact on reading habits generally and he fears that Sting's John Dowland record will do the same. In that case, classical audiences will continue to disproportionately comprise old people in bobbly fleeces (when the young 'tearaways' in the nightclub next door are smart and pressed in their best gear) who mutter, cough and rustle sweets through the performance and clap before the piece is finished (because they can't either tell the natural end hasn't been reached yet by listening to the bloody music, count to three, four, five movements or see that the musicians haven't put down their instruments, mopped their brows and taken a bow, the fool proof way to tell that they have finished that people like me fall back on.

I hope that Mr Sting's record does make people go out and discover early music like John Dowland because it's something I find calms my soul in times of trouble. Unlike later grand musical movements, the romantics and so on, which speak of grand themes of nature and politics and religion, early music speaks of the human heart, and that is the same now as it was half a millenium ago.
Pliable said…
Just received in the email:

Dear Pliable

I agree completely with your perspective on the Sting and McCartney discs. Since I read that today is Bob Weir's 59th birthday, I'm in a Grateful Dead frame of
mind, and that made me think of their bass player Phil Lesh and his championing (and funding) of much contemporary British music. I think that's the sort of thing you had in mind in the counter-suggestions you offered in response to Ms. Duchen's comments.

Keep up the good work.


Phillip Bush
Guthry Trojan said…
It's unusual to find myself taking a more conciliatory view than Pliable but I can’t honestly say that I think Sting’s motivation was wholly commercial when he embarked on this project. There's an honest resonance to his interview in the Telegraph when he claims that he was far from convinced about releasing a recording of this project until “the very last minute”. And in Billboard magazine, "We really did this for love, and whatever happens next is in the hands of the Gods, really."

Although Sting claims it was the Cecil letter that persuaded him to turn his explorations into a record, I think it might be more revealing if we were to ask who was responsible for bringing Sting’s “labour of love, labour of curiosity” to the notice of Deutsche Grammophon. This, I imagine, is where the commercial exploitation begins – and it exploits Sting as much as the rest of us. An aging rocker, living a super-real life, whose lasting fame is founded on fickle, transitory pop music, is easy prey for a culture monger like DG. I’ve little doubt they sold him the win-win idea of establishing his credentials as a serious artist while broadening his appeal to wider, cultivated audience – quite an appealing legacy.

Everyone I think, admires Sting for his music, his questing and his exploration, but we should do him the honour of giving an honest appraisal of his work without leading him, or allowing ourselves to be led down the labyrinthine path of cynical marketing.

You can read my honest appraisal here.
Jerome Langguth said…
Thanks again for your continually enjoyable blog. Your comment on the Sting Dowland album and the Harry Potter fallacy does have me a little puzzled. Isn't it rather too soon to deem the "Harry Potter effect" a fallacy? Many fans of those books are still quite young, and it would likely be years before their enthusiasm for reading translates into a taste for Pynchon, Proust, or Austen. So the effect could be very subtle and hard to track, but real nonetheless.This may not ease the minds of book retailers, but reading habits do not typically develop or change overnight. The same is true with respect to the possible effect of being exposed to Dowland on Sting fans. They may not immediately order a shopping cart full of elizabethan music, but it is quite conceivable that a taste for more music of that kind would begin to be nurtured by hearing a favorite singer/songwriter perform such material.

Jay Langguth
Henry Holland said…
who wants to shag something whose top half is Sarah Brightman and whose bottom half is Russell Watson?

Lovers of shemales. Both exist, at the very margins to be sure, but they exist.

I'm in a Grateful Dead frame of mind, and that made me think of their bass player Phil Lesh and his championing (and funding) of much contemporary British music

Two of my favorite Rex Foundation projects:

Simpson's 6th & 7th symphonies on Hyperion and Birtwistle's great Earth Dances, the one with Peter Eotovos conducting.

Of all things, Phil Lesh once said that the Birtwistle piece was his workout music. Take *that* thumping disco music!

All I said was 'let them try'! It's when people stop trying that you really have a cultural problem

Nah, disagree with that. If by "cultural problem" you mean selling tickets to keep the organizations afloat, sure. If you mean "the opening night of the LSO doesn't get covered on morning television", then absolutely not. The whole pop/rock > classical crossover is a long discredited idea, it was tried in the late 60's/early 70's and it's been shown again and again to be an utter failure in bring new audiences *that come back* to the orchestral rep. For one thing, it's a simple case of pandering, it insults people with the idea "Well, you can't *get it*, you need baby steps". The people coming to classical from pop know they're being condescended to.

It also has the effect of setting up false expectations. It's like those hideous concerts I hear about in which they don't play anything more than 5 minutes long or something. Fine, you've now programmed your potential audience to expect five minute chunks of music. By setting up a dynamic that doesn't conform to how concerts are actually presented --and luckily, the whole "audience sits still and shuts the hell up and turns off their mobiles (*gasp* they might not be able to text their friends for a whole 30 minutes! THE HORROR!) while the musicians on stage play their stuff" isn't ever going to change-- it has the effect of lying to potential customers.

I've long maintained in these debates that the best policy is honesty. The standard orchestral rep --not even getting in to Birtwistle's type of stuff-- IS difficult to understand, it DOES take a committment of time, attention and persistence to enjoy; the performance is NOT about you and what you want it's about the music, full stop; there is etiquette, just like anything involving masses of people doing something and those things are there for a reason; Beethoven IS a greater writer of music than The Arctic Monkeys.

OK, only kidding about the last one being included in the truth telling, but I see no way around the "problems" that everyone cites about concerts. If 20-year olds want to feel like participants because they're used to online gaming and blogs and webchats and stuff, well........tough. You're a passive participant, there's simply no way around it.
I'm with Jessica here; Sting recording a bunch of Dowland songs doesn't seem like the most obvious money-making venture he could have pursued. Now, if the ghost of John Dowland has risen up and asked Sting to record some of his songs, then I'd be the first to accuse Dowland of selling out ...

As for the argument "If Sting really wanted to do something good he could have funded a contemporary music archive instead of recording a John Dowland album", well that doesn't really make much sense, does it? He wanted to record an album first and foremost rather than perform a giant act of completely unrelated philanthropy (and anyway, would we be any happier with Sting involved in contemporary, rather than early music?). He's had a go, it hasn't quite come off, and it will - for just this week if nothing else - raise the profile of one of this country's most deserving composers. Yay Sting, I say.

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