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
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

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