Taking the spin out of Beethoven's Fifth

Relax everyone. Close down the music blogs, grab back that money from Alex and cancel those new music commissions. The BBC has saved classical music and the Telegraph has the scoop - 'BBC's Maestro sends Beethoven sales soaring ... Symphony No 5 in C minor was first performed by the composer in 1808 but 200 years on it has been revived for a modern audience after rapper Goldie and comedian Sue Perkins took to the stage to conduct the piece. High street music shop HMV said that demand for the classical piece had increased by 295 per cent since the TV show.'

But before I put On An Overgrown Path out to pasture let's drill down a little further. HMV Group are completely independent of EMI and run high street retail stores in the UK and elsewhere. They major on DVD's, computer games and rock music. As I write today the lead items on their UK website are Sex and the City - the Movie and a CD by Pussycat Dolls. With the exception of a handful of city centre outlets HMV carries a very small range of classical titles made up mainly of Naxos best sellers, own brand popular titles and a robust offering of Charlotte Church. I don't know how many versions of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are stocked in their average store, but I would guess very few. That precise increase of 295% offers all sorts of rich statistical possibilities. One is that before Maestro the total sales of Beethoven's Fifth across all HMV stores were twenty units per week, and that after the programme they were seventy-nine units.

This latest piece of BBC spin reminds me of their much trumpeted success with MP3 downloads of the Beethoven Symphonies. Back in 2006 the BBC achieved an awful lot of column inches with their story of 1.4 million file downloads. But then a leak circulated that a BBC analysis of IP addresses to find out where the files had gone didn't make very happy reading. Unlike the 1.4 million figure the destination of the files was never made public. Soon afterwards came word that the BBC wouldn't be offering any more classical music downloads.

There is another salutary and true story about the use of statistics at the BBC that is worth retelling. From 1950 to 1982 a radio programme called Listen with Mother was broadcast. The fifteen minute programme, which comprised nursery rhymnes and stories for the under-fives and their mothers, was banal. But nobody dared take it off air because the crude audience statistics of the day showed it retained a substantial audience. But then BBC research became more sophisticated and reported not only how many people were tuned to Listen with Mother, but also who the listeners were. This new research showed that the vast majority of listeners for the programme were long-distance truck drivers. It was rapidly dropped from the schedules.

Less maestros and more animateurs please.
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