Classical music and the mass market fallacy

So much effort goes into trying to find a mass market for classical music, all with remarkably little success. Could it be that there is a large market for classical music, but not a mass one? Could it be that classical music is granular and is made up of lots of connected but different niche markets? Could it be that there is no such thing as 'one size fits all' classical music? Could it be that when classical music is homogenised for the elusive mass market it loses its essential appeal? Could the mass market fallacy explain why so much classical music today is bland and unappealing? Could it also explain why creativity continues to flourish in genres such as world music and jazz which have shed their mass market pretensions?

A perfect example of granular new music exploding into a blaze of creativity is the CD seen above. Dawn of Midi is a collective made up of Pakistani percussionist Qasim Naqvi, Indian Aakaash Israni on string bass and Moroccan pianist Amino Belyamani, see photo below. All the tracks on their debut CD First are improvised, the sound is purely acoustic and the recording was made in single takes. Think free jazz meets French impressionists meets John Cage, and think very understated yet very frontal lobe sounds. All captured with maximum slam by tonmeister extraordinaire Steve Rusch. Nobody was thinking about the mass market when this disc was laid down, which is why it is so good. Do I need to say that First comes from an independent label called Accretions?

More proof of the mass market fallacy comes from the latest UK RAJAR audience figures. There are many subjective views about what is happening at BBC Radio 3. But let's park those for the moment and look at objective data. Radio 3, in response to competitive pressure from Classic FM, has repositioned itself towards the mass market. In the last twelve months this has included broadcasting a classical chart in peak hours.

Audience data has just been released for the quarter ending September 2010, which includes the introduction of the classical chart as well as the crucial Proms season. This data shows that the BBC Radio 3 audience fell from 2.192 million Q3 2009 to 2.145 million in Q3 2010. More significantly hours per listener fell from 6.4 to 6.0 over the same period. This meant that total listener hours (audience x hours per listener) for Radio 3 dropped by an astonishing 8.4% year on year. There is no causal data linking this significant decline to the introduction of a classical chart. But could it be that there is a large market for classical music, but not a mass one?

* In an interesting case study in the use and abuse of statistics the BBC press office manages to spin an 8.4% decline in total listener hours into a success story. They do this by comparing the Q3 2010 audience with the Q2 2010 audience and completely ignoring the massive year on year drop in hours per listener. The Q2 to Q3 trend is meaningless as there is always an audience gain from Q2 to Q3 due to the Proms. The meaningful data is the year on year data analysed above. Bring on the free thinking BBC.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Dawn of Midi's CD First was supplied as a requested sample after a heads up from a reader. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Joe Shelby said…
By mentioning jazz, and improvisational (world) music, you've definitely invited an apples to oranges comparison.

What makes the other worlds of music different from classical is the that in the other worlds, and this includes rock and pop, the *recording* comes first.

Robert Fripp has even expressed this in discussing (recent) King Crimson releases: the CD is the "score", which is then performed live.

In order to "compete" in this market, the contemporary composer (and the label itself) needs to stop thinking about the score and prioritize getting premiere recordings out the door. Nobody "talks" about a score, because nobody can read a score except those few whose training it is to bring that score into life through performance.

The layman world can't discuss, debate, and enjoy orchestral music so long as it only exists on paper.

The rest of the music world works by 1) artist "writes" the material. 2) artist records the material. 3) artist releases the recording for feedback. 4) artist performs the material.

The classical (especially orchestral) world has this backwards - the performances come first and may take *years* after a premiere for a work to finally be released, by which time it is forgotten or there's really no momentum to promote it by the artists involved (except maybe the conductor...maybe...) because they've gone on to different things. It is too late to ride that momentum that the rest of the industry rides when that CD is able to get in the hands of the public.

So THAT is (to my mind) what needs to change to rebuild a market for contemporary classical - getting the music released as "music" that people can listen to and enjoy and build up a buzz about, and not just as a piece of paper nobody can read and a rare concert in some obscure town nobody can get to...
Pliable said…
Comment received via Facebook:

Great just downloaded it from iTunes. I never heard of the group or engineer. I thought it was an electronic cd Dawn of Midi. Yes brilliant sound and playing.
Unknown said…
Hi Joe

Your argument is excellent, except for one thing: even finding a score of a new composition can be very difficult. If a young composer writes an orchestral work, his publisher may not even commit to print a study score of it.

I suspect classical music now works more like the Robert Fripp model. Steve Reich's music first became widely known through ECM recordings. Music For 18 Musicians was for many years Reich's most popular recording, and it turns out he never thought of writing a score for it until other ensembles asked to perform it. The music of Pärt, Gorecki and Tavener has all grown in popularity primarily because of recordings.

I wonder if it's time to consider a digital revolution in musical scores comparable to the digital revolution in audio recordings. I'd like to see a situation where the iTunes store sells pdf scores of the recordings it sells. Apparently it's not difficult to animate scores, so they scroll across your computer screen in real-time sync with the recording. Such a technology might do much to demystify scores to the lay listener.

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