Classical music - what is hot and what is not
In a few days Google zeitgeist will be telling us what was hot and what was not in 2010. Google's entertaining Christmas PR exercise uses a tool called Google Trends which measures the number of web searches for a specified term. So, 'Twitter' is hot:
While 'Napster' is not:
Before proceeding further let us understand the ground rules. Goggle Trends is an automated tool and some of its limitations are explained in a footnote to this post. But at the best Google Trends provides food for thought and at worst offers a much needed alternative to the shockingly bad Christmas TV and radio schedules here in the UK. To play the what is hot classical music game simply go to the Google Trends homepage and type in your search term. And hey presto! If the trend is uphill it is hot, if it is downhill that says it all.
Here are some examples for starters. Sadly, as measured by Google Trends, 'classical music' is going downhill quickly:
While, by contrast, 'Andre Rieu' is not -
To avoid post inflation I will use words not graphs for most examples from now on, to see the trend just click on the hypertexted search term. In some cases Google Trends confirms what is to be expected; for instance 'Katherine Jenkins' is hot while 'chamber music' is not. But the data does question the direction of some of the posts on this blog, for instance 'world music' shows a clear downhill trend. While more significantly Google Trends puts some of the current classical music hype into perspective. Despite Doctor Who et al searches for 'BBC Proms' did not increase between 2005 and 2010, while 'BBC Radio 3' remains stubbornly earthbound despite the claimed lift-off power of the classical chart. And talking of charts, 'John Cage' is showing only a limited response to the Cage Against the Machine exposure, even when tracked over the last twelve months. Similarly there is only a marginal increase in searches for 'Mahler' despite the massive exposure (over-exposure?) the composer has received in this anniversary year. In fact as the graph below shows, there were fewer 'Mahler' searches in 2010 than in 2006:
Also interesting is the disparity between media portrayal of hot classical music properties and their Google Trends. For instance, it can safely be assumed that 'Dudamel' is one of the hottest search terms. Or can it? - here is the graph:
While 'El Sistema' fares little better:
Compare that trend with this one for the underground music phenomenon of 'dubstep':
So what conclusions can be drawn from this exercise? It is tempting to dismiss Google Trends as only of marginal relevance to classical music, because, after all, there is no link between volume of internet searches and artistic merit. In which case what is hot and what is not becomes a harmless Christmas game. And I must confess that is how this post started. But the more I looked at the search data the more I wondered whether there was more to it than classical music's online equivalent of trivial pursuit.
The most discussed music topic on the blogs and elsewhere in 2010 has been how classical music can reach new audiences. These discussions are always long on opinions and short on data. Which makes Google Trends, for all its limitations, important. Because Google Trends is based on quantitative data, and that is a very rare commodity in classical music. If we accept that search data has at least some validity then things become very interesting. I tried in vain to find any classical music search term that exhibited the upward trajectory of 'dubstep'. 'Andre Rieu' is about as hot as classical music gets, but in Google Trends terms he is little more than lukewarm. This is shown by the graph below which is a composite of the Google Trends for 'Dudamel', 'Andre Rieu' and 'dubstep':
At which point the argument can take one of two paths. The mass marketers will argue that classical music simply has to up its game in promotional terms and become cleverer at leveraging new technologies and social media. But there is an alternative argument, and it is a fascinating one.
Let's stand back for a moment. Gustavo Dudamel is a very talented and appealing conductor: Cage Against the Machine created a lot of buzz: there has been wall to wall Mahler on radio and in the concert hall for the past twelve months: and the BBC has done everything possible to popularise Radio 3 and the Proms. All of which adds up to an awful lot of mass marketing. Yet none of this created a hot property as defined by Google Trends.
Could it be that classical music does not respond to mass marketing techniques? Could it be that because classical music predates the mass media it speaks a language that does not translate into the argot of today's social media? Could it be that, to borrow a term from economics, classical music is mass marketing inelastic? - meaning it only shows a very limited response to mass marketing techniques? Could Google Trends be confirming classical music's mass market fallacy?
Does classical music need more tweets? Or does it need alternatives to mass marketing? Happy Google Trending!
* Methodolgy explanation - Google Trends analyses a portion of Google web searches to compute how many searches have been done for the specified search term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over time. The result is expressed in the graphs seen in this post. These graphs express the trend of the search volume. The vertical axis does not measure absolute volumes, so graphs can only be used to compared trends, they cannot be used to compare absolute search volumes. Search terms are only meaningful if discrete, therefore searches for 'John Adams' and 'Bach' are meaningless as they cover many non-musical searches. Google Trends is certainly fallible, but it is a lot better than backing hunches. There is a lot more explanation about the methodology on Google's explanatory page which quite candidly says:
We hope you find this service interesting and entertaining, but you probably wouldn’t want to write your Ph.D. dissertation based on the information provided by Trends.And the same can be said for this post.
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