What do composer anniversaries achieve?

2013 will be a bumper year for composer anniversaries, with Wagner, Britten and Verdi among those vying for media attention. But what do composer anniversaries actually achieve? Received wisdom tells us that they fill concert halls and woo radio audiences, and as a result ‘raise the profile’ and ‘increase awareness’ of the birthday boy in particular and classical music in general. But there is another view that says these anniversaries achieve little more than further raising the profile of already highly visible composers at the expense of those more deserving, while in the process providing a nice little earner for record companies, concert promoters and other intermediaries. As an example the Britten100 celebrations are being fronted by Albion Media, an international PR and media agency that also represents orchestras, musicians and media owners - a volatile mixture of interests that could, possibly, encourage hagiography at the expense of more balanced critical reassessment.

It is very difficult to find any facts on what composer anniversaries actually achieve, which is very convenient for those in the commercial-intermediary complex who are jumping on the anniversary bandwagon in increasing numbers. But there is one independent empirical measure of ‘profile raising’ and ‘awareness increasing’ that has been puzzlingly overlooked - or perhaps not so puzzlingly in view of what it tells us. Google Trends measures ‘interest over time’ by tracking Google search terms, and maps trends rather than absolute numbers. It is a fallible measure, but is still a lot less fallible than the opinions of self-interested music industry ‘experts’. Below are the Google Trends for three recent anniversary composers, Gustav Mahler and Franz Liszt in 2011 and John Cage in 2012 to date. All show large short term spikes corresponding to the actual anniversary date; but none show any significant longer term upward trend. In fact Mahler, who in 2011 had the benefit of a second year of massive anniversary exposure (over-exposure?), shows a downward trend in ‘interest over time’, while all three composers approach the year end with interest in them diminishing. Which rather confirms the comment on Facebook by an Australian reader that "My reaction, at the end of the [anniversary] year, is to decide I don't want to hear his/ her work again for quite a while".

A similar trend is also evident for lesser known composers, who it would be thought would be more responsive to increased exposure. Below is the graph for interest in Percy Grainger in 2011 - the fiftieth anniversary of his death when his music was featured at the BBC Proms and elsewhere.

In a 2010 post which explored Google Trends I asked “Could it be that classical music does not respond to mass marketing techniques?” Well, the graphs above suggest that classical music does not respond to the composer anniversary farrago. But there is evidence that classical music does respond to other pressures. Below is the much more positive interest trend for an established composer who did not have an anniversary in 2012. There are lessons that can be learnt from what triggered this self-evident tipping-point, but they will have to wait for another post. Meanwhile would any reader like to make an informed guess via the comments who the trending composer is?

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Dave MacD said…
Great post. I am getting a little weary of all these anniversaries. To me, it just seems like a lazy way to brand a festival or subscription series or whatnot. Wouldn't it be better to make more thoughtful connections about what the music actually sounds like?!

Additionally, I would like to guess your mystery composer graph. I think it's Thomas Tallis, who is surging in search results thanks to E.L. James for mentioning his work in her smutty romance novel (the one about a certain number of hues) and subsequently including him in the novel-branded album.
Pliable said…
I did like the retweet of this post by SoundNotion which was headed Hooray for numbers that end in zero! - http://twitter.com/SoundNotion/status/258912462777229312

And thanks for the informed guess Dave McD. There will be no further comment from me as to who the composer is, or isn't, until the fat lady sings in another post.
Unknown said…
Conlon Nancarrow?
mahlerman said…
Well, Percy had a very disappointing Christmas, the very time when you might expect interest to hold-up. Dave McD may be on the right track, as interest starts to increase at around the time the book rolled off the presses. I would go for Martinu or Nielsen, but you use the word 'established' - I'm not sure they are.
I'll go with Sibelius - great music for a damp summer.
Philip Amos said…
This is one of those questions that makes it hard not to sound like 'Professor' Cyril Joad: "It all depends upon what you mean by...", but I think the continuing climb in October may be key. Paul Mealor was voted into Classic FM's Hall of Fame as the nation's favourite living composer sometime earlier in the year, and was then in September handed the 'Classical Brit Awards' (no wonder I grind my teeth) for Composer of the Year and for Best Single of the Year. When I once saw Billy Joel, Sarah Brightman and Kathleen Jenkins on the list of best-selling 'classical'recordings, it occurred to me that the Big Boys, faced with the results of their incompetence in the field of classical recording, were trying to redefine 'classical' to encompass the middle-brow, the low-brow, and the incompetent. These awards are, of course, both directly and indirectly controlled by them, and very effective means of achieving their ends.
rchrd said…
1912 was quite an interesting year: John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, Alan Turing, Peggy Glanville Hicks. The list goes on.

By the way, speaking about 100th anniversaries:

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