Do classical music's big new ideas have real substance?
Readers will know that On An Overgrown Path is not frightened of new ideas, and in the past I have travelled many of the paths explored in the recent presentation to the Association of British Orchestras by Max Hole, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music – the company that owns Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, EMI, ECM and many other classical labels. However I am coming to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to support persuasive rhetoric about dismantling concert hall conventions – which form the bulk of his recommendations - with case studies of successful implementation. Which doesn’t necessarily mean his ideas are wrong, but it does mean they must be treated with a lot of caution. My own journey has also brought me to the conclusion that the biggest and brightest idea we have is the music itself. So we should stop apologising for the way we present our sometimes challenging but always inspiring music, and instead be much more confident and bold in the way we programme and champion it.
I have three serious concerns about Max Hole’s vision for classical music. The first is that his recommended actions are not supported by hard facts, and more seriously, in several cases they are contradicted by the available data. Secondly the crucial need to test and prove the validity of his recommendations before they are implemented across the board is totally overlooked. Thirdly the concept of opportunity cost – the loss from the existing core classical audience – of implementing radical change is ignored. So here is my contribution to the debate on big new ideas. I stress that I am no longer professionally involved in classical music, so better data - or contradictory data – may well be available. If there is better data please share it; the purpose of this post is not to prove Max Hole wrong, it is to generate constructive discussion.
My first concern is that Max Hole’s recommended actions are not supported by hard data, and in many cases they are contradicted by the available facts. That sweeping statement needs to be substantiated, and the only way to do that is to cite some examples:
Musicians need to think about the way they dress ~ An old chestnut that is contradicted by the facts. Just look at the massive CD and DVD sales of a musically lacklustre 2013 Vienna New Year’s Day Concert - currently number one in the specialist classical chart - played by a dressed-up orchestra to a dressed-up audience in a “forbidding” building. Dressing-down at concerts is guaranteed to grab headlines, but there is no evidence to support those headlines - I am not defending dressing-up, but simply pointing out there is no evidence that orchestra dress code affects concert attendances. In fact other less mediagenic innovations such as pre-concert talks – already widely used by forward thinking orchestras – are almost certainly more effective in engaging new audiences.
The CD will not be around for ever ~ The current ratio of CD albums sales to downloads is actually three to one in favour of physical discs. It may suit Universal Music and other record companies to hasten the end of CDs - no manufacturing, stock and distribution costs - but the format still represents by far the largest market for recorded classical music. As Max Hole acknowledges in his reference to iTunes, sound quality matters in classical music, and CD delivers superior sound to the mass market downloads. So if it ain't broke why kill it?
The very buildings in which you play are often seen as forbidding and not places many people think they’d be comfortable entering ~ There is no evidence to support this assertion, nor is there any to show that alternative venues deliver anything other than novelty appeal. For some time I was seduced by the myth of music outside the concert hall and ran a series of posts about alternative venues, for instance classical music in a tent, in a supermarket, on a boat and even in a circus ring – the header photo shows the floating stage used by the American Wind Orchestra, I took the photo below in a hypermarket in France and the footer photo of the Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra in the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome circus arena. So I have been there and done that; but now, in the absence of enduring success stories, I must conclude that orchestras would be better directing their diminishing resources to the in-concert hall experience. This was supported by a recent post which reported how an orchestra boosted ticket sales by $23,000 in a conventional concert hall venue using the evolving art of photochoreography, while kinetic art experiments are also producing encouraging results. Of course there is a role for outreach in venues such as schools. But that is very different to Max Hole's unqualified exhortation for orchestras to "get out of the concert hall".
Universal music has launched the Sinfini website which takes the jargon out of the genre ~ There is no evidence that blanding-out classical music attracts new audiences. But hard data shows that classical music has lost one million from its radio audience in the UK as a result of blanding-out. Moreover there is no evidence that dumbed-down websites attract a new audience. But there is hard data that this approach is a turn-off to readers – the circulation of the dumbed-down Gramophone magazine crashed by 66% and it has failed to gain traction as an online publication. Data from On An Overgrown Path – which has a not insubstantial readership – is illuminating. Last week I ran a post that was most definitely dumbed-up and was rich in references to music from obscure names such as Louis Andriessen, Guillaume Connesson and Edith Canat de Chizy. That post attracted one of the largest readerships in the eight year history of the website, and its very large social media reach extended far beyond the core classical audience - here is the evidence.
There are too many “clap here, not there” protocols to abide by ~ Again no evidence at all that allowing the audience to become part of the performance expands the reach of the music. But there is clear evidence of an opportunity cost, as percussion virtuoso Colin Currie explains "It was the National Youth Orchestra's performance of Messiaen's 10-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie [at the 2012 BBC Proms]. When applause burst out several seconds after the eccentric conclusion to the first movement, I feared the very worst. And indeed it was so, with increasingly awkward applause after each of the successive movements despite the often ambiguous and contemplative nature of many of the movements and their conclusions."
My second concern is that Max Hole overlooks the vitally important need to test and prove the validity of his recommended actions before they are implemented across the board. With the examples above I have showed how difficult - or impossible – it is to support his recommended actions by case studies of successful implementation. Which means his recommendations are no more than personal hunches that need testing. So by all means let’s do A/B testing of concert dress versus undress, let’s experiment with concerts in alternative venues and track what proportion of the new audience is retained, and let’s do in-depth research of the profile of Sinfini website visitors etc etc, But let’s do it in a controlled and limited way until we have objective evidence that there is a net gain in audience. Only then should we suggest that every British orchestra adopts these big new ideas.
My final concern is that Max Hole ignores opportunity cost – the loss from the existing core classical audience – of implementing his recommended changes, and also fails to differentiate between net and gross audience gain. It has become fashionable to despise the older and loyal audience for classical music, and this presentation to the Association of British Orchestras is typical of the ‘like it or lump it’ approach to change. Of course we must innovate; but as BBC Radio 3 has discovered at great cost, if you change things, some of those that don’t like the change leave you. That loss of audience is the opportunity cost of change, and in an inherently conservative activity such as classical music it can be surprisingly – in fact disastrously - high. And unless there is a long term net gain - new audience gain exceeding loss - the whole exercise is an expensive zero sum gain exercise. Change driven audience loss needs to be understood and managed by orchestras, and there is no recognition of that at all in Max Hole’s presentation.
My headline poses the question Do classical music’s big ideas have real substance? As explained above I am becoming less optimistic about the efficacy of many suggested changes. But classical music definitely needs big new ideas, whether they come from Max Hole or someone else. However we must differentiate between personal hunches and facts, and we need to test big new ideas before they are widely implemented, because only then can we understand if they have real substance. We also need to show more respect for classical music’s loyal core audience, and need to understand the opportunity cost of alienating that audience. But, most importantly, we must recognize that the biggest and best new idea is the music itself. As T.S. Eliot tells us in Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
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