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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Mike said…
With respect to orchestral dress and presentation, I look forward to reacquainting myself with the Australian Chamber Orchestra back in Sydney, who retain older aficionados as much as they attract the new with their non-stuffy sensibility and interesting photo/kinetic themed concerts.

"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."

There are certainly places to purchase CD/Studio quality downloads but the music producers have to address availability. Buyers are scattered around the globe, and the digital market is as fragmented as the CD/LP supply chain ever was. I'm a fan of a number of central-eastern Europe composers but obtaining even contemporary recordings is so messy - I find myself writing to the actual musicians in Googlified Czech or Polish and trying to work out to transfer money!

iTunes is lowest common denominator in terms of both sound quality and tagging, so it's a terrible terrible benchmark for the classical music "industry". Unless music producers step up the delivery and presentation, they will remain victims of circumstance.
Pliable said…
Mike, thanks for that.

In fairness to Max Hole he says in his presentation that Universal Music is in discussion with iTunes about improving the sound quality of classical downloads.
Mike said…
I hope that search/tagging is also on the agenda!

At the moment it seems that Apple is focused on "Mastered for iTunes", which some musicians have been lead to believe means 24bit lossless music, but is actually lossy music optimised for Apple devices. The masters may have improved, but it doesn't necessarily translate to a better purchase. Treating all other digital distributors as also-rans doesn't help either, especially when many of them are willing to present classical music more attractively (eg Qobuz).

Also that Universal chooses NOT to make its catalog "universally" available across iTunes stores means that musicians lose on potential sales. Sitting here in France, I have no easier access to English-sourced online music than I will in Australia in a few months' time. I can read music reviews from Sinfini, Gramophone, musicOMH and the Guardian, my interest is grabbed, but the iTunes/Spotify links are invariably useless across national borders, so why bother? Perhaps they could rename themselves "Parochial"?
Rameau said…
The basic idea behind all those empty theories is that classical music is declining, and that nothing has changing since [insert random date] in the classical world. This is what should be demonstrated before some Justin Bieber manager should tell us what we all (people from classical music management and us from the audience) do wrong.
OK, classical music lovers are not always young, that's true; but have they ever been? And is it that surprising in an aging society, and in a society where your economical power is at its peak when you're 60-80? Besides, young people are coming to classical concerts whenever you open the door for them - when you don't have to buy expensive tickets 6 months ahead of the concert or queue for 3 hours before you can get reduced tickets. The age range missing in the concert halls are more, I think, 30-45 than 18-30 - the age where people have children: how many concert/opera houses are reacting to that?

Has nothing changed in the last [..] years? Yes, obviously: first, the repertory has changed - no orchestra can afford today to exclude modern music from its concerts; and - that's just one out of many possible examples - it's remarkable that we get to speak that much about young conductors these days, as full-grown artists, not as beginners, from Dudamel to Kirill Petrenko, from Afkham to Ticciati, and many others. I don't think that was the case 20 years ago...

By the way, it's funny that on the Sinfini front page there's a feature by Norman Lebrecht. If I wanted to make classical music fun and cool, I don't know if I would think of Lebrecht first...
Mike said…
A friend passed on this transcript of Michael Kieren Harvey's words for the annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks address.

I draw your attention to paragraph #11: "1. Peggy would be frustrated by the failure of classical music around the globe to adapt to this new world full of technology. Everything is miniaturizing, and being made more efficient, smarter, doing more with less. And I believe it is in this light that she would carefully examine the current persisting arrangement of opera companies, orchestras and the conservatoria. I do not think she would be desperate to preserve the “golden age” of classical music, at least I don’t believe she would want to preserve the “golden age” of classical music, AT ANY COST. There is a very good reason why the grand opera companies and orchestras worldwide are closing down. That is because their time is past, and no amount of taxpayer funding to prop them up will hide the fact of their cultural superfluousness, WHICH THEY HAVE BROUGHT UPON THEMSELVES. If the wealthy wish to have such entertainments free of "incomprehensible" new works then they can surely pay for them in toto without ransacking the taxpayer."
I am 51. Thirty years ago I went to punk concerts, Twenty years ago I would go to dub reggae concerts or Jazz bars; now I go to the Wigmore Hall , the Southbank, St.Lukes etc. I love the fact my life can progress as I age, i take friends all the time to these places and introduce them to the slower more mature and harder to appreciate pleasures of classical music. I prefer my fellow listeners to not dress too scruffily, and I like the acoustics of my concert halls.

What am I saying? That people should have things to grow into, to aspire to, that classical music is typically more complex than pop music, and that's what makes the whole journey worthwhile. We should not dumb down classical music, on the contrary we need to be wising up the audiences. And not think there is something wrong if the average 25 year old fed on pop music doesn't go to classical concerts, any more than there is something wrong in the average 50 year old not going to pop concerts (although if they were quieter and the acoustics generally better I might consider it!)
Unknown said…
The opportunity to set oneself apart from the masses through appreciation of more complex, sophisticated, subtle or otherwise rarefied music is a great part of the attraction to any HIGH art. Classical music needs to become MORE elitist, not less.

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