Why classical music needs to be sticky

There is persuasive evidence that classical music’s big new ideas about how to attract new audiences are having little impact. But, despite this, the music industry remains locked in an unproductive circle which means that as one big new idea falls by the wayside – remember tweeting in concerts? – another takes its place. The whole big new ideas movement – as exemplified by Max Hole’s recent ‘vision’ presentation – is based on the dogma that over the centuries classical music has become encumbered with a multitude of superfluous protocols that are a barrier to reaching new audiences. This dogma is misguided: just as protocols, in the form of rules and conventions, make communication between network computers possible, so classical music protocols, again in the form of rules and conventions, make communication between music, performers and listeners possible. Yes, some of the conventions need revising; but the the big new ideas gurus preach that protocols are synonymous with elitism and should be eliminated. In fact non-music cues are essential to reaching audiences old and new, and their elimination is intrinsically damaging. My thesis is that classical music needs to adopt the opposite strategy and develop new and more relevant protocols, because they are the essential glue that binds the music and audience together.

Classical music’s rootstock is the notated score. However very few listeners can hear a score in their head simply by reading it. So the first communication protocols of musicians, instruments and performance style were created to play the score. But musicians need somewhere to play. So more protocols were developed in the form of acoustically acceptable buildings to perform in, and the advent of concert halls then spawned further protocols such as dress codes and audience etiquette. In parallel, the record industry developed its own protocols which reached their zenith in the vinyl LP. Here visual, tactile and knowledge cues were added to the music and twelve inch sleeves were adorned with seductive photographs of the performers and informative sleeve notes, as in the Mahler symphony LP from 1972 seen above. All of these cues gave LPs visual authority in the home and selling impact in record stores, and further protocols developed in the form of specialist record stores with knowledgeable staff and a pleasing ambience - see photo below of the Rombaux store in Bruges, Belgium - and a publishing industry grew up led by the Gramophone magazine of blessed memory. In the last decades of the 20th century sales of LPs and then CDs boomed, concert attendances were healthy, and classical music was very sticky. But then came the downloadable file, essential non-music cues disappeared and sticky classics were replaced by smooth classics.

Electronic commerce created the downloadable file, and the mantra of electronic commerce is frictionless distribution. Quite understandably the record industry has embraced frictionless commerce as it eliminates the costs of production, storage and shipping associated with physical discs, while providing the consumer with immediate availability and a robust and portable music format. But making classical music smooth by removing non-music cues – artwork, documentation, tactile appeal, collectability, retail presence etc – has generated an opportunity cost which is little understood and may explain why both recorded and live classical music are failing to reach new audiences despite huge advances in technology and intensive marketing.

The CD may well be a doomed format, but it does provide a case study that cannot be ignored. There are very few success stories in today’s record industry, but one of them is Jordi Savall’s Alia Vox label. Its releases are best sellers for specialist classical stores, its commercial resilience has allowed it to buy back early Savall recordings from a defunct rival label, and its recordings have won many awards including a Grammy. Central to this success is Jordi Savall’s policy of swimming against the download tide and making his CD releases stickier and stickier by exploiting visual, tactile and knowledge cues. He has refined the label’s lavish book/CD format over the years, and Alia Vox’s latest release Erasmus: Praise of Folly is a six hundred and sixty-six page book that comes with three hybrid SACDs of the music and French spoken texts, and another three CDs of the music without texts – see photo below. But if that is not sticky enough, each book/CD comes with a unique PIN that allows the purchaser of the book/CD to download the texts in six more languages and the music in superior quality high resolution files and MP3 format.

A different approach is taken by Chandos, another independent label, which has pioneered ‘Plug & Play’ hybrid releases that combine CD-style packaging with music stored on a memory stick – see below. Chandos offer the choice of buying FLAC or WNA files, both versions also include files of the vital non-music cues of artwork, sleeve notes, and texts, together with MP3 versions of the music.

These hybrid products from Alia Vox and Chandos combine many of the benefits of physical and virtual product. But this post is not a luddite rant, so it must be accepted that file only classical downloads will ultimately prevail. Which means that virtual stickiness will become a very important component of downloads, and this presents a particular challenge as pressure to minimise file sizes combined with the frictionless distribution mindset within the record industry is a barrier to making music downloads richer in content. However the pressure to minimise file sizes has effectively been eliminated by recent giant leaps in computer memory and broadband speeds, and there is a compelling case for adopting new audio file formats that give listeners a more rewarding experience for listeners by providing non-music cues.

MusicDNA, an independently developed file format launched in 2010 to supercede the MP3, holds much promise as it stores rich metadata – the Cinderella of classical music - and user-created content. However, despite being backwards compatible with MP3, the new file format has failed to gain any acceptance in the record industry, and the commercial hegemony of the MP3 and iTunes file formats almost certainly means that supplementary applications that link to these established formats will be the preferred way to add rich data to lightweight downloads. One leading linked solution is the MusicGPS iPhone app which was selected as "one of the top five of music 2.0 by the Guardian. MusicGPS creates rich non-music cues by adding who did what, where and when dimensions to music tracks - the where dimension is a particularly hot commodity in both the massive mobile computing market of tablets, smartphones etc and the nascent high potential market for in car web access dubbed 'infotainment' - see musicGPS screengrab below.

It is particularly concerning that frictionless distribution is being transplanted from recorded to live classical music. Max Hole may well be a first class ceo of a record company, but he has no track record of bringing new audiences into concert halls, and the ‘vision’ he presented to the Association of British Orchestras was based on the smooth commerce strategy that has caused so many problems for the record industry in recent years. Concert halls, dress conventions, audience etiquette and other non-music cues are all part of the stickiness that holds classical music together. Of course some protocols need revising, and dress code is one area where that is already happening. But the way forward for live classical music - like its recorded counterpart- is to add, not remove, stickiness. The Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival with its sticky mix of live music, talks and all day events shows how this can really work - see visual below. And note that Alex Ross' eponymous book, which has done more to engage new audiences than all the classical music industry's big new ideas put together, uses contemporary culture and politics to create a single all-embracing non-music cue.

Pre-concert talks are a powerful but often overlooked cue for new audiences, as are innovations such as concert visuals and kinetic art – one orchestra reports a $23,000 boost in ticket sales from concert visuals. Non-stick websites like Sinfini are a sexy subject, but making printed concert programmes more engaging is not. So programmes remain no more than vehicles for stale prose and lucrative advertising; the example below for a 1938 BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini is a sad reminder of how little printed programmes have changed in 75 years. Concert programmes are important, but, as with recorded music, the future is online. Yet the use of social media by concert promoters remains facile and ignores how giving ticket purchasers access to non-music cues via a MusicDNA-style database could make concert going a much more engaging experience. And it goes without saying classical radio also needs to be sticky; yet the smooth classics approach of silky toned presenters fronting blanded-out repertoire remains the norm, and, not surprisingly, the audience trend is anything but smooth.

Well-intentioned but misguided people keep telling classical music that its conventions and protocols are the biggest barrier to reaching new audiences – or as Max Hole said “the very traditions and institutions that seek to celebrate, promote and preserve classical music are in danger of causing the genre great harm and hindering its growth”. Of course change is needed, but that change must build on what currently works, not demolish it. Classical music needs to ditch its smooth strategies and start adding new non-music cues that resonate with the technological and cultural zeitgeist. This is not a quick and easy task, and it will not generate the sound-bite headlines we have seen in recent weeks. But classical music needs to be sticky, and that is why it has protocols and conventions.

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Anonymous said…
I'm not sure that a label's original visual presentation really enables it to survive uncompromised in the present marketplace.

The Dacapo label, for instance, puts a lot of effort into original graphic design and has gained buzz for doing it, but CD sales remain low and the label is still dependent on Danish state arts subsidies to survive.

Chandos also had to take a drastic turn in the repertoire it releases several years ago, ending its support of polarizing modernists like Schnittke and Gubaidulina for a lot of inoffensive British music. While it may have done something to win digital-age listeners over, it's winning listeners over to releases that are already something of a compromise with the mass market.
Pliable said…
Christopher, thanks for that comment, but I think it rather misses the point. Visual cues were cited as being important in the past, and also in the present with a label such as Alia Vox - which is a success story.

But I am not saying that visual presentation of recordings will be important in the future as "it must be accepted that file only classical downloads will ultimately prevail". In my final paragraph I say that "Classical music needs to ditch its smooth strategies and start adding new non-music cues that resonate with the technological and cultural zeitgeist", which is why the post explores technology based cues such as musicGPS.

The thrust of my argument is that classical music communication protocols, of which the visual cue is just one, are misunderstood and very important.
Anonymous said…
Could you elaborate a little on the use of social media by concert promoters as you envision it?

- Jacob
Pliable said…
Jacob, the use of social media by concert promoters that I am aware of is very one dimensional and granular - like the Twitter experiments linked to in the post.

What I have in mind that ticket purchasers are given access to a micro-site for the concert. This would use a standard template that is populated for each concert with unique multi-dimensional information about who is doing what, where and when in connection with the concert. This information would come from the promoters, performers and ticket holders.

Concert series such as the BBC Proms are unique because of the sense of community in the hall. My suggestion is that a similar sense of virtual community is created using social media for every concert.
Bodie said…
Bjork released an app with her album Biophilia featuring interactive "games" for each song on the album. Seems like a great idea for any genre of music.
Unknown said…
I like the idea of re-examining the conventions, while knowing that conventions are necessary for any communication. Apart from the issues of digitization, there is also the matter of venue and location in a live performance. No doubt along with many others, I’ve come to believe that the struggle to free up the classical concert is helped enormously by a different kind of venue: without the rigid separation of performers from audience that one finds in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century concert halls. I thought that the Early Music revolution of the 1970s had brought those places into question -- but we seem to have gone backwards: sacred and chamber music of the Baroque and earlier periods is now played in nineteenth-century halls, without question. There’s also the factor of where in the town the venue is. For some thoughts in praise of the local and the out-of-centre, see this blog post: http://www.kentishtowner.co.uk/2013/02/25/why-it-matters-classical-music-in-the-neighbourhood/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=why-it-matters-classical-music-in-the-neighbourhood

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