Why composer anniversaries do not win new audiences

Data from an authoritative source shows that the strategy of focussing on composer anniversaries to raise classical music's public profile is not working. The graph above uses the Google Trends tool to measure online searches for the four main composers with anniversaries in 2013 - Verdi, Britten, Wagner ;and Lutoslawski*. Google Trends plots global volumes for specific search terms and my composite graph maps and compares the trend over eight years of searches for the four main 2013 anniversary composers with results indexed to 100. (Left click on the graphs to enlarge).

Three main trends emerge from this analysis. The first is that, as the graph above shows, Verdi is consistently by far the most popular of the four composers. Hardly a revelation in itself; but the trend shows that despite Britten and Wagner undoubtedly receiving more promotional attention in 2013 - e.g. not one complete Verdi opera in the 2013 BBC Proms season and just three concerts including his music compared with twelve of Britten's - Verdi's preeminence has not been reduced, and we have not yet reached his bicentenary on Oct 10. The conclusion is quite simple: Verdi's music speaks to the widest audience and no amount of anniversary hooplah elsewhere is changing that.

The second trend is that composer birthdays only produce a short-term bounce in public interest. This can be seen clearly in the graph below for Wagner searches which shows a major uplift around the anniversary of his birth on May 22, but the activity then falls to below Jan 1, 2013 levels - evidence of Wagner fatigue perhaps?

The final and most important trend is that to date in 2013 there has been no sustained material upturn in public interest in the four anniversary composers. Combining the trends compresses the vertical axis; but when the graphs are viewed discretely the absence of anniversary uplift becomes more evident. If any composer is benefitting from the coveted anniversary bounce it is the rank outsider Witold Lutoslawski. Below is his graph; the peak at B reflects his Jan 25 centenary but the residual uplift does suggest that the most productive way to leverage anniversaries is to concentrate on lesser-known composers and let the big names look after themselves.

This thesis is supported by the trend for Britten mapped below. As evidenced previously he has received more anniversary promotional attention in 2013 than any other composer, yet Google Trends shows no reversal of a consistent downward trend in interest since 2005. Britten's centenary falls on Nov 22 and there will definitely be a substantial birthday bounce then. But the trend for Wagner suggests that it will be short-lived, and Britten fatigue set in well before his November centenary.

This analysis only covers the first eight months of 2013, but the trend is consistent with that identified in a 2012 post which used Google Trends to plot the impact, or rather lack of impact, of the Mahler, Liszt and Cage anniversaries. The classical music establishment loves backing hunches and hates analysing data. Google Trends is one of the few sources of independent data on public interest in composers and it contradicts the hunch of the moment that composer anniversaries are a potent way to promote classical music. My analysis shows that composer anniversaries have a role to play, particularly in raising the profile of lesser-known composers. But it also shows that that the very large amounts of promotional activity being concentrated on already high profile figures such as Britten and Wagner is doing no more than preach to the converted. By all means let's celebrate composer anniversaries; but let's stop kidding ourselves that they are winning new audiences.

* The Google Trends analysis was carried out using the search terms, Verdi, Britten, Lutoslawski and Richard Wagner as these were subjectively judged to be the most common searches - Wagner alone is not specific enough as it returns results for actor Robert Wagner etc. Changing the search terms to include all Christian names changes the results slightly but does not affect the overall trends. Google themselves have said "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 there is more background on Google Trends in my post Classical music - what is hot and not. If anyone has other hard data - not opinions - that disproves my thesis that composer anniversaries do not win new audiences, please share it here.

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Halldor said…
Fascinating, and very convincing.

Just out of curiosity - re the big Wagner / Verdi gap - are the results much different if you use the term "Giuseppe Verdi"? While it's almost certainly the case that Verdi routinely receives many, many more operatic performances than Wagner or Britten (I don't have statistics to hand but "Traviata" and "Rigoletto" are staples, within the scope even of small-scale pub opera acompanies, whereas Wagner productions tend to be a once-a -season special event even in many major houses) I ask simply because of the ubiquity of Verdi's name and image in the Italian-speaking world. A quick search on the recipe for Lasagne Verdi threw up 430,000 results, and there are at least 15 Teatro Verdis in Italy.
Pliable said…
Halldor, thanks for that.

No the results do not vary significantly using the search term 'Giuseppe Verdi': there are approximately twenty searches for 'Verdi' to everyone for 'Giuseppe Verdi'.

I appreciate it that you took the post in the spirit in which it was intended. Google Trends may be an imprecise tool, but it is just about the only one we have to measure the effectiveness of the huge resources currently being put behind classical composer anniversaries.
Marc van Bree said…
I got all excited and thought you'd be correlating sales data with these search trends...

Definitely still a useful exercise, but I'm not sure if you can equate search queries with "new audiences." There might be a strong correlation though...

You might also correlate the number of performances with music by a certain composer (doesn't Bachtrack have that data?) with the search queries and get a better picture...

Pliable said…
Marc, thanks for that. Finding an available objective measure that correlates strongly with new audiences is very difficult. Which is why I have spent some time looking at Google Trends despite its falliblity.

Number of performances has little connection with new audiences, in fact it is just another expression of the current obsession with anniversaries.

Sales data is not freely available. If it was I suggest that it would show a strong correlation to the short term blips linked to composer anniversary dates, but no long term endurance. Which is what worries me about composer anniversaries: they are commercially driven media events that deliver short term fiscal gain but have no long term impact other than diverting precious artistic resources away from more deserving causes.
Leen Roetman said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Gustavson said…
It could be argued that the Bicentennial of the United States brought Charles Ives' music to a greater public.

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