Thursday, July 31, 2014

Audiences should be free to listen to what they want

The alliance between Universal Music and Classic FM to present and promote the high profile Bristol Proms, a concert series that draws heavily on artists signed to Universal Music and Classic FM record labels, demands closer examination. All too often BBC Radio 3 is seen as the only 800 pound gorilla in classical radio. But Classic FM tips the scales at an even heavier weight: with 5.3 million listeners the station controls 74% of the UK classical radio market, leaving Radio 3 with just 26%. The success of Classic FM since its 1992 launch in exploiting the 'shallow classical' market has been the biggest single factor in reshaping classical music not only in the UK, but also globally. BBC Radio 3 has reacted by chasing the same audience as Classic FM, and this has led to the much lamented dumbing down of Radio 3's output. a process that has spread virally around the globe.

Radio 3's reactive strategy is proved by hard facts figures to be a mistake. The latest RAJAR audience data released today for Q2 2014 (July 31) shows Radio 3's audience at its lowest figure for four years; with listeners down 5.6% on the same quarter in the previous year, hours per listener down 6.6%, and total listener hours - the acid test of the success of a radio station - down a jaw dropping 11.0%. For the first time the Radio 3 audience is smaller than that of the cutting edge music station BBC Radio 6 which only broadcasts on digital frequencies. (I wonder if the board of Aldeburgh Music understands the RAJAR data?). The strategic error made by the BBC was not to appreciate that the 'shallow classical' market exploited by Classic FM is of finite size, and once filled does not show further significant growth. As a result BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM have ended up fighting increasingly desperately for the same finite 'shallow classical' market, with Radio 3 abandoning its core 'deep classical' audience in the process. The data released today yet again shows this to be a zero sum game, with the total audience for classical radio in the UK declining 3.8% year on year; it is almost certain that those 283,000 lost listeners have switched to alternative distribution platforms - Spotify, Naxos Web Radio etc - for their regular fix of 'deep classical'.

An ability to lift the Radio 3 audience figures out of the doldrums by acknowledging the error of their 'shallow classical' strategy, combined with widespread and justified criticism of the station for modelling itself on Classic FM, has prompted the BBC to differentiate Radio 3 from its commercial competitor by stressing that much of its output is live music; which is why the word 'live' appears so many times in every Radio 3 presentation announcement. The BBC's emphasis on live music is a smart but misguided strategy based on its monopoly of live music resources in the UK and a guaranteed funding stream that is beyond the wildest dreams of its commercial rival. There can be no doubt that Classic FM's decision to partner with Universal Music - UK recorded classical music market share 56% - in the promotion of a major live concert series is, in turn, a reaction to Radio 3's live music positioning; if there is any doubt that this is another reactive strategy just compare the two screen grabs accompanying this post.

There are, undoubtedly, fine musicians appearing at the Bristol Proms, and there is much to admire in the concert series. But the emerging agenda should concern everyone in classical music. Let's be quite clear, music is not at the centre of the agenda for either Universal Music or Classic FM. At the centre of the agenda of both organisations is grabbing market share irrespective of the long term impact on classical music. The future of classical music is increasingly being determined by commercially motivated alliances between monopolistic media corporations, and Universal Music and Classic FM are certainly not the only culprits. Attention has already been drawn here to the close links between the BBC and artist management agencies, and almost every BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert uses members of the BBC new generation artist scheme, an opaque arrangement that mixes broadcast and concert opportunities, artist development, and commercial recording contracts - nine co-produced CDs in the now defunct EMI Debut series.

The Bristol Proms may be revolutionary. But they are also a new major concert series that is controlled by a predatory alliance between a major broadcaster - Classic FM - and a mega corporation - Universal Music via its subsidiary U-Live - and this alliance has controlling interests that range from music publishing through concert promotion to recorded and broadcast media. The Telegraph recently gave the artistic director of the Bristol Proms Tom Morris a platform to make the the admirable plea that "Classical music audiences should be free to behave how they wish." I will go further and say that classical music audiences should also be free to listen to what they want, and not be told what they can hear by the self-interested and, all too often, erroneous strategies of media corporations. When Radio 3 offered a wide and eclectic choice of music - as BBC Radio 6 now does - it thrived. Today it is no more than a sad reminder of what happens when you tell audiences what they should be listening to.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The problem is obvious - there is too much classical music

In a glowing review in the Guardian Andrew Clements describes the Freiburg Opera's Parsifal at the Norwich Theatre Royal - see production shot above - as "a show that almost any British company would be happy to have in its repertory". Yet despite the production's obvious quality, the four performances by the Freiburg company of Parsifal and Tannhäuser attracted lamentably small audiences. A London based critic blamed low profile promotion by the Norwich theatre for the poor attendance, and given the limited budget of the provincial venue, which has charitable status and no material public funding, there is some truth in that explanation. But the glib analysis of poor publicity is typical of the blame culture that is so prevalent in classical music today - blame elitism, funding cuts, antiquated concert conventions, piracy, in fact blame anything other than the self-harming behaviour of the music industry itself. All the fashionable conspiracy theories miss the obvious point that there is simply too much classical music available. We live in an age of Martini Wagner, where the master of Bayreuth's music is available any time, any place, anywhere. During the 2013 Wagner anniversary year there was a global glut of live performances of his music dramas and a deluge of re-releases of CDs and videos. As a result of this oversupply a musically acceptable complete Ring from Badische Staatskapelle on 14 CDs is currently available from Amazon UK for £11.38. If it is Parsifal you want, Barenboim's acclaimed interpretation is yours on 4 CDs for just £8.45; which is, of course, considerably less than the cheapest seat for the Norwich Parsifal.

This glut of classical music on legacy recorded formats is matched by a torrent of free streamed content: with the promise that BBC Arts Online "will be offering deeper, richer engagement online with a wealth of new material, streaming performances and events, live and on-demand at some of the best events across the country", while Amazon Prime offers unlimited instant streaming of opera videos. So is it surprising that people will not travel from Cambridge (63 miles) to Norwich to hear Parsifal, yet alone from London (115 miles)? And what chance in a time of oversupply does a Parsifal that Andrew Clements astutely identifies as "a company achievement, without stars, of the kind we rarely get to hear in Britain" stand without a Kaufmann, Baremboim or Pappano to give it celebrity credibility?

Wagner shared his anniversary last year with Benjamin Britten. It is now generally accepted that there was an oversupply of Britten's music in 2013, and, as a result, if you shop around the composer's own definitive recordings of his operas for Decca can be picked up for less than £1.50 a disc. Which is particularly ironic, as Britten told us that:
Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts.
Classical music is one of the glories of our civilisation, but it is not exempt from the fundamental law of economics which states that when supply of a commodity outstrips demand the value - both real and perceived - falls. Forget the conspiracy theories, and forget the canard that growth is always good. Indisputable data shows that audiences for classical music are shrinking, yet, equally indisputably, the supply of music is increasing exponentially. You do not have to be a so-called industry expert to see that this is a disaster waiting to happen. A combination of new digital distribution technologies and avaricious media corporations has produced a perfect storm in which an oversupply is driving down the value of classical music to an all time low. Without value an art form has no future; so when will the classical music industry wake up and start tackling the problem of oversupply? And when will it finally confront the dead moose in the room - the considerable overcapacity in both the recorded and live music supply chains?

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Max Hole is right, classical music is an elitist club

Universal Music ceo Max Hole has used the launch of the Bristol Proms to once again denounce classical music as "an elitist club". And he is right, classical music is an elitist club, and there is no better example than the Bristol Proms. This new concert series, which is hailed in the Guardian as "revolutionary", is managed and promoted by U-Live in conjunction with the Bristol Old Vic". U-Live is part of an elitist club otherwise known as Universal Music which controls, among other things, more than 50% of the recorded classical music market, and U-Live is simply a vehicle for giving Universal Music artists maximum exposure on concert platforms. Which means that almost all the leading musicians at the Bristol Proms are signed to Universal Music labels - Bryn Terfel (Decca), Lisa Batiashvili (DG), Daniel Hope (DG), Avi Avital (DG), and Valentina Lisitsa (Decca), while two of the other artists/ensembles, Ji Lui and the Sacconi Quartet, record for a label owned by co-promoter Classic FM. So, despite what Max Hole says, if you are a musician and want a gig at the Bristol Proms, joining the elitist club of a top classical label is highly recommended.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

On the road to enlightenment

Éliane Radigue's electronic paeans to Tibetan Buddhism, Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila featured heavily in my iPod playlist for a recent road trip from Kalka to Leh in the north of India. As my photos show, the road climbs from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain over the western end of the Himalayas to reach the alpine desert of Ladakh - 'Little Tibet' - seen in the final photo. En route the road crosses some of the highest passes in the world: three are over 15,000 feet with the highest, the Taglang La pass reaching 17,480 feet. The 500 mile drive took three long days on the road plus one rest day to acclimatise. For the final 300 miles between Manali and Leh the average altitude of the road is 11,000 feet, and it is only passable between May and October. Due to the altitude there is no permanent habitation for 200 miles from Jispa until the road enters Ladakh; the only services are temporary dhaba - road side eateries - such as the one seen in photo 10. This is the only overland route into Ladakh, and it carries a continuous stream of petrol tankers and military vehicles as the region is of strategic importance as it borders both Pakistan and China. Many glacial streams cross the road (see photo 8), and for much of the last 300 miles the road is unsurfaced and just one-and-a-half carriageways wide, with no barriers to stop errant vehicles plunging down the mountainside.

For anyone who, like me, suffers from vertigo and dislikes being driven, the distraction of a well-stocked iPod is highly recommended for this journey. Unfortunately the only alternative way to travel in and out of Ladakh, which is a narrow plateau bordered by the Himalaya and Karakoram mountains, is flying; this is how I returned and it is only slightly less nail biting than the overland journey. Leh is one of the highest airports in the world and, because of nearby mountains, has one of the very few unidirectional runways. This means planes can only take-off and land in one direction irrespective of the wind direction; this compromises the ability of aircraft to climb quickly, which is somewhat disconcerting when taking off from an airport surrounded by the world's highest mountains. On top of this the airport can only be used in the morning due to the strong mountains winds later in the day - some bloggers will do anything for a good story!

Rusting wrecks below the road are salutary reminders that altitude sickness is not the only health risk on the overland route into Ladakh - 250,000 people die every year on India's roads. Kailasha, the second section of Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort, was written following the death of her son Yves Arman (her husband was the sculptor Arman) in a car crash in Spain in 1989. The work is a homage to Mount Kilash, the sacred mountain that in Tibetan cosmology is at the centre of the universe; pilgrims to Kailash are said to be able to enter the Buddhist 'pure land' of Shambala from the holy mountain. The Tibetan saint Milarepa, who inspired Éliane Radigue's Jetsun Mila, described how in the vast empty spaces of the Himalayas there is a benign market where the the vortex of everyday life can be exchanged for boundless bliss. I travelled to Ladakh to experience the Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama; this is a Tantric initiation that uses visualisation and meditation to plant the seeds for practitioner to achieve enlightenment by being reborn in Shambala. For those unable to make a pilgrimage to this magical and mythical region great art - including great music - can be the door to fleeting, if not boundless, enlightenment. But, despite received wisdom, that door does not open easily. As Rabindranath Tagore explains in his poem Journey Home:

The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds
to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

* Those wishing to experience the fleeting glimpse of enlightenment offered by Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila will find samples online. Of particular interest is a short video of an al fresco performance of Trilogie de la Mort in 2011 at the Villa Arson contemporary art museum in France. This is an excellent illustration of how classical music can attract new audiences by knocking at what Rabindranath Tagore describes as alien doors, instead of pursuing the discredited dogmas of Universal Music's Max Hole - presenting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with disco lighting - and the BBC/Aldeburgh Music's Roger Wright - reinventing contemporary music as a medley of the Pet Shop Boy's greatest hits. Audiences can cope if given the opportunity...

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material n these pages is included for review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). My travel arrangements in India were made by the Tahi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust, but any views expressed in this post are strictly my own.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Classical music should be an agenda-free zone

In the past when classical record sales were sluggish, industry luminaries such as Walter Legge and John Culshaw (seen above with Sir Georg Solti) sorted things out by making legendary recordings such as the Giulini Verdi Requiem and the Solti Ring. Nowadays, when sales are slack, a luminary such as Max Hole goes on Classic FM to advocate tearing down the Royal Festival Hall, and then feeds the story to a conveniently on side journalist in the futile hope that the alchemy of social media will transmute contentious sound bites into sales revenues. Quite predictably, the latest proposals by the ceo of the world's largest grouping of classical labels have been greeted with derision by everyone except the aforementioned journalist. Which is, in fact, rather sad, because some of the points are valid. But the problem is that the validity of Max Hole's proposals is totally obscured by a scarcely hidden agenda of keeping Universal Music's monopolistic position unchanged, while passing himself off as an agent of change. Walter Legge and John Culshaw certainly had huge egos as well as huge talents. But the difference between them and Max Hole is that they had no agenda other than a burning passion for great music. I loathe the trendy crapola of "not fit for service" that Norman Lebrecht uses to describe the Royal Festival Hall. But, again, there is truth behind the crapola. In fact I would go further and say that today's entire classical music industry, which is riddled with scarcely hidden agendas, is not fit for service. The conventions of concert etiquette that Max Hole so delights in attacking are way down on the priority list for change. Right at the top are making classical music an agenda-free zone and putting the integrity and passion back into the industry.

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Audiences can cope if given the opportunity

In that photo senior Tibetan Buddhist monk Kenrap-la is introduced to Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala for the first time. He is listening via my iPod as we approach his monastery at Thiksay at the end of the arduous 800 km drive from Kalka in the foothills of the Himalayas to Ladakh on the border of India and Tibet. When I took the photo we were 15,000 feet above sea level and more than 1000 km from the nearest concert hall, in a region where symphony orchestras are unknown and Western art music is culturally alien. Yet, despite this, Kenrap-la listened engrossed for the whole fifteen minutes of Body Mandala. Everyone involved in classical music should look again at my photo and ponder on the following: audiences can cope with challenging and the exalted music, they just need to be given the opportunity.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

For the Netherlands

July 23rd is a day of mourning in the Netherlands for the victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 tragedy. My wife and I were particularly moved by this tragedy as our flight from Delhi to London a few days later was rerouted away from Ukrainian airspace - the photo was taken by me at Shey Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India. As a tribute to the victims of all nationalities I offer a link to a recording of the Dutch composer Lex van Delden's 1981 Musica di Catasto. Lex van Delden (1919-88) knew tragedy himself as a Jew in the Nazi occupied Netherlands. His music was championed by Bernard Haitink, Eugum Jochum and George Szell but, quite preposterously, remains unknown in an age of 24/7 Mahler. There is an illuminating interview with Lex van Delden's son here, and more on him in Contemporary composer's Dutch courage.

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Ramadan nights

Qawwali music at the shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi after sunset last Saturday. My Ramadan nights are being spent at a Buddhist puja in Ladakh, a Sufi ritual in India, the Freiburg Opera Parsifal in Norwich, and, finally, at William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices in the beautiful church of St Peter and St Paul in Salle, Norfolk. At the Salzburg Summer Festival during Ramadan there are performances of Sufi chants by an Egyptian brotherhood, the premiere of a work celebrating the Sufi martyr Mansur al-Hallağ by the Palestinan-Israeli composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi coupled with sacred music by Anton Bruckner and Hildegard von Bingen, and a presentation of Jordi Savall's inter-faith Bal·Kan: Honey and Blood project; it has been my privilege to write the programme essays for those three Salzburg concerts. The controversial Muslim cleric Abdalqadir as-Sufi (aka Ian Dallas) found in Parsifal "pure religion itself". Was Wagner a Sufi?

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How the BBC is distorting the classical music market

Attention has been drawn by Norman Lebrecht to the poor ticket sales for Freiburg Opera performances of Parsifal and Tannhäuser this week at the Norwich Theatre Royal. In a comment on the story Sunday Times music critic Hugh Canning describes the publicity for the Freiburg Opera residency in Norwich as "woeful", a description that has an element of truth but which needs to be put into perspective. The Norwich Theatre Royal - with which I have absolutely no professional connection - is a registered charity which presents a range of arts, entertainment and education events. In the year 2012/13 the Theatre Royal presented 428 performances, making it one of the busiest theatre venues in the UK, with an exceptional average audience of 77% of house capacity. All this was achieved with a total operating expenditure of £2.48 million and a promotional budget of £216,000 (£505 per performance). In 2012/13 box office sales contributed 68% of income, compared with just 2% from public funding.

In contrast to the lamentations of "woeful" publicity for the Freiburg Opera, there is currently much lavish praise for the BBC Proms. In a 2009 post I presented one of the few analyses of the finances of the Proms. My research showed that the Proms budget was £8.8 million for 95 concerts; 68% of this budget was financed by a guaranteed £6 million subsidy of, effectively, public funding from the BBC license fee; while box office sales accounted for less than 25% of income. But, and this is of particular relevance to the "woefully" promoted Freiburg Wagner Festival, these metrics do not reveal the true picture. In another post I revealed that the annual Proms budget is actually around £10 million; because the concert series benefits from a massive amount of free advertising and promotion on BBC Radio, TV and websites that is not charged to the Proms budget. If all this advertising was bought at market rates, as is the case with every other music festival including the Norwich Wagner performances, I conservatively estimate the cost would be over £1 million. Based on that estimate, the promotional budget for a single Proms concert is almost £12,000, compared with £500 per performance at the Norwich Theatre Royal. Which, at least in part, explains the much cited near capacity Proms audiences, and the problems selling Wagner in Norwich.

Despite the disingenuous pleadings of director general Tony Hall, the BBC has absolutely no interest in promoting classical music as an art form. Instead it is cynically using classical music to promote the BBC brand. When did you last hear any classical music initiative promoted on the BBC that was not prefaced by the acronym BBC? - BBC Sport Prom, Cbeebies Prom etc etc. When did you last hear the BBC Radio 3 promoting the Theatre Royal's laudable initiative of bringing fully staged productions of Parsifal and Tannhäuser to Norwich? The Proms are a wonderful institution, and I have described here previously how they changed my life. But the BBC has become a corporate steamroller that is flattening all non-BBC branded classical music. This power is grossly distorting the classical music market both in the UK and globally. But don't take my word for it, look at the facts. Here, from a 2011 post, is what the BBC controls:

1. The biggest classical music festival in the world.
2. Five leading orchestras and a choir.
3. A year round programme of live concerts and music events.
4. Artist bookings and payments for all the above.
5. A substantial collateral promotional support programme including extensive TV coverage and social media activity.
6. An influential young artist development programme that also co-produces commercial recordings.
7. A media partnership with a prestiguous industry award scheme.
8. The largest new music commissioning budget in the world which awards more than £350,000 to composers annually.
9. Access to exclusive state of the art MP3 download and iPlayer stream on-demand technologies.
10. An online classical music presence that is part of a website ranked in the fifty most visited internet destinations worldwide.
11. Commissioning contributions from influential journalists.
12. Links to a co-branded print magazine with a monthly readership of more than 200,000.
13. A classical radio station described as "the envy of the world" with around 2 million national listeners plus global reach via the internet and satellite
14. A guaranteed annual classical music budget of £50 million.

The Norwich Theatre Royal's low budget and low profile promotion of the Freiburg Opera residency may, indeed, be woeful. But the distortion of the classical music market caused by the hegemony of the BBC is infinitely more woeful. If, as Tony Hall claims, the BBC really has a strong commitment to the arts, it would use its immense power for the greater good of classical music, instead of for the greater good of the BBC.

Our tickets for the Freiburg Opera Parsifal at the Norwich Theatre Royal were purchased at the box office. Another commendable classical music event that does not benefit from a £12,000 promotional budget is the performance by the William Byrd choir of Byrd's Mass for Five Voices in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Salle, Norfolk on Saturday 26th July. More on Gavin Turner's legendary William Byrd Choir in Masses of early music on iPods. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).
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Monday, July 21, 2014

Peaks and lamas

Conch shells sounding from the roof announce the early morning puja at the Tibetan Buddhist Thiksay Monastery in Ladakh. We stayed in Thiksay during our recent visit to Ladakh; the monastery dates from the mid 15th century and, as can be seen from my photo below, is modelled on the Potala Palace in Lasa, Tibet. Thiksay, which is in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is 180km from the border with Tibet. China's annexation of Tibet gives the link with the Potala Palace, which was the home of the Dalai Lama until he fled from Tibet in 1959, a particular poignancy. Peaks and Lamas is a book by Marco Pallis based on his travels in Tibet in the 1930s. Pallis was an acknowledged authority on Tibetan Buddhism, as well as a highly regarded early music specialist who founded the pioneering English Consort of Viols. When he died in 1989 aged ninety-four he was working on an opera about the life of the Tibetan saint Milarepa. More on Marco Pallis in Classical music's mighty and single cosmic rhythm.

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