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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