Classical music must go on a diet to survive

In a comment on my post about orchestras touring China and the United Arab Emirates longtime reader Joe Shelby argues: "Better an orchestra with occasional trips to places we'd rather they not go, then no orchestra at all". I don't want to take Joe's comment out of context, because he quite rightly advocates more activism by musicians. But the view that classical music has to turn to ethically challenged destinations and also to ethically challenged funding to survive needs challenging.

During a much reported presentation in 2013, Universal Music ceo Max Hole told orchestras they must change or die. He was right up to that point, but he was woefully wrong when he went on to tell orchestras how to change. The dogma expounded by Max Hole and generally accepted across the classical music establishment is that 'change' involves tinkering with the cosmetics of concert presentation.

To date there has been absolutely no recognition of the very obvious problem - that there is too much classical music. This oversupply exists because:
1. Demographics and cultural tastes have changed.
2. New technologies have made recorded classical music available anywhere and anytime.
3. Supply has been concentrated on major metropolitan areas and a narrow band of repertoire.

The problem of oversupply has been exacerbated by:
1. Reduced funding for live music.
2. Collapse of the traditional record company business model, which was an important revenue source for performing ensembles.
3. Rapid rise of streaming of recorded music; this effectively makes the supply of classical music infinite and reduces the perceived value of classical music.
4. Unequal distribution of revenues in favour of celebrity musicians and prestige ensembles - what Kenneth Woods has dubbed 'the one-percent problem'.

The combination of these five factors has produced the perfect storm that is threatening to shipwreck classical music. Elementary economics tells us that if the supply of a commodity outstrips demand, first you try to increase demand. If this does not work, you then have to cut supply. For years classical music has been trying to increase demand using a panoply of tactics that can be grouped under the pejorative of dumbing down. That the art form remains in perpetual crisis is simple confirmation that demand cannot be increased enough to balance the current oversupply.

My post about China and the Emirates was sparked by a session at next week's Association of British Orchestras conference. This session aims to encourage orchestras to tour China, with a special focus on "how we can tap into the interest in British orchestras in China’s second and third tier cities". The irony that immediately prior to the conference two British orchestras were already touring China at the same time is lost on the ABO. Are China’s second and third tier cities really a viable long term market for British orchestras? Or are these tours simply a way of taking up slack in the supply chain?

In Britain the Ulster Orchestra is teetering on the threat of extinction, for decades there has been a tacit acceptance that London has too many orchestras, the BBC has said it "would be willing to engage in a discussion about "the future of orchestral provision across the UK", and this never ending crisis is mirrored around the world. Yet, despite this, the agenda of the Association of British Orchestras conference totally fails to acknowledge that oversupply of classical music - recorded and live - is the biggest single threat to our orchestras. Instead the conference agenda is a ragbag of quick fixes that even if they work - and that is a big if - do no more than perpetuate the bloated status quo.

Bodies such as the Association of British Orchestras must accept that there is oversupply of music, and they need to tackle the problem. A diet plan agreed within the industry is infinitely preferable to the externally inflicted gastric band surgery that is already starting to happen. But arriving at an internal consensus will not be easy. Any discussion of slimming down the supply chain is inevitably tainted by the threat of job losses. Sadly, these are inevitable; but contributory savings can be made by tackling problem such as the inflated fees enjoyed by celebrity musicians and their management agents, and by celebrity radio presenters.

Also on the Association of British Orchestra's conference agenda is a session titled 'Does classical music need a reboot?' The loaded panel is comprised almost entirely of Max Hole disciples, it is chaired by a Classic FM presenter, and the blurb for the session refers to "the clamour for a re-invention of the classical concert experience". The answer to the question 'Does classical music need a reboot?' is no. What classical music needs urgently is a clean up of its hard drive. Emptying a brimming recycle bin at the same time would also fix a few problems.

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Joe Shelby said…
Well, keep in mind I'm writing from America, where we don't have the glut of a dozen orchestras within 100 miles. Here in DC, I have access to 2 (outside of universities) - the NSO and Baltimore, and that makes me rather fortunate. Others have access to only one and they're faltering for lack of funding (Atlanta, Detroit being the most public about it. Minnesota, too).

The glut of recordings you mention does lead me to one other note. You say "there is too much classical music" but I might consider a clarification: there is to much of *the same* classical music. (This has the counter-caveat: audiences aren't as likely to attend concerts with too many unknown pieces, but that's a discussion already had).

In particular in recordings, this bothers me greatly.

I don't need another Beethoven cycle (glaring specifically to MTT's SFO, who wonderfully perform contemporary music but on record that talent is lost with the management's desire for another 'cycle'). Nobody really needs another Beethoven Cycle. How many Mahler cycles are in progress, including Gergiev's and now Dudamel? Do I need another Planets (I'm up to 11 recordings, thanks to various low-priced conductor compilations like Karajan, Stokowski, and Previn)?

How much other music could be played, recorded, enjoyed, that won't be because of all of the resources being spent on "yet another cycle"?

I look at the reviews and the ads in BBC Music and constantly see the same names come up. I jump at the moment of seeing a name I never saw before, and race to wikipedia and amazon to find out more.

This is a reason I generally have enjoyed Rattle's time with the BPO. While he has released plenty of standards (including 3 more Mahlers, Fantastique, the Nutcracker, and a new Rite), he has also released a lot of music that isn't nearly as well known, including Dvorak Tone Poems, a brilliant Messiaen piece, some lesser known Debussy, the Stravinsky Symphonies, and an interesting completion of the Bruckner Ninth.

Maybe I'm weird. I probably am. But the weird are more willing to buy music than not-so-weird these days, who are more content with Spotify's business model of "here, we'll buy the CD once and share it with 2.7 million of our closest friends".
Joe Shelby said…
Update to my submission - you do address the sameness of the releases with that #3 line above, "Supply has been concentrated on major metropolitan areas and a narrow band of repertoire."
David said…
As to the "narrow band of repertoire", I note that the Royal Northern Sinfonia concert at the ABO conference will conclude with a "warhorse": Beethoven 5. Wouldn't some "inextinguishable" Nielsen or a Villa Lobos symphony have made a more fitting statement?
Like the previous three commenters, I noticed the issue of narrow band of repertoire. As to audiences being smaller for unknown composers, the suggestions I could think of that would e firstly the obvious model employed by rock shows - have a headline act supported by less and less well-known music. In other types of music, audiences are drawn to what's new. Partly, this is driven by media, like radio, dedicated to uncovering or promoting the next big hit. Some promotion for new composers, using radio and online media could go a long way. The BBC in particular seems to keep going for new stuff from the same old people and often really don't pick the composers I would characterise as most interesting or exciting.

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