Why you should never believe music industry experts
Writing my recent post about David Munrow brought back amusing memories of the Indian summer of analogue sound. When I was at EMI in the late 1970s a respected critic repeatedly criticised the sound balance of new classical releases that we knew were sonically top-notch. So an engineer was despatched from Abbey Road Studios to check out the critic's system. When he arrived at the hack's house he found two long speaker leads from the stereo amplifier. One loudspeaker was in the study, the other in the adjacent living room, so the journalist "could write reviews in either room". Critics were not the only culprits: a senior figure in EMI's classical division complained of distortion on white label pressings. When an engineer checked out the home system of the senior executive - who wielded a lot of power in the classical industry - he found a large lump of plasticine stuck to the tone arm headshell "to keep the needle in the groove".
Then there was the Canadian journalist who asked Sir Adrian Boult to recount how Gustav Mahler invited him to conduct the first performance of the Planets. And later there was the British journalist whose 'authoritative' book on the classical music industry was pulped following the out of court settlement of a High Court action - the action alleged that the book contained more than fifteen errors, of which four were considered to be libellous. That journalist was subsequently awarded a prestigious music industry prize recognising "the commitment and work of artists and journalists who provided a real contribution to the ever increasing role of music in the culture of entire populations and individuals". (It is a conveniently overlooked anomaly that music journalists - who practice music criticism - are themselves subject to so little critical appraisal. If a professional musician performed in the same slipshod self-serving way as some music journalists, the musician would be laughed off the concert platform). And another expert commentator has been doing the rounds of swanky music industry conferences for years, after having been in the driving seat of the leading classical music magazine during the period its circulation - i.e. audience - crashed by more than 50%.
But plus ça change. An independent label celebrated for its sound quality recently sent a new release into the market with prominent non-musical electrical transients in the SACD layer on the multi-format disc. At first the label pleaded that the noise was chairs creaking when the chorus sat down. When I asked if the chorus sat on electric chairs, the producer finally conceded that the intrusive sounds were due to computer instability in the SACD mastering process. As I write, the faulty discs remain in the market ten months after release. However I make no claim to being a music industry expert, nor do I claim infallibility. When I bought John Luther Adams' Become Ocean I returned the two disc set because one of the discs failed to load in my CD system: I had not realised the two discs contained the same music, one in CD format and one in DVD.
Like papal infallibility, industry expert infallibility is a myth. In 1971 the senior music critic of the New York Times Harold C. Schonberg became the first music critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. The Pulitzer Prize website explains that the award was for Schonberg's music criticism during 1970. His The Lives of the Great Composers had been published in that year, and in the book he passed the following judgement*:
Sibelius composed only a handful of works that have any chance of survival. Yet even that is a better average than many composers can show, and in years to come the chances are that the music of Sibelius will occupy a more prominent place than it currently does. At the time of his death he was suffering from a bad name and an aesthetic that ran counter to the age. If a new age does produce a resurgentromanticiam or neoromanticism, Sibelius could come back with it. He did, after all, talk with an individual voice when he was at his best, and he deserves to occupy an honorable place among the minor composers.There is a serious moral behind these jocular anecdotes. New technologies have greatly increased the power of industry experts. The advent of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms means experts now dictate what music is liked and what is disliked. This has produced a musical monoculture controlled by prescriptive intermediaries who display lack of judgement and excess of self-interest in equal measures. Which means Marius Constantin, Walter Braunfels and Philippa Schuyler - to name three examples featured here recently - are forbidden by the taste makers, while Sibelius, Mahler and Shostakovich are rammed down our throats in the same way that corn is force-fed to geese to produce foie gras. An industry expert is just someone who earns a living from making the same mistakes as amateurs like you and me. The only real experts are the two ears on your head. Research has shown that audiences become what they listen to. So don't believe industry experts; instead let your ears tell you which music you like. As with the search for new audiences, new technologies and new saviours of classical music, the answer isn't somewhere over the rainbow: the answer is here now. The great Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur explained it so well in The Conference of the Birds; here is the irreplaceable Bernard Levin’s précis of the fable from his book Conducted Tour:
The birds go to seek their mysterious king, the Simorg. Their journey is beset by terrible hardship, amid which some die, some desert, some turn back, some lose heart. When the survivors reach their goal, it is to learn the world’s most profound and vital truth. They are told that they have carried the Simorg with them all the time, and they realise that the treasures which we believe lies across cruel wastes, boundless oceans, towering mountains and dreadful valleys really lies within our own hearts.* Harold C. Schonberg quote appears on page 387 of my 1981 hardback fifth edition of The Lives of the Great Composers. Photo of solitary loudspeaker (the other was in the study) was photographed by me at a caravanserai on the old road between Marrakech and Essaouira in Morocco. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.