How classical music squandered its golden opportunity

David Munrow's Pied Piper BBC radio series broadcast from 1971 to 1976 introduced thousands of young and not so young people to classical music. The title was particularly apt because classical music's Pied Piper led his unsuspecting audience on a rich journey of discovery. In the same way other influential animateurs such as Leonard Bernstein with his CBS television Young People's Concerts and André Previn with his BBC TV Music Night programmes also helped new audiences discover and explore classical music. It was not just media figures that provided leadership on that journey of discovery. Conductor John McLaughlin Williams recently recounted how the proprietor of Serenade Records in Washington DC, which closed many years ago, led him on a journey of discovery through Medtner, Glazunov, Glière, and many other composers. And as a customer I have made many invaluable discoveries in the soon to close Prelude Records in Norwich, England, discoveries which were shared with readers.

No latter-day animateurs have emerged to fill the shoes of David Munrow, Leonard Bernstein and André Previn, and independent record stores are now almost an extinct species. It can be argued very convincingly that the demise of bricks and mortar retailers is a sad but inevitable result of disruptive new technologies and changing lifestyles. But the same new technology - the internet - which triggered the demise of the independent record store opened up a golden new opportunity to lead new classical audiences on that vital journey of discovery and exploration.

Ten years ago classical blogging reached its apogee led by the eclectic Sequenza21 and Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, with the latter blog acting as a curtain raiser for the eponymous and hugely influential book which led countless new listeners on a journey of discovery through 20th century music. But the late noughties saw the arrival of social media led by Facebook and Twitter, which soon replaced blogs as the communication platform of choice. Social media was initially billed as micro-blogging, and presented classical music with a huge opportunity to share discoveries; thereby filling the vacuum created by the neglect of music programming by mainstream media and the disappearance of bricks and mortar record stores. But sadly classical music squandered that opportunity - and how.

Social media could be a powerful tool for the sharing of music discoveries to mutual benefit. Instead it has become a vehicle for ranting, self-promotion, click baiting and the mind-numbingly mundane. There will always be those who abuse an open resource. But did classical music really have to join the race to the bottom with such alacrity? Did music critics really have to join the other 317 million Twitter users peddling the same banalities? How many times in the last month did you learn something about classical music from social media that has made a difference to you? Classical music desperately needs new online animateurs. When will classical music's great and good stop re-tweeting the same tired memes about Trump and Brexit, photos of their dinners and tonsorial revelations*, and instead start inspiring and leading that vital new audience on a contemporary voyage of discovery?

* That header tweet came from Hugh Canning who is classical music critic for the Sunday Times and a member of the Critics' Circle. The tweet was not privacy protected and therefore available to any of the internet's 3.2 billion users. Despite protestations to the contrary Twitter is a medium of record, irrespective of context. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Pliable said…
A reader's comment on my post about the closure of Prelude Records includes this:

'As an ex member of staff, this is especially sad news. It would not be an exaggeration to say I learned as much or more working there than on my 3 year classical music degree at UEA. Listening to hours of quality recordings would inspire me to explore this music in the library in greater depth, taking me on many 'paths' I wouldn't have known otherwise.'
Anonymous said…
There is something akin to a latter-day animateur at work somewhere. I'm listening to a mix or sequence of pieces, whether assembled by human or by algorithm I know not, on YouTube. This mix has so far included Bach, Vivaldi and Praetorius as well as much early music, some Jordi Savall, Scottish and Irish traditional music, lots of recorder music — and a segment by David Munrow about the rackett, with a piece played by the Early Music Consort. This and previous mixes in jazz, early music and, er, prog rock have introduced me to players and composers I didn't know and I've already bought several recordings as a result.

I do not suggest that this replaces what is being lost, but I mention it to show that there are some good things happening.

Warren Cohen said…
Goodness knows, I try, but the problem is that I (and other people trying to bring more music, different music and new music to people) are obscure and have a very limited audience. I did not go a big school,I have very few connections with famous musicians, I conduct a couple of obscure orchestras (although one of them is really pretty good!) and have no connections in the media world to get people to pay attention to what I am trying to do. Previn, Bernstein and Monrow were well connected, famous musicians with an ability to reach vast numbers of people, and, more important, they were allowed to do what they thought best. When Hindemith died Bernstein devoted an entire Young People's Concert to him the very next month-an hour of Hindemith for 9 year olds-and he was allowed to do it. No 'marketing expert" would permit such an outrage today. These are the people who determine what we hear, and, because they think in such a short term way, they cannot tolerate anything that might take a while to grow. Even I am repeatedly told that on every concert I need to have a "name the public will know"- but there are literally only about 10 names on that list, which means we continually recycle the same repertoire. The irony is that because of my limited reach and outsider status, I still have more freedom than the people who should be the ones bringing new music, new ideas and new people to the music world. Instead, they play the Emperor Concerto again, because...Beethoven. It's depressing.

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