Classical music's 'next big thing' obsession is misguided
That spectacular spike in On An Overgrown Path's readership graph was caused by the economics blog Marginal revolutions linking to my posts about the older classical audience and the Ultimate Classic FM chart. I have no time for the 'mine is bigger than yours' bragging that Norman Lebrecht and other bloggers indulge in. But I do think there are lessons to be learnt from how a blog which assiduously avoids eulogising classical music's 'next big things' has retained a significant and wide audience.
The classical record industry was built on the vision of figures such as Fred Gaisberg, Walter Legge and John Culshaw whose roots were deep in classical music. But the 1960s boom sparked by Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and others meant that rock music called the shots in the record industry, and it has stayed that way ever since. Rock music is driven by a remorseless search for 'hits' and 'the next big thing'. Because classical has been subservient to rock for the last half-century, the same remorseless search for hits and the next big thing has been imposed on classical music by a succession of senior industry executives from rock backgrounds, with Universal Music leading the charge. And this misguided attempt to impose the rock paradigm on classical is where it has all gone wrong. Because classical music is not a 'next big thing' art form.
Classical music actually has very little in common with rock music. Rock is defined by its blockbuster hits, while classical is notoriously difficult to define because it is not built on blockbusters. So the obsessive search for the next classical big thing is futile and damaging. As dumbing down - the last classical big thing - rides into the sunset with the BBC coming to the glaringly obvious conclusion that "Strictly and Sherlock audiences fail to stick around", so the next big thing comes into view with the classical Taliban riding shotgun. Take your pick from Simon Rattle's marriage of convenience to the LSO, Classic FM's success in the 'yoof' market, anti-Brexit grandstanding, or a new £300 million London concert hall. Never mind that the graveyard of next big things is overflowing - does anyone remember that darling of the Sinfini set the Bristol Proms which was going to "bring classical music into the 21st-century"? (Incidentally, is The Spectator the new big thing replacing Sinfini Music?)
As Gautama Buddha told us in his teaching on impermanence, all big things that come will inevitably go; just as that large spike in my reader numbers is declining as I write. It is particularly appropriate that my articles were given a heads up by a high profile blog titled Marginal Revolutions. Because the future of classical music does not depend on finding the next big thing. It depends on marginal incremental gains from many, many not so big things. Simon Rattle, Mahler symphonies and the Titanic soundtrack have their place. But so do an infinite number of small ensembles, small venues, non-celebrity artists, less-celebrated composers and minority voices. I make no claims that my blog can show the classical industry what to do. But perhaps it can point out what not to do.
As I write, musicians featured in the blog's sidebar lists of most popular posts - these are driven in real time by the software - include mystical spectralist Jonathan Harvey, the evergreen Elgar, Sufi adept Ali Keeler, the genre-busting Haz'art Trio, Indian-influenced Paul Horn, ex-saviour Gustavo Dudamel, and Cretan music legend Ross Daly. If there is anything classical music can learn from the resilence of On An Overgrown Path, I suggest it is the idiocy of the next big thing obsession and the vital importance of all the next little things.
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