Classical music's biggest problem is that no one cares
These photos were taken by me in 2008 at independent record retailer Prelude Records in Norwich. Jordi Savall's impromptu viol recital and signing session preceeded two performances at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. One was a solo recital by Jordi in Peter Mancroft Church; the other was an immensely moving performance of his visionary Jerusalem multicultural project at the Theatre Royal*. As reported here Prelude Records closed earlier this year; it was a victim of predatory online retailing, and today its premises stand empty awaiting occupation by a mobile phone or E-cigarette retailer. The Norfolk and Norwich Festival has been the victim of savage funding cuts, but continues in a more modest form due to the dedicated work of its small management team.
A few days ago I wrote about a two-thirds empty Snape Maltings concert and proposed that classical music's heartland is facing a perfect storm caused by the convergence of the shifts in consumer tastes and the rapidly increasing availability of free online content. Elsewhere Craig Havighurst has written about the same problem in a perceptive article titled The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You Think which lists the death of context, commercial radio, the media, conflation, anti-intellectualism, movies and games and the demise of music in schools as reasons for the sorry state of music today.
All the explanations propounded by Craig Havighurst and me are valid and important. But I suggest that there is another more important reason why music in particular and the arts in general are floundering. That reason is that, with a very few exceptions, no one cares any more. Much has been made of the transition from an analogue to a binary age. Not so much has been made of the even more insidious transition from a binary to an algorithmic age. There is a limited understanding of the algorithms used by Google, Amazon, Facebook and other social media platforms to create content filter bubbles which ensure that we stay in our self-defined comfort zones. Even less attention has been paid to how the algorithms virus has expanded beyond online platforms.
For example the Guardian uses editorial algorithms to unashamedly slant its journalism towards the prejudices of its readership, and concert promoters use subjective algorithms to present concerts of familiar and non-challenging repertoire. The problem is that no one cares that this is happening. In fact everyone feels very contended in their own comfort zone with ever faster broadband, ever cheaper streamed content, ever more friends and followers, ever more selfie opportunities and - most importantly - ever fewer challenges to their prejudices. And the media - particularly the classical music media - is quite happy to play along; because keeping your readers in their comfort zone means keeping your readers.
Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison had a clear view on our responsibility to the arts:
The history of art, whether its music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans. And those people are artists, they're the ones that sing the truth, and that is something that society has got to protect.Those are stirring words. But the insurmountable problem is that today the vast majority no longer care about protecting the arts. And we are all to blame. This article is being written on a free blogging platform provided by Google, the pioneer of algorithmic determination. If it reaches any audience at all it will be because it is favoured by the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter. However, it is unlikely to reach any significant social media audience because my views are not favoured by the online vigilantes who police the borders of classical music's comfort zones. And for the same reason the dissenting views expressed here and elsewhere are unlikely to find their way into the Guardian or Spectator or to be aired on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters. But why should any of this matter? Why should people care when they can watch safe within the comfort zone of their own home an outstanding performance lasting 2 hours 44 minutes of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust by the world-class forces of Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded in high quality video and audio for free on YouTube?
There is no viable solution because we are all part of the problem. Classical music's biggest challenge is not ageing audiences, disruptive business models, institutionalised discrimination, unsatisfactory concert halls etc etc. The biggest challenge facing classical music is adapting to a society in which no one cares about anything except staying firmly within their own algorithmically defined comfort zone.
~ Now explore my playlist without algorithms ~
* A transcript of my radio interview with Jordi Savall recorded in the 2008 Norwich & Norfolk Festival can be read via this link. 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.