Classical music's hype machine is shouting too loudly

That new YouTube video* of royal wedding and BBC Young Musician cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason promoting designer Paul Smith's menswear represents an important step forward in classical music's search for the elusive new, young and hip audience. A well-reasoned case for classical musicians to form this kind of partnership with high profile consumer brands is made by a Slipped Disc reader:
Halls are less full, record sales are dropping, orchestras are shutting down, even teaching jobs are getting thin on the ground as fewer kids want the discipline of learning an instrument with which to play classical music. So when a hip young cellist is deemed recognisable and admired enough to be worth paying to promote a brand, it is something to be celebrated, not lamented. If the kids think Sheku is “cool,” they may take a look — and listen — to what he does. If that’s what it to start rebuilding audiences, go for it. In the meantime, it gives him an income above and beyond what he can earn in concerts or from record sales — which may keep him in the business.
Many years ago I was marketing manager of EMI's international classical division. Despite much water passing under the bridge since those halcyon days, a small part of the marketing mindset remains with me. This mindset is convinced by the case made by that Slipped Disc reader. Moreover my blog was one of the earliest and strongest advocates of giving musicians of colour their rightful place in the classical pantheon. And a not insignificant part of my disposable income is still spent on cultural activities, especially music. So why have I never bought a Sheku Kanneh-Mason album, yet alone attended one of his concerts? Moreover, why have I have not bought a Simon Rattle album for decades? Why is it that I hastily click past the latest mention of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Mahan Esfahani ? Coming to that, why is it a long time since I attended a mainstream Western classical concert or bought an album by one of the 'trending' musicians who appear on Slipped Disc and elsewhere with monotonous regularity?

The reason for my abstemious behaviour is that the classical hype machine is now shouting so loudly I can no longer hear the music. On An Overgrown Path always has been a personal blog, and the views expressed here are never influenced by the patronage of any major label. And sorry, but I do not share the values of fashion brands and social networks, and, increasingly, I feel alienated from those who do. Which is why that video and other high profile promotional activities by the undoubtedly hugely talented Sheku Kanneh-Mason's leave me shaken but not stirred. It also explains why I have not attended a mainstream classical concert for a long time, but why listening to Arnold Bax's Third Symphony (Handley/BBC Philharmonic) on my iPod while travelling by bus across the mountainous backbone of Crete recently left me deeply moved. It also explains why the last recorded classical music that I bought was by musicians almost entirely absent from the social media hype machine - the Diogene Quartet's complete Schubert string quartets on Brilliant Classics and Afierossis, Michael Heupel's recital of 20th and 21st cello works. (Despite the social media dogma, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is not the only brilliant young cellist in town.)

So my head tells me that Sheku Kanneh-Mason promoting Paul Smith menswear is a positive and inevitable development. But my heart begs to differ. Which is why I have never bought a Sheku Kanneh-Mason album. And it is why these days I feel like a spectator standing on a deserted platform as the classical music express pulls out of the station packed with new, young and hip passengers enthusiastically sharing the moment on social media.

* YouTube videos are no longer embedded in An Overgrown Path. Photos 2 and 3 from Paul Smith website. This is because the blog's RSS feed strips embedded videos out. My social media accounts are deleted. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


mathias broucek said…
I struggle with these very in-your-face interactions between classical artists and the commercial world. Instinctively, it fears like it must cheapen the nature of the artistic enterprise.

Apparently Currentzis (whose Rite recording is an extraordinary thing) has launched his own perfume. He went down in my estimation, I’m afraid. Perhaps that’s unfair, but it’s hard to imagine Erich Kleiber, Klemperer or Schnabel doing something similar.

BTW I’ve just remembered a video clip of a young woman telling an elderly Horowitz she liked his tie. He was horrified: “ What about my playing?????”

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