Classical music must die and be reborn
A comparison between classical and non-classical music journalism highlights important lessons not just for classical journalism, but for the whole of classical music. Whichever way you look at it classical music journalism is in a dire state. The venerable Gramophone magazine under new ownership has a combined print and digital circulation of 23,162. This compares with a peak of 75,000 in the late-1970s before the magazine had access to a potential market of 4.2 billion internet users. Even BBC Music Magazine, with its advantages of BBC branding, free CDs, and a more populist tone - 'Cakes inspired by classical music' - can only muster a print circulation of less than half that achieved by the Gramophone at the peak of its powers.
Many explanations can be cited for this dismal situation. The most commonly cited is the disruptive impact of free online content. But this does not hold up to close examination. Norman Lebrecht claims 1.5 million monthly page visits for Slipped Disc. (A figure which Norman has never denied includes multiple visits and an unknown but not insignificant number of searchbots and other non-human visitors). Let's leave aside for the moment personal views on the quality of Slipped Disc's content. Norman has very successfully modeled Slipped Disc on high traffic social media aggregators such as Reddit and Slashdot. There is clearly a huge demand for this format, but whichever way you look at it, social media aggregation is not journalism. At the time of writing the average word count including headlines for the latest five Slipped Disc articles is 70, which disqualifies it from consideration as journalism. And what else is there in online classical writing other than anti-Brexit and anti-Trump rants, #metoo click bait, explanations of why Bach's music is grossly overrated, and endless plugs for the writer's personal projects?
An overlooked recent Guardian article by Dave Simpson titled 'What crisis? Why music journalism is actually healthier than ever' is important reading. Of course the piece, which deals exclusively with non-classical music journalism, acknowledges the negative impact of free online content. But it goes on to describe how although today’s circulations are lower "there are magazines for every niche or genre, from Classic Rock to Blues & Soul to avant garde title The Wire". It then reports how "today’s music titles are adapting to smaller circulations and more competitive markets by lowering overheads, using smaller teams and refining their core specialisms, emphasising quality, longform journalism in the face of an avalanche of disposable free content".
The lessons from this comparison between classical and non-classical media stretch far beyond journalism. The Guardian article emphasises how the non-classical media uses smaller, highly focused titles to cater for every niche and genre. Contrast this with the classical media which insists on treating its audience as a single homogenised entity doomed to subsist on a narrow diet of celebrity musicians and warhorse composers.
Despite received wisdom there is no such thing as a single mass market audience for classical music. Instead the market is a fissile aggregate of loosely defined and overlapping genres - chamber, crossover, avant-garde, opera, orchestral, electronic etc etc. So treating the audience as a single group who only want to listen to Barenboim/Gražinytė-Tyla/Rattle conducting Mahler/Wagner/Shostakovich explains not only why classical music journalism is in such a mess, but also why classical music itself is in such a mess. Even classical music's much-acclaimed embrace of diversity has become no more than a marketing-led campaign to shoehorn women musicians and musicians of colour into the same one-size-fits-all mass market solution.
In reincarnation the physical body dies but the soul lives on to be reincarnated in a different form. Non-classical music's soul has gone through many reincarnations in recent decades - garage, psychedelic, progressive, glam, punk, new wave, psytrance, grunge etc etc. But classical music shows no evidence of being reincarnated in a form more suited to the very different conditioning of 21st century audiences. In the 1960's Georg Solti's Wagner was classical music's big thing. Plus ça change - in the second decade of the 21st century Antonio Pappano's Wagner is the big thing. The often forecast death of classical music may not be a bad thing. Being reborn in a truly diverse form that celebrates every niche and genre could be the solution that classical music has been seeking in vain for so long.
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