Let's get real - classical music supply exceeds demand

Slipped Disc reports a rumour which may well have substance that the BBC Concert Orchestra is targeted for abolition in a list of proposed BBC budget savings, and Norman ends his report with the exhortation "Prepare to go to the barricades". Before manning the barricades Slipped Disc readers should consider the following. The BBC including its house orchestras is funded by a license fee. Over the last four years almost 3.5 million households have stopped paying that license fee. The rate of cancellation is increasing: up from 798,000 in 2016/17 to 860,00 in 2017/18. This means the decrease in license fees numbers is running at more than a compound 3% a year, a loss that has not been recovered by fee increases - the cost of a license was frozen for six years from 2010. That decrease represents an annual loss of BBC income of £130 million. To put the loss into perspective, the total license fee funded budget for BBC orchestras and performing groups is £33 million. So the saving from abolishing all the BBC orchestras would only offset one third of the annual revenue loss from license fee erosion.

It is obvious why license fee numbers are falling. Disruptive internet technologies have made alternative sources of content widely available, notably video and audio streaming services. What is known as the 'Netflix effect' will impact at an increasing rate, and there is nothing the BBC or Slipped Disc readers can do about it. So the BBC's business model of a license fee funded service is on borrowed time. And I am afraid that means the five wonderful BBC house orchestras are also on borrowed time. Because if funding pressure means BBC executives must choose between abolishing Strictly Come Dancing or the BBC Concert Orchestra, it is no contest. Whether we like it or not - and I don't - that is the culture we now live in, and the UK classical industry had better start planning accordingly.

The very same disruptive technologies mean that classical radio also has a limited future. Why listen to someone else's choice of music when personalisation technologies mean you can choose your own? In an earlier piece Norman Lebrecht trumpeted that the "Radio 3 [audience] is down around 20 percent in two years" while "Classic FM has 5.3 million listeners and a ten percent reach". All of which is quite true: but Norman does not point out - presumably because it does not fit the favoured Radio 3 is rubbish narrative - that in the previous 12 months Classic FM had also lost audience - 6.5% to be precise. It does not matter how exuberantly you dumb down, classical radio audiences are shrinking. Which means classical radio is also on borrowed time.

And that is not the end of the problem. There is a significant overlap between the markets for live and recorded/streamed classical music - far more than for popular music. The markets for live and recorded classical music have not increased significantly in recent years; in fact arguably they have decreased. Yet Spotify and other streaming services have exponentially increased the classical supply. It has been obvious for years that there is an oversupply of classical music. It is elementary economics that when supply exceeds demand, supply must be constrained. Yet I have yet to see a single mention of the problem of oversupply on the annual conference agenda of the Association of British Orchestras.

This is not a pessimistic article. Classical music is not dead, there is just too much of it. The classical industry, and that includes Norman Lebrecht and me, needs to get real and stop whining about egregious Radio 3 presenters and stop exhorting readers to man the barricades and protect BBC orchestras. We need to start talking about how classical music, both in the UK and globally, is going to reinvent itself as new technologies continue to irreversibly disrupt legacy business and media models. At the core of that reinvention is a downsizing of music supply, a downsizing of orchestra capacity, a downsizing of audience size expectations, and a downsizing of remuneration for celebrity musicians. We don't need to man the barricades; we just need to use some common sense.

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