Classical music's cigarette habit

Edward Gardner's recent propitious appointment as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra received widespread coverage in the classical media. While elsewhere the classical industry has gone all self-congratulatory about its 'woke' credentials - African American vernacular for social awareness - as instanced by Jamie Barton's antics at the Last Night of the Proms. But the London Philharmonic's long-term and sole principal corporate partner JTI has received no similar coverage. Classical fans can be forgiven for assuming that JTI is another one of the nice generous accountancy or law partnerships that conveniently provide a significant slice of classical sponsorship. It is an easy mistake to make: because clicking on every other corporate sponsor logo on the LPO website takes you to the sponsor's home page. But by an unfortunate - or possibly deliberate - oversight the JTI logo is not linked. So to further social awareness let me restore that missing link to the LPO's principal sponsor.

JTI is the international tobacco division of Japan Tobacco, the fifth largest tobacco company in the world with a stable of brands that includes Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut, and outside the US Camel and Winston. Japan Tobacco has a turnover of $20.1 billion and is also heavily involved in the e-cigarette market, a sector coming under increasing scrutiny because of potential health risks. JTI has been funding the London Philharmonic since 2009. However the orchestra is remarkably coy about its principal partner's business activities: my Google search for the term 'London Philharmonic tobacco' returned no results pointing at the orchestras website or that of JTI. But it does return a number of articles critical of the orchestra's long-term tobacco sponsorship, including On An Overgrown Path's 2011 post on classical music's ethically compromised funders.

There is an example of how JTI use their sponsorship of the LPO for ethical whitewashing in a case study by The Prince's Responsible Business Network. The LPO is not the only orchestra with a cigarette habit. Simon Rattle's band the London Symphony Orchestra proudly lists British American Tobacco - the world's second largest cigarette company - as a corporate sponsors; but at least the word 'tobacco' is not redacted on the LSO website. Of course classical music needs to fund its celebrity culture, and rank and file musicians also need paying. But here are the World Health Organisation's headline statistics on smoking. Tobacco kills up to half of its users, and kills more than 8 million people each year. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. Around 80% of the world's 1.1 billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries. Which puts some of the other social causes that classical music gets worked up about into perspective - eg Brexit. It is time that classical music 'woke' up and smelled the smoke.

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The corporate sponsor list at the linked LPO site includes a major English/transnational bank as well as a "wealth management" firm, among others. A trait shared by not few of the cds I buy. Labels, releases and featured artists frequently receive that kind of sponsoring. "Wealth management" firms are notoriously fond of "making it possible".

However blatantly evil tobacco companies are, I don't think it's easy to make a case for banks, investment and "wealth management" firms being more, if at all, acceptable. The effects of their "activities" in countries all over the globe, regardless of their income level, are arguably every bit as harmful as selling cigarettes to unsociant poor men.

I remember Jordi Savall giving a brief explanatory speech before a performance of music for viola da gamba. He admonished us not to ever forget that, however beautiful the music we were about to listen to was, it was also the byproduct the exploitation of the many by the few. His Ibn Battuta project had already been running for some time, I think, so he must have been painfully aware what he was talking about.

It was sometime in the 80s that some punk rock musicians decided to take full control of their artistic activities, from recording to distribution, from publicizing to performing. Labels such as Dischord or Alternative Tentacles managed to create an universe alien to the rules of the music industry or the Big Money. Autopublishing become the concious choice of many rockers whose output either could not be possibly monetized (because of not sticking to the industry's conventions, or lacking a minimum quality or esthetical value, or whatever) or wasn't thought of by its creators as something that should contribute to the riches of some already rich enough men.

It doesn't look like something like this is going to happen with classical music.

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