Sunday, February 16, 2020

Classical purists will loathe it but this is a massive PR win


A reader has added this comment to my recent post Classical music needs to make its diversity more diverse:
I certainly agree with both what you and John McLaughlin Williams have said. On a somewhat related note, I was rather surprised to see that my old hometown [Detroit Symphony] orchestra was partnering with Rap Royalty for what promises to be a pretty memorable night. Now, orchestras playing live soundtracks to accompany films is certainly nothing new. Even Pops concerts now regularly feature some Rap or Hip Hop artist, but what really surprised me, was the response the event received on the local entertainment weekly's social media page: nearly 3000 comments and SHARES! That was considerably more attention than the DSO received for its recent Grammy wins!
Purists will probably loathe it, but this is a massive public relations WIN for the DSO! And yes, it's bringing new audiences into the concert hall!
Classical music views social media exposure as the holy grail. So 3000 comments and shares on social networks is indeed a big win. But the observation that purists will loathe the partnering of a symphony ochestra with hip hop legend Wu-Tang Clan is sadly undoubtedly true. Because classical music has a self-destructive mindset. It wants to connect with the big new young rewired audience, but only on its own purist and fundamentally elitist terms.

Looking back over sixteen years of my Overgrown Path posts it is easy to find expressions by me of that purist and elitist mindset. However I am not embarrassed to admit that my views have changed radically. Because technology and consumer tastes have also changed radically and continue to change at a pace that nobody could have predicted. When I joined BBC Radio from university in 1972 we edited reel-to-reel tape recordings using razor blades. My first home computer bought in 1993 was a Dell 486 running DOS with a 66MHz processor, 8MB of RAM and a 320MB hard drive bought for almost £2000, which included an external 9,600-baud modem. Facebook was launched as a "hot or not" game for Harvard students in 2004 - the same year I started writing this blog - and Twitter was launched two years later. Since starting On An Overgrown Path music media has morphed from physical CDs through downloads to streaming, and today mobile listening is the way most people hear music.

My Dell 486 was a PC, and the digital revolution was triggered by the arrival of Personal Computers. 'Personal' was the defining characteristic of this new technology, and the cultural revolution it has driven is defined by personalisation and customisation. New technologies mean we now define our own personal comfort zones. My music comfort zone is very different to everybody else's. Which means there is no longer a single monolithic classical audience that wants to sit in acoustically perfect concert halls listening to 24/7 Beethoven and Mahler.

Classical diversity is about more than the conductor's gender. Today's art music is a granular culture. Of course it embraces Simon Rattle conducting Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives. But it also embraces the London Philharmonic advocating Ravi Shankar, Steve Roach's ambient electronica, John McLaughlin Williams mixing Strauss' Four Last Songs with Sinatra arrangements, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra collaborating with a hip hop legend. The classical purists need to get over that and start open-mindedly embracing every aspect of the new rewired culture, instead of cherry-picking the parts that suit their own preconceptions and prejudices.

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