BBC classical cuts - beware of the knee jerk reaction

It has been my privilege to work in the classical music industry and for the BBC, and, as this blog testifies, my life in retirement continues to be enhanced by classical and art music. So the recently announced cuts to the BBC's performing ensembles cause me grief, and I sympathise with those fine musicians whose lives will be directly affected. As was the case with the recent Arts Council England cuts, the planning and implementation of the savings has been badly handled. 

But the strategies of the classical industry that have led to these cuts also disturb me, and I find the widespread knee jerk reaction such as '“New Strategy for Classical Music” from the @BBC... sounds like more of the same old levelling down of culture by those already busy wrecking this country"' unhelpful and troubling. I find this reaction unhelpful because it totally ignores two crucial factors that have triggered the BBC's dubious new classical strategy.

The first crucial factor is the seismic cultural shift that has occurred over the last twenty years. The BBC's performing ensembles were created when the arts agenda was set by a top down process. The administrators set an aspirational agenda which the audience stepped up to. Today new technology in the form of the internet has demolished that top down aspirational agenda. Now the online empowered audience sets a populist agenda for the arts which the administrators - the BBC - have to step down to. They have to step down because the priority, for the classical music industry and everyone else, is now audience size. The hard truth is that today the BBC is in the business of giving their audience what they want, and, sadly, they don't want much classical music. 

Whether we like it or not, cultural tastes - which means audience tastes - have changed  dramatically in recent years. And this means the appetite for classical music has declined as cultural tastes have shifted. The result is that the supply of classical music now exceeds demand. This reduction in demand in today's commercially-driven BBC means reducing - aka cutting - budgets. The problem is compounded by the advent of free and cheap classical music via streaming services, a development which has devalued the perceived value of classical music, but which the classical industry has enthusiastically endorsed. 

Then there is the disruptive impact of the pandemic, with concertgoers - including me - not returning to live performances in the same numbers.  Not one of the hysterical protests on social media identifies the core problem of the oversupply of classical music yet alone proposes any solution other than maintaining the current untenable status quo. And causing more problems is the global shift to the political right, which has put major pressure on arts funding in and beyond the BBC. 

This seismic cultural shift is, obviously, beyond the control of the classical industry. It is happening and will continue to happen, and will not be stopped by protests, petitions and rants on Twitter. Pretending it is not happening and refusing to adapt to cultural change and the problem of oversupply, which is what the classical industry is doing, is suicidal. Which leads me on the second crucial factor which has triggered the BBC's proposed changes. Classical music has not only buried its head in the sand to cultural change, it has also done an appallingly bad job at marketing itself and justifying its existence.

Classical music has not only failed to connect with its new short attention span, rewired mobile audience, but it has also alienated its older existing audience. This has been caused by a strategy of demanding more and more expensive concert halls in increasingly inhospitable city centres, and programming predictable programmes delivered by overpaid and overhyped celebrity musicians. A metropolitan centric strategy has been doggedly pursued even though the pandemic triggered decentralisation and increased geographic mobility. 

Classical music's celebrity obsession is contributing to its downfall. The excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra, one of the targets for the cuts, used to be the backbone of the BBC Proms. But the orchestra's Proms appearances have been progressively reduced in favour of a stream of lacklustre celebrity orchestras carting the same warhorse repertoire - Mahler and Shostakovich - from European capital to European capital. In addition, self-congratulatory virtue signalling, which means nothing to the wider target audience, has become a programming priority. And, contrary to the global cultural trend of inclusivity,  in parts of the UK classical industry there is a toxic elitist culture which sneers at anything other than classical music. If any more evidence is needed that classical music is doing an appallingly bad job at marketing itself, just take a look at Slipped Disc. This industry endorsed online classical showcase is, predictably, leading the knee jerk reaction.

The BBC classical cuts may be wrong-headed. But the misguided knee jerk reaction from the classical industry is equally wrong-headed. Cuts to performing ensembles are very bad news indeed. But unless classical music changes dramatically by recognising the seismic shift in cultural tastes and the fundamental problem of oversupply, and unless it changes the current misconceived marketing policies, there will soon be even worse news.


Pliable said…
"Classical music has... done an appallingly bad job at marketing itself and justifying its existence". A perfect example of this is the leading BBC-contracted conductors giving an exclusive heads up on their protest letter to Slipped Disc.

Just as streaming devalues the music, so partnering with Slipped Disc brings into question the judgement of these fine musicians and devalues their credibility.

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