Not everyone climbs mountains

These photos were taken by me on my recent trip to India. Listening and reading while in Goa set me thinking about a response to a recent post here. On his excellent The Music Salon Canadian blogger Bryan Townsend wrote:

On an Overgrown Path tells us There is no mass market for classical music. I'm pretty sure of two things regarding that: first, I have known this ever since I got into classical music, so it ain't news and two, that is a big part of the appeal. Not everyone climbs mountains and not everyone listens to classical music.

Bryan's thoughtful response supports my thesis that for two decades classical music has been chasing a non-existent mass market, as exemplified by the strategy of turning BBC Radio 3 into a clone of Classic FM complete with 'info-commercials'. But, and that is very important but, we cannot overlook that classical music is losing traction with audiences to an alarming extent. 

A simple example of this loss of traction is the programming in London's Royal Festival Hall. When I worked in the classical industry in the 1980s there was a world-class classical performance almost every night of the week in the Festival Hall. Now there is often just one classical performance a week, while the other six nights cater for entirely different audiences or are dark. This paucity of classical performances has nothing to do with Brexit as is wrongly claimed elsewhere by the click bait king. It is a due to a profound cultural and technological shift the classical industry is still in denial of. Walking through the cabin of the Boeing 787 during the ten hour return flight from India underlined this deeply disruptive cultural shift:  no classical playlist was offered on the in-flight entertainment system and around half the adult passengers were watching the new Barbie movie . 

Bryan Townsend is right when he says 'Not everyone climbs mountains and not everyone listens to classical music'. But what happens when the lack of new mountain climbers means that the essential guides and Sherpas disappear to seek other work? What happens when the essential fixed ropes start failing due to lack of maintenance? What happens when the routes to base camps are closed down due to lack of traffic? What happens when essential funding for the climbing infrastructure is withdrawn due to the lack of mountaineers?  What happens when the mountains are dynamited by BBC Radio 3 to make them easier to climb?

This is exactly what is happening with classical music. Not everyone climbs mountains  or listens to classical music. But without a constant modest but essential rejuvenation of concert goers and mountaineers, the infrastructure for both disciplines will slowly atrophy. There is no mass market for classical music and there never will be; but there is a  heterogeneous and highly fissile conglomeration of small overlapping niches. Which means the opportunity exists to expand the market in a modest way, and, most importantly, to rejuvenate it by developing new niches.

My listening in India included Mason Bates Works for Orchestra recorded by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas on the SFSO's own record label. In his sleeve note the composer explains "I look to the digital world as an important twenty-first century expansion of the orchestral world".  Mason Bates has also worked as a DJ and techno artist using the name Masonic in clubs and lounges around San Francisco, and this means he has a deep understanding of the new and young audiences that is almost completely lacking elsewhere in today's classical industry. 

While in Goa my reading included The Islander, the autobiography of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who nurtured the careers of Bob Marley, U2, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, and Norah Jones among others. In his book Chris Blackwell highlights how the bass line connects young audiences with music. He describes how bass is the lead line in reggae music, which explains the phenomenal success of Bob Marley and other other reggae acts far beyond their core Jamaican audience. Mason Bates' understands this importance of the bass line, as is shown by the impressive lower registers captured on the SACD layer of the San Francisco recording. 

Mason Bates is a rare example of someone with foresight developing the niche between classical and electronic music. As a DJ he worked with electronic dance music, and the EDM is worth US$ 9.68 billion in 2023 which is quite a big niche. (Interesting synchronicity here, electronic dance music originated in Goa.) Growing niche markets is a far more plausible commercial strategy than BBC Radio 3's futile lose/lose battle with Classic FM over the finite classical-light segment.

Nobody is suggesting techno treatments of Beethoven. Classical music's separate niches operate independently with only limited overlap - orchestral music and chamber or opera or early music rarely appear on the same programme. Similarly there is space for classical music to rejuvenate its audience by exploring and expanding the electro-acoustic, pure electronic and ambient niches without losing its unique appeal by dumbing-down core repertoire. To continue with this theme an upcoming article On An Overgrown Path will feature an in-depth interview with a leading American electro-ambient composer and musician.


Antoine Leboyer said…

Working in Munich for the last 3 years. I cannot believe how much music there is here and how little and not enough there is elsewhere ...
Pliable said…
Thanks for that Antoine, and I am glad to hear that the arts scene is healthier in Munich. France also seems to be faring better, in fact we have just been considering crossing the Channel to attend an appealing performance.

There does seem to be a particular problem with the decline of the arts in the UK. But I do not believe this is due to Brexit. In fact in my view the opposite applies. It is the same narrow-minded lack of aspiration that triggered the EU exit and the demand for populism in the arts.

For evidence of this look no further than the dire programming on the BBC 4 TV arts channel and iPlayer compared with the quality of content and production on the joint French/German Arte streaming platform
Bryan Townsend said…
I'm sorry it took so long for me to discover this post. Thanks for the very well-considered discussion of the issue. I was just looking at it from an individual perspective, but of course, the role and future of classical music is a wide, social phenomenon.

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