Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

Category: Classical Music 2.0

Classical Music 2.0 – Part 2: The music pyramid

Classical Music 2.0 is a 10-part blog series putting forward a possible vision for the future of the classical music industry – imagining a time where we might have larger audiences, more revenue, and play a bigger role in society. (Previously: Part 1)

In my last post, I suggested that rather than thinking of classical music organisations as separate entities, rising and falling on their own steam, we should instead think of them all as being part of an ecosystem. And then I suggested that we need to think of the ecosystem as being a lot bigger than just organisations playing classical music. It’s actually something like a pyramid.

The best way to illustrate this is to consider the ecosystem of orchestral music – by which I mean, all the places where you encounter the use of an orchestra (or orchestral instruments, if you prefer – I won’t quibble!). When we consider this definition, going back to the 60s or 70s, the ecosystem would have looked something like this:

At the top in the Classical Concerts layer are orchestras and elite chamber music groups, performing concerts of new and old classical music. This would be the kind of live classical music as we think of it today: orchestras performing concerts with three works – an overture, a concerto and a symphony (and most likely no clapping between movements). And it is still this level that most people in the classical music business think of as “real” classical music. This is the high art, the pinnacle, the reason the ensemble exists.

However, there were other layers.

There were Populist Concerts (or “pops” concerts), known for their, well, populist music. Nowadays this would probably be something more like a movie music or video game concert, but back 50 years ago, it might have been a concert that featured excerpts of famous classical works, rather than full works. It was still “classical” in the sense of that’s where the repertoire came from, but giving people excerpts of longer serious pieces and/or light works (often known as “lollipops”) meant that it was generally agreed that this was classical in a sense, but a bit dumbed-down for a less sophisticated audience. (Though then as now, you would never put that sort of line in the marketing copy!)

Meanwhile, classical instruments could be heard in many other places. Consider the next layers down:

  • Classical Radio. It’s well known that thousands more listen to classical music on radio than ever attend in the concert hall, so it was clear that this was a part of the ecosystem that created a large enough critical mass of fans that some of them would shell over cash to hear the music live in a concert hall.
  • Music Theory & History in Schools. There are many debates of how necessary music education is to enjoying classical music. I personally don’t think musical education necessarily guarantees someone will like classical music or become a future ticket buyer, but there are nonetheless connections between music education and being able to get deeper enjoyment out of classical music. For instance, if you get a music education that teaches you that a concerto is a piece of music for solo instrument and orchestra, often broken into three movements, etc. – that will allow you to listen to many different pieces that have the word “Concerto” in it. Ditto for symphonies. Basic music theory provides a road map for knowing how to explore classical music, in much the same way as knowing a little bit about wines or degustation can open up a world of exploring the culinary world. (I have a lot more to say on this topic, particularly when it comes to the idea of listener familiarity with repertoire, so I’ll revisit this in future posts.)
  • Classical Music in Pop Culture. We also need to recognise that below the surface of music education, classical radio and concerts, classical music was audibly everywhere. It featured in movies (e.g. David Lean’s Brief Encounter, which is scored exclusively with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey with all its Strauss music – Johann and Richard). Not to mention the thousands of hours of original orchestral music composed for almost every soundtrack from movies and TV. (Much of it as rich and lush as anything being created for the concert hall.) You almost couldn’t consider using any other types of instruments to highlight the emotion on screen. Classical music also featured in commercials and, of course – perhaps more successfully than anywhere else – it featured in cartoons. Bugs Bunny cartoons regularly riffed on the great orchestral classics and I still say one of the funniest Disney cartoons is “The Band Concert”, the first colour Mickey Mouse short where the mouse tries to conduct the William Tell Overture while being traumatised by a flute-playing Donald Duck. In short, classical music was as prevalent as, say, the music of the Beatles or Elvis Presley or Taylor Swift is today. Yes, it might seem unusual that 100-year-old music was used everywhere, but society wasn’t yet at the stage where it felt a need to ditch music that had wowed audiences for decades.
  • As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s also important to understand that the sound of orchestras or classical instruments was present everywhere. There were whole ensembles set up to playing “Easy Listening” Orchestral Music – the Mantovani Orchestra being the most famous – often covers of popular old-time pop songs – performed in slow dreamy “cascading strings” arrangements. It’s somewhat schmaltzy stuff and nowadays you mainly find it for $2 on vinyl at op shops (because there is not really a thriving vinyl market for your great-grandma’s Mantovani records!). But up until the early 80s, it was everywhere. I still remember hearing that sort of string sound being used in shopping centres as piped-in music or played on easy-listening stations as a kid.
  • Finally, there was an awful lot of Orchestral Music in Pop Songs. From the Beatles to Neil Diamond to the regular addition of strings in disco (or even what sounds like an oboe in Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”), classical instruments were everywhere.

In the next post, I’ll talk about what the music pyramid has become today, but the main point is that the bottom of the pyramid makes the top of the pyramid possible. In other words, if classical instruments and sounds are everywhere – in pop music, in pop culture, catering to easy listening audiences as well as highbrow – and most people are familiar with the basic composers, canon and musical structures, it is that ecosystem that allows the music at the top to thrive. It becomes a numbers game which benefits elite music-making.

But, sadly, over the years, the pyramid has started to crumble. More on that in the next part.

Classical Music 2.0 – Part 1: Can we create a new classical music ecosystem?

Classical Music 2.0 is a 10-part blog series putting forward a possible vision for the future of the classical music industry – imagining a time where we might have larger audiences, more revenue, and play a bigger role in society.

I’m no longer working full-time in the classical music industry, but I’m still fascinated to see how it’s going from the sidelines. I started in the business back in 2007, and at the time, I thought I was the only one who was really thinking about the future of the industry, whether the audience would die out, how to grow new audience members. But since then, it’s been great to see that I wasn’t alone. In the last decade, there have been a rising number of voices contributing to the discussion around this, most noticeably Aubrey Bergauer and Ruth Hartt in the US (and occasionally Greg Sandow, who really was the first to sound the alarm on the issue), David Taylor in the UK, Australia’s own Susan Eldridge, the great folks at RasmussenNordic who are working with orchestras across Denmark, not to mention fascinating things happening in the academic world as well. (And if there are more of you out there that I haven’t heard of – hit me up! I’d love to know who you are and what you’re thinking.)

But despite ongoing discussion and commentary, as a whole, we’re still a long way off tackling the issue of organisational and industry change. By which I mean, it’s one thing to say that the industry needs to look completely different to attract new audiences, increase diversity, etc. But how does a classical organisation get there? How do you implement the changes that might be necessary, when you’ve got a bunch of stakeholders with strong thoughts on how things should be – musicians, conductors, the current audience, Board members – PLUS the weight of a couple of hundred years of classical music history and tradition that we’re expected to live by?

It’s a lot.

Classical Music 2.0

So in this series of blog posts, which I’m calling Classical Music 2.0, I want to put forward a positive vision of where the industry might go (either because we choose to go there, or maybe societal forces just drag us there) and the steps that might be involved. Rather than spend too much time pointing out the things we’re doing wrong, I’d like to suggest some things we could do that might be right.

Obviously, any speculation about the future is just that – speculation. And things like COVID caught us by surprise. But I would like to think there are enough general principles operating about how people interact with music to indicate what a positive future might look like.

The Idea of an Ecosystem

But I wanted to start in Part 1 with the idea of ecosystem. Because each classical music company or ensemble is a separate entity (at least in Australia), we can be forgiven for perhaps thinking of them as being independent. Company X has its set of customers, Company Y has a different set of customers, etc. However, there are far more likely to be relationships between those elements.

For instance, in my experience of the Australian scene, a capital city will often contain a major state orchestra, an opera company and a ballet company, and also many smaller niche chamber orchestras and groups. And these organisations, far from being separate, will often share common audience members. Frequently, the way it works is that the more niche organisations – while having a few loyal unique fans of their own – will share most of their audience with the more broad-reaching organisations. In other words, subscribers to see chamber music will often be subscribers to see the symphony orchestra. However, because chamber music is the more niche type of music – sorry, chamber music fans, but it is true! – while it is safe to assume that most of the chamber music fans will be orchestra fans, it’s not at all safe to assume the reverse.

A Pyramid – but how tall?

All this is because, rather than separate entities, we are really seeing a pyramid. In this structure, niche organisations are able to be successful (albeit with a smaller audience base) because they draw on the larger audience base of the broader-reach organisations below them.

But the hypothesis that I want to put forward is that too often the classical music business can think the pyramid goes as far down as, say, the symphony orchestra in a city. But my hypothesis is that symphony orchestras traditionally were part of a much larger pyramid that included populist music for classical instruments, in various different forms. And I believe, whether we like it or not, that relationship between populist and classical music is part of what drove large audiences for classical music.

In my next couple of posts, I’ll elaborate a bit further on the pyramid idea.

© 2024 Future Classical

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑