Photo by Arindam Mahanta on Unsplash

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 | Part 2)

In Part 2, I spoke about the ecosystem that included live classical music back in its glory days of the 60s and 70s. I likened it to a pyramid with live classical concerts at the top, but a whole raft of other layers that supported it.

The helpfulness of considering the industry like a pyramid is that if we look at the state of that pyramid today, we start to see what might be going wrong at the moment. I believe it also points forward to interesting opportunities. Here’s the situation as I see it today:

Starting at the bottom and working up:

  • Orchestral Music in Pop Music (almost entirely gone). By the time we reached the 80s, the sounds of orchestral instruments had started to disappear from pop music. Possibly it was budget-related – a producer and record label that decided to bring in a session orchestra would have to pay a fair few people to lay down tracks. Perhaps everyone was more excited by the prospect of what the new synthesizers and keyboards could do. Perhaps Gen X wanted to show they were different from their parents by showing a propensity for the more dissonant sounds of rock, with its heavy guitars and loudness. Whatever the reasons, orchestras stopped being used as part of pop songs. Fast forward to today, with the music business being even more competitive, if a bunch of musicians start a band, are they even going to consider using an orchestra? Where would they get one? Unless they happen to be friends with someone who can lend 50+ musicians for a week, most modern musicians will write for the instruments readily available to them: guitars, drums, keys, electronics.
  • Easy Listening Classical (some niches but disconnected from main industry). I didn’t completely cross through Easy-Listening Classical, because someone like André Rieu is still the exception to the rule. But in terms of music that is gaining listeners, there are very few breakthroughs to people who don’t listen to classical music already. An exception could be someone like Max Richter, who’s neo-classical style has gained a broader appearance. And I also argue that Víkingur Ólafsson, the Icelandic pianist, came to fame because many of his albums also double as Relaxing Piano Study Playlists. (But more on him in another post.)
  • Classical Music in Pop Culture (largely gone). This is unfortunate at a time when “needle drops” can be spectacular in their impact. When you consider the revival of “Running Up That Hill” from its use in Stranger Things or “Murder on the Dancefloor” in Saltburn, not to mention almost anything that appears in Bridgerton, we can see that a well-placed use of music can create a whole new audience for a song that might have been otherwise disappearing into obscurity. However, I feel this happens far less often with classical music nowadays.
  • Music Theory and History in Schools (simplified to Music in Schools). The last point about pop culture is possibly explained by the overall lower level of teaching Music Theory and History in schools. While learning about classical music in school is no guarantee that children will become fans later in life, nonetheless, if you wanted someone to learn the basic terminology of classical music (e.g. a symphony vs a concerto vs a sonata) or the basic core composers (Beethoven vs Mozart vs Brahms), where do you go? To put it more bluntly, there was a time when the existence of classical composers was as widely-known as we might know the Beatles or Elvis today. That is no longer a universal guarantee, particularly in Australia.
  • Classical Radio (looking promising and willing to innovate). At the top of the pyramid, classical radio still exists and I will say that ABC Classic (Australia’s national classical music broadcaster, for those overseas) in particular is doing the best it can to reach a broader audience and welcome the newcomer. However, radio is a good taster for classical music, but due to the nature of the medium, it doesn’t necessarily contain the same level of rigour without the educational component.
  • Populist Concerts (disconnected from the main artform). Finally, in terms of light concerts, even Populist concerts are a bit different than they used to be. 50 years ago, a populist concert would probably be mostly classical music, but simplified down into well-chosen excerpts and popular “lollipops”. These light classical concerts have gradually been replaced by what is known in the business as “commercial” concerts – so called because an orchestra or classical music organisation considers them mostly to be valuable for money-making, but less so for any artistic value. This is great if you like hearing your favourite pop star with an orchestral backing or you’re a fan of movie music, but with the loss of populist classical concerts, we do seem to have lost an arm of classical music that probably fed into the top category.
  • Classical Concerts (still strong but facing difficulties). The top category is still surprisingly strong relatively speaking, even though there are increasing concerns about audience sizes and how much growth is necessary for sustainability. It’s arguable that the performance standards – much like professional sports – are steadily climbing, with most state orchestras being able to pull off astonishingly top-notch performances most weeks of the year. However, ironically, many of the current audience that comes may not fully appreciate the quality of musicianship they are hearing, and may simply be there to hear their favourite tunes from over the decades. It is certainly fair to say that there can be a massive different in audience size between a concert that features a top 20 work and one that features something less well known. It’s also quite noticeable that even the definition of “well known” is variable. Go back 100 years and Brahms was considered one of the masters and his symphonies and concertos were on regular rotation. However, now, his music is drifting more into obscurity. (More on Brahms in another post as well.)

So on the whole, the industry’s currently shaky audience for classical concerts layer is arguably because classical music organisations are trying to get the same level of concert-going as they had in the 70s – but without being able to draw from a much broader base of people listening and learning about classical music and instruments from the layers below

Viewed at from this perspective, I think a new and exciting challenge opens up for the industry. During the last 20 years, there has been a great focus on how we can use audience growth initiatives (usually focused around sales and marketing) in order to break down barriers and reach new audiences. This type of promotion has had some great success – and is certainly met with less opposition than it was when I started in the business and there was a fear that too much audience-friendly marketing would dumb down “the brand”.

But I say, why stop at the marketing? If the core issue is a half-collapsed ecosystem, why not set to work rebuilding it? Why not rebuild all the levels, in order to have a thriving classical concert scene at the top?

Later in this series, I’ll talk about what this might possibly look like in the future and some of the obstacles that might exist to getting started. But for the next few posts, I want to take a deep dive down an issue that every classical music marketer and artistic programmer has encountered in their time, but is talked about surprisingly little: the tyranny of familiar music.

More soon.