Note: I originally wrote this blog post series about George Grove – legendary classical music audience builder – back in 2016 on an old blog. I’ve lightly updated these posts from their original form. This is the Final Part of Five. It is interesting to reread this article in 2023, after my own work now in the audience-building space and seeing the clever work of others in this area. I would probably be more optimistic in tone if I was writing this now, but I thought I would leave it mostly as I wrote it back then, as most things I still stand by.
If you’re just joining me, here are the other parts:
A Guy Named George – Part 3: The Engineer Who Brought Classical Music to the Masses?
A Guy Named George – Part 4: Secrets Hidden in the Royal College of Music
In part 4, I talked about my memorable afternoon back in 2016 spent in the Royal College of Music and how I discovered that George Grove’s Crystal Palace concerts turned out to be a canny mixture of education and crowd-pleasing fun (perhaps leaning towards the latter).
There is sometimes an (often unspoken) assumption in modern classical music circles that the secret to getting a big audience is to play the music at a very high standard of excellence. But after those few hours spent in the Royal College, I’m going to be more emphatic: I’m not convinced that was responsible for the massive growth of classical music.
Excellence Organisations vs Audience Organisations
Instead, I think it was the other way around – because classical music became so massively popular, then there was a sophisticated enough audience to appreciate excellence when they heard it. As a result, I believe there are two types of classical music organisations – those that are focused around Excellence and those that are focused around Audiences. While every classical music organisation will strive both to be excellent and to grow audiences – both are necessary – there is often one of these that will win out as the clear central direction, even if it is never implicitly stated.
But some of you might be thinking, surely being excellence-centred and audience-centred is the same thing? Not necessarily.
Nowadays there are many, many recordings floating around of any classical piece. (Who can even count how many complete sets of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies are in existence?) Why is that? This is because classical music enthusiasts, the connoisseurs, are so intimately familiar with the details of these works that they are always looking out for that interpretation or performance that is just that little bit better than any they have ever heard. They’re looking for the most perfect rendition, the one that gets an A+ while all the others get an A.
And this is what the classical music industry thrived on in the 20th century: the existence of the connoisseurs. So a typical modern classical music company [at least when I originally wrote this in 2016] is built around the concept of drawing in the best conductors, the best musicians, the best ensembles, because they are performing for the connoisseurs, that audience who is knowledgeable enough to know the difference between the A performance and the A+ performance.
But for the person starting out with a vague interest in classical music – they have no such level of knowledge. This is why there were so many cheap and nasty CD labels selling classical CDs for $5 in bargain bins at supermarkets back in the 80s and 90s. To the average person, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the 1812 Overture is the same, regardless of who plays it.
So Excellence Organisations play to connoisseurs, strive for perfection, and the emphasis is geared towards performing a broad repertoire with prestigious musicians. However, by comparison, George Grove’s Crystal Palace series was an Audience Organisation. Perhaps by necessity of being run for a profit, it needed to be one, rather than any great desire by Grove to be populist. But necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.
And so Grove’s Audience Organisation was built around the audience: It had to be entertaining to reach a broad crowd. It had to include not just serious music, but also music the masses would respond to as well. It attempted to use educational tools like program notes to make the audience more sophisticated, definitely, but it always recognised that it had to get them in the door first before any of that could happen.
So what happened? Why did the Crystal Palace concerts die out after Grove died? Why don’t we see concerts like this any more? Why is nearly every classical music organisation today trying to be an Excellence Organisation with virtually no one trying to be an Audience Organisation?
My theory – and I’m now going out on a limb and completely speculating here – is that Grove, quite by accident, had stumbled on the magic formula for growing classical music audiences. If the concerts were just to please the crowds, it would have been like André Rieu – great fun for those who go, but not a bridge to the great classics. If it had been all serious and musicological, it would have been like a modern-day film appreciation class: great for the small number of people who like to educate themselves about culture, but not meaning a lot to the hordes thronging the multiplex. But George did both – he was an entertainer and an enthusiastic teacher – and he taught the lay audiences of Britain to love classical music.
Like MasterChef for Classical Music
The closest thing to which I would compare George’s achievement would actually be MasterChef. Everyone who watches the show knows it’s manipulative, cheesy and aiming at the lowest common denominator in terms of entertainment. Its goal is to have you glued to the TV set every night for an hour. And yet, slowly but surely, as this reality TV show has infiltrated the hearts and minds of Australia (and I’m sure other countries that have the show), what has happened? It has raised a generation of foodies. And that has a flow-on effect for the restaurant industry, for fine-dining experiences. There are more upmarket food experiences to be had in my city of Sydney [and now Brisbane] than ever before. So a show that is built mostly around pleasing its audience is actually doing a service for food culture in Australia, more so than any fine dining guides or food reviewers were ever able to achieve before.
A Victim of His Own Success?
So why do we not see anything quite like the Crystal Palace series today? My theory is that Grove’s experiment was, in the end, a victim of its own success. By the end of the 19th century, as Grove’s life came to an end (he died in 1900), there were multiple new Audience Organisations having a crack at attracting the lay person. (The most famous of which was the London Proms, which is still running to this day.) People were so keen to nerd up on classical music, that Grove was able to successfully put together and publish the Grove Dictionary of Music. (This is still in print but nowadays it’s a large multi-volume work that lurks in Conservatorium libraries. What has possibly been missed today is that the dictionary was intended, not for classical music students, but for the lay person to gain an understanding of classical music.)
Also, rather than head off to Europe to learn to play classical music, there were enough talented young musicians that a good music school was warranted in England. And so the Royal College of Music was established and has continued in operation ever since.
In short, classical music was such an in thing to do in London, that really nobody had to worry about trying to persuade people it was entertaining. The peer pressure did that work. Everyone was reading up on it, studying it, and going to as many concerts as they could. The ecosystem was well and truly set up. So in the early 20th century, you can see the extraordinary explosion of public orchestras setting up in London. The London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia, etc. If an orchestra could get its A+ conductors and musicians lined up, there was an audience willing to part with their money to hear them.
In short, classical music was now so much part of the popular culture, that it was carried along by its own momentum. It was only when this happened, when the audience was up to this level, that organisations could now focus on being Excellence-Centred to be successful and thus was born our 20th century model of classical music companies, the one we have inherited.
Also – and this would require a whole separate blog post – culture up until the 1960s was hereditary. Back then, you aimed to carry on the traditions and culture of your parents and grandparents, thus why many churches, up until recently, sang the same old hymns from the 19th century and why many classical music audiences over the age of 70 can remember going to concerts with their parents and listening to classical music their entire lives. Why would you listen to anything else? It’s the best that culture can offer!
But in today’s day and age, things are different. At least for the last 40 years, the goal as soon as we hit our teenage years was to discover music that sounded as obnoxiously differently from our parents’ music as humanly possible. [Though it is interesting to see in 2023, that this is not happening with Millennials and Gen Z, who are rediscovering classical music on their own terms but not in the hereditary culture-handed-down way of their great-grandparents.]
Side by side with this generational shift amongst the masses, I think something else happened in classical music circles – we possibly lost sight of how to make people love classical music.
Everybody has been competing in the Excellence space for so long, no one is really sure how to do the Audience-building thing any more. And the reality is, it’s much harder to do now than it ever was. It will look different for every generation, because audiences are always looking for something new and exciting. By the time Grove died, classical music was so popular and the Crystal Palace wasn’t the new and exciting venue that it used to be, that his series of concerts just died out. Unlike Excellence Organisations, which just need to be excellent, Audience Organisations need to be constantly evolving because the audience is evolving.
To build an audience today for classical music – and it’s something that is desperately needed – will require a whole new set of different tricks. I suspect it might need to involve a larger role for film music, which is the most common orchestral music still listened to by laypeople. But no one is entirely sure.
But more pressing even than the mix of music is this question: where are our George Groves today? Where are people who can speak the ordinary language of laypeople, and yet draw them into a greater knowledge of the classical music art form? Where are people so enthusiastic for classical music, that their enthusiasm infects a whole city? (And in this day and age of the internet, one person’s enthusiasm could spread across the globe.)
I’d like to be optimistic, but as the classical music industry faces an uncertain future, I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to return to the Audience focus fast enough to stem the tide of the ageing audience. But there are glimmers of hope. For instance a young orchestra, the Melbourne Philharmonia Project, popped up in an article I was reading earlier this year. They talk about wanting to create “an orchestral experience which was aimed at not the 7 per cent that listen to classic music but the other 93 per cent”. Now that right there is the language of an Audience Organisation. I’d like to think that if enough groups like this appear, following in the footsteps of George Grove (even if we unfortunately just think of him as the guy with the multi-volume music dictionary named after him), maybe collectively we all might be able to make a difference.
After all, if George Grove could change my life and open up the world of classical music to me, why couldn’t the same happen to plenty of other people out there if we gave it a try?