Category Archives: Classical music

Classical music is not just dead. It’s undead.

Photo by Drew Triebe,

Daphnis et Chloé et Brains?

Classical music, as everyone knows, is either dying or dead.  This has been the case pretty much since its inception – a point neatly illustrated by my friend and colleague Andy Doe in this New Yorker infographic yesterday – but the last fortnight has seen an alarming blur of doctors, nurses and amateur diagnosticians rushing around classical music’s still-twitching corpse trying to decide just how dead it really is.

The patient was wheeled in last week by one Mark Vanhoenacker, whose prognosis (published in Slate) was fairly definitive: ‘Classical music in America is dead‘.  Politely disagreeing was the aforementioned Andy Doe MD, who proceeded to tear Mr Vanhoenacker’s article into itty bitty shreds before dropping the mic and walking off stage.  The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette let us know that even engaging Vanhoenacker on this subject was merely stooping to his level, and that there were probably merits to both sides of the argument anyway.  Then the New Yorker stepped in to remind us that predictions of the death of classical music are as old as the genre itself.

I don’t really have anything to add to this centuries-old debate, except to offer this slightly left-field proposal.  Instead of arguing over whether classical music is dead or alive, how about we simply accept that it probably died at birth, and has since joined the ranks of the living dead?  A kind of zombie artform which shambles along unaware of anything beyond its own desire to consume our brains.

Indeed, if you think about it, classical music has much in common with your common or garden-variety zombie:

The best thing about this idea is that we already have a soundtrack for it.  Hat tip once again to the one-and-only Mr Andrew Doe, who once produced an excellent Music for the Zombie Apocalypse album.

Of course, not all of these arguments can stand up to a great deal of scrutiny.  But then again, neither can most of those made about the demise of a five-centuries-old musical tradition, and those get published all the time.  So there.

Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

Credit: Peter Fischli

Claudio Abbado (1933-2014) (Photo credit: Peter Fischli / IMG Artists)

Enormously sad news today: the great conductor Claudio Abbado has passed away at the age of 80.

I saw Abbado only twice.  Or perhaps I should say: I was lucky enough to see Abbado twice.  The most memorable of those occasions was when he brought his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra to the Proms in 2007.  On the programme was Abbado’s greatest speciality, Gustav Mahler, in this case the enormous Third Symphony.  In six movements, ranging in length from three minutes to thirty and clocking in at over 100 minutes in total, it takes supreme intelligence and structural understanding to bring off this beast of a work successfully in concert.  Abbado brought it off and then some.

At the time, I wrote in The Guardian that “to call this occasion a special event would be to damn it with faint praise: it was a profound musical experience and an outstanding achievement in every respect.”  The same might have been said of so many Abbado performances, particularly in his later years.  A musician’s conductor, he frequently directed applause intended for him towards his collaborators, refusing to take to the podium and instead standing side-by-side with his players.  The result was a level of trust rarely seen between conductor and orchestra, and it paid extraordinary dividends.

Today, I’m sure you will read many much finer eulogies for this great musician than I could ever write. Instead I leave you with this, the sublimely beautiful last movement of Mahler’s Third, about which Bruno Walter said:

Words are stilled – for what language can utter heavenly love more powerfully and forcefully than music itself?

A classically trained search engine

Image source:

No, Amazon, when I say “Beethoven’s 2nd” I am not looking for a kids film about a freaking St Bernard.

As most of us who have ever tried it will know, searching for classical music online is a hit-and-miss affair.  There’s a reason for this.  Most search engines decide which results are relevant to you by matching words in your search query with words that appear in a particular web page, document or record.  The more words matched within a given document, the more ‘relevant’ a search engine believes it to be and the higher up the list of search results it will go.

The problem with this type of search is that it is fundamentally ‘dumb’. The search engine has no built-in understanding of the words you use in your search query.  It doesn’t know that a “piano concerto” is a musical form, that “Mozart” is a composer, that “A major” is a key signature, and that the “A major piano concerto by Mozart” is not the same thing as “a major piano concerto by Mozart”.

This is not terribly surprising.  Most search engines have no idea who you are, or what you are going to type into them.  In the US last year, the top ten Google searches included “Boston marathon”, “government shutdown”, “VMAs”, “new pope” and “Mayweather vs Canelo”.  That’s a pretty diverse range of topics, and no search engine could be expected to have an intelligent understanding of each of them.

The problem is worsened quite substantially when numbers are introduced into a query. This is pretty much impossible to avoid with classical music, whether you’re looking for “beethoven piano concerto 5“, “schoenberg 5 pieces for orchestra” or “corelli’s 12 violin sonatas op 5“.  Because a search engine doesn’t really understand the terms you type into it, it cannot deduce from the context what sort of number you’re looking for.  Instead, it just searches for matching numbers within its database.

The result is that a search for “beethoven symphony no 5” might yield an album of (say) Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 7 coupled with the Piano Concerto No. 5.  From the search engine’s perspective, that’s not a bad match.  From yours, it could definitely be bettered.

This inability to intelligently comprehend what you are looking for is why traditional search engines don’t really work for classical.  Completely unambiguous search terms such as the following yield completely different sets of results, even on the two biggest online music retailers:



Search Results


Good luck guessing which of those results sets has the particular recording you’re looking for in it!

Solving this problem has been one of Lelio’s key aims over the last 18 months.  Our search engine was built with classical music in mind from the very beginning.  We were able to do this because, unlike a traditional search engine, we know what type of information our users are likely to be looking for.  It is then just a matter of programming the search engine to intelligently interpret queries about that information.

So for instance, when you type “beethoven symphony 3″ into the Lelio search box, it understands that Beethoven is a composer, a symphony is a musical form, and 3 (in this context) probably refers to a particular instance of that musical form.  If you typed in “beethoven symphony 55″, however, it knows that there is no 55th symphony and instead checks to see whether there is a matching symphony under Op. 55 – which, in this case, there is.

Key to the efficacy of this model is ensuring that every term in our database is unique.  It’s no good having different records for “Tchaikovsky”, “Tschaikowski” and “Tchaik” (as his mates call him), when they are all synonyms for the same composer.  Likewise, Lelio will accept any of the following variants of the word “symphony”:

  • symphony
  • sinfonie
  • symphonie
  • sinfonia
  • sin
  • sinf
  • sym
  • symph

As far as Lelio’s search is concerned, all of these terms mean the same thing (and in the next release, it will also recognise misspelled variants just in case you have chubby fingers like me.) This is what allows us to return such a consistent set of results.

Why is this consistency so important, you ask?  Well, remember how the other week I blogged about Lelio’s mission to revive classical music sales?  Well, it turns out that in the world of sales, positioning is everything.  Just look at this graph showing the clickthrough rate of Google’s search results:

Optify analysis of Google top 20 search results click-through rate

What this graph demonstrates is that someone is almost three times as likely to click on the first search result they get offered than on the second – and over 16 times more likely than on the tenth.  If someone wants to buy something, it pays to ensure you’ve positioned it smack in the middle of their sight line.

With Lelio, we take things one step further. If our search engine considers your search to be wholly unambiguous, we don’t even display a list of search results: we just take you straight to the item you’re looking for.  At the moment, this is limited to composers or works, but artists and recordings will be coming in the next release.  The idea is to save you valuable time which can be better spent deciding whether you want the Furtwängler recording or the Klemperer.  (Top tip: get both!)

At any rate, we think this technology works really well and removes a big degree of randomness from the process of searching for classical music.  As I said in my last post, however, we know our prototype search engine is extremely limited – but we hope you enjoy playing around with it anyway and seeing what it could be capable of in the future.  If you have any feedback, we’d love to hear it – and please do share this blog using the buttons at the top of the post if you like what we’re doing.

Solving classical music in the 21st Century

Shopping for classical music in the good old days

In my last post I discussed the disheartening decline in classical sales over the last couple of decades.  From representing 11% of the recorded music market back in 1990, classical has dropped to just 3% today.  The collapse of traditional bricks-and-mortar record shops has forced classical customers online, where we are treated very much as second-class citizens in a retail landscape thoroughly dominated by pop music.  Inadequate technology means that finding the specific album or recording we want to buy has become a hit-and-miss affair, usually involving our having to wade through countless irrelevant search results before we (maybe) find what we’re looking for.  Many of us just give up, creating a vicious cycle whereby dwindling classical sales disincentive online retailers from investing in the genre and fixing the situation.

Something desperately needs to change.  And that’s where Lelio comes in.

When we started working on Lelio back in 2012, we had a fairly straightforward aim: to make classical music as easy to buy online as it is in a shop.  That might sound simple, but there are several big challenges that we’ve needed to overcome.

To start with, it’s worth pointing out that online shopping does have some natural advantages to the traditional “walk into a shop and buy what you want” experience.  For a start, there’s no walking involved (which is a major plus in my books).  Online shops can also carry a much bigger range of stock than their offline counterparts.  That means more choice for the customer, which in theory is a very good thing.

In the world of classical, however, the sheer size of that range can be daunting.  There are over 150 commercially available recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony alone, with more being released every year.  For someone just beginning to build their classical collection, knowing where to start is tricky.  For a more experienced collector, knowing where to go to next can be just as much of a challenge.

This is where a traditional shop has the advantage: any classical section worth its salt will have a chap behind the counter who can help you find a recording to suit your needs.  Failing that, there’s always the ubiquitous (and usually thoroughly dishevelled) copy of a Penguin Guide or Gramophone Guide lying around on the counter.  Online shops might be able to offer you customer reviews and star ratings, but they are no substitute for an expert opinion.

But even if you did just want to wing it, in a traditional shop you at least have the option of browsing through all the available recordings yourself.  That’s because in an old school classical section, albums are handily organised by composer and composition, rather than sales rank or release date.  This style of organisation – an A-Z listing of composers, with each composer’s works neatly filed under Symphonies, Concertos, String Quartets, Piano Sonatas etc – works brilliantly for classical shoppers, but is entirely absent from the online shopping experience.

So, Lelio’s first challenge has been this: how do you create a structure for selling music which is appropriate to classical?  Most online retailers simply take the view that copying and pasting the dominant “songs and albums” model will be sufficient for us classical customers.  With Lelio, we’ve thrown away that model completely, and started again from scratch.

I don’t want to bore you with in-depth discussions about our database design, but suffice to say that every album on Lelio is defined in terms of which compositions it contains.  This is in fact a radical departure from an album being defined in terms of artist name and album title, which is the model used by pop music and the model into which classical music is shoehorned by every record label and online retailer out there.

Building our database using compositions as the basic building block allows us to do a lot of really neat things.  We can group all recordings of a particular composition together under a single set of results.  We can group compositions together by composer, and build categories and hierarchies for that composer (e.g. Chamber Music –> String Quartets –> Late String Quartets).  We can slice and dice our data to show you all Bruckner recordings by Daniel Barenboim, then let you pivot to see all of Barenboim’s recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas, and let you pivot again to see the Beethoven sonatas recorded by András Schiff.  We can also do some really, really neat tricks with our search engine, but I’ll discuss that in another post.

Ultimately, our hope is that by starting from the position of loving and understanding classical music, we can build something that really resonates with classical fans.  We want customers to have a nice time shopping for music, rather than pulling their hair out over the inadequacies of the technology.  By rebuilding the online shopping experience from the ground up, our hope is nothing short of revitalising the classical sector – replacing the vicious circle I mentioned earlier with a virtuous one.

All of this is a huge undertaking, though, and we can’t do it all at once.  Next week I’ll talk about our more immediate goals, why our current prototype website only has 150 recordings listed on it, and when you can expect to see the next round of developments.

In the meantime, if you liked this blog, you’ll be doing us a big favour by sharing it on Facebook or Twitter!

Lelio: The Prehistory

Somewhere in this primordial soup you can hear Lelio being born

It’s been a little while since I’ve updated this blog, for which I must apologise.  Keeping a blog is a little like keeping a pot plant: without regular attention and nourishment, it will wither and die.  I was never much good at keeping pot plants, and I fear that as far as the Lelio blog is concerned, the brown leaves have long started outnumbering the green ones.

But it’s a new year, which means that it’s as good a time as any to turn over a new leaf (if you’ll forgive me overextending the plant analogy).  I’m going to be updating this blog much more regularly from now on, so watch this space.  I’m also going to be moving away from general ruminations on the world of classical music – there are plenty of other talented bloggers covering those subjects as it is – and talk to you instead more about what Lelio is all about, what we’re working on, and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I’m going to start with that last point, which entails a short, slightly depressing history lesson.  Sorry.  There will be gleaming futuristic awesomeness in the next post, possible featuring hovercars and world peace.  Promise.  In the meantime. . .

The Problem with Classical Music (Abridged Version)

Back in the early 1990s classical music was a pretty big deal. Globally, one dollar in every ten spent on recorded music was spent on classical.  This was partly fuelled by the introduction of the compact disc in the mid-80s, a format which represented a significant improvement over the cassette tapes of the preceding generation, and whose introduction precipitated a spate of re-buying amongst audiophile collectors.  Classical fans led the charge in this department, and small wonder: the CD had been developed with classical interests firmly in mind, to the extent that the actual physical dimensions of the new format had been defined as ‘just big enough to fit a complete recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a single disc’.

By the turn of the century however there was a new game in town, and it was called the MP3.  Far easier to buy and much more portable than CDs, the MP3 – along with its less famous but more widespread cousin the AAC – promised to change the record industry forever.  Apple released its iPod in 2001, and in just under a decade transformed from a slightly unloved technology company into the world’s single largest music retailer – all because it was first to ride the new wave of downloadable music.

What a pity, then, that downloads represented such a backwards step for classical fans.  Highly compressed audio was never going to unseat CD in the sound quality stakes, and the portability benefits downloads offered was only of limited interest to the three-quarters of us who still do most of our listening at home.  The only possible advantage a download could offer over a CD was the convenience with which it could be bought: online, from the comfort of one’s own home.

But even the convenience of buying music online had been compromised when it came to classical.  Just finding classical music was – and continues to be – a huge pain in the proverbial.

Type in the name of a Beatles album, and iTunes or Amazon will be able to point you to it, take your money and deliver your music to you before you can say “it’s not actually called The White Album officially you know”.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a specific recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, you and the retailer first need to agree on the correct spelling of Tchaikovsky (Tchaikovsky? Tschaikowsky? Tchaïkovski?), whether you wanted the “Symphony 6” or the apparently unrelated “Pathetique Symphony“, whether you meant the “VPO” or the “Wiener Philharmoniker “, and finally sort out who this Rafael Kubelik fellow is anyway.  It’s a mess of shoddy data, inadequate search tools, and an apathetic attitude by retailers that reflects the decreasing importance of classical buyers.

Shopping for classical music online has become a confusing and frustrating experience, and without any pressing need to upgrade our CD collections, it has become less and less worth our while to get out our credit cards.  The result?  Classical has dropped from 11% of worldwide music sales to just 3%.

Worse, this decline has become self-perpetuating:

Classical cycle


The only way to halt the decline of classical music is by breaking this vicious cycle.  And that’s where Lelio comes in.  My collaborators and I have invested over 18 months of our lives into this so-called ‘dying genre’ because we believe that there remains a strong, committed audience for classical music out there.  We want to make shopping online as enjoyable and engaging an experience as nosing around in the classical section of your local record shop used to be.  Ultimately, we want people to buy more classical music.  And we want to do that because we want to see classical resurge and grow strong once again.

In the next post I’m going to talk a bit more about how we’re actually hoping to achieve all this – and how you can help.  In the meantime, I wish you all a very happy New Year and promise – cross my heart and hope to die – not to let this blog shrivel up again.

Crossing over from the other side

Laborintus II: Mike’s Pattern

Now here’s something interesting.  Last year, a new recording was released of Luciano Berio’s masterful oratorio-cum-pantomime-cum-kitchen-sink Laborintus II.  For the Berio fans among us, this would normally have caused a stir: performances of Laborintus II are pretty rare, and recordings of it rarer still.  In fact, since the piece’s composition in 1965 only two other recordings have been released officially: one conducted by Berio himself, and another (now out of print) recording by Giorgio Bernasconi.

So the prospect of a brand-spanking new recording featuring Belgium’s Ictus Ensemble should have been a pretty big deal.  But here’s the funny thing: this uncompromising 35-minute slice of postwar modernism can’t be found in the classical section of your local record store. Instead, you’ll find it under the Metal section.

At least, that’s where I found it.  You see, the man behind this particular album is one Mike Patton, best known as the lead singer of pioneering rock/alternative/metal band Faith No More.  In 2011 he was invited by the Holland Festival to take part in a performance of Laborintus II, in which he would recite the Italian-language text by Eduardo Sanguinetti that wends its way through the piece and holds it (more or less) together.  He accepted, the performance was recorded, and the ensuing record was released as the latest Mike Patton solo album.

You may think that Patton devotees would have been caught off guard, but this is a man who has already released ten-minute long avant garde tape collages as part of his Mr. Bungle side project.  Nonetheless, it was still critics at Q and PopMatters, rather than Gramophone, who penned the reviews.  Q may have called it “disorienting and immensely tedious”, but the album nevertheless charted at number 23 on the Billboard Classic Albums chart.  Classic Albums, mind – not Classical.

I find this all pretty fascinating.  When we think of crossover, we usually think of classical (or quasi-classical) artists covering pop songs.  The results are frequently dire (although there are exceptions).  This, however, is something different: a rock singer performing classical music entirely according to the letter of the score.  The closest precedent I can think of is Jeff Buckley performing Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol (rather touchingly) on his debut album Grace, but even that’s an arrangement.  This is the real deal, Berio’s score complete and unexpurgated, and even if it doesn’t quite match the two previous recordings of Laborintus II in terms of quality (the sonics are a bit bass-heavy, and the performance a less dramatic than either of the earlier examples), it nevertheless deserves a place in every Berio fan’s collection.

You can watch the first part of Mike Patton and co’s life performance of Laborintus II at the Holland Festival here:

Clapped out

This is a bad thing. Or a good thing, depending on your perspective.

BBC News has today published a new addition to the growing body of literature centred around that great existential question facing classical music today: is it okay to clap between movements now or what?

Do you know, I’m now so sick of hearing the arguments for or against clapping at concerts that I’ve ceased caring.  Personally, I’ve never found it particularly problematic.  A smattering of applause is no more distracting than the traditional round of coughing and hacking that usually takes place between movements.  On the other hand, there are certain junctures in a piece where it really is a bit inappropriate to start bravoing at the top of your lungs: at the end of pretty much any slow movement, for instance, which always ensures a frisson of tension when a composition actually ends with one, like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

At any rate, I find it far more distracting when concertgoers attempt to correct the poor, naïve souls who thought that that thunderous climax in the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth was actually the end of the symphony.  Usually such correctives take the form of a shushing sound which, when echoed around an entire concert hall, sounds like a thunderous round of applause with the volume turned down.  Clapping is a form of white noise, and trying to prevent it by emitting yet more white noise is just silly.  (Besides: clapping one movement early makes a lot of sense in the Pathétique.  The finale of that symphony hardly leaves one bursting with joie de vivre.)

Anyway, we classical music fans do ruminate on the art of applause far too much.  How about we just never mention the subject ever again and see what happens?

Changing the Record – Part II

(Continued from Part I)


Photo from

TL;DR: Basically, do more of this.

In Part I of this double-whammy of a blog post, I talked about why it is important for classical music organisations to quit chasing after indifferent younger audiences, and instead focus on re-engaging the rather less fashionable, rather less sexy older generation who make up the bulk of the core classical audience. I firmly believe that a strategy of bringing smiles to the faces of your main customer group is a better recipe for success than frantically jumping up and down in front of a new audience who is uninterested and unwilling to spend any money. When times are tough, as they transparently are in the world of classical music, the best strategy is sometimes to double down on what you do best.

However, I do accept the argument that it is important to replenish the core audience over time. The question is, how? Countless efforts to bring existing music fans over to the wonderful world of classical fall flat on their face, usually by selling classical as something other than it really is. An entire generation – perhaps two or three – seem to have grown up utterly indifferent to classical music’s charms.

This can be traced back to the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, a period when young people throughout the Western world roundly rejected the values – both political and cultural – of their parents’ generation. For teenagers of the 60s and 70s, classical music was hopelessly bourgeois, staid and out of touch (ironically at a time when classical music, or at least contemporary classical music, was at its most adventurous).

At any rate, the teenagers of the 60s and 70s grew up to become the legislators of the 90s, 00s and today. Britain went from having a prime minister in the 1960s who was an accomplished amateur pianist and conductor, to a prime minister in the 90s and 00s who had played guitar in a rock band. Scant wonder, then, that classical music has been progressively marginalised in primary and secondary school education over the last few decades.

This is a shame because, by the time somebody has left school, their musical tastes are pretty much set for the remainder of their lives. Our musical tastes really begin to develop around the age of fourteen, and crystallise between the ages of 18 and 21. (This explains why 40-year-old rock critics are constantly “re-appraising” whatever genre of music they happened to be listening to 20 years ago.)

It’s not just genre preference, either. Musical taste is a fascinating subject, and it seems that it is informed by many factors. High amongst these are cultural factors: the harmonies and melodic contours of music that surrounds us every day as children tends to form the framework for our later musical preferences. But even more interestingly, studies have shown that our brains develop a preference for a certain level of musical complexity, and that we tend to reject any new music we are exposed to that is above or below our ‘optimum’ complexity level.

This is the challenge facing any classical music organisation attempting to popularise classical music amongst adults. Classical music is as complex a musical genre as there is, and for many adults raised on pop music, a 45-minute long symphony is simply too much to take in – no matter how ‘accessibly’ it is presented. The strategy pursued by many record companies has been to present snippets of classical or quasi-classical music as three-minute “songs”, which can be readily understood by those raised on pop music, but which do little to develop an appreciation for the real thing.

I would go so far as to say that audiences over the age of 20 who have so far expressed no interest in classical music are unlikely to ever do so. Sadly, there are a greater number of people who fall into this category than there ever have been before. They are classical music’s lost generation.

As I have said, I think it is futile to try and recapture this audience, and attempts to do so distract from the more immediate concerns of the classical music industry. So the real question is: what can we do to prevent losing the next generation?

It seems clear to me that early education is key. Getting children interested in classical music – or, more broadly, developing their musical cognition beyond the level of whatever is currently charting in the Top 40 – needs to begin before genre preferences and “inverse snobbery” kick in. Primary school children don’t care that classical music isn’t particularly cool and doesn’t have much of a “scene” attached to it. They just like the music because it is music. But because it is more complex music than what they hear at home or on the radio, it is likely that their musical preferences will tend more towards the complex end of the spectrum as they get older.

Now I am no teacher, and I would not presume to tell educators how best to improve musical cognition in the classroom. All I would say is that it should be a bigger priority than it is today. As much as I admire the outreach programmes that many orchestras do with children of all ages, I believe these can never replicate the simple virtues of repeated exposure to music in the classroom. This means knowledgeable teachers encouraging children to listen to lots of music, learn to read it, learn to write it, learn to analyse it, and generally learn to enjoy it at more than just surface level.

Record companies, orchestras, ensembles, soloists, educators: this is where to put your money. Forget about dad-at-the-disco “classical club nights”. Forget about cringe-worthy crossover records. Focus again on your core audience, build up your war chest, and then spend it on school programmes aimed at the children who will become your core customers in 30 or 40 years’ time.

That may sound like too long a game for those facing immediate shortfalls in their revenue streams. But there is one more potential advantage to encouraging children’s involvement in classical music. It’s what I call the Harry Potter Effect. J.K. Rowling did not become the most successful author of all time simply by writing children’s books; she wrote books that held enormous appeal for adults, too, and relied on the infectious enthusiasm of children to bring mum and dad along for the ride. If we were to recapture any part of “the lost generation”, I think this is how it can be done. Invite the kids to the party, and maybe – just maybe – their parents will have a slice of the cake too.

Changing the Record – Part I

This, the first of an epic two-part blog post, is a piece I’ve wanted to write for quite some time.  It’s taken a little while to get all my thoughts in order, but it goes to the very heart of what I – and the rest of us at Lelio – think is wrong with the classical music industry today.  More importantly, it offers a few suggestions on how I (and we) think the situation can be improved.

But first, a caveat.  Reliable facts and figures in support of some of the arguments I make below are hard to come by.  I’ve done my best, but it’s entirely possible that someone reading this may have compelling evidence that contradicts (or confirms!) some of my assumptions.  If that’s the case, please let me know.  At the very least, I think we can all agree that this is a debate worth having.


Image used under Creative Commons license.  Author: cubmondo (

A ‘youth’, allegedly

George Bernard Shaw once famously quipped that ‘youth is wasted on the young’.  Well, you know what else is wasted on the young?  Classical music, that’s what.

Now, I know that’s a provocative statement, and that’s because like all provocative statements it’s not especially true.  But (with a few enormous caveats) I believe it contains an important kernel of truth for the classical music industry.

It is no secret that in recent years classical music organisations – by which I mean any organisation whose job it is to promote and ultimately sell some form of classical music – have got very hung up on the question of how to engage young people.  Scarcely a week goes by these days without a classical marketing department coming up with a new and invigorating way to engage this audience on its ‘own terms’.

Hipster classical club nights are the latest fashion: turn up at an unlikely location in East London, grab a beer, and stand around listening to sexy young performers playing cuts from their latest album of stone cold killer classics (by Mozart, obviously).  Meanwhile, Classic FM elevates film and video game soundtracks to its Hall of Fame, whilst giving ever shorter shrift to Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.  BBC Four invites Famous Young Singing Person Connie Fisher to opine about contestants’ dress sense and how ‘amazing’ everyone sounds on BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.  And record labels continue to spend huge swathes of their limited marketing budgets flogging the latest pretty young thing to a crossover audience who will buy absolutely anything if you smear enough Vaseline on the lens and call it ‘classical’.

All of this is done with the very laudable intention of making classical music ‘more accessible’ to a younger audience.  There is, however, a saying about good intentions – and unfortunately I think it is well and truly borne out in this instance.

The hard truth is that none of these initiatives to attract younger audiences is working. Indeed, in the last fifteen years, classical audiences have been getting markedly older.  It’s hard to find data for the UK to back this up (I would welcome any, either way), but in the US the National Endowment for the Arts runs a quadrennial Survey for the Public Participation of the Arts which measures precisely this sort of thing.  Looking back over the survey results, we can see that back in the late 1990s people over the age of 55 comprised 28% of the total US classical audience.  They now account for more like 38%.  During the same period, meanwhile, under-35s have dropped from 28% to less than 23%.

Those are troubling statistics to be sure.  The problem is, some classical organisations will look at those figures and decide that the appropriate response is to redouble their efforts to capture that elusive youth market.  They shouldn’t, and here’s why.

The classical music industry, despite a few encouraging signs to the contrary, remains by and large in fairly poor health.  Recorded classical music in the early 1990s was a $1.7bn business globally.  It is now less than a third of that.  Perhaps even more concerning is that 70% of current recording revenues are generated by catalogue sales rather than by new releases.  That means that seven out of 10 classical purchasers prefer the products of the past to the products of today.

That says something, doesn’t it?  It’s not as though we are living in an era bereft of great singers, conductors, pianists, violinists, orchestras or chamber musicians.  Standards have never been higher, and conservatoires and competitions are constantly churning out exciting new talent.  So why is this not translating into higher front line sales for the record companies shrewd enough to have signed these artists?

Well, consider this.  The average crossover album costs about 50% of its total turnover to market.  The marketing spend for a specialist classical album is more like 2% of turnover.  Yet a specialist classical customer is 6.5 times more likely to buy a classical album than a crossover fan.  In other words, record labels are spending all their time, energy and marketing budget trying to attract the customers least likely to buy their products, whilst neglecting those who account for 93% (!) of their business.

This seems to be a trend throughout the wider classical industry: classical organisations are spending more and more of their energy trying, and failing, to capture new audiences, all too frequently at the expense of their existing ones.  At a time when the classical industry is in trouble, this trend needs to be urgently reversed.

Surely, though, there can’t be any harm in trying to broaden the audience for classical music.  Can there?

Sadly, there can.  I believe that today’s youth-oriented marketing is not merely alienating to the core classical audience – I think it is downright destructive.  By insisting on an ‘alternative vision’ of classical music – one that is free from ‘elitism’, ‘stuffiness’ and ‘tradition’ – classical organisations are by implication painting their existing audience as. . . well, as stuffy, traditional elitists.

Not only that, but by attempting to redefine what classical music can be – by embracing crossover, soundtracks and even out-and-out pop music under the all-encompassing ‘classical’ banner – they are manufacturing a disagreement with their customers about what their product even is.  As a result, customers are left feeling defensive, patronised and/or abandoned by the very organisations they have so loyally supported over the years.

Now, a piece of market research I was involved in conducting a couple of years ago produced the not-terribly-surprising revelation that classical audiences tended to be aged 55 and over, university-educated, and affluent or very affluent.  Most significantly, they were already really passionate about classical music: they didn’t need to be convinced of its merits, nor have it redesigned for them to better fit in with their lifestyle.

The specialist classical audience is older, wealthier and more engaged than the average music fan – and they want to be treated that way.  They don’t want to be treated like second-class citizens.  Indeed, they may well feel a certain sniff of pride at their ability to appreciate classical music, just as those who appreciate fine dining, fine wine, fine art or fine literature might.  In other words, they want to be treated with respect, and they want to see ‘their music’ treated with respect too.

Whatever your product is, whether it be consumer electronics, a breakfast cereal, high art or classical music, there is no better way of marketing that product than to turn your customers into evangelists for it.  Classical audiences are naturally evangelical about the music they love, but right now they need to feel a sense of pride again.  If they are going to stand up and proclaim their love for classical music, then they need to feel the unbending support of the organisations tasked with promoting it.  That means those organisations need to start sticking up for what classical music really is, and stop trying to reinvent it for an audience who simply does not care.  Stop dumbing down.  Stop crossing over.  Just produce boring, old-fashioned, high-quality classical music for the people who love it, and who will love telling people about it.

That’s how classical music will grow again.  It might not be as cool or as sexy a strategy as a DJ set in Shoreditch is, but ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’ have never really been what classical is about.  So classical organisations: go forth and reclaim your core audience.  Make them happy.  Encourage them to spend more money on your product.  Remind them, constantly, that you’re on their side and on the side of great music.

Then, and only then, can you start thinking about the next generation.

(To be continued. . . )

Happy birthday, Mr Wagner

The original autograph of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll

Today is the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth.  To celebrate, here’s the closest thing Wagner ever wrote to a birthday tune.  The Siegfried Idyll was presented to Wagner’s wife Cosima for her birthday on Christmas Day 1870.  She tells the story herself in her diary:

Sunday, December 25, 1870. About this day, my children, I can tell you nothing – nothing about my feelings, nothing about my mood, nothing, nothing, nothing. I shall just tell you, dryly and plainly, what happened. When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew even louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away, R. came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his “Symphonic Birthday Greeting.” I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household; R. had set up his orchestra on the stairs and thus consecrated our Tribschen [the Wagners’ Lucerne villa] forever! The Tribschen Idyll – thus the work is called.  At midday Dr. Sulzer arrived, surely the most important of R.’s friends! After breakfast the orchestra again assembled, and now once again the Idyll was heard in the lower apartment, moving us all profoundly (Countess B. was also there, on my invitation); after it the Lohengrin wedding procession, Beethoven’s Septet, and, to end with, once more the work of which I shall never hear enough!  Now at last I understood all R.’s working in secret, also dear [Hans] Richter’s trumpet (he blazed out the Siegfried theme splendidly and had learned the trumpet especially to do it), which had won him many admonishments from me. “Now let me die,” I exclaimed to R. “It would be easier to die for me than to live for me,” he replied. — In the evening R. reads his Meistersinger to Dr. Sulzer, who did not know it; and I take as much delight in it as if it were something completely new. This makes R. say, “I wanted to read Sulzer Die Ms, and it turned into a dialogue between us two.” (Cosima Wagner’s Diaries 1869-1877 Vol. 1. Ed. Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977.)

Contained in this little story are several of the many contradictions that make Richard Wagner such a fascinating – and divisive – figure to this day.  On the one hand, there is the rather touching romantic gesture at play – the Great Composer’s equivalent of making breakfast in bed for his wife.  It must have been a profoundly beautiful moment, as this re-creation demonstrates.  There is also the brilliant theatricality of the presentation, and it is always worth remembering that apart from being a revolutionary composer, Wagner was one of the great theatrical minds of the 19th Century.

Then there is the man’s clearly quite monstrous ego.  Cosima’s thirty-third birthday was essentially a celebration of her husband’s great genius, consisting of performances of his music and readings of his ‘poem’ for Die Meistersinger. Indeed, Richard seems to have spent most of the day showing off to his friend Dr Jakob Sulzer.  And of course, Die Meistersinger is perhaps the most troubling of Wagner’s operas, perceived by scholars such as Barry Millington as an expression of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism.

But above all, at the heart f this story is the glorious, astonishing, and heartfelt music. Written at least in part to celebrate the birth of Richard and Cosima’s son Siegfried, the Idyll is full of  sunrises, birdsong, cradle songs, and private little references to the Wagners’ family life. Wagner may have been a titan of a composer, one who transformed the world of music forever, but what makes his music approachable is its sheer humanity. We can bring ourselves to forgive Wagner’s lesser qualities as a human being because his music reminds us that being flawed is part of what makes us human, and that being human is a wonderful thing to aspire to.

So whatever your faults, Mr Wagner – and there were many – you were undeniably a great artist, and this world is a richer place for your having been in it.  Happy birthday, and thank you for gifting your music to all of us.


(Incidentally, the Siegfried Idyll above is performed by the great Jewish conductor Bruno Walter in 1935, just months before Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws in Germany.  The orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic, who a few years later would expel all of its Jewish members, five of whom would be murdered in Nazi death camps.  Walter himself fled Germany and the newly annexed Austria in 1938.  Yet Walter continued to perform Wagner until shortly before his death in 1962.  The music – even for a man who experienced the effects of ferocious anti-Semitism first-hand – transcended everything else.)