Category Archives: Music Industry

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.

Changing the Record – Part II

(Continued from Part I)

HARRY POTTER AND THE LOST GENERATION

Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/

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.

REACHING OUT TO AN OLD AUDIENCE

Image used under Creative Commons license.  Author: cubmondo (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cubmundo/)

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. . . )

Why online music stores are failing classical

All the way back in October 2007, I penned a little rant for The Guardian entitled iTunes is clueless when it comes to classical music.  I was fairly new to the world of digital music in those days, but even then it was clear that online music stores weren’t really working for classical music.  My particular gripe in that instance was that there was no way for me to download an individual work – in this case Vivaldi’s Gloria, consisting of a dozen movements – without shelling out for the whole album.

It was a small issue, but it illustrated an important underlying problem: classical music was a poor fit for the ‘songs’ and ‘albums’ model being used by online music retailers.

Given five years is the equivalent of about three millennia in the technology world, you would expect things to have moved on since I wrote that piece.  And indeed they have.  iTunes now acknowledges the concept of multi-part compositions, offering them as complete works you can buy as discrete bundles.  They’ve addressed a number of other complaints from classical fans, too, such as improving sound quality.

But there is still a long way to go.

For a start, searching for classical compositions is still a hit-and-miss affair at best.  A few months ago, I tested both iTunes and Amazon to see how they handled a variety of search terms one might use to find recordings of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.  Just look at the huge variance in the number of results:

Search Results

Every one of those search terms unambiguously points to a single piece of music – and yet the two biggest online record shops will give you a wildly varying set of results depending on the exact set of words you choose.

It would be very easy to blame the retailers themselves for this.  But the problem is more pervasive then that, and in fact affects even the big specialist classical record labels.  The problem is metadata.

Metadata, for the uninitiated, is data that describes other data.  In this case, it’s the text that describe what you’re listening to.  For most pop records, this is pretty straightforward stuff: Artist and Song Title are usually sufficient to find pretty much anything in the popular music back catalogue.

But who is the Artist on a piano concerto?  Or an opera?  Is it the composer?  The soloist?  The singers?  The conductor?  I’ll bet everyone reading this has had the experience of finding the Artist field taken up exclusively with the name of the composer, and thus having absolutely no idea who the actual performers are.  Matters are made worse by the fact that many classical performances are a collaboration between several artists: ‘Herbert von Karajan & the Berliner Philharmoniker’ is not in fact the name of a 60s garage band, but rather two separate entities unhelpfully crammed into a single metadata field.

Worse yet is the problem of Track Name.  This is particularly problematic because most classical compositions don’t even have proper names.  Generally, we know them just by a set of parameters.  Going back to the example of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, for instance, you could describe it like this:

  • Musical Form: Symphony
  • Musical Form Instance: No. 3
  • Key Signature: E-flat major
  • Catalogue Number: Op. 55
  • Nickname: “Eroica”

You can pretty much assemble those parameters any which way you like to describe the piece in question.  And indeed that’s just what record companies do, squeezing all that data down into a single field called ‘Track Name’.  Because nobody condenses their data in exactly the same way, this leads to enormous inconsistency between record labels, which in turn leads to inconsistent search results.

Of course, it’s hardly surprising record labels and online retailers haven’t felt inclined to build a completely new metadata standard for classics.  Classical music accounts for just over 3% of total record sales worldwide.  It’s simply not worth the investment.

This is where Lelio is different.  We’ve built an entirely new standard for classical music, and paired it with a brand new type of search engine that ‘gets’ how classics work.  Our aim is simple: we want to make classical music easier to find, easier to buy, easier to compare and easier to enjoy.

I’ll be blogging in more detail about how we’ve gone about addressing the problems described above, as well as how Lelio plans to thwart a number of other bugbears that have plagued classical fans since the dawn of the digital revolution.

In the meantime, let us know what you think.  Do you share these frustrations?  Do you think things have got better over the years?  Or worse?  How would you rate the online experience versus the good old bricks-and-mortars approach?  Is there anything you prefer about it?  Or do you long for the days where a record meant something made of vinyl that you could hold in your hand, rather than just another entry in a database?