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
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. . . )