Changing the Record – Part II

(Continued from Part I)


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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.