lietofinelondon

Lies. Damn Lies. And Classical Marketing.

In BBC, Classical Music on February 6, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Recently two comments about classical music caught my eye in the media.

The first came out of the mouth of Katherine Jenkins as she announced yet another banal and pseudo-classical album. During her press conference at the Ritz no less, she said that “there will always be the core classical critics who want to keep it (classical music/opera) as an elitist thing but I’ve always believed that it should be there for everybody and I want to make it as accessible as possible …”.

The second was during a press conference to announce the Chicago Symphony Orchestra new season. Riccardo Muti said classical music marketing – “Today all you see are violinists’ legs and a conductor with hair like a forest. The future seems to be legs and hair.”

It’s clear that Ms Jenkins was prompted by the label’s canny PR people that to say something contentious would ensure more column inches than the threat of a tenth mediocre album. Words like ‘elitist’ and ‘accessible’ are buzzwords the media love and it does Decca Classical no favours at all to perpetuate this myth.

Maestro Muti’s comment however speaks of an underlying frustration he feels personally. Not only about the trend of marketeers in terms of classical music but also the future of classical music vis-à-vis talent.

I have written about this before and it still rankles me. People like Katherine Jenkins, programmes like the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera are getting the lion’s share of a shrinking pool of money at the expense of real talent and professional musicians. Their activities aren’t perpetuating classical music but rather undermining it and in the long term damaging its future health.

I don’t disagree that classical music should be accessible and not elitist. But it can be done without dumbing down the experience. I contend that what Katherine Jenkins does isn’t about making classical music ‘accessible’ but rather patronising her audience with watered-down performances that deny her listeners the real experience of hearing classical music as it was written to be performed. In a sense, Ms Jenkins and her ilk are perpetuating that ‘elitism’ by implying that their audiences cannot appreciate or love the real thing.

Shame on her but understandable that she should choose the easiest path – one that hasn’t taken years of study, training and dedication coupled with the occasional disappointment.

Because it’s talent that is the most important thing. Not the artwork. Not the photographer who shot it. Not the strap line. And definitely not performing ‘arrangements’ that do no justice to the composer’s original intentions.

I believe that classical music should be a challenge. That’s not elitist and that’s not saying that it should be inaccessible. When people listen to classical music that experience should be as honest as possible.

Because it’s that transaction of honesty and the resultant emotional reaction that gets people hooked. And not only to classical music. But all genres. Yes, even pop and dance. I admit that there are still a few dance tracks that I heard in my youth in clubs that still set my heart racing because of the emotional response and memory they evoke.

There are numerous examples of organisations doing everything they can with every shrinking budgets to reach new audiences. From work with schools and in the community to live cinema broadcasts to reinterpreting the format of classical concerts themselves and even the venues where they take place, some great work is being done to keep classical music alive and kicking.

Sadly the search for an easy route to a quick buck also means that the marketeers are increasingly seeing classical music and those who perform it simply as a commodity adopting an approach that’s more suitable for – to be frank – perfume ads. You know the adverts – glamorous models, often half naked or disrobing as they walk through palatial splendour saying absolutely nothing about the fragrance itself but rather the lifestyle it implies can be achieved.

It might work for perfume ads. It might work for car ads. But it doesn’t work for classical music. More often than not undermines the talent and effort that has gone into creating that recording, that production or that recital.

I’m not asking for a return to moody landscapes and the like and I don’t mind portraits of artists on albums and posters. But surely it be done with a little more honesty and integrity and less of the ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ factor?

Of course the power and arsenal of tricks of advertising should be harnessed for classical music. But intelligently harnessed and deployed. Personally ENO’s condom ad for Don Giovanni didn’t work for me but you can’t deny the impact of their artwork for Le Danse Macabre or Peter Grimes. Similarly recitals can feature portraits of artists without them having to bare a leg or – in some cases – that little bit more. The recent campaign for Yuja Wang by the Barbican waxes lyrical about her “fearless individuality”, “fitting no stereotype” and “speaking with her own voice” so that it seems that her talent doesn’t seem as important as the glamour and “edginess” of her personality.

I fear that labels and their marketing departments are seeing classical music simply as a units to be shifted and a bottom line to be achieved. Of course there has to be a commercial side to classical music but should it be the only impetus?

Why does profit have to be the driving denominator?

That approach does a huge disservice to this creative and artistic community that makes such a massive contribution to the UK’s cultural scene.

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  1. […] I just wish that they hadn’t chosen that ridiculous Elvis-Meets-Hasse-Meets-Rockstar cover. Marketing people are classical music’s worst enemy. […]

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