Friday, February 03, 2006

Why isn't elitism popular?

When we’re not plunging into the tired old hi-brow versus populist debacle, we’re worrying about how the world’s greatest symphony orchestras are going to validate their existence by dragging sufficiently large audiences into concert halls.

But who exactly is doing the worrying? If the throngs at so many of the European music festivals or the wealth of sense one reads in blogs and even in the mainstream media are taken as signs of vitality, classical music is very much alive and kickin’. So what’s changed? What is it that has sparked a panic?

We ought not to confuse reduced spending with disinterest. If there are fewer concertgoers than formerly, it could well be a rejection of the type of concerts on offer rather than music per se. Serious classical music fans are unlikely to clamour to renew their subscriptions when so many of the concerts are billed as ‘An evening with the stars!’ and other such bile-brewing monikers. By employing popular marketing techniques PR agents alienate the musically literate in their misguided attempts to appeal to the lowest common denominator or, as they prefer - a wider audience: they sacrifice an established audience in vain hope of attracting a new one.

Classical music recordings represent another manifestation of the same problem, (one to which I’ll return another day) but even wholesale abandonment of the commercial spick-n-span, cellophane-wrapped characterless pap that is the modern classical music CD wouldn’t necessarily signify an inherent disinterest in the music contained within.

Modern PR methods that value image above integrity sit uncomfortably alongside high art forms such as classical music. The tools are necessarily blunt, the techniques brutal and the returns must always be measurable, which as Andrew Clark points out “is anathema to the philosophical/mystic ethos of serious music. Marketing eulogises the spectacular and emphasises the superficial. It aims to maximise sales on a short-term basis. It places a premium on visual presentation, not inner substance. All this marks an enormous shift for a sober, demanding art form that was never intended for a mass market.

The tiresome truism that classical music needs to attract new audiences is now accepted as fact, but the public at large, generally speaking, are not all that bothered about classical music – and they never have been. You cannot make an elitist art form popular by whipping up a bit of ill-conceived spin. Besides, to convert the masses you need missionaries not spin-doctors. Today’s classical music missionaries - those musical exponents who, as truly great artists, care with a passion for their art - are for the most part, un-flashy, introvert and unmarketable. As a result, they remain in comparative obscurity as far as the wider public is concerned.

Instead of widening the audience for classical music, PR merely despoils it for short-term profit. The exploitation of an art form for profit where there is no objective quantification of good, is manipulative and patronising.


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