Greg Sandow has posted to his blog a manifesto for the future of classical music, written by Ken Nielsen of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera. It makes interesting reading and, as Sandow explains, Nielsen is no slouch when it comes to thinking about such things. But from the perspective of a London-based new music listener – once again – the SWOT analysis that underpins the manifesto doesn’t ring true. I want to refer to several of the articles of this manifesto, so I hope it’s OK to quote it in full here.
1. The classical music industry is in decline, with an aging audience base and a
low rate of new audience entry.
2. Governments, compulsory music education or any other external action will not
solve the problem.
3. To reverse this, the industry should change to make its product more attractive
and accessible. Currently, there are elements that make concerts forbidding and
inaccessible to new entrants.
4. These changes need not be (and in my opinion should not be) to the music, with
one exception, mentioned next.
5. More new music should be introduced to concerts. Any art form that does not
renew itself will become moribund. Because elements of the current audience are
so conservative, a greater variety of concerts and formats, aimed at different
audiences, is probably necessary. Stick with the current stuff for the olds, offer
innovation to those excited by it.
6. Changes to the format and style of concerts should be tried – everything from
getting players out of penguin suits to the length of concerts. Concert models that
have worked elsewhere should be tried.
In this area, as in most areas of business, change comes about not from strategy
meetings but from innovation – new things being tried, some fai ling, some
succeeding. Such innovation, and the risks that come with it would probably be
itself attractive to a different audience. “Are you game to come and hear this just composed
7. I believe that greater engagement with and involvement of the audience is an
important part of the puzzle. A concert should be more like communication than a
one-sided speech. .
8. Such changes as I am suggesting must be tried at the level of the organisation -
the orchestra, opera company or whatever – others can watch and steal the ideas if
they work but an industry wide approach is doomed.
Hmm. The thing is, the new music sector of the classical music industry doesn’t have a problem with (1): the base is not aging and (proportionally speaking) new audience entry isn’t too bad. Most new music audiences I encounter are pretty young (although they’re not exclusively so), and I see different crowds at different sorts of events; I’m often pleasantly surprised by how few people I recognise at new music concerts given that I’ve been breathing the air of this supposedly enclosed and insular scene for well over a decade. There are problems with new music audiences – that base could be wider, for a start – but we’re talking about an abstract, avant garde artform here, so we mustn’t get too starry-eyed about potential audience numbers.
The proposed changes of format (6) and (7) already happen within the new music sector and, of course, playing almost exclusively new music, you’re working within an extreme implementation of (5).
Which brings me to my concern with this manifesto, which is the second half of (5): the industry is already operating according to “Stick with the current stuff for the olds, offer innovation to those excited by it.” New music and historical music are institutionally and functionally entirely different from the other. Very few performers, ensembles, record labels, concert series or festivals commit equally to new and historical music; most do one to the complete exclusion of the other: two different audiences already exist, and at least one of them is being served pretty well. Having two audiences for two different products isn’t a problem; I simply wonder how much is to be gained from historical music chasing a (young, adventurous) audience that already knows what it wants and can get it elsewhere. What the historical music industry really needs to do first of all is serve the interests of the historical music audience. Several of Nielsen’s proposals may prove valuable in this respect, but I’m sceptical that introducing new music to historical concerts (which has been going on to little return for decades) is the answer, unless, as in everything, it is done with the utmost seriousness and integrity.
New music audiences would hate the idea of Brahms or Haydn being gratuitously dropped in the middle of their programmes to serve an externally imposed ideal of what audiences should be listening to; I’ve yet to hear the convincing argument why this formula should be expected to work the other way around, but I’m open to persuasion.