Kettle whistling in the wind

Following in Norman Lebrecht’s footsteps, here comes Martin Kettle, despairing once more over the ‘death’ of a music he seems to care little for (this is, remember, a man who uses phrases like “protestations on behalf of the half-forgotten and semi-famous” and “the shipwreck of modernism” as descriptive of Berio).

As with that ‘Classical music could even become the new rock ‘n roll‘ article (recently re-read, ugh, the things I do for you…), there’s so much wrong with his latest lament for the ‘dying’ classical recording industry (are you going to tell him, or shall I?) that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Firstly, and most prosaically: as Alex has shown, there is plenty of wiggle room to be deeply sceptical about the foundations of Lebrecht’s argument that this is the beginning of the end for classical recordings. Any other sector of the industry – as EMI’s recent monumental backtrack on DRM suggests – would cut off its right arm to have the sales figure rises that classical can boast from the last few years. (Update: Alex brings more stats to the party.)

There are plenty more points to make here about the inherent long tail-ness of the classical repertoire, an asset that makes it perfect for the internet and less good for bricks and mortar stores with expensive rents on warehouse space, and the continuing reluctance of big music to embrace a truly online model of commerce, but I’ll just stick here with one that seems pertinent to Kettle’s article. In one of his more improbable sentences, he writes

Because [classical recording companies] generated little or no short-term profitability compared to pop, it is hardly surprising that the corporations lost their nerve, especially as the internet began to expand.

Yup, you read that right. The only way I can see that this sentence even makes sense is if we (and Kettle) buy into big music’s assertion that the internet represents everything wrong with the commercial promotion and distribution of music in the 21st century. If you believe a priori that the internet is going to kill music (as most of the majors apparently still do), then sure, a bigger internet is a bigger bad. On the contrary, if you believe, like all those labels signed up to IODA, that the internet might just be a force for good in finding new audiences for your music, then Kettle’s sentence looks more than a little screwy.

One of the big problems with Kettle’s article is his conflation of a ‘dying classical recording industry’ and a ‘glut of Four Seasons recordings’. Certainly there is a glut of such things (well over 400 Four Seasons), and one of Lebrecht’s more interesting ideas is how this might impinge upon what he calls the “chain of interpretation”, but to claim that any subsequent loss of public interest in such indulgences is due to some sort of artistic collapse and not boardrooms that are fatally losing their way does public tastes a disservice. If this is the measure by which the major label classical recording industry is dying and it still can’t see the problem, then it deserves to die.

To take the next step and claim that this represents the death of an art form is frankly farcical. Any art form with the likes of Kurtág, Lachenmann, Reich, Rihm, Ferneyhough, Saariaho and Ashley all alive and kicking hard at the same time could only be described as extremely fit – and it goes without saying that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of global compositional talent here.

Of course, most of Lebrecht’s arguments only make sense if you turn a blind ear to the contemporary (recall Pierre-Laurent Aimard or Ian Pace, then see how silly his obituary for the pianist sounds); the same might be said of Kettle’s, and this is the source of my next issue with his piece. For him, that dastardly modern music remains to blame for everything: not only did it kill classical music as a public artform, but it also killed it as a commodity. Overlooking the fact that I know of several composers who would raise a cheer to their success in this respect, it’s basically a crock argument. All that I can see postwar music as responsible for in this respect is a radical uncoupling of ‘modern’ concert music from the rest of the repertoire, and in so many ways this has been an artistically productive achievement. Kettle is profoundly in error when he attempts to imagine a continuous audience for both Brahms and Boulez: one does exist, but it is very small. This is the same fallacy that still encourages promoters to take a sugar/medicine approach to programmes, slipping in small bits of contemporary music amongst the established warhorses, in the mistaken belief that this will make everyone happy, rather than no one. However, the separate audiences for each are relatively large, enthusiastic, and free with their money. The fact that major labels and concert orchestras haven’t in the main found a way to make a living out of these two audiences is the fault only of the industry and not the music itself.

3 thoughts on “Kettle whistling in the wind

  1. All that I can see postwar music as responsible for in this respect is a radical uncoupling of ‘modern’ concert music from the rest of the repertoire, and in so many ways this has been an artistically productive achievement.

    Wow, that’s so…….cool to read that instead of the conventional wisdom of “We must shoehorn the new stuff in amongst the Mozart piano concertos and Schumann symphonies”. I’m in favor of keeping the more Darmstadt-y stuff separate; it’s almost always jarring and rarely convinces the “music died with Brahms” crowd anyway.

    Kettle is profoundly in error when he attempts to imagine a continuous audience for both Brahms and Boulez: one does exist, but it is very small.

    Well, I loathe Brahms’ music but what about a Beethoven > Boulez continuum? I could go for that! For me, classical music pretty much begins with Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, though I love Berlioz, the Beehoven symphonies and (especially) the piano sonatas, some Bach and a few other pre-1890ish things.

    This is the same fallacy that still encourages promoters to take a sugar/medicine approach to programmes, slipping in small bits of contemporary music amongst the established warhorses, in the mistaken belief that this will make everyone happy, rather than no one.

    Yes, slipping Birtwistle in amongst Beethoven and Schumann is a bit like musical castor oil, isn’t it?

    Excellent post Tim!

  2. There’s so much wrong with Kettle’s argument that what’s good for Sony BMG is good for music, it’s hard to do all of it justice, but you did a pretty thorough job of it. How many months until we get the next article saying that pop music is dead because we didn’t validate some clueless suit’s cynical decision to give Paris Hilton a recording contract?

    I used to think that I was the only one who wanted the Boulez without the Brahms at a concert, and figured they wouldn’t miss the money I didn’t spend on a ticket. Concert orchestras need to realise they are catering to niche markets, small and splintered enough to make new music about as lucrative as old music is these days. Major recording labels probably won’t be interested in this line of business anyway and won’t bother to adapt.

    The thing is, all those wonderful composers you name are, what, over 70? I know it’s an old person’s game but how are the younger generations of composers going to be introduced into the concert hall, other than as the odd token gesture? This situation has not been helped by the practice of slipping in a bit of new music between the Beethoven and Brahms: the new works that get commissioned for these concerts have been getting blander, more inoffensive and negligible, so as not to wake up the subscription audience. Another no-win situation for the audience, the orchestra, and the healthy future of music.

  3. “The thing is, all those wonderful composers you name are, what, over 70?”

    I think this is probably a reflection of my own personal definition of ‘greatness’ as much as anything else. I was just addressing what I think is roughly the top tier, and I could name plenty of younger composers who are capable of blowing my socks off. So yeah, it’s a double thing – we have a senior generation of masters, but those that are following look just as good to me. (Saariaho’s only 54 though :))

    “This situation has not been helped by the practice of slipping in a bit of new music between the Beethoven and Brahms: the new works that get commissioned for these concerts have been getting blander, more inoffensive and negligible, so as not to wake up the subscription audience. Another no-win situation for the audience, the orchestra, and the healthy future of music.”

    Good point, and there’s certainly plenty of dull music getting commissioned and composed in this way (wasn’t it ever thus?); yet more reason to look beyond the symphony orchestra to truly assess the state of classical music.

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