Long read: classical music’s biggest problem

Sometimes there are things that hang around in your head that just need to be said out loud. Now is one of those moments: if we’re not careful about how those who know about the subject talk about classical music in everyday discourse, we’re going to end up with empty concert halls.

I’ve been mulling this over for ages but never had the guts to write about it. Until now.

The issue in particular I keep returning to stems from the general level of priggishness, misogyny and general male-cuntishness that seems to prevail in the classical music world. And specifically those who write about it.

I’m interested in exploring what the motivation behind that behaviour, what its impact is on audiences, and what difference if any it might make if we went about to trying to change the behaviour.

Prigs, pricks, and misogynists

I’ve wondered about it for years, specifically trying to work out whether or not I’ve imagined witnessing examples of it. I exist in the digital sphere – it’s there where I think I’ve seen it. Social media is where behaviour is amplified too.

But for the most part I’ve dismissed any thoughts I’ve actually witnessed condescension, passive aggression, bullying or snobbery as either me being over-sensitive, or worse, me projecting a latent bitterness having failed to ‘make it’ in the industry.

But something has changed over the past twelve months.

During that time I’ve been on the receiving end of some remarkable put-downs. I’ve been ‘looked through’ by people at gatherings. I’ve had pitches for content turned down for a variety of spurious reasons. I’ve also been party to conversations in which the paradox of the ecosystem is articulated, moaned about, and then accepted with a depressing air of resignation.

None of these are in and of themselves particularly grim illustrations. I don’t share them in the hope of gaining pity. I don’t regard myself as entitled or expert. In fact, I consider that a strength – vital, if you like.

For an industry which depends on authenticity and recommendations, it is a phenomenally difficult world to acquire the apparently necessary peer recognition.

Why speak out now?

Some will say ‘that’s just how things are’. But is the fact ‘that’s just how things are’ a fundamental reason the classical music sector is struggling to maintain its relevance and potential appeal amongst an increasingly fragmented and disinterested audience?

The personal challenge is to speak of it now, especially in the necessarily vague way I have to. Is it a potentially career-limiting move?

Well, I’m prepared to take the risk, because I care passionately about the industry. It strikes me that to not do so would be to perpetuate the problem others are experiencing.

One important caveat should be offered at the outset: this problem isn’t prevalent. There are plenty of people I know via Twitter, concerts, education projects and via the PR world who are utterly adorable, passionate, committed, open and engaged. They are the good people. They’re the ones I gravitate to.  They are the ones whose outlook needs defending, celebrating and ultimately advocating.

What is it and where have I seen it?

I won’t name names – not a good move legally speaking. But I’ll flag what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced. That’s important.

They are the self-appointed arbiters of apparent good taste. They are the ones who distribute all the news. The ones who don’t appreciate having their view contradicted or challenged (unless its by one of their peers), because they assume that because of their background, they are authoritative sources.

They sit in ivory towers passing judgement on audience tastes, performers, and artists alike, at the same time as decrying the diminished value placed on them as critics.

They are people for whom knowledge is their most prized possession, not because they want to share it, but because can distance themselves from everyone using it. Knowledge to them isn’t so much power, more a rather blunt weapon.

I’ve tried to engage with a few of them. I’ve even challenged them in my rather paltry weak-willed everyman kind of way. Predictably I’ve received rather short shrift. On one occasion I was even messaged privately by someone advising me, “Don’t bother with him. He’s always like that.”

A valid member of the classical music world

On those occasions when I’ve licked my wounds and reflected on whether my original motives were sound, I always concluded that I was the person at fault for daring to engage with influential people without the necessary training, knowledge, peer respect, or research.

But I’ve slowly come around to thinking that my assessment is doing myself a disservice.

After all, I studied clarinet, piano and percussion. I got my Grades. I studied music at university. I read the books on Wagner. I ploughed my way through Schenkarian analysis. I did my time in front of a keyboard desperately trying to harmonise Bach chorales on demand in return for hard-earned marks. I beat time, orchestrated piano music, and immersed myself in the avant-garde. In addition to that I need at least four hands to count the number of people I’ve taken to a classical music concert for the first time.

I’ve heard enough Mendelssohn Italian symphonies to know which ones hit the mark, and why those which haven’t didn’t. I’ve come around to loving Handel’s Messiah. I adore Bach. I wish Mahler had written more symphonies. And I’ll passionately defend Bruckner’s symphonies (and will probably lose).

I’m as valid a member of the classical music fraternity as anyone else who plays professionally. And given that many of my contemporaries have now after twenty years turned their backs on the music-making world, I wonder whether as advocates go, I’ve got the advantage of not having the thing I love drummed out of me through familiarity or a loss of technique.

But what interests me in trotting out what some might regard as rather desperate defences, is the image I have of those I feel I’m competing for validation from.

What links the experts?

What links them in my mind? As far as I can make out, the reality is that they’re either Oxbridge graduates or students of red brick universities. All of them are men. They secure their position by creating and fuelling cliques, elevating themselves with knowledge and a cynical disregard for everyone else. In doing so they create an elitism within the classical music world that helps underpin its demise. They use their connections to self-aggrandise. They attack others to protect themselves.

They are the people who dismiss crossover. They denigrate pops concerts and those who attend them. They sneer at ways of making new audiences feel more at ease in the concert hall.

They dismiss anyone who isn’t following the same tried and tested path they had to climb the same pole they have. In so doing they sustain an ecosystem that perpetuates negativity, snobbery and dismissiveness.

Why is this important?

We create our own reality. To a certain extent I am creating my own reality by publishing this blog post.

At the same time, I wonder the extent to which the negative behaviours bleed into the everyday utterances we see on Twitter, the editorial decisions made by publications, the relationships formed and conversations had by decision-making, policy-shaping, concert-producing people.

Put simply, if there’s a tangible sense of priggishness, superiority, lazy misogyny and general male-cuntishness amongst some of the classical music world on social media, how can that not permeate the everyday in the business and amongst the audience?

If those who championed and documented the classical music world weren’t quite so up themselves, would classical music’s image be a little less intimidating?

What could be done?

We all love this subject, at least that’s my assumption. Shouldn’t we all coalesce around that? We all want people to love the genre. We all want the sector to succeed, thrive and develop. We could all work together to support it during a period of brutal transition. Permitting our egos to block direct access to the very thing we love seems like an ignorant and self-destructive strategy to adopt.

By not calling it out we’re all creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So I’m wondering whether the ecosystem can be changed. Might artists, promoters and producers re-examine their expectations in terms of how their activities are promoted? Could there be more active engagement on the part of performers so that they partner with those whose work ‘ethically’ in the sector? Could the community feel more empowered to defend, correct, and advocate one another for the benefit of existing and new audiences?

What do you think?

I don’t claim to know all the answers (despite any impressions you might have based on the amount of copy here).

It could be that I’m missing stuff. I’m willing to see things from a different angle.

So I’m keen to hear from people about their experiences, and what thoughts they have about how things might change in the future. If you’ve not commented before, you’ll automatically get put into a pending queue. Abuse won’t, as you would be expect, be tolerated.







2 thoughts to “Long read: classical music’s biggest problem”

  1. Brave post…
    I believe the people on the other side of those you are describing are also feeling less empowered because most of the music education has taken such a dive (unless you are lucky to be getting a privileged education) – so the general knowledge and awareness has gone down a lot. There is a greater gap now: it is harder to feel connected to something that is so distant to your background: one needs positive introduction, for the curiosity to be sparked in the first place. People feel intimidated, or don’t even bother about classical music any more because it sounds alien to their ears and represents the top of a class system. It is a sorry state of affairs. Music education should be wide enough to represent all genres equally, so young people can get a wider taste. As with food, the wider palate you have, the more varied, healthy, nourishing and interesting the meals. If the current musical education was compared to say the teaching of littérature, it is as it one only studied magazine writing, but had never read Shakespeare. Both are valid forms of writing – pop songs are great, but don’t just teach pop songs? Sadly most of the younger generation of teachers don’t feel confident teaching classical music…
    Also years ago, radio stations were limited so your music station would play a jazz song, then a pop song, then a classical piece etc…: it was all mixed and everyone got to know everyone else’s music – they didn’t like it all, but at least they knew it. Now every channel just churns out their limited tunes carefully segregated. It makes for very narrow listening.
    As a classical musician, it pains me to see the classical industry so out on a limb. Music is universal and all encompassing. It is a unifier, not a divider.

  2. I agree with some of this, but don’t recognise other bits. People I meet are less and less bothered by definitions and categories in music, more open-minded than ever.

    I think there is a real danger that in desperately attempting to find new audiences and appear relevant, traditional classical music will devalue itself and lose some of its appeal.

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