BBC Young Musician: 40 Years Young – marketing guff?

BBC Young Musician is 40 years old this year.

The performance competition hasn't had an easy ride in recent years, a lot of the criticism levelled at it for its tension-building video edits and general unnecessary flummery getting in the way of the actual performance.

I wrote a blog post about that once when I worked at the BBC. It didn't go down well. Got hauled over the coals by a senior manager who tempered his stern talking to by referring to me a classical music boffin. Tsk. 

The presentation has improved a little since then. I'm not entirely sure I can wholly take the credit for that, but I'll try.

It's no surprise that this year the BBC is marking the 40th anno with a television programme. They need to. This anniversary is another opportunity to communicate the BBC's commitment to classical music broadcasting, and most importantly, the way it supports the UK cultural scene, and young people within that in particular.

I know, that all sounds a little W1A. 

The anniversary programme also provides the BBC with a great opportunity to prepare the ground for their forthcoming return to the Eurovision Young Musician fold later this year after an extended, some might say snooty, absence. It could even be seen as a way of positioning the UK programme so its slightly more aligned with the Eurovision competition. More on that a little later in this post. 

So there was much to look forward to in the 40th anniversary programme. Those of us who remember the first handful of competitions might even have anticipated a return to old-school televised competition principles – more of a statement about us than the BBC perhaps.

The hour-long 'documentary' wasn't great though. It was cringe-worthy in places, possibly even throughout. Sometimes the self-congratulatory-ness was a little heavy-handed. But rather than rant (and because despite leaving the BBC that stern talking-to still lingers in my memory), I figured I'd adopt a more measured approach.

The programme spent proportionally longer time concentrating on the most recent winners

Since the competition's inception, there have been 20 winners of the main award; the programme featured 6 of them. I would have liked to have seen more previous winners, and more illustrations of what those musicians are doing now to help shape audience expectations about what success means in the music industry.

There's a public service argument defending the editorial decision to concentrate on recent winners though. By concentrating on recent winners you speak directly to the next generation of musicians capitalising on exactly the same effect previous winner Nicholas Daniel articulated as one of the reasons he entered the competition in the first place.

But, if you're shouting at the television screen asking people who aren't in the room with you to 'get a move on', you know there's a bit of a problem. Maybe those other competitors didn't want to participate. I hope to God they were asked. 

Musicians came across as commodities

My memory of Young Musician was that it was always musician-focussed – the audience witnessed the first stages in an artist's development. The competition I'm in no doubt still does that, but because of the perceived pressures of audience attention spans, the television coverage isn't afforded that luxury. The 40 years programme unwittingly (I think) positioned the musician as part of the recording industry. At times it felt as the contributors were part of a piece of marketing for a television programme, a brand, and potentially a corporate strategy. In that way, it felt a little disingenuous.

I'm uneasy that some recent participants are being used as commodities within the wider industry. I think the programme showed this (though didn't necessarily realise it). We need to be alert to the dangers of it. We should avoid at all costs young developing musicians being over-exposed or exploited at the expense of their art.

Why was it set up in the first place? 

Emma Johnson. Winner. 1984. 

Maybe I'm a history nerd. Maybe I'm too much of a boffin or something. Maybe people don't really care about origins. But I wanted to know more about why the competition was set up in the first place.

There is a school of thought that says that if you document the timeline of something's past, then you have to document everything. I wonder whether there were elements of that timeline which needed to be glossed over. 

For me, part of YM's enduring appeal has been my memory of it as a teenager. I think there's stronger than normal connection with previous competitions because these were television moments experienced during formative years. To not feature the past more prominently seemed to be missing a trick. 

The really touching moments were found in the archive footage

Nicholas Daniel. Winner. 1982. Great hair.

Back when TV had time to reflect real-life in real-time, Nicholas Daniel's surprise at winning the competition was a touching thing to see. There was an authenticity to that reaction which I found rather appealing, and I miss too.

What about the people who didn't win?

Obviously Alison Balsom featured in the programme. I get that.

But look through the list of musicians who didn't win the trophy, and you'll see a remarkable list of recognisable names. That's not to say the judges got it wrong, rather that there are additional stories which can illustrate the richness of the competition's history rather than only concentrating on the winners. For starters … Tamsin Little, Steven Osborne, Lucy Wakeford, Lucy Parham, Adrian Brendel, Tom Poster, and Barry Douglas … are some of the names I recognise from the list of previous competitors, people who play an important role the UK classical music industry. They illustrate how long careers take to develop and how committed musicians are to their art. 

Careful with the language

This one I struggle with a bit because I can see it from both perspectives. 

Take the phrase "superstar" or "megastar" which was used during the programme. A flattering statement so, therefore, meant with good intent. I get too that in one case it was used as a word to describe a recollection. But, it also bestows a status on an individual person whose musicianship remains in development.

Humphrey Burton. Classical Music TV God.

In some respects, it suggests that 'stardom' is an implicit goal. Come to think of it I'm not sure it's a helpful term to use about any professional musician, putting them as individuals at odds with the way in which they express the music on stage. Hearing Humphrey Burton say towards the end of the programme that he never wanted to know how young people were able to express themselves in the way that they did, only that they could, helped redress the balance a bit.

As a devotee of the genre, I'm not wowed by the performance of a teenager because they're a teenager. If the musical performance possesses the necessary emotional quality then for a period of time whilst they're playing, that individual is on a level with any other professional performer. 

I think we need to be careful about the language we use. I think in this case the language was used to elevate the status of the TV programme rather than the varied ways previous participants have settled into their musical lives. 

In contextualising the achievements of young musicians in this competition we need to careful we're not celebrating them because they're young people. For me, the programme has always been about witnessing the beginning of a musical career. Nuance, I know. 

The audience owns more of the programme than perhaps the programme makers realise

I've seen this a lot in different areas of broadcasting – in particular with Doctor Who, the Eurovision, and the BBC Proms. Those programmes which elicit strong emotional responses during the viewing experience will create an intense bond between the TV viewer and the brand. That connection is heightened when we're talking about an emotional bond recalled from one's childhood. A case in point for me is how I feel as though Doctor Who is something very important to me even as an adult, because I remember how I felt when I saw Peter Davison stumble into the TARDIS with Peri shortly before he regenerated into Colin Davis. It's the same with Eurovision, the BBC Proms and with Young Musician. 

That explains why people get exercised about something like a documentary not representing the memory they have of a much-loved programme which itself formed part of their musical development. Because that's the thing about Young Musician which I think is lost on a lot of people: even for those of us who didn't play professionally, watching Young Musician spurred us all on to keep practising and keep trying, making music an important part of our lifelong experience.

That kind of connection is a dangerous one for programme-makers. It's often dismissed by those in the business as evidence of 'fandom', meaning those people need to kept at arm's length.

It's also what helps explain why people feel as though they have a part in the television programme they're watching, which in turn explains why they feel so exercised when it doesn't live up to their very personal expectations. That stance, in the case of Eurovision and Doctor Who, transcends into the sour taste of entitlement. But, if programme-makers acknowledge implicitly or explicitly the audience contribution in the programme then, I think, that unpleasant sense of entitlement is kept in check.

It might actually help improve Eurovision Young Musicians

Eurovision Young Musicians, 2014. Cologne Cathedral.

Eurovision Young Musicians as its now called has been running since 1982 (when the BBC hosted the event) but the UK hasn't always taken part. The Eurovision competition today is a shadow of its former self, the last one in Cologne consisting of a hotch-potch of performances musically lighter in quality than any of the material normally heard in BBC Young Musician – more TV spectacle than spotlighting musicians at the beginning of their careers.

In this respect, BBC Young Musician is a better programme than Eurovision Young Musicians. The fact that EYM is inside Usher Hall in Edinburgh and, now billed as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, suggests it's going to improve immensely. In a bizarre way, it could be the thing that gets a bit of ribbing over here ends up improving its cousin across the water.

Quite how I'm going to position myself in a blog post if that turns out to be the case, I'm not entirely sure. But, I will work on it.

Watch BBC Young Musician: Forty Years Young 

BBC Young Musician starts on Friday 6 April at 7.30pm on BBC Four

BBC Radio 3 are also running highlights from the competition at 3.30pm every day – string finals feature here, here and here

Read an interview with former BBC Young Musician winner Emma Johnson who appears at St John's Smith Square on 19th April with the English Symphony Orchestra. 

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