BBC Proms 2018: The new broom sweeps clean

The launch day for the BBC's Proms season – 'the world's greatest classical music festival' – has in recent years turned into an event all of its own. How was it different this year, and how did it help launch the 124th season of Promenade concerts?

This year's Proms season – an important part of the classical music calendar – is the twelfth I've blogged about. My assumption was that, like the revelation I stumbled on at the UK Eurovision final in Brighton a few months back, this year would see me significantly less enthused by the prospect of a summer full of concerts.

To a certain extent that it is the case. Little in the 124th season, on a first glance, leapt out at me especially.

But, 24 hours after the unveiling of the programme, my feelings have changed a little. This post highlights some of the reasons why, including some of the subtle differences apparent in what now unequivocally constitutes Proms Director David Pickard's stamp on the music festival's identity.

The new season was unveiled in the morning – it's usually unveiled in the afternoon

Sure, that may not seem very important. But in Comms/PR terms is vital. It meant that instead of a select few journalists being given a heads up of what's in the season at a breakfast briefing and then people commenting on it in dribs and drabs speculatively, everyone had access to the season online and commented accordingly.

Related Link

Twenty-six BBC Proms 2018 highlights

That meant the 'Proms unveil' first occurred online and specifically on social media. And that resulted in some positives and negatives. In positive terms, it made the bottom-line data about the Proms events itself available more immediately. The flipside to that was the special moment which usually heralded the start of the Proms – the lifting of the press embargo in the afternoon – was lost. Put simply, the unveiling of the Proms 2018 season was made a 'digital first' announcement and with it the joy of the day was jettisoned.

And on that basis I have a hunch it was less about preserving the spirit of the event amongst the Proms' strongest advocates, and more about bringing it in line with the rest of the BBC's musical endeavours and their way of doing things. 

People pissed and moaned as soon as the Proms was unveiled

The serious flipside to this was that I was saw a lot more negativity about the BBC Proms on social media throughout the morning. Why? My view is that people are more inclined to engage and get entrenched on social media before lunchtime. Give anyone with an axe to grind (and there are plenty in the classical music world) the chance to piss and moan and they will.

One performing artist (though not appearing in this year's season) communicated significant levels of ire about the choice of adjectives used to describe works on the BBC Proms website. I have some sympathy with him. I get similarly annoyed when great works of art are reduced to meaningless hyperbole in order to grab attention and increase click-throughs.

But, Twitter being what it is, the ire which at first seemed amusing quickly had a tinge of bullying about it.

I don't think its the BBC's responsibility to police social media (obviously), but there were moments during the day when it felt as though the detractors had already pissed and moaned about the Proms season so much that the mere idea of stepping into the Albert Hall even to hear an orchestra tune was anathema.

By adopting a digital first announcement, the narrative threads stitching the season together (French repertoire, women composers, new music etc – see the BBC Media Centre for those) are lost in the melee of the conversation. Tweet sentiment reduces the Proms down to sweeping statements regarding the entire season, resulting in conversation which is ultimately meaningless and potentially damaging. In my opinion, the digital conversation unnecessarily battered the Proms around.

The BBC Proms feels ever-so-slightly repositioned

Because the detail of the event had already been revealed earlier in the day (a calculated gamble intended to use the digital audience to offset any negative press coverage of the season as a whole), the evening launch event felt a little lacklustre.

There were still subtle hints as to how the Proms is changing. The promotional material (and the launch film shown at the event last night and online during the day) didn't lead on broadcast personalities – it wasn't 'presenter-led' – but instead focussed on performers, works and groups. 

There was even more emphasis placed on young people, education and young talent. BBC Young Musicians features heavily (even though it amounts to one celebration concert) because the competition, for better or worse, is 40 years old this year. There's word about that the BBC hosting the Eurovision Young Musicians competition will also see the EBU's cheap imitation going through something of a revamp too. That emphasis on inspiring the next generation to take up music is important to the BBC – not just because it is in itself a good thing to be doing – but also because it helps position the organisation, defending its public service ethos in a fractured and highly competitive broadcast environment. 

The initial mild disappointment I experienced at the beginning of the day not being able to find anything that immediately appealed to me via the website, was offset by the end when I started to flick through the brochure (proving to me that it remains all about the brochure and that digital announcements are deathly dull affairs).

In previous years I had always regarded the programme of events as being about seeking out entire concerts to get behind. Now I'm finding I'm looking for specific elements in a concert to hook me in. That's a reflection of my developing needs as a listener. It's also a reminder that the Proms isn't now the pinnacle or end-point of the concert-going experience, but a signpost to others outside of the season. I think we need to start making that point more and more. I believe the BBC Proms has a responsibility to encourage concert-going outside of its own season. That should be its legacy as each season comes to an end.

Chilled wine and canapes goes a long way to stir the heart

Some will question whether there even needs to be a launch event. This overlooks an important point. I recognise how relatively few occasions there are when performers, writers, commentators, managers and influencers in the classical music world all come together in one room. Artistic endeavours of the kind that fuels the classical music industry are themselves the result of collaborations. Such collaborations don't happen just by sending emails or telephoning people.

I'm noticing more and more too how events like this reveal the relatively small size of the industry. I noticed that at the ABO Conference I attended in Cardiff in January this year. And whilst that in itself may not seem very important a point to highlight, I think its a narrative that needs to be made more of to concert-goers. There is a dissonance (forgive the pun) between the seeming grandeur of the interior of a concert hall and the size of the orchestra on stage, compared to the community that sustains it. Revealing the human side of the business might  make it appear less aloof to some newcomers. 

The classical music industry as family

I am at risk of appearing like I'm drunk as I type this, but yesterday's Proms launch reminded me of another insight I've arrived at over the past year: that there is a sense of unity within the classical music industry which is infectious. Those who perform it, finance it, programme it or write about it, all appear to be aligned. I've noticed that at events when industry individuals come together to witness the opening of a new building or the unveiling of a new concert series. These moments are a little like watered-down versions of Christmas Eve. They unify, invigorate and strengthen resolve.

Don't get me wrong. Amid the firm handshakes and the warm smiles, there were aloof individuals. But last night was the first time I had genuinely felt part of a community of like-minded professionals – perhaps even at home. I'm normally looking around for people to speak to. This time people were saying hello. That means a tremendous amount to me. I appreciate feeling welcome. What's odd though is that the vast majority of my income is generated from leadership coaching and video work, not from anything to do with classical music.

Now I feel a part of it, I'd like to generate some income from it

It seems odd to say that. I've written about classical music for years now. But it was only really last night that I experienced feeling like a valid and useful part of the classical music ecosystem. And maybe that's what I've needed all along to give me the confidence to seek out more professional opportunities. And that prospect is every bit as exciting as the opening of the BBC Proms when I first started blogging about it in 2005. 

Read my twenty-six highlights from this year's BBC Proms. 

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

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