About that April Fools thing

It’s funny how a leg-pull on April 1, conjured up during morning ablutions can not only fool people so swiftly in the digital space, but also unexpectedly shine a light on some personal thoughts and feelings.

And, in the case of this blog post, help bring together three or four formerly disparate lines of thinking into one walloping piece – the last of my posts inspired during my trip to the Monte Carlo Festival this year,

First off, if you haven’t already realised, I’m not one of the new presenters (assuming there are any more than one – Jess Gilliam) for this years Proms season.

An alarming number of people fell for the prank, many of them journalists, many more of them arts managers, and a surprising number of them classical music PRs. A lesson for us all there I think.

That people did fall for it made it seem quite funny to me at first. It appeared surprisingly easy to dupe people. There is warped enjoyment to be had duping people too.

But then it became a little bit alarming. How easy is it in the digital world for us to pass something off as true and fior others to bite? The referendum campaign hasn’t taught us anything.

Once I’d moved from the toilet to the bath, another thought cane to mind.

April Fools Day is the one day when pulling somebody’s leg is allowed: we (I, just like you) have the permission to do so. And in order for it to work, that leg-pulling needs to have a shred of plausibility to it.

In that way, April Fools Day is the only time of the year when I can dare (because of the permission the date offers) to explain what I’d really like to be doing, where I’d like to be, and why I’m doing what I’m doing now.

The only reason I thought it was plausible to dupe people into thinking that I was a member of the presenting team is because, implicitly that is what I aspire to do.

That’s why I work on the podcast. It’s a loss-leader. It generates no income. But, it’s a calling card. What you need in this game is a calling card.

I knew it for years at the BBC but always apologised for even thinking I might be suitable. I made a joke out of it.

When I did broach it with a couple of producers I was given not so much short shrift, but passive aggressive shrift. Why would we go with you? You haven’t got a following we’d be interested in. Get back in your box.

I’d long consolidated that feedback as a statement on my overly-high expectations, that I needed to know my place, I needed to respect that TV and radio producers knew far better than me by virtue of them being older, wearing sandals or, as in some cases, because they smelt of old hymn books.

I assumed the problem was me. It might still be. I could terrible in a studio. I might be unmanageable. I may infuriate listeners like some presenters on Scala, Classic and Radio 3 do me.

But what bothers me is that others I know who display similar energy, passion and vision in their chosen field within classical music as I think I have tapped into over the years, experience a similar kind of cynicism when they seek feedback on their aspirations.

When I hear some of that feedback reported it sounds as though some of the arts administrators and the producers and the commissioners all say ‘Yes. Absolutely we need to shake things up. We need to open up the windows and let the fresh air. But really, we’re not really sure you’re the right kind of fresh air we’re looking for. You don’t fit the world us and our imaginary target audience exist in.’

I’ve been reminded of part of the problem this weekend in Monte Carlo. One person in the press ‘corps’ was here, like me, on the grace and favour of the festival.

That’s the deal: you come, we’ll pay your travel and accommodation, you write about our concerts. It’s something I really value. I’ve worked hard to build up a community that enables me to get invitations like this.

But when I pitched articles and reviews to the same website a few years back for another festival I was treated first to an ad-hoc telephone interview with the editor (and then his boss) both of whom wanted to check that I wasn’t likely to sully the independence of their ‘journalism’ because I was on an all expenses paid trip.

On another occasion I was told they didn’t take ad-hoc reviews, next they told me they’d done international festivals to death. This despite the fact they sent their own editor to cover the very same festival the year I attended.

When I then discovered they didn’t pay their contributors and insisted on holding copyright, I figured they weren’t worth pursuing. It all seemed a bit grimey to me. Not so much weighted in favour of the art or the writer, more in favour of the platform owner who wanted to drive traffic and increase advertising revenue.

And I mention this because just last week, the Herald’s classical music correspondent Kate Molleson announced the publication cutting classical music journalism. Cue everyone bemoaning arts journalism’s continued demise.

It made me reflect on the website I referred to in the previous paragraph and the work I do on this blog. Paradoxically, I and others like me, are contributing to the demise of paid journalism. Our independent work on free platforms which we produce in order to demonstrate our skills and employability, is read by people who don’t read and pay content. By trying to get work, people like me are inadvertently damaging the workplace.

And yet the irony is that those individuals with a turnover (or at least a semblance of a model) actively resist advances by people like me. The reason why has taken me a long time to fathom out, but I think I’ve arrived at a hunch.

There is a clique of perceived expertise in the arts world. A music degree doesn’t cut it; you need a masters or a PhD. You’re not a performer; you’re not experienced enough; you’re not rated by your peers; which university did you attend – Oxford or Cambridge?

My hunch is this: if the location of your university training remains as important in the sector as I still notice it does, then how on earth can that bias not permeate into the minds of decision makers in all aspects of their work? Is it possibly the case that a judgment is made on your suitably to advocate (or perform) the classical music genre based on the perceived quality of your degree?

Art music will become more inclusive when the gatekeepers shake off the various unconscious biases they still resolutely cling to. Until then, classical music will always have a problem with its reputation.

This observation is hardly earth shattering. It’s slightly embarrassing in a way it’s taken me this long to work it out. But if there is an unconscious (or worse, conscious) bias, whether it’s the way decision-makers instinctively fear the young disrupters with energy and drive, or the commissioners who assume the way to secure a young audience is to think in two dimensional terms about how to appeal to that younger audience, then all are complicit in betraying the art form we all hold so dear.

That people assumed I was telling the truth in my April Fools today is of course flattering. It legitimises an aspiration I’ve long held but never really dared to say out loud. But people’s responses all hint that it wasn’t such a ridiculous idea in the first place. Which inevitably makes me ponder who or what is getting in the way for me and others like me.

But as I concluded in my presentation to the BPI classical music committee last week, as enjoyable, as thorough and as valuable this work is (and that by other classical music advocates), at some point there’s going to have to be a very difficult executive board meeting during which the question will need to be answered: why do this if it can’t pay the bills and no one’s prepared to bite?

One thought to “About that April Fools thing”

  1. I agree with Alice, however, I am a trained and practicing classical musician. Nonetheless, you have opened my eyes to all sorts of things I wouldn’t have known, heard or seen. It might have been an April fool, but as long as it remains that way it isn’t just you missing out, it’s thousands of others that could benefit from a dose of you in their lives! Until your Ex realises that, keep sharing please. (I’ll buy you wine or dinner or something in return).

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