Thoroughly Good Podcast: #26 – Yehuda Shapiro and Signum Classics’ Steve Long

Follow last weekend’s announcement by the BPI about a marked increase in classical music streaming and physical sales, this podcast brought together marketing, PR consultant Yehuda Shapiro and Signum Classics’ Steve Long for a discussion. The podcast is available on Spotify, Audioboom, YouTube, and iTunes.

During the discussion we refer to Steve’s article written for Guardian Online – https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jan/15/classical-music-streaming-up-comment-steve-long-signum-records. My post in response to the BPI announcement is here.

That thorny discussion

The press release about the BPI’s classical music streaming thing has done reasonably well. By which I mean quite a few people have read it. One person even mentioned it during a telephone call. And I discover from a tweet exchange with Yehudo Shapiro that I wasn’t quite so alone in my withering view on the announcement as I’d been thinking over the weekend.

This happens a lot with me as regular readers (and those who know me well) will testify. It goes something like this: I fire off a view, confident in my own position, wishing I communicate it in a slightly more articulate way, but still feeling resolute at my consistency railing against conformity.

Then a few hours pass and I start to look wistfully into the middle distance and nibble at the edges of my nails. Soon after that I reassure myself that I’m entitled to my own opinion (but not my own facts) and, as such, even if I make myself look like an arse, I’m perfectly entitled to do that even though I don’t especially seek to do that.

I woke up early yesterday morning. It was around 5.30am. I knew this because my next door neighbour gets up around that time to do an early pre-work run and the lights from her kitchen glow, gently illuminating our bathroom.

I sat on the toilet bowl running over an unresolved task, specifically drawing up a living will and then considering the challenge of presenting that to my partner for the first time (a massively weird experience for him I imagine – must warn him), and scrolling through a nine-tweet thread from a double bassist from Burlington I hadn’t previously been aware of who had retweeted the blog from Saturday and added his own comments. The last tweet was the one that stung the most: “To talk about the canon is so 1800s.” Ouch.

Specialist Music Chart

So, I decided yesterday to pore over the Specialist Classical Music Album Chart.

It seemed like a good place to start. Because the thing is that I’ve only ever looked at the Specialist Classical Music Album Chart once – when Radio 3 started broadcasting the top ten every week whenever it was that the chart actually started. I’m not entirely sure whether Radio 3 still broadcasts it anymore.

And I glad I did, because I’ve discovered things I had no idea actually existed. Composers. Music. Performers. And the chart provides evidence of other people who are (presumably) either buying it or streaming it. Which in itself of others a bit like me. People who want to listen to specialist stuff.

Sure, I know it all sounds a bit weird me talking about the Specialist Music Chart like its a new thing no one else knows about, but in light of the past few days and the conversations I’ve had with people as a result, it’s such a relief to discover.

And what discoveries.

The third symphony by a Ukrainian composer I’d never heard of before now – Boris Lyatoshinsky. A mix of Prokofiev, Stravinksy, John Williams, and Shostakovich all rolled into one – a sort of ‘grown-up’ Shostakovich. And a pianist on Deutsche Grammophon I’d not heard of before now (go ahead, judge me) whose articulation at the keyboard is, on a first listen, something to behold. I’m not entirely convinced whether the world needs yet another interpretation of Bach, but I liked the decoration in the right hand at various points – all very fluid, smooth and chocolatey. There are some moments when I’m not entirely sure whether we’re marvelling at the music or the technique, but still it’s a compelling listen. Igor Levit’s Life looks interesting. Currently finding the artwork annoying.

James MacMillan

After a coaching session at the Southbank Centre earlier today, and a failed attempt to collect my discounted dotted notebook from Ryman on the Strand, fifty-five minutes at Boosey and Hawkes’ sixth floor offices opposite Bush House to interview composer James MacMillan (pictured) for a podcast. ]

I’m greeted by Nathan at the door. Nathan has bright blue eyes (I’m sure that’s right), wears a jacket similar to mine and looks the kind of age I still wish I was if only I had the chance to do everything again. He asks me if i’d like a cup of tea. I say yes, being quite clear about the sugar. What he delivers shortly before the interview begins is the strength and heat I really rather like. Proper tea. That’s what’s needed for a podcast interview, I think.

MacMillan is softly spoken. I wonder whether my rather cold description of how the podcast works and the role I play in it kills the vibe before proceedings get underway. But, as conversation gets going, it turns out that Mr MacMillan is more than game and happy to play along.

We don’t talk openly about what composers do anywhere near enough. I was conscious throughout the forty-seven minutes we sat in the meeting room together that I still regard composers in a vaguely mystical way. On-demand is a given now (and as is revealed during the interview is something that makes appreciating art form a much bigger challenge for most listeners), but I wonder whether we expect transparency even more. I find myself wanting to understand precisely what it is a composer actually does to create the sound that I appreciate listening to. The impossible question.

I hesitate detailing when this particular podcast will come out, but I’m confident it will be before Holy Week, what with the week of programming he and Tenebrae’s Nigel Short have put together at St John’s Smith Square.

Voice Alone and George Benjamin at the Roundhouse

Composer George Benjamin at his home in Maida Vale, with very intense lighting.

Two unexpected announcements from the past forty-eight hours which have piqued my interest.

Voice Alone seems interesting.

In a major step towards tackling unconscious bias in casting, the first round is a blind audition, with no names, CVs or headshots – ensuring all applicants are judged by voice alone. Applications open at the end of January with the first auditions taking place in March and April.

Voice Alone Press Release, 15 January 2019

On a first read, I like the aspiration. It reminds me of a defensive line in the Moderate Soprano (not exactly the same, but similar in spirit). What intrigues me is whether the intent behind it (laudable) translates (eventually) onto stage. I like it. But I’m sceptical. And that’s a good thing. Scepticism better than assumptions. Blind auditions in March. More information on the Voice Alone website.

And George Benjamin’s (and George Benjamin too) in a Wigmore Hall promotion at the Roundhouse on the 5 and 6 March. An interesting statement event on the part of Wigmore Hall both in terms of content and the venue. I love seeing Benjamin at work in concerts – humble, unassuming, and unfussy. He lets the music do the heavy lifting. Definitely in the diary.

Classical music streaming requests up by 25.2%

Out today, a British Phonographic Industry tie-in with Radio 3’s Music Matters under the headline of ‘Classical Crescendo for Music Sales & Streams in 2018’. I kid you not. What does that headline even mean?

Let’s just go with it for the time being. The top line is this: classical music streaming requests are now up from 19.5% (2017) to 25.2% (2018). Yay. Well actually, no. Not yay.

I didn’t listen to Music Matters. If I had, I imagine there must have been quite an awkward moment if/when presenter Tom Service ran down the list in the Top 10 Classical Albums. Here is that list for you to pick over. Consider which of these albums I’ve listened to as you go down the list.

  1. Andrea Bocelli / Si (Decca)
  2. Aled Jones / Russell Watson / In Harmony (BMG)
  3. Sheku Kanneh-Mason / Inspirations (Decca)
  4. Katherine Jenkins / Guiding Light (Decca)
  5. Andre Rieu / Romantic Moments (Decca)
  6. Andre Rieu / Amore (Decca)
  7. Ludovico Einaudi / Islands – Essential Einaudi (Decca)
  8. Various Artists / The Ultimate Classical Collection (UMOD)
  9. LSO / John Williams / A Life In Music (Decca)
  10. Alexis Ffrench / Evolution (Sony Music)

Some people I’ve read today have commented on how classical crossover ‘bolsters’ the British Phonographic Industry’s latest figures on streaming in the classical music genre. I think the more accurate word would be ‘dominate’.

There’s a reason it dominates and that’s because that’s what is commercially successful (and therefore seen to be worth the investment by record companies).

Crossover dominates it doesn’t bolster

The majority of the list as a whole is crossover. There’s no getting around that.

And whilst I don’t have a personal issue with crossover (I am for the sake of research and authenticity listening to Einaudi as I write – I can’t say I’m enjoying it especially – it doesn’t go anywhere emotionally), I worry that the categorisation of this content as classical music doesn’t represent the classical music world at all, and is as a result doing it a disservice by not supporting it.

And whilst everyone will point to Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Decca release at number three in the Top 30 chart as being a fundamentally good thing, that album is, it has to be said, largely a collection of reasonably light pieces. I’d be interested to know for example where the majority of streams of Sheku’s album comes from. Is it, as Spotify indicates, No Woman No Cry? Or are people streaming his performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto? I bet they’re not.

Art music doesn’t sell enough for the record industry to care

This reinforces an important point for me: the record industry by and large doesn’t especially understand my listening tastes as a classical music lover. And yet, it’s happy to categorise music that by and large I’d actively avoid listening to.

Put very simply, art music doesn’t sell enough for the record industry to care.

That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

That there’s such a small market for specialist classical music (I hate the terminology, but I may need to just suck it up for the sake of this post and the myriad of definitions it demands), then people like bloggers, commentators, and the classical music press are needed by those seeking to increase exposure to their work. It’s a fragile ecosystem. We can collectively make a difference.

BBC seeks to position itself

Predictably Radio 3 Controller Alan Davey and his PR team have seized the moment to position the radio network in amongst the good news trumpeted (boom!) by the BPI’s announcement, pointing to how Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Jess Gillam (BBC Young Musician alumni don’t forget) have ‘played a key part in this online growth, as well as more established names as Bocelli, Yo-Yo Ma, and the broadening ambient appeal of Max Richter’.

As far as I can see I don’t see Jess Gillam on either the Top 30 Classical Albums list (I think I’m right in saying she doesn’t actually have a complete album out on Decca yet), or on the Most-Streamed Classical Artists List either, of which Ludovico Einaudi sits at number one. I think its a stretch to even suggest that their marketability, whilst good for the BBC no doubt, really translates into greater accessibility for the classical music canon. To do so is the equivalent of finding a hook and hanging a tired-looking t-shirt on it.

I hope these figures show how classical music can use new and established platforms to offer a rich vein of musical discovery for those who don’t yet know that classical music works for them and can work for anyone who appreciates good music and good musicians.

Alan Davey, BBC Radio 3 Blog, Saturday 12 January 2019

Davey’s post is the inevitable piece of PR that advertises the BBC’s fledgling (and some might say flawed) BBC Sounds app, making out that plays a central role in discovery of classical music amongst a younger audience.

This is an odd strategy given that the majority of the music (save for perhaps the film music which absolutely deserves its place on the list btw) doesn’t fit with Radio 3 anyway.

If the BBC wants to make that claim they need to provide the data demonstrating consumption via its own app to go some way to back Davey’s view up.

More questions about the BPI’s data

What’s lacking from the BPI data shared is who exactly is streaming the music.

What is the age range of the listeners? How are they getting to the tracks and the albums? Streaming playlists (personal or industry curated), self-discovery (search, peer recommendations), or via live broadcast or catch-up tools? What were the physical sales of exactly? Does ‘classical’ even its broadest BPI categorisation demand a reference in the BPI originated announcement so as to give a fuller picture of the industry?

This in particular in the press release attracts my attention:

It is encouraging that streaming services are already focusing more on the profile of Classical, but if continuing structural challenges, such as around ‘search’ on streaming platforms, can be more fully addressed, for example by making it easier for users to find pieces of music online by ‘composer’, ‘conductor’, ‘orchestra’, and ‘label’ (an important consideration to knowledgeable classical buyers), then it is likely that more classical consumers may be drawn to subscription streaming services. 


British Phonographic Industry, January 2019

I find this slightly out of kilter with the experience I now have with services like Spotify, Primephonic and IDAGIO.

It’s about meta-data

First, it’s not about improving search functions, but standardising the meta-data used to describe the recordings on the streaming servers. The three main streaming services have made significant in-roads to improving search in an of itself, and given that I can now find significantly more works than I did say a year ago, my impression is that the owners of the content (ie the record labels) are devoting more resources to applying more useful meta-data.

Little surprise that classical music collectors are still buying physical discs. In 2017 there was a 6.9% jump in sales of CDs, and these sales represent nearly 60% of UK classical consumption. (By ‘nearly’ they either mean 58% or 59%. If that is the case, why not just basically say the actual percentage?)

The motivation for purchase seems obvious – physical discs come with sleeve notes (I personally don’t think its only to do with sound quality) which is something which represents an opportunity for streaming platforms: support sleeve notes. Why not find a way of selling bolt-on subscriptions for contextual material?

Jehovahs, Monte-Carlo, and NMC’s 30th anniversary

I’ve reconnected with my email spam folder. A galling discovery.

Discovered two missed podcast interviews from two very important people and a record label press release, sandwiched in between requests for help from a Crown Prince in Nigeria (I had no idea there was a Nigerian royal family) looking for money to fund a penis enlargement operation, and twenty-five year-old farm-hand ‘Geoff’ who I am told loves going to the gym and wrestling a lot.

In the inbox proper are eye-catching messages from the Monaco International Festival (their brochure artwork is a bit of a visual treat, and I see they’re doing a complete Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle and the BBC Symphony will be there too), news from Signum Classics about their collaboration with Cala Records (who until yesterday I am sorry to say I wasn’t even aware of but now discover possess some historical fascination like Stokowski conducting Beethoven 7), a couple of website quotation requests, and a pitch for a podcast.

Each email demands complete focus and comes with a self-imposed sense of pressure. And what that translates as is that emails take longer to respond to in most cases than they ever did before. More is riding on it than it ever did when I was at the BBC.

Interruptions

And then mid-response, there’s a knock on the door.

I open it and two elderly ladies in thick duffle coats introduce themselves, one adding, “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you as an adult, read the bible recently? What with how grim the world is at the moment, we think the Bible is a good thing to be reading.”

I explain that no I haven’t. I extend grateful thanks to them for stopping by and point out that, “I’m probably not your target audience really.” They ask if I know the people who live across the road. “Mohammed, you mean? Yes, we talk from time to time.” I comment on how cold it is today. They agree wholeheartedly. All pause to look at each other, they turn and leave, and I shut the front door.

Sing opera in whatever language you want

From Twitter, the marvellous Fran Wilson shared a Bachtrack piece by Mark Wigglesworth defending ENO’s policy of staging operas in English against detractors who argue for works to be performed in their originating language.

I read it on the train into London yesterday. I could feel myself getting enraged by it, at the same time as being rather dismissive about it even needing to be written in the first place.

Bachtrack proudly announces how important it is to reflect the debate at the top of the piece too, when the piece is ostensibly a PR rebuttal by ENO’s press team (at least if it wasn’t originated by them I don’t believe Mr Wigglesworth would haven’t written it without their blessing) that keeps the traffic going to Bachtrack’s site. Because really, at the end of the day, is the ‘debate’ serving the wider (potential) audience? Hint: No.

The naval gazing is so boring.

I’ve sat in enough operas sung in English, and plenty more in foreign languages with foreign subtitles to know that it isn’t about the spoken language more the narrative that emerges from the combined forces of music and words (irrespective of the actual language).

Some of them have been good productions too.

NMC Recordings 30th Anniversary

The boon to writing about press releases and announcements in this combined form is that there’s considerably less pressure: instead of writing posts for each anno (which always feels like a massive ball-ache), documenting what’s coming in when feels a lot lighter touch and a little more personal.

It also means I engage with the emails that come in. Perhaps that’s another challenge for PRs. In a self-publishing world awareness-raising is a real win from their perspective, even if the coverage isn’t the conventional preview or review.

So it is with NMC Recordings 30th anniversary stuff. I had no idea they’d been going for 30 years for a start. I wouldn’t have actively sought out their new music strand either, so being prompted to is a good trigger.

There’s a new Composer’s Academy release coming on 18th January. The preview track (Freya Waley-Cohen’s Ink) is a compelling listen with just the right amount of intrigue and spikiness to hook me in and helps reinforce collaborations with the Philharmonia and their association with cities outside of London, in this case De Montford Uni in Leicester.

Bernard Rands’ Dance Petrificada from the BBC Philharmonic’s album ‘Chains of the Sea’ is a fabulous thing, brimming with tantalising colours and textures, and a musical narrative that holds my attention throughout on a first listen. I see there’s a Cello Concerto on the release too – available on 8th February. It also gets a big tick for the artwork too.

Edmunds Finnis’ The Air, Turning is a similarly descriptive and evocative creation with hints of film music enhancing a strong piece of storytelling. Also on Finnis’ NMC release out on 8 February, a recording of Finnis’s Four Duets featuring clarinettist Mark Simpson. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group also feature on the album, which reminds me …

Salaries

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group are looking for an executive director with a top whack salary of £36K. That figure is commensurate with the sector (though is smaller than some of the bigger brands who look for people at that level). But it got me thinking about who would be applying for that kind of role, the kind of person BCMG would need to develop the group’s roster and portfolio, and whether the ideal person would be expecting more than that.

And that got me thinking about the conversation I had during the coaching meeting with an executive coach I know writing a PHD about organisational coaching and leadership development.

“I do believe quite passionately,” I said to him, lightly tapping my sternum, “that there are negative consequences for inviting applications for leadership development schemes – perhaps even calling them leadership development schemes in the first place. What about those who put themselves forward but don’t succeed?” He nodded in agreement. “Given how coaching has benefited both of us, isn’t it important that this work we do is accessible and affordable to all?”

Ian Page, China’s first International Music Competition, and Saffron Hall

I may not have attended an actual concert yet this year, but I have recorded a podcast about one on 29 January, received a couple of new releases for review (Peter Donohoe’s Mozart collection, plus Emma Johnson and Friends, both on SOMM for release later in January). And I feel as though I’m keeping a closer eye on incoming press releases. In short, I feel like I’m a little more across things than I have been in the past. This is a good thing.

Part of this is to do with finding a way of talking about classical music announcements in a way that fits the mild shift in direction the Thoroughly Good Blog has taken in the past month or so.

PRs have a tough job

For all our pissing and moaning about some PRs efforts, I do think on the face of it they have a phenomenally difficult job. They’re issuing announcements about a comparatively niche art-form for inclusion on a limited number of platforms. They have to ensure that their language satisfies the intellectual aspirations of the recipient, and maximises exposure for the ultimate audience – the ticket buyer. They’re also (largely) having to enthuse about one-off events that the majority of people won’t attend. It’s a tough sell.

I see lots of people regurgitate press releases. I find this frustrating. I browse through some websites reluctantly because I feel I ought to be, if not reading then certainly seeing what everyone else is writing. When I see a blog post with the same structure as the press release I have in my inbox on the same subject, I gasp a little. Where’s the joy for the writer? Copying and pasting might help keep the wheels in motion, but it starves the self-publishing process of any creativity. Given that there’s little or no money in digital content, you’ve got to cling on to the creative opportunities however small whenever you can, it strikes me.

So I see myself responding to press releases now on an instinctive level, this signalled by the recent Aldeburgh announcement which was so well-timed that it took me by surprise and increased my heart rate slightly as a result. Similarly the SCO announcement a couple of days ago. Both of these rays of sunlight in what feels a grey part of the year.

Yesterday’s news

And yesterday, a string of announcements and releases which raise the eyebrows and get the creative juices flowing.

First, those SOMM recordings from Peter Donohoe and Emma Johnson.

Then, news that Saffron Hall (which I still haven’t visited even once yet) is running a series of dance events including names I’m wholly unfamiliar but at the same time demonstrate how the arts venue under the auspices of chief exec Angela Dixon is continuing to grow in confidence artistically. I do also think they have a beautifully simple website too. Pleasingly unfussy.

And after that, the big news of the day: China and its first international music festival in May later this year. This discovery came after the podcast record yesterday (more on that in a bit) which meant I was focusing more on the podcasting opportunities. As stories go I find it fascinating, especially if we are to assume the unlikely that Theresa May’s Brexit Homework does get a reluctant B- from MPs and our attention as a country starts to shift more beyond European shores. I make no apology for the fact that this is *straightens tie* something I’d love to feature on the podcast. I mean … just imagine .. a classical music competition in Beijing. What would that be like?

Recording a podcast with Mozartists artistic director Ian Page

Which brings me to the other thing that happened yesterday. The podcast recording with Ian Page from the Mozartists/Classical Opera talking about his 27 year project documenting the good and the unknown of Mozart’s entire canon plus some of those works that were in his orbit. Their next event is on 29 January at Southbank Centre.

“Have you been on the radio?” asked Ian before we started. “Have I heard you on In Tune?”

“I’ve been on In Tune once,” I replied, “to promote an Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gig years ago. I always wanted to be on the radio … ” I explained (and what I said next was the thing which really surprised me) ” … but never really got my foot in the door at Radio 3. I do sometimes wonder whether those who recruit probably have a good idea that someone who wants to be on the radio probably isn’t the kind of person they want on a production team.”

It was the first time in maybe 12 years I’d reconciled myself about the radio thing in such a calm, collected and grown-up way.

Ian is a fun contributor for a podcast which feels as though its found its feet now. Chat is the order the day. Easy exploration of shared passions. Allowing the contributor to introduce their subject using enthusiasm. Letting rapport lead the way means that the knowledge and expertise never slaps people across the face. Some surprising connections made in our conversation and I can’t wait for it to come out (although obviously I will have to).

What is it that you do?

When we finished the recording and I headed up to Barbican to speak to Jo Johnson from LSO about the Find Your Way leadership development scheme for the ABO conference podcast, one thought did strike me – a personal challenge I tussle with from time to time. It hung around when I was heading home to SE6 too.

At the risk of sounding like a show-off, work (paid and unpaid) involves a range of different activities, this underlined during my last engagement of the day – a visit to the dentist – which began with the question from the hygienist preparing me for the injection:

“What do you do for a living?”

I listed the things I find myself doing at the moment: “I shoot video, write about classical music, produce podcasts, coach people, and design and build websites.”

The hygienist looked at me with a blank expression. I took this to mean she wished she hadn’t asked.

The reality is that I love the variety that my work provides. But summing it all up in a way that makes it all sound enticing (and generates more of it) is tough.