Going to but not necessarily participating in proceedings

When you take a journalling approach to blogging the frequency can taper off. And it has done here.

I’ve focussed a lot of attention on audio just recently whether that means actual editing, thinking about work, or imagining content. In fact, in recent weeks it feels like the audio stuff has gone into overdrive. No surprise then that the copy has taken a back seat.

On the one hand, the lack of actual writing about classical music might at first seem like evidence of a lack of committment to the art form. The reality (at least in my minds eye is entirely different).

Being part of the classical music world

That podcasting work – Donohoe, Cottis and Howard last week, plus a recording in front of an audience last night at the Barbican – has rooted me back in the classical music world like I was back in 1997. Gratifyingly, I don’t feel like an observer looking in. At least, not all the time.

Part of that is down to self-confidence. And that’s partly fuelled by having to constantly listen back to yourself and what others are saying. The process is more immediate when you’re listening back to audio (or video), compared to reading over copy.

But it’s also down to buildings.

Here’s the unexpected joy I’ve managed to identify just these past seven days. The thing we overlook. The thing marketers forget.

It is possible to imagine you’re experience a classical music or operatic experience without actually sitting in the auditorium and watching or listening.

This statement maybe anathema to the purists – that’s assuming that it makes sense. But I’ve found it reassuring these past few weeks. In the midst of a surprisingly busy day-to-day existence, I see how the classical music experience competes with my other everyday concerns, like establishing a business or paying the mortgage.

This isn’t a poor me story. It’s not a rant. But the reality is: I can’t get to as many concerts as a supposed classical music buff would like to. Other things get in the way. Budgets demand alternative closer-to-home activities.

Take this past Saturday.

Going but not participating

After a long walk from Lewisham to Canary Wharf me and an old University friend (University Music Society President ’97) meet up with other Music Society peers (and friends) Abigail and Sophie at the Royal Opera House fifth floor bar. The sun was low and the tourists scuttling around Covent Garden below us.

We drank rosé. We reminisced. We talked about concerts we’d played in. We talked about concerts other people had played. We talked about how good other people were at university. I thought about opera. I thought about how nice it might be to actually go to an opera instead of just interview people about them.

Basically, we just sat there in the Royal Opera House, sort-of-adjacent to the auditorium and enjoyed each others company. You know, like people who go to pubs where there’s a theatre on the top floor do. Going to but not necessarily participating in proceedings. There’s no shame in that, is there?

It’s quite nice really

I don’t see what the carping about the Royal Opera House’s strategy opening up of its social spaces is about other than a thinly veiled attacked on perceived elitism. People want to have a dig. Complaining about the price of a cup of tea seemed like an easy win.

What I saw was something different – opera-goers, shoppers and tourists converged on the top floor bar to natter, read and look over the London skyline. True, I didn’t buy the wine at our table. But the opportunity to ‘drop in’ on a venue in this way does much to make a cultural space feel like its for you, regardless of whether you’re there with a ticket or not.

The National Theatre has long made its public spaces open to the public during the day, so too the Royal Festival Hall (a condition, I understood, of receiving Arts Council Funding). Before I went self-employed, these buildings were only places I went to with a ticket. Now I go there to meet people. I like that.

Barbican 19/20

And yesterday, I recognised the same about the Barbican. By day it’s home to an army of freelancers, and by night a wide range of cultural visitors.

These venues – the Barbican, the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre, and even St Johns Smiths Square – are my present-day cathedrals.

Last night, at the Barbican Members Event, Alison Balsom said a similar thing about her relationship with the City of London estate.

She and I had already competed on stage (I was presenting the 19/20 season launch event) about our earliest Barbican experience – mine 30 years when I saw the National Youth Orchestra with Edward Downes, hers 3 years before that when she saw Hakan Hardenberger.

Since then Alison has studied at the next door Guildhall School, performed on the Barbican stage and the recently opened Milton Court on Silk Street.

The Barbican differs from all of those other venues I mentioned because of its grandiose space. The joy of such public venues is their cavenous spaces – a building that triggers the imagination as a result of being present in it.

The reality is that I can’t, unlike the man I met yesterday who I learned spent the equivalent of my monthly outgoings on an extensive range of concerts in the Southbank’s 19/20 season, spend a great deal of money on tickets.

As urgent as the live experience is, sometimes just being present in a venue’s public space’s is all I can spare.

And that’s OK. From time to time I will venture into to its beating heart. I promise. At all other times, I’ll happily spend a few quid (or allow others to) in its retail outlets in order to spend quality time with friends. It, and everything that goes on in and around it, is that important to me.

About that Guardian letter

The classical music industry is working together to shout the cause of music education. But we should remember that its newest cheerleaders are still in development.

Saxophonist Jess Gillam’s letter to the Guardian. It’s a fundamentally good thing. The message is strong.

It’s not an especially new message. Plenty of others have been saying the same thing for a long long time now.

Set in the context of the ISM’s recent State of the Nation report Jess’ letter is prescient too, though I’m not entirely convinced the timing is accidental.

There are a number of other necessary bandwagons on the road to reinstating music education in the curriculum, the wheels of which are still turning, some slower than others, some considerably more squeaky.  

The letter to the Guardian refers to some of those other campaigns, along with Jess’ appearance at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Music Education established and maintained by the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

What impresses me is the way it appears that the industry is collaborating, marshalling resources and messages, timing their dissemination to support one another’s endeavours.

Record labels, membership organisations, and broadcasters are supporting one another to send out a clear message to politicians: music education needs to be reinstated in the curriculum.

But there’s grit in the tank.

Jess, like her BBC Young Musician cohort cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, is in classical music terms hot property. Since signing to Decca they’ve cropped up in all sorts of places on TV and various public events, usually coinciding with an impending album release

Both Jess and Sheku are valuable assets to record labels. Whilst we applaud their achievements and how they’re helping raise the profile of an artform and music education, they are valuable to record labels because these altruistic acts provide an opportunity to drive business.

And whilst that in itself isn’t a bad thing, there are some implicit messages surrounding Jess and Sheku’s appearance on-air and in-print which we should as a community remain vigilant about.

Both musicians are hugely talented and have come to prominence just at the time when pressure has rightfully increased to tackle various social justice issues head-on. What both musicians are able to achieve in raising awareness, influencing, and driving change is incredibly important. But to be clear, such endeavours on their part also help content distribution organisations drive streams and raise revenues.

What worries me (and this be me being over-protective here) is the way in which they are projected: as musicians who have completed their journey and ‘made it’ just by virtue of having won a competition and made various TV appearances. These musicians are are still in development as performing musicians. Had they not signed to a record label or won BBC Young Musician would their voices still be heard?

Jess’ letter to the Guardian is a positive message. It’s necessary. But I’m uncomfortable seeing it only in the context of music education. I see Jess’ letter as part of a much broader marketing and PR strategy to raise profiles that in turn increase revenues, drive advertising sales, and importantly allows a large-scale brand be seen to align itself with a common cause.

And that raises ethical questions for me about the way in which artists in development who could themselves be struggling to come to terms with the attention they now receive, at a point in their lives when they’re still developing their practise.  

Think like marketers

I’ve been doing a lot of listening this week. Interviewing necessitates that.

There’s little point in preparing a list of questions to ask an interviewee, asking them, and then not listening to the responses.

Its the responses that offer the more tantalising opportunities for follow-up. The follow-up will always surpass your original expectations. It is the follow-up that yields the insight.

Peter Donohoe

Four such interactions this week.

The first, a 90 minute conversation with pianist Peter Donohoe up in Solihull for a podcast.

Donohoe was an open, warm and willing contributor. He shared all sorts of things about performance that deepened my understanding of piano music. He put me at ease, unwittingly legitimising me as a reasonably knowledgeable punter. Ninety minutes of conversation that closed the gap I sense between auditorium and the stage.

It was also a conversation where I felt so completely ‘in flow’ that the previous ruminations about invoices, payments, and impending bills seemed like a world away.

Interviews then – the necessary process of listening – helps me refocus attention on the now. Not only are these experiences an opportunity to create meaningful content and demonstrate skills and services to those with a budget, but they’re also moments to deepen thinking.

Realising I’d fallen into a listening and questioning habit only really became apparent when I attended the Philharmonia concert on Thursday (review to follow). It was the conversation with a marketing type afterward in particular which brought things into focus for me.

The content of the conversation is of course off limits, but its impact isn’t.

The questions came easily.

It was an exchange which reminded me that the classical music world I occupy in my mind’s eye both here on the blog and in the podcast, has a different vista from that seen by those who seek to generate business in the art music world, for example.

The core classical music audience isn’t as large as I might picture it in my imagination. It also doesn’t represent the biggest ticket-buying awareness-raising opportunities. Those opportunities are to be found in those who don’t consider the concert hall as their go-to location; those who don’t seek out classical music experiences or who don’t come very often.

Concentrating on the wrong people

This valuable perspective shook me a little.

I am a content producer – sometimes paid, sometimes not. My ability to pay the bills is, through choice, directly linked to my content production strategy. And the success of that strategy is dependent on it being in concert with the strategies of marketers and PRs.

There is no point in striving to create content that seeks the validation of or satisfies those who already know about the genre, because those individuals aren’t representative of the kind of audience the wider industry needs to attract. Such an inward-looking strategy doesn’t really help me nor the industry I’m seeking work opportunities from.

Think like a marketer

I mentioned earlier that this insight shook me. Its initial effect was similar to the thinking I have indulged in the past and ended up succumbing to – that which usually ends up with me abandoning a particular path because of a sense of frustration or impatience.

But it went further than that for me. There are skills I have that are useful (ergo billable) to the industry I feel a part of now. That those skills aren’t getting snapped up yet is either because I’m not as good as I think I am (a possibility), or more likely because I haven’t found the right way to integrate them yet. And that means thinking from the same perspective as a marketer.

But 48 hours later I notice a slight shift in my thinking.

Digital natives who understand the positive impact an authentic digital publishing can have, are in the business of awareness-raising and community-building; we’re not contracted to sell tickets. What we say to raise awareness and who we say it too is what is important.

And that for me means looking wider that the world I consider home, recognising that classical music – whether it be live performance, recorded music, or the content that surrounds it – doesn’t exist in a bubble. It has to be considered alongside a great many other experiences.

If content producers are to raise awareness and build community around the subject they care passionately about, then they need to look wider than the subject itself. They need to think like marketers.

Generation Z

And by shifting that thinking and opening my mind to looking at classical music as an experience or product – from the perspective of sales and business – then the need for other information is necessary. As if by magic, Barclays Investment Bank on Twitter provided a useful primer on Generation Z, and today, Manchester Collective’s Adam Szabo writes on Medium about branding.

Paid for packages

The day after the marketing conversation began with an interview with Czech Philharmonic Education Manager Petr Kadlec about the orchestra’s work with Chavorenge and music director Ida Kalerova.

Chavorenge – a collection of Roma children given the opportunity to develop life skills through choral singing experiences – sang on the first day of the ABO Conference in Belfast a few weeks back. The paid podcast gig garnered some valuable material and useful introductions, of which this interview was one.

Twenty minutes on the telephone plus another two hours editing, and the finished product is pushed gently onto the internet. I finished around 3pm and started on a handful of household chores, not returning to listen again the finished product until the early evening.

Ulster Orchestra Managing Director Richard Wigley introduces Ida Kelarova and Chavorenge with the Czech Philharmonic. Chavorenge offers Roma children the opportunity to sing together in life-affirming performances that seek to challenge prejudice in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

What I find pleasing listening back to it even now is the flow of the exchanges and the storytelling that emerges.

I like the occasional splashes of personality in the contributors characterised by the laughs, contrasted with the sheer wall of warmth and love that emanates from the singers themselves. That I remember ruminating quite a lot about the bills at the same time as editing makes the finished product all the more pleasing.

Obviously, there are one two technical errors with it. But that’s just the perfectionist talking, I like to thin.

New discoveries

One of my musical discoveries this week really touched me emotionally. When I first met the OH, his classical music library was small but proud. I don’t lay claim to having expanded his tastes – he’s done that himself through personal discovery (I like to think because classical music has been part of our regular music experience).

Over the past year or so I’ve seen him introduce me to unexpected delights. It is almost as though the emphasis has swung the other way in the relationship in that respect.

Mitsuko Uchida

So, yesterday morning as the pair of us sit down to read, he puts on some piano music.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Beethoven, I think.”

“Who’s playing?”

“Mitsuko Uchida.”

“Why did you pick this out?”

“I like the picture of her on the cover – the one that looks like she’s hanging on to her ears in case they fall off.”

It was electrifying stuff. My right hand started to grip the sofa cushion. I sat transfixed throughout the last movement of Piano Sonata No.30 – agonising beauty in the initial theme, extrapolated in an epic series of variations, including one Bach-esque fugue that cycles through some eyebrow-raising harmonic progressions.

It was the first time I heard it. What I heard brought tears to my eyes. Listened to it this morning and the same thing happened again.

Edmund Finnis

After that, a brief scoot through Edmund Finnis’s collection of new works on NMC, this year marking 30 years of supporting new composing talent.

The opening track, The Air, Turning  is a tantalising collection of textures that brings me alive, holding my attention throughout by presenting something that feeds curiosity with an imaginative world constructed with fascinating colours.

I want to spend a little more time paying closer attention to the release as a whole. It has a 70s concept album feel to it, the idea of which excites me a great deal. But in the meantime, be sure to listen to the gloriously eery Elsewhere. My current squeeze.

Reflections on #ABO19

I don’t want to be one of those people who talks about how busy they are.

I see it a lot on various Facebook groups I’m a member of – ones intended to make freelancers like me feel ‘less lonely’.

What the protestations of busy-ness usually end of doing is triggering my Cynicism Gland.

It is, as far as I can make out, a similar malaise as the twenty-somethings I used to follow on Instagram whose postings consist of pouting lips and cocked heads.

Instead, I’d rather say I’m a bit anxious about the remaining work I must get through. Unfinished projects aren’t good. Imagining potentially unhappy clients tapping their fingers on imaginary desks is enough to increase the heart rate.

So, I’m keeping this post reasonably tight. Back to normal ramblings on announcements and releases in the days to come.

Demanding but rewarding

Why the workload is causing mild anxiety is partly down to last week’s totally absorbing Association of British Orchestras conference in Belfast I attended.

Conferences are, once you get into the swing of them, both demanding and distracting.

Listening to presentation after presentation through headphones (I was capturing events for the ABO Podcast – episodes out on Mixcloud over the next few days) demanded focus.

Trying to edit material in amongst the melee was also similarly demanding.

I was there to work, to learn, to curate, and to network, the combination of which was – this isn’t a moan – exhausting.

Back to core principles

The highlight for me was the appearance of Sir Roger Scruton in the final ABO session ‘Recapturing the Audience’.

I sat at the front of the audience listening to what he saying on headphones, keeping an ear out for any unwanted sounds which might then need to be subsequently edited out. The result of that focus was something rather magical. Take a listen.

Roger Scruton explores listening, hearing and the mystery of music

Scruton is a controversial figure whose criticisms he robustly rebutted early last November. But in his closing ABO speech he went back to core principles, describing sounds, and the difference between hearing and listening in a compelling way. His evocative script had a hint of neuro-linguistic programming in it, putting me as a listener at the heart of the music he was annotating in an arresting and thought-provoking way. I found it a suitable closing – a return to the foundations of what classical music means to me – that stripped away the noise created by the necessary business of selling classical music and the confusion that business sometimes creates.

Other #ABO19 highlights and notables

Reflecting on the impact a conference has does, I think need to be done in the days that follow. I tried to do it on the flight back from Belfast International Airport but it was all too manic and the challenge of getting back from Gatwick Airport to Lewisham on a mixture of train, tram and buses all too distracting (I succeeded by the way – it cost me £4.70).

Now I look through my notebook, some thoughts seem worth sharing now, thoughts which arose from conversations with others, and attending presentations. More in a special Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast in the coming week.

  1. Advocating classical music means more than just saying everything is brilliant, it also means being able to say that something hasn’t quite worked.
  2. Playing rank and file in youth orchestra was described by one now professional musician as an experience which tamed the ego; I remember it fueling mine.
  3. It surprised me when some people I spoke to for the first time told me that they followed me on Twitter. I forget that. It did stopped me in my tracks momentarily.
  4. I met a PR hero from the past – someone I knew of from 25 years ago but have never met face to face in the intervening period. It was quite by chance. It was incredibly invigorating. She has quite the most remarkable energy about her.
  5. I interviewed one person who runs one particular orchestra whose clear vision is demonstrated in the orchestra’s activities. And that vision is to a large extent an illustration of the kind of person that individual is: warm, open, interesting, and engaging. Those people aren’t necessarily in the limelight. I wonder whether they need to be.
  6. There’s a disconnect between the language used some in arts management and the language the audiences some ensembles are reaching out to in order to drive ticket sales. My assumption is that a more unified (and simplified) language would be more efficient – cleaner, if you will.
  7. Everyone seems to be coalescing around the classical streaming story currently bounding around. It is fundamentally a positive story. But I question whether its the orchestras who are necessarily benefitting financially from that story. Or whether they will in the future.
  8. Classic FM’s reputation is broad and solid. It’s messaging (reflected in multiple sessions I attended) is strong, concise and very clear. It’s a stark contrast to the sometimes confused messages some ensembles put out. I see Classic FM more as a platform than a radio station as a result.
  9. I did wonder at various points whether against the present backdrop of streaming and Classic FM, that at some point BBC Radio 3 as a network would eventually die. What might we be left with? Two commerical classical music radio stations, with the BBC providing broadcast orchestras for its summer-long classical music festival. If streaming is enabling discovery of an art form in a new audience demographic, what’s the point in a radio station?
  10. The human impact of a potential no-deal Brexit on lives, livelihoods, and organisations is saddening. Individual stories about how Theresa May’s deal could impact on day-to-day life in Northern Ireland worrying.
  11. Bumping into a Youth Orchestra contemporary in a lift and surprising her with the connection she hadn’t previously realised we shared was a delightful moment I shall treasure for a while to come.
  12. Also, the Chavorenge Children’s Choir (see below) are heartbreakers.

The real big thing

Most important – perhaps the big headline for me coming away from the conference – was an overwhelming feeling of being a part of a community I worried that I’d abandoned twenty odd years ago and, as a result, would struggle to feel a part of again.

Bumping into people I half know, with whom I felt comfortable sharing and developing ideas with about a subject I feel at home with, left me with a sense of completion – the opposite of imposter syndrome. A reward for time spent scribbling, talking and editing.

I returned to London feeling invigorated. I felt like a legitimate part of the community. And I don’t even run an orchestra.

BASCA interview with Amanda Ghost at Goldsmith’s Music Department, University of London

I attended a BASCA masterclass (strictly speaking, it’s an interview) today at Goldsmith’s College Music Department in South East London.

I’ve captured some of my notes from the 90-minute session below, including some observations made during the visit. I share those notes and observations in list form for expediency’s sake.

Goldsmith’s College has a thriving music department

I was impressed. There were in excess of 25 songwriters/music students in attendance at the session, the majority of whom were already publishing their content via Soundcloud and YouTube.

The music department is bigger than I remember it when I spent time at Goldsmiths in the mid-nineties – the range of ensembles, niche concerts, support groups, and careers advice on offer via the noticeboards is eye-watering.

Don’t anyone let you think that music isn’t worth pursuing – Goldsmiths is proof there’s an industry-driven curiosity-fuelled appetite.

BASCA / UK Music Primer

Moderator Dan Moore (BASCA Marketing/Membership Manager) provided an introduction.

UKMusic is the umbrella organisation for a range of support/lobbying organisations of which BASCA (British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors) is one. The others are AIM, BPI, FAC, MMF, MPA, MPG, MU, PRS, PPL, and UK Live Music.

I had no idea that membership of PRS (which ensures songwriters get their dues from their creative endeavours) required a one-off £100 membership fee.

BASCA campaigns (amongst other things) for transparency and royalties from digital streaming platforms, removal of YouTube’s ‘safe harbour’ (meaning rights holders get the revenue they deserve for music used in videos supposedly). BASCA also runs the Academic Supporters Programme – a link with institutions, supporting and developing the next generation of creatives.

BASCA runs the Ivor Novello Awards (set up in the 1950s to assert UK music in a US dominated marketplace) and the Gold Badge, Fellowship and British Composer awards (of which there’ll be a blog post about the 2019 awards in the coming days).

Amanda Ghost’s career history

  • Songwriter, producer, TV producer and record company exec
  • Secured first publishing deal at 22; dropped out of fashion college; used publishing advance to make demos for record companies
  • Spent nine years writing songs for herself; hustling to get studio space;
  • Secured a manager and eventually signed to Warner Brothers/Los Angeles during which she collaborated with other songwriters
  • One such insistent individual pursued a collaboration which she initially turned down – it was James Blunt
  • Her and blunt co-wrote ‘You’re Beautiful’ – “we wrote it in the swimming pool at my Los Angeles apartment, not in Kosovo as he prefers to tell people’
  • Other collaborators got in touch following the Blunt success, one Mark Ronson
  • Chair of DefJam invited her to write a song for Beyonce (when she was in Destiny’s Child) – a duet for Beyonce and Shakira; Amanda had to write it in 5 hours
  • Took a year for Shakira to come on board and commit the vocals; after that, 12 million sales
  • Ran her own music company (Epic?) at the age of 34
  • Now sits on streaming board of BASCA (amongst other appointments); married to Deezer’s chief exec

Insights from Amanda

  • “Nobody knows anything” – this is Amanda’s personal mantra for tackling any kind of imposter syndrome; don’t let perceived stardom in others dictate your levels of confidence
  • If a publisher/manager says they’ve got everything sorted, ditch them; the songwriter/musician has got to do a nearly all of the work in a record company contract
  • Simplicity is the key to creation – both in storytelling, lyrics, orchestration, and harmonic progression
  • Amanda explained how she worked melodies for songs with two chord progressions (R&B/Hip Hop) by expanding on the original harmonic concept with transitional chords; then built a melody to accommodate the expanded idea; then returned to the original two-chord track and recorded the melodic line over the top. Neat.
  • Writing for other artists is unexpectedly liberating – you don’t have to take into consideration your own perspective on issues
  • Songwriting collaborations are in part about taking someone else’s idea for a lyric and applying your own ‘stamp’ – in the case of Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’ it was injecting something bittersweet into the statement – “you’re beautiful, I will never be with you
  • “The song is the fusion of melody and lyric.”
  • Influences: Prince (for his subversive lyrics), Michael Jackson, and Madonna
  • “Pop music is like MacDonalds – it’s good but its not good for you.”
  • “Blunt has an amazing falsetto.” Agreed.
  • “Streaming services have fractured audiences. BBC Radio 1 isn’t important anymore – getting on Spotify’s weekly playlist is more important than being played on Radio 1.”
  • “A&Rs are data-driven now. What’s interesting is that streaming hasn’t, as yet, broken a new artist yet – the last global artist who made it big (pre-streaming) was Ed Sheeran.”
  • “You as an artist have never had it so good – easier to create, easier to distribute – but it’s also never been quite so hard as it is now to get cutthrough.”
  • “Streaming companies can work out in 3 days based on skip rates whether or not a song will be a hit; but they can’t work out if it won’t be a hit – syncs and licensing of a song can transform it and your success rates.”
  • Rap, R&B and Hip Hop skew the streaming music industry; modern music is minimal, it needs to be stripped right back
  • In the future Amanda sees artists/songwriters going straight to streaming services, the middle man – record companies – getting stripped out of the deal
  • Publishing/record company execs need to see initiatives from people – state your connections, blag
  • Songwriters/performers must think of themselves as content creators and as business enterprises – they can’t think of themselves as working in a particular line of the music business

My observations

From a classical music perspective, I found it invigorating to hear how the art of songwriting can be articulated as a business process. In this way the art of songwriting probably does more to demystify the compositional process (in comparison to composers of ‘art music’).

At the same time I was wary about the way in which a simplified life-story can be make the process seem easier than it really is. Persistence is the key to all of this – a sense of hunger, as though there is absolutely nothing else you can do so you must writing songs.

The unequivocal message I heard (that I don’t hear as emphatically in the classical music world) is that the creative individual must think of themselves as a business first, finding ways to utilise their mindset and skillset in a variety of different areas.