Different things to different people

In recent years, John Lewis and Partners has created a bit of a festive monster.

The retail brand’s 2018 Christmas advert illustrating the life of Elton John in a series of sentimentalised vignettes cut to ‘Your Song’ has a far more ambiguous message than in years gone by.

On Friday nights Gogglebox some dismissed it saying there is insufficient Christmas spirit about it, as though Christmas is something that can be manufactured and distributed accordingly like a gas.

Other commentators complain the advert is inaccurate: John Lewis doesn’t sell pianos; the cost of the piano is wrong; it’s unlikely such a small boy would be as excited to get a piano. At one stage on the day of the advert launch (the day all hell broke loose in Westminster the morning Dominic Raab resigned), some were defending John Lewis against the naysayers by thanking the organisation by underlining the importance of music education in the UK.

We’re unable (or unwilling) to play host to ambiguity it seems. We have no available time to reflect on what something means for us, demanding instead that we’re told what to think by someone else. If it’s billed as a Christmas advert then it should say Christmas and if it doesn’t it’s crap.

I see it as a well-loved institution inviting the viewer to consider one aspect of Christmas – giving – with an eye on the longer term.

The idea resonates with me. I’ve grown rather tired of the idea of giving presents as a way of fulfilling a need in the recipient; similarly, gifting to meet explicit wants. I’m now increasingly of the mind that gifts are gestures – the beginning of a journey. Some of those journeys don’t always get underway. Of those that do, the best gifts of all are the ones that keep on giving for the rest of our lives.

The John Lewis Christmas advert is a remarkable platform for Elton John to drive streaming revenue and sell his farewell tour of 2019. You wonder whether he actually needs something like John Lewis and Partners to do that. Perhaps John Lewis needs Elton John, more than Elton John needs John Lewis.

But I appreciate the ambiguity. It makes it possible for the advert to mean different things to different people.

I see a heartfelt message about the gift of music, its effects on us as individuals, and the role it plays in our everyday lives, something all of us regardless of genre take for granted in an on-demand world.

I like the fact that Christmas is referenced but not front and centre. And what it leaves me considering is that whatever it is we strive to achieve at Christmas, we might strive harder to sustain all year round and beyond.

Review: Our Classical Century, Gershwin Discovery Concert, and The Prince and the Composer

I was dubious about Our Classical Century when I attended the launch event a few weeks back. I couldn’t really discern the impetus for the season, beyond it being a way of bringing Radio 3, BBC Two and BBC Four closer together and providing genre-based content to populate the new BBC Sounds world.

What I saw of the opening episode of the Our Classical Century series and what I heard from the panel discussion at the launch raised more questions about the season’s over-arching editorial strategy. Skepticism led me to conclude that the year-long classical music features and documentaries season was probably not made for people like me.

Our Classical Century is the BBC answering calls for classical music outside of the Proms season to be better represented in terms of scope and quality. In that respect, it’s a good thing. But, it also illustrates the fundamental problem the broadcaster faces. By advocating classical music to new audiences the BBC necessarily has to create programming that appeals to the widest possible not-necessarily knowledgeable audience.

That means the end product will always fall short of the kind of content classical music buffs will naturally seek out, because it’s sharing knowledge buffs already know. Just by virtue of the programme being made by the BBC, people like are always going to be disappointed it doesn’t go far enough.

It certainly can’t be said to be dumbed down programming, not by any means. But, there are moments in Our Classical Century feels as though it’s been pulled in so many different directions at the commissioning stage, that in the end there’s insufficient time available to go in deep.

I’m still not entirely convinced about co-presenter Lenny Henry’s contribution to the programme necessarily works either. I get why he’s there, but there are moments in his everyman role when his presence on-screen actually feels a little awkward. The energy returns whenever Suzy Klein appears. No surprise, Klein is an experienced broadcaster. Unexpectedly, Henry’s delivery feels a little too earnest.

Based on the first episode, the Discovery Concerts that compliment the four-part Our Classical Century series promise to be a more fulfilling watch.

A lot of this is down to the format: an unashamed visual programme note providing historical context, and spotlighting detail in the work, before a live recording performance of the work in question.

In the case of the opening episode – George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – the detail revealed around the opening clarinet solo and writing for saxophone trio felt like the right amount of under-the-bonnet stuff to satisfy people like me and feed the curious and the unfamiliar. That the programme didn’t shy away from spending 45 minutes analysing it this way was a real boon. Presenter Josie D’Arby is particularly good too, combining genuine curiosity with an infectious warmth. She is adept at establishing great rapport on screen that looks authentic.

The BBC has also repeated John Bridcut’s documentary about Prince Charles’ love for the music of Hubert Parry – The Prince and the Composer – from 2016. It’s always a pleasure to hear John’s voice –  and his eye for visual storytelling makes for compelling viewing. I had no idea until I watched this documentary that Hubert Parry wrote any symphonies. As Prince Charles points out in the documentary, that means there’s a wealth of unfamiliar music to explore for the first time.

Our Classical Century continues until June 2019 – broadcast dates available on the BBC website.

 

How Radio 3 and Classic FM perform in RAJAR Q3 2018

For those that don’t know, RAJAR is the way in which radio listening is measured and reported on. Data is released on a quarterly basis.

There’s a lot of analysis about it by people who are very good at what they do. I can’t claim to provide forensic analysis in this post – instead I’ve pointed to those industry commentators.

But I thought it might be interesting to hone in on Classic FM’s and Radio 3’s performance, how each broadcaster has referred to their station’s performance, and reflect on my own listening experience in comparison.

What the BBC says

The BBC leads on 5 Live Sports Extra and 6 Music as their strong performing brands. Radio 3’s audience is below 6 Music’s

BBC Radio 3’s audience was 1.93 million (from 1.91m last quarter and 1.96m last year) and its share was 1.2% (1.1% last quarter and 1.1% last year).

BBC Media Centre, Thursday 25 October 2018

They’re also emphasising ‘BBC Podcasts’ which I think I’m right in saying includes any radio content which can be downloaded for post-broadcast catch-up (rather than only specifically produced podcasts). That hints at the direction of travel (flagged in a previous post of mine about BBC Sounds).

What Global Radio says

Global loves big figures. It’s not a bad figure either. It looks good. It sounds solid. And there’s a nice implicit comparison with the kind of figures we hear a lot about in relation to television. So, even though’s no useful comparison for the average punter, it’s a figure that reinforces Classic’s ongoing success. 

What the commentators say 

I read Adam Bowie’s post and Matt Deegan’s blog. Respected industry chaps who regularly post about radio and stuff. 

Adam Bowie

Radio 3 got its Proms bump with reach up 1.4% to 1.9m (down 1.5% on the year). Hours were well up this quarter – up 10.3% on the quarter and up 13.7% on the year. I hate to disappoint Radio 3 listeners, but the jump looks a little too good to me, so expect some “correction” next quarter.

Adam Bowie, Thursday 25 October 2018

Matt Deegan

Matt has an interesting breakdown on London listeners during the summer months. The gap between Classic and Radio 3 is stark. The proximity of Classic to other commercial brands is impressive. In Manchester Radio 3 doesn’t feature on the list at all. 

In his overview, Matt highlights a perspective on digital listening I hadn’t appreciated before now about the rise in popularity of smart speakers (eg Amazon Echo) amongst users listening journeys. That reminds of the point I was flagging post-CMIC2018 about how broadcasters and record companies are now competing as distribution platforms.

From a classical music perspective, making the core content more easily findable/retrievable to fans or connoisseurs like me presents itself as a priority; any editorial context put around that content or related storytelling needs a strong recognisable and searchable brand name.

Matt’s post also flags the limitations of the RAJARs accounting method – recall – and how its challenged by specific metrics obtainable from streams and downloads in comparison. Makes the BBC’s emphasis on podcasts appear like an attempt to lead the industry towards a more useful method of measuring success. Maybe. 

My thoughts and listening experience

I’m hardly representative – but its interesting to reflect on my own listening experience against these figures. 

My radio listening has dropped considerably in the past 8 months. I rarely switch on in the mornings. I often get annoyed when I’m listening to speech.

A caveat applies here I think: I still wonder whether there’s a hangover present from being a BBC-staffer recognising things I don’t especially like and opting for near-wholesale avoidance as a self-preservation strategy in a new freelance and brand-agnostic life. 

Of those things I do listen to – World at One, PM (despite Eddie Mair’s departure), The Archers, Any Questions, and more 5 Live than Radio 3.

Over the summer I listened to the BBC Proms on-demand more than I did live. My listening has dramatically dropped off post-Proms. I suspect this is more to do with discovering the appeal of unmediated classical music recordings and live streams, me gaining in confidence exploring the subject on my own, and reconnecting with the joy of self-discovery. 

Importantly, I’ve moved away from Radio 3 since I’ve noticed a change in on-air presentation style. This isn’t me falling into the bracket of people who decry the dumbing down of the airwaves by the way. Rather in my case,  I’m not warming to some styles of delivery. Some of the newer voices indirectly (and probably unwittingly) present more of themselves rather than mediating, facilitating or contextualising in the way I used to seek Radio 3 out for a few years ago. 

The stats and the commentary remind me that Classic and Radio 3 aren’t competing as they’re appealing to different audiences with different content.

It also makes me think that Radio 3 is reasonably robust meaning it has a surprising amount of editorial freedom to tweak schedules and introduce change compared to a few years ago.

The data also serves to remind me that the world I choose to write about really isn’t that big at all. 

Eurovision Young Musicians 2018: Final

Six young classical music performers from countries across Europe graced the Usher Hall stage in Edinburgh, competing to win a trophy, a bit of cash, and pose awkwardly for a photograph. Was it any good? And where does Eurovision need to go with it now?

Compared to the last Eurovision Young Musicians final, tonight’s competition was a much more watchable affair.

Here’s a list of reasons why:

  • It was indoors
  • The talent on stage was pretty good
  • The presentation had gravitas
  • The winner made sense to me as a viewer
  • The programme was mercifully short on hyperbole
  • There was sufficient deference
  • The competition didn’t look schlocky
  • References to EYM’s brasher sibling – the Song Contest – were mercifully kept to a minimum

In fact, in some respects even though the event was low on atmosphere, the coverage was so pleasingly straight-down-the-line that one wonders why the BBC’s Young Musician competition coverage can’t adopt the same unfussy strategy in future iterations of its coverage.

If it’s got Eurovision in the title they watch it, won’t they?

It wasn’t all a bed of roses for me, particularly in the competition’s digital marketing.

One email I received sought to persuade email subscribers to watch EYM by appealing to those viewers who still mourn the passing of live orchestral accompaniment in the Song Contest by referencing the inclusion of a live orchestra in the EYM final.

This combined with the inevitable references to the last time Eurovision was staged in the Usher Hall – the 1972 Song Contest – confirmed a long-held assumption of mine.

The EBU has in recent years been trying to claw back credit for its popular TV formats, reclaiming the ground previously occupied by the heavy lifting independent content creators achieved between 2000-2010.

In reclaiming that marketing ground, the EBU assumes that TV audiences will be sat glued to any of their competitions regardless of the actual content, solely because it has ‘Eurovision’ in the title. So there’s an assumed crossover of audiences. This partly explains why the EBU resolutely clings on to the awkward-looking Junior Eurovision Song Contest when only a precious few take it seriously.

Ignorance or contempt?

The problem this approach has is that it makes plain either an ignorance for the art form EYM seeks to celebrate, or a contempt for the audience.

Eurovision Young Musician was (years ago) a high-brow affair, bringing together the cream of young classical music performance talent from across the Eurovision network. Eurovision Young Musician was the Premiere League to BBC Young Musician’s Division One. Young Musician was a distinct offering compared it the Song Contest.

Nowadays the EBU refers to both competitions are part of the nauseatingly named ‘Eurovision Family’. For me, expecting or even hoping that there would be audience crossover from light entertainment to live performance art form is either well-intentioned or massively ignorant. I’d like to think the former. Experience of TV people makes me conclude the latter.

Of course, there’s no reason there can’t be crossover. I’m living proof. I love both competitions. But I don’t love them both because they’re Eurovision products. I love one in the same way that I love picking at a scab on my knee. I love the other because it makes me feel good. You work out which is which.

The quality of the programme is dependent on the quality of the performance

he musicians who took part displayed potential. There wasn’t anything rip-roaring – not like I’ve seen in some other competitions over the past 18 months – but their talent has to a certain extent helped reinvigorate the brand.

But its the quality of the musicians and their grand final appearance which needs to be built upon if Eurovision’s reinvestment in its classical music format is to pay off. Evidence of why that development is necessary was seen in some of the performances during last night’s final. 

All of the performances were of the standard I implicitly expected them to be from this kind of televised competition (especially where the criteria and selection process is understandably a little vague).

They need more time on stage

But where I think the performers would have had more of an opportunity to demonstrate their musicianship convincingly was by having enough time to perform an entire concerto.

Eurovision has built its competition brand to a certain extent on this idea of limiting everyone to a specific amount of time in the spirit of ‘fairness’. What that means really is managing a TV running order.

What EYM’s ‘no longer than 12 minutes’ rule means for performers is that they’ll always need to pick the last movement of a concerto – not only the (usually) most technically demanding, but the point in the musical narrative ideas are tied up in the score.

Full concertos means more opportunity for a range of musical expression

Performers are then being expected (to a certain extent) to manufacture their musical statement at the beginning of their performance just where music is reaching the denouement when they’ve not had the benefit of playing it from the beginning.

This makes for an unnatural expectation in terms of expression and, that combined with the technical demands of a final movement ramp up the pressure, increase the likelihood of errors and in some cases makes for a sometimes dissatisfying performance.

The six finalists

For me, this is partly why Norway’s Birgitta performance of the final movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto didn’t land right for me. An ambitious choice of work for any cellist, made even more demanding by starting a televised competition with the concluding movement of an already epic work. She rose to the challenge with a stunning tone, though there were some hurried untidy sections, some slips in intonation and some striking moments when she dropped out of character. 

Slovenian violinist Nikola Pajanovic fared much better with the final of the Tchaikovksy Violin Concerto – a far more convincing performance full of attack and verve. Musically the movement is more self-contained than the Elgar Cello Concerto 4th meaning it made for a more plausible one-movement performance too. Good as he clearly was, I wanted to hear him play the entire work. 

Having the opportunity to play two contrasting movements benefited bassist Indi Stivin demonstrate a range of musical expression – still the same amount of time but having contrast provided a fuller experience. What didn’t work for me was hearing relatively immature musical material which unwittingly clouded Indi’s considerable musical talent. His skill at creating such a sweet soloistic voice from a double bass is remarkable. But I would have liked to hear him push himself with more established repertoire.

German violinst Mira Foron plays Sibelius

German violinst Mira Foron‘s performance of the last movement of the Sibelius violin concerto had a flabby feel between soloist and orchestra. But like the Slovenian violinst, Mira displayed great confidence and attack. As the movement progressed so more of her fierce attitude and magnetism emerged. 

Hungarian saxophonist Máté Bencze

Choosing a complete work by Ibert was a deft move on the part of Hungarian saxophonist Máté Bencze. Ibert’s Concertino de camera provided a complete over-arching narrative, the opportunity to demonstrate a range of technical skills, and make for a satisfying watch not least the arresting solo at the beginning of the middle section. Here Máté Bencze demonstrated why giving a performer the time to present an entire work (in Máté’s case it just happened to run just under 12 minutes), benefits both musician and audience. The most satisfying performance of the entire evening.

Russian pianist Ivan Bessonov

Certainly where winner Russian pianist Ivan Bessonov was concerned there was never any doubt he had the stamina and the technical ability to perform all of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. In fact, so good as he was it seems slightly incredible to me watching the performance back on YouTube now and reading my tweet from last night’s broadcast. 

On reflection it was the most accomplished performance of the evening, free of flaws, most assured and compelling. 

Do the musicians a favour: put EYM in its rightful context

For Eurovision to capitalise on the competition, the performers need to be on stage for longer amounts of time (even if that means cutting out one or two finalists).

They also need to rehearse with the orchestra for longer too. And perhaps most difficult for them, they need to capitalise on the future successes the talent who appeared in this competition goes on to experience.

And to do that, the EBU needs to establish a narrative online about these performers future professional lives in the context of their chosen field, rather than trying to shoe-horn it into the Eurovision’s idea of classical music and its range of broadcasting activities. That means stopping being slavish about gaining credit for your broadcast formats, and positioning EYM in the context of other international music competitions.

It’s not quite there yet, but as of last night EYM is definitely set on the right path.

Music, marketing, and weddings

I’m not a big fan of weddings. They always seem like such a massive commitment on the part of the hosts and, depending on the location chosen by the central characters, usually a costly affair for the guests too.

I’m not complaining about the weddings I’ve attended in the past, of course. They’ve always been rather special affairs. Poignant. But as a rule, my heart usually stops beating for a second when an invitation is extended. When it came to my own, me and the OH opted for something low-key and practical. There were papers to sign and a meal to be had and a very limited budget. 

Yesterday’s wedding was, naturally, a different experience. A TV spectacle featuring people I’ve never met, never will meet and who, depending on who you speak to, have a dubious entitlement to money this country would probably be better spending on critical run-down services.

Here’s the thing. I thoroughly enjoyed that TV spectacle though. I looked forward to it more than that  Song Contest last weekend. Gracious. What an admission.

An insistent smile

There is something about Meghan Markle’s smile that insists you smile back at her. Harry stands there in his military uniform and acts as a lightning rod for all of us who remember the death of his mother and the unprecedented national outpouring of grief that followed. And, I admit to going ‘aww’ when Charles offered a hand to Meghan Markle’s mother.

This event helped seek a happy ending to a piece of fairy-tale theatre because we’re all of us decent human beings who, on a fundamental level, do not want to deny the couple their happiness.

Collective memories of tragedy in the past fuel our desire to see the young prince, like that of his brother, happy. We look for it in his eyes and that of Meghan Markle’s. We found it. Unequivocal justification for this collective celebration. In watching him take hold of that happiness we ourselves feel a sense of closure. We’re reconnected with the good bits of our personality as we do so. As bread and circuses go, this was good for the soul.

Music and theatre

The service was a beautiful sculptured piece of theatre too. Subject, development, tension, redemption, denouement, resolution, and a coda. All this punctuated by carefully selected, deftly-juxtaposed cultural contrasts, annotated with unorthodox visual asides courtesy of members of the Royal family and cutaways to some of the other guests.

Music played an integral part of the presentation.  A sophisticated melding of the unusual with the familiar, the unorthodox and the popular. All were combined to create a polished, distinctive, engaging narrative about a young couple who sought to make a positive statement about themselves and the world they see themselves living in in the future.

Marketing commodities

But it was also highly marketable. Television pictures were edited in places to appeal to a global audience – this was an international affair. Record companies sought to position their artists front and centre, not just to build on the recent successes in the classical music world to increase representation and inclusivity, but also to generate revenue.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing at the Royal Wedding, May 2018

Yes, this was a touching national occasion, but there were many with a vested interest which went beyond the Royal Wedding as an event where two people exchanged vows.

This was reflected online too. Social media commentary played host to some shameless opportunism, sometimes unwittingly veering into mawkish hyperbole. In a few cases this revealed the extent to which some artists have become valuable commodities. Many of those vested interests saw their opportunity to reinforce their brand, in the guise of ‘gaining reputational credit’ – the digital demonstration of inexperienced and short-sighted practitioners unable to see beyond their own organisation’s outdated and clunky strategies.

These things matter to me because I think that the platform musicians are fighting for needs to be represented in both an authentic way and one that pays due deference. I’m not sure we’re quite there yet on both of those points.

That’s damaging to audiences because the line between marketing, PR and audience commentary is considerably more blurred than many professionals realise.

The guiding principle surely remains: it’s social media – be social. Imagine yourself at a party. Would you as a brand insist on saying the same things you do online, at that party? Not unless you were happy to spend your time alone on the balcony with a warm glass of fizz and no company to speak of.

Unfamiliar music, ravishing arrangements, and light miniatures

In terms of material, we turned our back on the usual pomp and circumstance music. That’s a good thing. I cried when I heard the utterly ravishing arrangement of Stand By Me, obtaining a strange sense of reassurance when I heard John Rutter’s hymn, so too the Thomas Tallis.

Conversely, it was the much-advertised appearance of Sheku-Kanneh Mason had a whiff of contrivance about it – light music which will have been seen by the majority as the summing up of all classical music – serving less the important messaging which still needs to be made, but more those organisations who profit from his talent.

What this combination of words and music achieved, helped shape an event that provided closure on a story many in this country have lived through over the past thirty years. At one level that story consists of our ever-more discombobulated understanding of the role we play in our increasingly manipulative media landscape.

This wedding – the Royal Family – is part of that media landscape too. Its content sought to serve a narrative which has been repositioned slightly, one that reacts to the hideousness incomprehensibility of recent years. But the same media ecosystem remains, something we all participate in knowingly or unwittingly.

And while exploiting the opportunity for inclusion, representation and legitimisation of the classical music genre is something which are good and necessary aspirations for an event like this, we should be ever more wary of how easily marketing that aspiration can distort an industry.

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.