John Bridcut’s Dame Janet Baker documentary

Full disclosure: I’m a John Bridcut fanboy. I admire the documentary maker’s interviewing technique (the way he asks short questions and then holds the space for the respondent to think before speaking) and his resolute unapologetic approach to telling the story of classical music master practitioners.

The recent Dame Janet Baker documentary is a prime example. In the 90 minute exploration of the mezzo’s life, work and early retirement, Baker reflects on formative childhood events and key points in her career via a series of honest and sometimes challenging pieces to camera that do much to present the classical music in a much-needed authentic light.

Within the first ten minutes she articulates the experience of live performance so succinctly that one wonders why, given that classical music is in the ascendancy, no one else is saying the same thing to sell the genre. Answer: Baker and Bridcut May get it and are clearly unapologetic about it, but the industry as a whole is still cautious about scaring newcomers away. In this way, the Baker documentary reveals the distance we have to go to before classical music is written about authentically in the mainstream (where it needs to be).

That resistance or nervousness was what I thought was behind not making a big deal about the doc in the run-up to broadcast. Compared to the largely disappointing ‘Our Classical Century’, Bridcut’s work documents Baker’s life and represents classical music and opera with integrity. Perhaps not flagging Bridcut’s documentary was a way of not drawing attention to how OCC could be seen as lacking editorially.

But having watched to the end of the documentary I’m wondering whether there might have been another reason. Avoiding spoilers is key here if you’ve not seen it, but given the programme’s deeply touching conclusion I now wonder to heavily publicise such an emotional story might have invited criticisms of crass insensitivity.

Whatever the reason, if you’ve not seen it then consider this the pre-publicity for your viewing. Watch it. It will make you cry.

Ooh, Scala Radio

Good on Bauer Media announcing the impending arrival of the UK’s third ‘classical music’ radio station – Scala Radio – yesterday early evening.

At various points overnight when I’ve woken up to go to the bathroom, I’ve pondered about the announcement with uncharacteristic excitement and not a hint of cynicism.

And I’m not being sarcastic, either.

Scala Radio. It’s not a bad name. Not shiny. Eclectic. Like those independent pubs set up in former post offices. All mismatched cutlery and old steel tube office chairs with taught woven backs.

Why invest so much effort to start up a third classical music station? Does the UK need another classical music radio station? I thought radio listener figures were dwindling anyway. Can the industry sustain another station?

Looked at from another perspective, all Scala Radio really represents is the reassignment of bandwidth from one music genre to another, complete with the marketing costs necessary to raise awareness about it.

It would be all too easy to see this through rose-tinted public service specs, but the reality is that like Classic FM’s owners Global, Scala Radio is part of a commercial media organisation in direct competition with Global. And since the BPI’s announcement about an increase in streams for classical music last week, the industry as a whole sees an opportunity. A market worth investing in.

There is then the possibility of Scala Radio illustrating a canny strategic move to exploit a perceived rise in mainstream popularity of ‘classical music’ and raise advertising revenue.

It seems like a bold move to take. Classic FM’s dominance is, as far as I can see, unassailable, in no small part down to its considerable digital strategy which is much-loved amongst the audience it tirelessly serves (or should that be relentlessly pursues?)

Maybe it’s not just about making a dent on the audience share in a bid to please shareholders. Maybe it’s also about driving streaming requests and giving the mainstream labels ‘classical’ properties more exposure. I’m not sure. The figures seem so low as to be inconsequential.

Whatever the strategy, that classical is even being seen as a viable enough genre to support a fledgling brand, says something about how perspectives have changed. My assumption is that the playlist will be pretty similar to Classic FM’s so it probably won’t divert my attention from my preference for discovery and curation via streaming services.

I’m interested too in the possibility of ‘entertainment’ and classical music. I don’t think Classic FM does this in an especially authentic way – or at least not in a way that makes me able to listen to it any longer than an hour or so. There is then an opportunity to create the as yet unattainable: an engaging combination of classical music and speech that doesn’t sound awkwardly knowing.

In this regard, Simon Mayo’s billing makes that possibility a little more likely. That Mark Kermode joins the line up too only reinforces that point. I don’t believe Kermode would do something he thought was potentially a bit shit, for example.

And whilst the sight of one member of the presenter line-up pictured above throws me into an uncontrollable rage, I do think the reappearance of Goldie and what Bauer says he’ll be contributing to the output is an interesting proposition.

I am intrigued and .. though I hate the use of the word … excited by what Scala sounds like when it arrives on 4th March.

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.