Women composers in the Classic FM Hall of Fame 2019 (or lack thereof)

It’s going to take a brave producer in the commercial space to put something unusual or unfamiliar in the playlist and not then look at the RAJARs and wonder what impact that decision has had on the listenership.

The Daffodil Perspective is a blog and podcast that ‘champions gender equality in classical music’.

One post published yesterday has been doing the rounds and has caught my eye. In ‘Classic FM – Where are all the women?’, the author draws attention to the lack of women composers who feature in the publically voted ‘Hall of Fame’ chart Classic FM has since its inception.

It is a sad indictment (still) that women composers aren’t given the due prominence they deserve – both historical creatives and the present day. The work to increase their profile and their output will never cease to be required, but it has been my understanding (skewed possibly by being increasingly in attendance at women composer-focussed endeavours and concerts) that the situation is improving. Awareness is increasing.

There’s a quote from the post I take issue with slightly.

Don’t Classic FM (and the BBC, LPO, Wigmore Hall etc) have a responsibility to educate their listeners?

The Daffodil Perspective, 23 April 201

None of the arts organisations in the UK – nor across the world – have a specific responsibility to educate their listeners. Those organisations listed in the blog post might strive to educate (as in the BBC’s values – ‘inform, educate, and entertain’) but they don’t have a responsibility to. One could argue that an Arts Council funded organisation like the LPO has a contractural obligation to meet the expectations laid down by their funding body, but being privately funded, Wigmore Hall doesn’t (although its education programme is in itself very strong anyway – but then that’s because Wigmore Hall is brilliant, IMHO).

Importantly, Classic FM has absolutely no responsibility to ‘educate’ their listeners. That isn’t their raison d’etre. They’re a commercial exercise: a broadcast outlet for a specific audience demographic, part of a significant media organisation.

I’ve long since stopped regarding Classic FM (and its most recent sibling Scala) as being present in our lives first and foremost to satisfy listeners, rather than the advertising it sells and the profits its raise are its primary concern, and its stakeholders the ones the media execs are accountable to.

So what now? Will Classic FM continue to justify playing nothing but the same music year after year by using biased data like these polls?

Or can Classic FM exert their power as a major influencer of taste, creating more balanced programming and exposing the massive amount of awesome classical music written by women?

The Daffodil Perspective, 23 April 2019

As long as commercial radio is funded by advertising (like that’s ever going to change) then the playlist will always be the same. Commercial classical music radio stations might play classical, but they’re not their for the good of the wider classical music world. They can’t be. They need to appeal to the widest possible audience to drive reach and increase profits. That’s not to say that women composers music cannot appeal to the widest possible audience. Far from it.

But it’s going to take a brave producer in the commercial space to put something unusual or unfamiliar in the playlist and not then look at the RAJARs and wonder what impact that decision has had on the listenership.

Listen to the Thoroughly Good Podcast spotlighting six women composers and their work at the PRS for Music Wild Plum Arts Workshop

Listen to Dr Sophie Fuller discuss Trinity Laban’s Venus Blazing project

Review: Scala Radio’s First Day

Scala has a warm feel with some strong presenters, gentle fun and some engaging musical choices. Notwithstanding some playlist tweaks, they’re a more palatable listen than Classic FM and a good deal more with it than Radio 3 is with its latest schedule changes 

What Scala achieved on its first day (that Classic FM never really has) is that I’ve been able to listen to to the station all day.

That’s partly because I’ve wanted to test it (and me).

I know it’s not targeting the likes of me, but if I could enjoy listening to it for an extended period of time then that would say something: it must be doing something right.

It’s warm. It’s honest. It’s carefully .. oh so carefully .. curated too.

Nothing has been left to chance. And from the off that carefulness did pay off. The juxtaposition of classical pops with instrumental pop seemed to work, even if some of the pre-recorded hyperbole about classical music’s part in the history of the UK jarred. 

An uncomfortable conversation ensued between Simon Mayo and late-night presenter William Orbit as Scala’s owners Bauer sought to re-define classical music as anything (effectively) that had an orchestral instrument in it.

There was also a painful howler (or was it a gentle poke?) when Mayo read out composer Mike Batt’s email to the station, praising Scala as the egalitarian response to classical music’s snobs and cliques (an email in which he was effectively pitching his own compositions for playout). One wonders why Scala hadn’t sought his oeuvre out already.

Similarly, playing Einaudi within 33 minutes of the station’s start did much to make the challenge I’d set myself at the start of the day something not worth pursuing. I hear little joy in Einaudi’s music. What we heard today – his latest release – was ponderous. Rick Wakeman too. I remain unpersuaded.

Deft production saw a home-educated kid phone in his request to Simon Mayo close lunch time.. But this, like the genuinely warm chit chat and enthusiastic feedback from the audience was overshadowed by one glaring reality for me: an advert for ‘the world’s most beloved tenor Andrea Bocelli’ and his various arena gigs. I’m not the target audience, I had to remind myself.

What the station does underline however is that people like me are in the minority. That the majority of people are prepared to give classical music (and their definition of the genre) a go is what is more important here than keeping the likes me of me happy.

Scala has adopted a softly-softly approach without being apologetic. The fact that presenter Sam Hughes was happy to read out one listener’s email saying how they were ‘just happy you didn’t talk about relaxing music’ was enough for me to know that Bauer are reasonably knowing about what they were offering.

Mark Forrest at drivetime is well pitched. He has that gentle warm end-of-the-day thing going on that makes the end of the day less of a reason to feel guilty and more something to feel warm and cosy about. One or two moments of hyperbole and mindless inaccuracies, but still I was hooked. Why?

Because there aren’t that many adverts. I assumed I’d hear endless adverts. I assumed that the adverts would wrest me from what I was listening to to make the whole thing a rather sordid experience.

So I’ve spent very nearly the day listening to Scala. There are some good things about it too. It has defied my expectations. Stylistically, its less annoying than Classic, with some strong voices, and some sound scheduling choices. Sure, there are things about it that made me shout at the radio, but the difference is that they’re trying their best and I’m not really paying for them. So they offer an alternative. And I think they might just offer a reasonably solid and entertaining introduction to the genre.

Someone’s paying attention. Clearly.

Picture credit: Brett Spencer

How BBC Sounds signals how the BBC describes its output and better aligns it with competing streaming services

I’m planning on saving my notes and reflections from yesterday’s marvellous Middlesex University/PRS Music #CMIC2018 classical music conference until later in the week, once I’ve got some paid out of the way first. 

But a recent change to the BBC website – the roll-out of the web-based ‘BBC Sounds‘ experience – presents an opportunity to share one of the ways attending #CMIC2018 has shifted my perspective. 

‘BBC Radio’ now becomes ‘BBC Sounds’

First, the website change. In some respects its a minor affair. it’s the first change in a longer-range strategy I remember people talking about when I was working at the BBC – shifting audience perceptions by changing the label from ‘Radio’ to ‘Sounds’. 

I despise the word ‘Sounds’ (I’d much prefer them just call it ‘Audio’) but I get the strategy behind it. ‘Sounds’ describes the content whereas ‘Radio’ describes how that content is distributed. 

And that distinction is important right now.

At #CMIC2018 one quote flashed up on the screen during Sara Lambrecht’s paper on the shifting role of classical music recordings – the idea that record companies had acknowledged how their identity had changed in the music sphere – formerly sellers of products, in 2018 record companies saw themselves as media organisations distributing content.

This may seem like a subtle point to get excited about, but it means to me that in some respects record companies are competing with broadcasters whose dominance of the content world has historically been underpinned by their USP: linear broadcasting. 

The live experience acquires importance, perhaps even urgency, when there’s an event attached to it – a news event for example. The rest of a broadcaster’s content – that which doesn’t need to be ‘live’ – is just the same as an album track on Spotify.

Now that on-demand is less of a culture and more an expectation (like getting running water when you switch a tap on), broadcasters need to align their product with the other streaming services available to audiences. That means user experiences online have to be similar to meet the implicit expectations of those users the likes of the BBC depend on. 

And that means stopping referring to radio as radio.

I have a fairly good hunch that also means no longer making schedules available online. It means changing the way users access the actual content, signposting types of content as opposed to a point in a schedule. The latter demands newcomers to a platform already possess an implicit knowledge of the schedule. What the BBC wants to do now is fuel discovery with more useful signposting, cutting across traditional schedules and conventional brands to create a content experience that more realistically reflects a user’s mixed range of interests. 

BBC Sounds is the first stage in what could broadly be seen as an attempt to break down content silos, acknowledging that its audience likes different stuff and that the only way of meeting that need is to move away from conventional radio stations and pursue a potential listener’s implicit or explicit needs. 

And to do that means focusing on a user experience both on the BBC Sounds website and in the accompanying app. And aside from the fact that I hate the name of it, I think the content strategy works because it groups BBC content (by which I mean programmes, tracks, features etc) around themes. 

The curated running orders – clips, music and features and stuff. Surprisingly good.

The Fall Into Autumn ‘Must Listen’ (I hate ‘Must Listen’ too – quit being directive – I’ll listen if I want to) is a good example. Things grouped around the idea of there having been a change in season, drawing me in with evocative imagery. It’s clickable in itself and there’s the promise of a range of content that I perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have considered seeking out. 

And in that way, the BBC is positioning itself alongside streaming services and recording companies, conscious that it has a wealth of content in its databases that it wants users to be able easily access. 

And that means that each piece of content the BBC makes available has the same potential as a single track available on Spotify. 

As much as I’m sad about the first step in the demise of radio, I’m pleased to see they’ve cottoned on to what the recording industry figured out (and acted upon) a few years ago. 

But in terms of my primary destination – classical music – I suspect the change may confirm that the path I’ve already set down is the right one for me. I spent most of the summer only listening to live broadcasts on-demand, preferring instead to listen to tracks and albums via streaming services.

I suspect that while the new BBC Sounds aims to attract the new and the curious, it will only compliment my preferred method for discovery online. Mind you, I imagine they probably didn’t implement it for someone like me anyway.

I’m also wondering whether – and this is just a hunch – whether there will come a time in seven or eight years time when the Charter is up for renewal again, that the only way to access the BBC’s audio on-demand will be to pay a subscription for it. In fact, I might even put money on it. 

Radio 3’s Catherine Bott moves to Classic FM

Catherine Bott will present a new series of hour-long programmes on Classic FM starting on 27 October 2013.

Surprising news announced today by the Classic FM Commissioning Elves that Catherine Bott (her of the BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show) will be hosting a 150 episode programme entitled ‘Everything You Wanted To Know About Classical Music‘.

Catherine – part early music specialist, part broadcaster – has presented the Early Music Show on Radio 3 for about 20 years and leaves Lucy Skeaping as the programme’s presenter. Controller of Radio 3 Roger Wright recently announced the reduction in the number of editions of the programme in a post on the network’s blog, citing “a reduced budget and more limited resources” as the reason why changes to EMS (along with other schedule changes) were being implemented.

Deconstruct the press release Global Radio issued earlier and Classic FM’s new hour-long slot for Catherine appears to have a simple remit: to demystify the classical music genre in its broadest sense, giving answers to some of the oft-asked questions. The station’s successful book of the same name no doubt provides the editorial inspiration for the show.

Unexpected Pleasures #1: Harvest and The Mustard Car

Amid the seemingly constant need to raise awareness of the latest new piece of output, the serendiptious nature of TV and radio consumption can still throw up some unexpected pleasures.

First up, the last episode of Harvest was informative, entertaining and brilliantly shot. Inserts with the biology expert were inventively directed; linking pieces with presenters Philippa Forrester and Gregg Wallace (especially the one with Wallace sat in the background chewing on cherries while Forrester is up close at the camera with a bee) were warm, sincere and often amusing. The programme didn’t patronise. Mind you, I’m not a farmer…

… But, I am from Suffolk. That’s probably one reason why The Mustard Car (produced by Justine Willett) – a reading a of a Blake Morrison story set in a close-knit rural Suffolk village – resonated. The line about Southwold being full of holiday properties bought by city-types made me laugh, although I suspect you’d have to come from East Suffolk to understand the reference. Lovely stuff. Wish I’d caught the rest of the Tales of the East series.

This blog is also available on the BBC intranet, Gateway.