A Look at the Mainstream Classical Music Controversy

A couple of months ago, many British classical musicians were up in arms over the return of the upcoming Classic Brit Awards 2018 on June 13. This traditionally glitzy award ceremony held at the Royal Albert Hall in London has sparked criticism from some quarters for its populist, mainstream focus and cheapening of classical music.


You can imagine the conversations on Twitter when it was announced that not only would the Classic Brit Awards be returning after a five-year hiatus but also ITV, one of Britain’s primary television channels, and Classic FM would be broadcasting and promoting the event as partners.


After inserting myself into a few heated Twitter conversations, it became apparent that there exists a perceived threat to classical music through ignorance, lack of education and misrepresentation leveled not only at the Classic Brit Awards but also the much maligned “classical cross-over” genre.

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Armies of classical musicians spend their entire lives practicing and honing their craft, laboring over a multitude of seemingly small but vastly important details in order to perform transcendent performances of sublime art.


Under that light, it’s hard for some classical musicians to stomach when this music is watered down, packaged up in a more palatable form and shipped out to the mainstream in ways that dilute what they’re devotedly trying to preserve and promote.


And while traditional orchestras struggle to fill concert venues for monumental masterworks such as Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, you have crossover artists such as vocalist Josh Groban selling over 23 million albums worldwide and subsequently praised for classical music success by such award ceremonies as the Classic Brits.


For many, this just doesn’t seem fair.


The biggest problem that we face when deciding what is “fair”, is that we assign an emotional response to an outcome predicated on personal expectation.


“I spend so much time and energy putting on recitals and yet, hardly anyone comes!”


Or…


“The CD recording that I spent my hard earned money on and countless hours of labor saw only a handful of digital downloads and even fewer physical sales upon its release!”

 

The cold, hard truth is that the market does not care about feelings or expectation.
 

We are in the business of selling a product – a wonderful, life-changing, artistic product – but a product nonetheless. And when you create expectations on how the market should respond, you set yourself up to fail through subsequent emotional reactions and decisions.


Just because we are passionate about classical music and view it as a noble pursuit, one that requires sacrifice and talent, discipline and rigorous dedication, does not mean that the masses will recognize our efforts and respond in kind.

 

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So are the Classic Brit Awards and the “cross-over” genre doing a disservice to traditional classical music?


No. Not in the slightest. They are only following where the attention is and reacting to the market as they see fit according to their own goals, morals and motivations.


And besides, mainstream classical music crossover is as similar to traditional classical music as much as the iPhone is to Android. Can the two exist? Yes. Will one do better than the other? Perhaps. They both do similar things but it ultimately comes down to the audience they serve, their personal preference and the value that they bring to the individual.


What does this all mean for those that prefer more traditional approaches to expressing and marketing our art form?


Firstly, wisdom from Schoenberg should help put this into perspective:
 

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Secondly, realize that we are entitled to nothing. Once you accept that, it frees you up to focus your attention for point three…


And that is, to pour your passion, focus and attention wholeheartedly into promoting classical music to the people that DO love it. Focus on the smaller but passionate niche market that will follow you and the industry to the ends of the earth in the way that provides them with the most value.


Finally, realize and accept deep in your bones that we truly are living in an incredible time of opportunity with the Internet. The traditional gatekeepers have less control over public opinion than they used to. Now, anyone with a voice and a passion can speak to the world on a daily basis and direct the course of the conversation. And if you want to argue the point of "reaching a younger audience," just look at what Instagram influencers are doing in that arena...


Let TV channels focus on the mainstream because that is what sells and keeps them in business. You don’t need mainstream attention. Start small, start focused and bring the value of classical music to your own world.


From there, who knows where this may take you…?