Jun 22, 2015

10 Reasons Why Classical Music is Failing Today

I would like to apologize about the click-bait title posts, but they appeal to people for some reason so I may as well use them.  Lately lots of bloggers, writers, critics, etc. have been frequently saying how classical music is doomed to obscurity, being too quiet, too dated, and too boring.  That being said, I believe many critics are missing the change of pop consumer culture, as well as misunderstanding what is happening to classical music in general.  Without further introduction let's take a look into the current situation that classical music is in.

10.  No cohesion between various musical groups

One of the problems classical music organizations have is the lack of cohesion and  awareness of the different musical groups in their area.  While many musicians (especially at local levels) will play in several groups, orchestra or otherwise, it seems like many musical groups tend to not know what other groups are performing in their area, or simply won't see other groups perform in their area.

Orchestras should not only self-promote but help bring attention to other groups in their area and vice versa: smaller ensembles should promote each other and help advertise larger and more prominent groups as well.  If the community becomes more united the self promotion will give listeners more options and more knowledge of what's happening in their own backyard.

9.  The hiring processes hires 'safe' musicians who don't contribute to the local community, and values ability over artistry and leadership.

I have to admit this is partially a personal complaint as well as an important one.  When an orchestra hires a musician, they look for several things: how a musician fits into the sound of an orchestra, how skilled and consistent is the player, how musical is the player, and so on.  However, I believe orchestras need to look at another important quality when hiring a musician, one that cannot be determined from a blind audition: how will that player contribute and promote the orchestra or classical music in the local community?

It is so easy as a musician to focus only on the music community that we developed in.  Focusing on conservatories or the wealthy elite has allowed classical music to survive, but to flourish, musicians really need to get out into the public and work on inviting and informing people of events and music in their area.  The reason why this is so hard to do is because it is met with heavy resistance.  People don't like it when they are asked to listen carefully and analyze their music the way we as classical musicians break down our art form.

There is some positive light in the matter though as many smaller groups are rooted in their community.  New World Symphony has an international and local presence for building up their community.  Other ensembles like Fifth House in Chicago and the Civic Orchestra also play in local and unexpected places to promote their concerts but also to establish a relationship in their community.  These groups are few and far between, however, and most music groups seem to think that their existence deserves people to come listen to their concerts.  This attention must be earned from a massive market of superstars and pop artists.

I want to commend Cleveland Orchestra for being the best orchestra at establishing a relationship with their local city.  They promote their sports teams and are willing to joke about themselves in a way that allows them to feel approachable rather than an ineffable paragon of musical idealism.

8.  Classical music is disconnected from how people relate to music today.

A major problem with classical music today is its disconnect from what people listen for in music.  For example, I remember going to see a Broadway show recently.  After the show, a large group of people crowded the exit of the stage to be able to see/interact with the stage performers.   From this I realized the average person has no real empathy and attachment to the actual music, but the person themselves.  People listen to an artists music not because the music is unique or insightful (if pop music shows us anything it's that neither of these have to be true for a piece of music to be successful) but because they relate in some way to the person themselves.  You can tell this by how the fans react to news.  Pop artists get a free pass from crimes due to their popularity; the person is more important in the music.  If something like this happens to a classical musician, the musician or director is held accountable and removed from the orchestra, or at least appropriately punished.

This habit of classical music organizations reveals another problem with classical music: the community looks inward and becomes introverted.  The reason why orchestras and opera houses end up playing the same 50 or so works of music is because these organizations are catering to the same people who have been attending orchestras the past 25 or 30 years.  This is a huge problem; there are lots of great piece of art music being composed with the same level of artistry and creativity that was being produced over a century ago and yet very very few of those works are being given exposure at the large stage.  Luckily, these works are being performed at a less exposed level as many younger musicians are tired of the stagnant development of national and international orchestras.  I mean the current biggest 'craze' is Barbara Hannigan's performance of Gyorgy Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre, a piece written over a century ago. There is so much new music being composed, some of it cinematic in nature, but much of it personal and powerful.

I mean listen at the work of Wuorinen.  It is intellectually stimulating, but essentially grating to listeners.  Even as contemporary musicians who understand modern compositions, there comes a point where you can not defend atonal compositions.  It is one thing to use serialism for expressive purposes  and used well to make a statement, but sometimes the math and intellectual idea is what is more powerful than the actual musical product.  Many ensembles and orchestras who play contemporary works end up being forced to defend bad pieces.  This, in part, enforces the repetition of dated and overplayed works of older composers.

It is important for orchestras to find a balance between the good ol' top 50 and modern works.  Orchestras could become a hub for new compositions and for composers to come up with new exciting music for people to enjoy and stretch their imaginations.  If orchestras keep living in the past they will end up being in the past.

7. Failure to adapt and embrace changing and new technology

Orchestral music has not changed its performance style since about the 1830s with Berlioz' Symphony Fantastique and the rise of musical academies.  Modern, technology, however, has been constantly changing how we view and consume video, interact with other people, and listen to music.  While orchestral music has embraced technology to perform new music works, classical music hasn't really stayed up to date with musical consumption habits.

Actually on second thought I take it back.  Music is pretty good at adapting to new technology.  Many musicians and conservatories stream concerts, Twitch's 'music' channel is pretty underutilized but is available for people to stream personally.  There is a recent article in which Juiliard has made an app which streams the process of making and being great artists, be it a pianist, singer, actor, or dancer.

                                     This honestly has nothing to do with what I'm writing about.  Just wanted to put some nice music here.

Even with these developments, most orchestras are pretty slow on the technological uptake.  There is little interaction between the audience, and the musicians in orchestras are generally silent outside of their circle of influence in the academic field and/or other musicians.  While larger orchestras such as Berlin have their digital concert hall and the MET has their 'MET at the movies' experience, beyond the major productions most symphonies have little or no online presence beyond a website and a poorly updated Youtube channel.

I would like to see orchestras try to incorporate and be on the cutting edge with the VR and other technology to really revolutionize the orchestral experience.  Imagine as a viewer to be able to 'walk' around an orchestra and hear what an orchestral musician hears when they play.  When I sit in an orchestra I hear something completely different than in a recording or as an observer in the hall, and I would love to see orchestras have a more entrepreneurial approach to adapting and utilizing new technologies for music.

6. Lack of marketing/significant outreach

I've gone a little bit into this in other categories on this list but I want to discuss this in more specific detail here.  Think about the level of promotion pop music artists get when they release a new album.  Posters, ads, access cable ads, twitter, Facebook, the industry floods promotion everywhere.  While orchestras don't need to sell out, beyond the Californian orchestras (LA phil ,SF, etc.) most orchestras don't really self promote beyond their Facebook page.  Part of this is due to a limited marketing budged: most orchestras are scraping by the skin of their teeth and most of their sales come from donations and not ticket sales.

Putting some money together for ads, local cable or otherwise, would be a significant help promoting an orchestra.  If you walked around a city that isn't NYC, Chicago, or Philadelphia, and maybe Cleveland, and ask them where and when their local orchestra is and where they play they probably couldn't tell you.  Orchestra's might advertise on Facebook and Youtube videos do reach an international audience, but even then they will only reach audiences who are looking.  Orchestra's need to find ways to draw in an audience who isn't going to be looking for what their orchestra is playing, but people looking for something to do that weekend and give them an experience which doesn't make them feel separated from the orchestra as they play.

Now I'm not a marketing guru with years of experience to know how to promote but I know that orchestras could be doing a lot more than what they're doing now.  There are so many great performances and performers that people simply are unaware, and I know I'm always frustrated when I miss out on some great pieces being played simply because they're not well promoted.

That being said, I understand the difficulty.  When I perform a concert promotion is one of the last things I'm thinking about.  It's a very tough for single performers self promote your own concerts.  For my undergrad and master's recitals I literally did no promotion.  This was in part of my lack of self-confidence of my playing but it was also due to just not knowing what to do.  I know some schools are now helping their students learn how to promote their performances (Mannes specifically) and I think overall it's a positive development in stagnant music education.

5. Classical music recordings and streams do not properly represent the genre.

There was an excellent recent NPR article detailing many aspects of classical music streaming and geo-tagging that goes into a lot of problems about finding/listening to classical music through streaming services such as Spotify or Pandora. However, it primarily focuses on how impossible it is to find top recordings of classical music, as well as the complicated business of finding a recording.

The article does not go into the other problem with classical music: recordings simply do not sound remotely the same as a live concert despite the care taken to make good recordings.  Even with lossless audio files like FLAC, the recording will only be as good as the positioning and equipment.  While this equipment can get very good, it still isn't the same, as the music gets compressed, mixed, etc.  it still lacks the depth of the live performance.  Also due the loudness war so much music gets affected by it.  Either classical recordings get hit by it and there no longer becomes any dynamic contrast, or the opposite happens and the dynamics are so contrasting that the quiet parts/movements of a piece get lost and the whole effect of the piece is ruined and hard to hear.

Even with new and 'better' formats being developed classical music needs to find a good way of making great recordings.  While there are some fantastic and ground-breaking recordings, (Boulez with Cleveland comes to mind as well as some Chicago and Philadelphia recordings) it still pales to a live performance.  Classical music is designed around the concert hall and live performance, and as such recordings need to reflect the setting.

4. Classical Music has a bad or negative image in pop culture

Classical music has a poor image in mainstream culture.  Whenever it appears in movies, it is always associated with the financially and intellectual elite, the elderly, the foppish, or the pretentious.  It has been used as a punishment in public schools, and has been used as calming emotional manipulation in train stations,  For some reason this art style which was once near universal has been practically weaponized as punishment.  It is sad, especially considering that classical music has such great story and emotional depth to the music, something that is ignored in it's common consumption as a study aid or a relaxer.  How can you find Shostakovich or Berg relaxing?

Leider by Berg, performed by Renee Fleming

Classical music itself is not pretentious, but sometimes the people who listen to it are.  Musicians demand such high levels of perfection and musicality in their playing that it can make new listeners of classical intimidated, the amount of study and knowledge many people have about the genre is incredible.  Due to this, many people get angry and frustrated when they don't understand and recognize basic musical forms, the multiple melodies and counter-melodies, and constantly shifting tonalities that appear in classical music works.  This makes the formality of the performances themselves become a daunting experiences to many people.

3.  Modern music consuming habits do not follow modern art/classical music's demands

A general and overlooked problem is that classical music doesn't conform to how people generally listen to music. Instead of being the focus, music tends to be used as a multitasking background soundtrack.  Classical music, especially compositions written the past 100 years or so requires the piece to be the focus, be it Stravisnky, Shostakovich, or Boulez, Cage, etc.  To fully understand these pieces a listener can't focus on other inputs, but due to our hyper-visual society we tend to focus on what we see and not what we hear.  This is why movie soundtracks and pop pieces have prominent melodies with a steady consistent beat, not only for dancing but for ease of consumption.

The loudness war (which was mentioned in an above section) is a reflection of this.  Most headphones are pretty poor quality, so if all parts of the piece are the same volume you can hear it at the cost of musicality. Compare this to the sensitivity of an orchestral piece, where even in a quiet room with headphones it can be difficult to make out all the details.

The culture of classical music is just completely different from popular genres. For example, most music written in a contemporary style focuses on musical intellectualism instead of musical empathy.  Meanwhile, pop music is less about the music and more about the image.  The music is so similar that people invent ridiculous classifications in an attempt to separate 'their' music from the 'mainstream' genres. You don't see Baroque being broken down to 'post-grunge apocalyptic baroque' (though that would be kinda cool).  If the image and popularity of the pop-artist or the group was removed and just the music remained, could anyone say that the music is still good and popular?

2.  Very few people realize the range and scope of music classical styles have to offer.

When people think of classical music they tend to think of Mozart or Beethoven,  I mean just type in 'classical music' into Youtube and look at the first few videos that show up.  It isn't Xenakis or Stockhausen that's for sure.  Everyone extrapolates on this and says all classical music are this style of music.  And they're partly right since classical music has the primary definition of music written between 1775 and 1825 (you can quibble dates if you want, I'm just going with Google here). I mean where would Messiaen fit in? Ravel? Rimsky-Korskov? There's no good way to define and categorize 600 + years of written music that is still growing and developing today.  Art music is another classification but ignores that so much of classical music wasn't written to be esoteric and intellectual.

the first link when you search 'classical music' on Youtube. Don't read the comments

When people say 'they don't like classical' I have to not believe them because there is encompasses so many different styles and philosophies that they can't possibly say they dislike all of classical, but they hear a couple compositions and assume that they have heard everything it has to offer without only scratching the surface.

That being said, music appreciation does go both ways.  It's so easy to focus on one category when completely ignoring what is going on now.  As musicians we should listen to more popular styles (be it metal, pop, hip hop, whatever) so we can better understand what is the popular music aesthetic.

1.  Lack of Education

In the end, this all comes down to one thing: lack of education.  People don't know how much music there is and cannot fathom how many different subcultures and genres there are.  Without classical musicians leading the way for promotion and education, there won't be many orchestras left because people don't know they exist!  Once again look at Youtube, and see how many channels there are promoting video games, science, or other current pop culture trends.  Then look at who is promoting classical music.  There is a horrible lack of education in the arts which allows corporations to swoop in and take control of what people see every day.  We as musicians need to show people how amazing classical music is and the amount of diversity and depth the music has to show.

Hopefully this has been somewhat insightful look into the difficulties classical music has to face.  I wasn't expecting it to be this long but it ended up taking quite a while to write.

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