Education, opportunities and awards: BBC Music launched with bold ambitions

Martin CullingfordTue 17th June 2014
Future listeners? Children perform Anna Meredith's Drum Works, part of the BBC's Ten Pieces education initiative (BBC / Guy Levy)Future listeners? Children perform Anna Meredith's Drum Works, part of the BBC's Ten Pieces education initiative (BBC / Guy Levy)

But what might it all mean for the listener?

If the aim was for a journalist to leave the launch thinking ‘how am I supposed to distill all that into an article?’, it was achieved. The BBC launched ‘BBC Music’ yesterday at Broadcasting House, with more than an hour of presenter after presenter making announcement after announcement, all backed-up by performances - including from the newly crowned BBC Young Musician of the Year Martin James Bartlett - and a series of hyperactive videos blending and blurring beats and genres. 

But what - aside from a logo that fizzed frenetically at the back of the stage - actually is BBC Music? What lies behind the banner or strategy, as the corporation itself variously describes it, one now led by its own Director of Music, the recently appointed Bob Shennan? 

Among those announcements, some more groundbreaking than others (and many really better described as programming announcements), was a note-worthy initiative called Ten Pieces. The aim is to reach, as Director General Tony Hall boldly claimed, ‘virtually every primary school child in the country’ with ten pieces of music, each accompanied by a film and by online resources to help teachers, Music Education Hubs and dance schools encourage their pupils to explore the works and ‘to respond creatively to the music through their own compositions, dance, digital art or animation.’ The works include pieces by Handel, Holst, Beethoven, Adams and a new commission from Anna Meredith, while champions of the scheme include trumpeter Alison Balsom and violinist Nicola Benedetti. It is, says the BBC, the biggest commitment the corporation has ever made to music education.

Away from classical, another big announcement is the launch of the BBC Music Awards to celebrate pop and rock music achievements from the past year at an event at London’s Earls Court in December. Meanwhile, BBC Introducing, a scheme in which young artists (again, from pop and rock) upload their music to a BBC site, reach new audiences and potentially get performance opportunities, has formed partnerships with the National Skills Academy and the PRS for Music Foundation, the latter supporting four major showcases.

On the digital front, music is expected to get a stronger presence in the iPlayer, and improvements are being made to BBC Playlister, a facility which enables users to compile playlists and explore those made by others. Of interest here is a relationship with iTunes, which will point people towards downloading. Television programmes announced will explore artists and fashion from across genres - on the classical front, Monteverdi and Mozart are the subjects of two new programmes, while Caruso’s recordings will be the starting point for a series in 2016 exploring popular music. 

Behind all these announcements was a strong indication that the BBC grasps the changing way people - particularly the young - are listening to music. Yes, there were programme announcements fitting into the mould of what was described as ‘linear’ broadcasting (radio and television to you and me). But throughout there was an attempt to engage with those now more used to the immediacy and individuality of online access, and an understanding that streaming, playlists, downloading and interactivity are just as much a part of listening life as tuning into a channel and getting what you’re given. This drawing together of music broadcasting and initiatives across radio, television and online seems central to Bob Shennan’s brief.  

Drawing together genres is a different matter. Tony Hall said he’d like people to think of BBC Music in the same way that they do BBC News. I’m not convinced this will happen. People’s music is a much more personal and focused element of their life than the consumption of news, and taste for specific genres and approaches to presentation plays a massive role. As an overall brand, I doubt its relationship to the average listener will ever be as meaningful and important as that of particular stations or sites, such as Radio 3 or Radio 6. I suspect it will prove to be most relevant as a joining up internally of ideas, approach and technology.

But as I left Broadcasting House, walking past instruments being assembled on a stage on the plaza outside, I did feel convinced of the BBC’s commitment to music, a commitment in which education and outreach often isn't that far beneath the entertainment at the surface. The BBC has promised a lot: whether it delivers on it will be something worth keeping in mind when there’s next a debate about the corporation’s funding.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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