We’ve all done it. You’re browsing an orchestra’s brochure or website and you come across a description that’s so crass that your eyeballs are rolling upwards before you’ve got to the end of the sentence. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is a ‘drug-fuelled rollercoaster ride’? Beethoven was ‘iconic’ before Bowie? Well, really. In the age of Twitter, what comes next is almost a reflex action. It takes less than 20 seconds to bang out a 280-character response and launch it into the online ether – being sure to tag the offending organisation so they can reflect upon their foolishness and your own superior taste. Dumbing down is the curse of our age. They’ve got to be told, haven’t they?
I imagine that something not entirely dissimilar went through the mind of the composer John Adams when he announced to his 15,000 Twitter followers that the marketing staff of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had done something ‘disgraceful’. The CSO’s error was to have appointed the composer Missy Mazzoli as composer-in-residence, to have commissioned a new work from her, and then to have advertised her premiere under the headline ‘Beethoven 4 & 7’. This, Adams suggested, was a conscious attempt to ‘hide the fact a new work is on a programme’. And so the pile-on commenced. The CSO were being ‘insulting’. They were ‘killing classical music’. They were ‘disgusting’. The reality – that the CSO was in fact throwing massive financial and artistic resources behind a living composer – meant nothing beside the fact that this composer had not been given top billing in a single line of marketing copy.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Adams that the CSO might possibly have been doing everything in its power to get the biggest audience for Mazzoli’s piece. I don’t know the precise circumstances in which the CSO’s marketing team work, but I planned and promoted classical concerts for the best part of two decades and currently work, as a freelancer, with marketing teams at some 20 orchestras and concert promoters in the UK and overseas. So perhaps my reaction was atypical. My first thought was that online copy often has to be written to fit a strict template. You might have 30 characters (including spaces) for a headline. What do you choose to mention? The 60-minute symphonic blockbuster or the 10 minute opener? The superstar soloist or the neglected 19th century tone-poem? Missy Mazzoli or Ludwig van Beethoven?
To make your Ligeti opener the headline when you’ve got Yuja Wang playing Rachmaninov 3 after the interval isn’t so much idealistic as irresponsible
As a marketer, the answer is that you go with whatever, in your judgement, is most likely to make people buy tickets. Yes, you’re there to spread knowledge, to encourage people to take risks – all of that. But it all comes second to making money – the money that keeps musicians in work and composers in commission fees. It shouldn’t need repeating, should it, that most major orchestras (in the UK at least) are at best a couple of bad seasons away from financial collapse? The orchestral planners I work with would dearly love to spend a season or two putting on that Bax cycle or Unsuk Chin retrospective – to take a fearless gamble on transforming public taste. But they’re intensely aware that by the time their effort pays financial dividends, they might already be sending P45s to their players.
Cowardice? Laziness? Living in the past? The jibes don’t have quite the same ring of certainty when you’re responsible for public money – and for the livelihoods of 100 musicians and their families. From that perspective, to make your Ligeti opener the headline when you’ve got Yuja Wang playing Rachmaninov 3 after the interval isn’t so much idealistic as irresponsible. I can hear the protests already and yes, I agree. The world shouldn’t be that way. But it is. So campaign for better subsidy; donate to endowment funds, join a scheme like BCMG’s Sound Investment – whatever it takes. Tastes can and do evolve. Mahler and Stravinsky were box-office poison within living memory. Decades of gradual, persistent work changed that.
Meanwhile the marketers must deal with reality as it is. When they appear to sideline contemporary music (although in my experience, any unfamiliar repertoire can prove challenging – Stamitz and Dohnányi are as much of an audience deterrent as Murail and Saariaho), it’s not out of ignorance or some malevolent socio-political agenda. It’s because they are skilled, seasoned professionals who have learned the hard way that (like it or not) certain works and certain words are more likely to draw an audience than others. Their pragmatism provides the financial soil in which artistic idealism can flourish, and they deserve respect for what they do.
So if you find your hackles rising whenever a poster tells you that Tchaikovsky was the Stormzy of his day, there are a couple of things that you could do. First, remember that if you know enough about classical music to be reading Gramophone, you don’t actually need 99% of the marketing material that’s out there. You can look at the artists and repertoire listings and know at once whether this is a concert you want to attend. You’re already the ideal audience member, and you’re not the person the gimmicky marketing copy is trying to reach (although it is, in its own way, making sure that the things you care about – rare repertoire, new music, more diverse programming – can keep happening). But it’s not aimed at you. Ignore it.
And second – this goes for any kind of online exchange – please try and remember that there are human beings at the receiving end of your indignation. What’s more, if they work in classical music marketing, they’re probably the sort of human beings you’d quite like. I mean, who do you think writes this stuff? My marketing colleagues have included choral conductors, electro-acoustic composers and chamber musicians. At least one of them is listed as an NMC recording artist. When a tired 22-year old junior staffer makes a grammatical error in a tweet, the person you’re ridiculing is a recent graduate who’s made a decision to take low pay and long hours because they love classical music. And the person who wrote that dumbed-down slogan might even be a Gramophone critic.
They’re doing what they do, the way they do it, for a good reason – and while a certain amount of online abuse comes with the territory, the cumulative effect can (and does) damage the psychological wellbeing of people who are working hard for the things you care about. Believe me, it’s less funny when you’ve seen colleagues in tears, or spoken to friends who’ve deleted their social media accounts because of the sheer quantity of bile they’ve received for doing their job (and actually, doing it well). So step back. Think before tweeting. Be polite, be generous and remember why you love the music in the first place. If nothing else, it’ll be good for your blood pressure.
Richard Bratby's 'Forward: 100 Years of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra' (published by Elliott & Thompson) is out now. Buy from waterstones.com