Tired of seeing classical music magazines filled with middle-aged white faces, James Fleury proposes four ‘mental makeovers’ that could help increase diversity in the sector.
The lack of diversity in the classical arts has been the elephant in the room for years. My frustration is reserved for those incredibly generous individuals who have taken the opportunity in recent weeks to politely ‘advise’ me that the decision to publicly expose their institutions for neglecting their duty to actively embrace all people is an incredibly poor one.
For someone who owns a business in the arts, and generally tries to remain open-minded to the eclectic rainbow of opportunities available to create something attractive and exciting, this is a tough beat. I was reminded by a close friend and confidante recently that I should only take up the fight if it was worth sacrificing lucrative business real estate. But when an opportunity to be a catalyst for positive change presents itself, there is no doubt that those in a position of influence that look, live and sound like me have a responsibility to sacrifice financial gain in pursuit of a greater, more critical goal.
Here are four areas which I feel could benefit from a ‘mental makeover’, and in the process open up our artforms to more people regardless of race, religion, sex, gender, economic or cultural background.
Never before has there been a time when genre lines are so blurred, and audiences so arbitrary in their music consumption habits
1. Commit to championing all people in our brand identities
For too long marketers have been left out of the conversation around achieving equality in the arts, and I honestly believe that we can be crucial in helping shape communications to better resonate with those communities that feel isolated by the correctness of engaging with the classical arts.
The fortunate thing for companies like Coca Cola and Dove is that the more they commit to championing minorities in their marketing machines, the more cash lines their pockets. They have a financial interest, but those of us in the arts have a moral obligation to not discriminate against anyone who might enjoy our choirs and orchestras.
I am tired of picking up a classical music magazine plastered with middle-aged white faces. In the same way that a six-year-old boy in Tower Hamlets can run around the living room in his Cristiano Ronaldo-emblazoned jersey, screaming at the top of his lungs while he watches his hero play on the box, we need to ensure that the next generation of violinists, composers, marketers, vocalists, lighting technicians, managers, bassoonists and producers alike can have the same experience when they pick up their parents’ copy of Gramophone or Classical Music Magazine.
As Tête à Tête’s Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones put it: “We must put on stage what we want to see in the world.” I’d argue that it doesn’t stop at row one of the stalls. It’s our flyers, online ads, social media banners, billboards and the presentations we submit to funding programmes as well. Too often only the latter happens, because we want so desperately to convince the hand that feeds us that we are progressive and open-minded as we think we are.
Like Coca Cola and Dove, we also need to make it our mission to champion those people that we’ve left out of the conversation for so long. And that doesn’t equate to finding a poster BAME or LBGTQ+ boy or girl and pasting them on the front of your next season brochure, because today’s customer has evolved to see past such trivial methods.
It’s about physically and emotionally reaching out, understanding what has built those minority communities into what they now are, and acknowledging how music has become central to those communities, the places they congregate, the cultural occasions they observe and why they participate in them.
2. Broaden the teaching of music in schools
A strategy for diversity does not revolve around revolutionising the music education syllabus. It’s typical of classical music to be this complacent.
Promoting our music is embodied in a larger responsibility to respect, support and nurture a wider sphere of artists, irrespective of genre or format. In the last 24 months, styles such as EDM and grime have both seen an explosion of sales in the UK, where home-grown acts have energised a different generation of listener, more malleable and adaptable in treading water through the bottomless PR pool of new exciting acts.
With this in mind, why should we prioritise teaching classical music over other genres that speak to larger, faster-growing groups of fans?
Our education system needs to connect with everyone, and while there is a clear obligation to teach classical music to appreciate the historical context and evolution of more modern styles and sounds existing today, there is a more pressing need for our artist community to show a greater awareness and respect for other movements that have surfaced from very different conditions and social context.
Before we press home the need to educate others about our artforms, these torch-bearers for education revolution should first spend time understanding the work of our counterparts, to pave a way for our artist communities to come together to create something new, spontaneous and borderless.
3. Rebrand classical music as just music
Never before has there been a time when genre lines are so blurred, and audiences so arbitrary in their music consumption habits. We have moved towards a culture of ‘curation consumption’, relying on new technologies such as on-demand streaming and tastemaker promoters and venues (Union Chapel’s Daylight Music, The Barbican and The Roundhouse) to spoon-feed us the latest exciting live music experience.
Today’s music climate is much less conducive to convincing younger audiences to buy a ticket for three hours of Bach. Instead, it favours investing their hard-earned cash in live experiences brought together not by the period of composition style, but by a desire to evoke an emotional and sometimes even physical response from fans.
We’re all aware of the connotations around classical music: the pressures of dressing, looking and even talking a certain way, engrained as part of a stubbornness to conserve the genre for those who perceive themselves to be educated or born into the middle or upper class.
I recall the challenge of deciding which concerts to invite my friends and family to in my time as a member of a London-based choir so they weren’t alienated by the venue, the dress code, the density of the music or the lack of a visual focus to support larger bodies of work that required a specific level of intellectual ‘buy-in’.
Luckily, some progress is being made. The rise of live film and music experiences have seen hundreds of thousands flock to established classical venues like Hamer Hall and Schermerhorn Symphony Centre for the very first time, while collaborations between artists such as Pete Townshend, Alfie Bowe, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Oriana Choir packed the Royal Albert Hall.
Progressive institutions like the BBC Symphony Orchestra and composer Gabriel Prokofiev’s label Nonclassical have fused styles and musical backgrounds to create singular live experiences.
It’s a sign that well-thought, progressive and attractive programming will always send people scrambling for their wallets to beat the online hoards for tickets to their favourite artists.
4. Embrace new technology
The incredible thing about technology is that it becomes outdated at a rate that even eclipses Chelsea FC’s managerial appointments. We’re constantly learning about the latest development – streaming, augmented reality, virtual reality, personal voice assistants. It’s hard to keep up.
I recently replied to a tweet from a well-respected publisher claiming that there’s no use in promoting streaming for classical musicians. On-demand media, and in particular streaming, isn’t going anywhere fast, and the sooner our classical institutions realise this is the case, the quicker we can unlock its potential for our artists.
I’d actually argue that classical music is one of the few genres that organically benefits from streaming services, in that it opens up the consumption funnel to those who can’t afford the inherently extortionate prices for a collection of Brahms symphonies or a St Matthew Passion. Equally, the financial opportunities around playlisting, which essentially aims to curate a collection of songs for a mood or occasion, are especially lucrative.
When it comes to video, there are admittedly tougher financial obstacles to overcome, although the benefit on the other side is irrefutable. The BBC Proms’ Ibiza Prom with Radio 1 was the thirteenth most downloaded radio show on iPlayer last year. NextVR’s partnership with Live Nation has paved the way for never missing out on seeing our favourite artists live ever again, with the opportunity to stream gigs live using an Oculus headset from your living room.
No doubt these will be monetised in the near future, with promoters selling VR tickets to see the likes of Adele and Drake live in virtual reality, and in the process creating a secondary revenue stream for artists.
Orchestras such as The Philharmonia have already explored the technology with their brilliant installation ‘The Virtual Orchestra’ at the Southbank Centre earlier this autumn, but others seem hesitant to follow. For me, seeing an organisation like the BBC Proms embrace virtual reality in the near future would propel it out of the touching distance of its competitors as truly the finest music festival in the world. It would be a game-changer for all artists involved to be able to access the expensive, resource-heavy technology required to make VR a success, and the people at home who might be watching for the very first time.
The education revolution that we so desperately need just can’t happen in our classrooms, but the single square foot of real estate that influences everything we do: our minds.