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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. 

Photo of concert from audience

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.

James Fleury is Founder and CEO of Nouvague.
Tw: @JamesFleury91

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Photo of James Fleury


Why privilege classical music over, say, popular music, in the musical education of children? For the same reason we privilege literacy over illiteracy, good literature over comic books, good painting over kitch, and so on. Classical music is the highest quality music there is, the most demanding. And it gives the deepest and most longlasting rewards. There may be fewer classical musicians of Middle Eastern and African origin than one would expect from their share of world population. If that's because they're discriminated against, that needs to be fixed. But Mr Fleury offers no evidence whatever that that's the case. Rather, he argues for popularising, bowdlerising classical music. No thank you, Mr Fleury.

I first thought this article was a brilliant satire, criticizing a form of populist PC culture which attacks classical music for failing to be as diverse as contemporary society. But then, I gradually became aware it was bloody serious, and at the end it was perfectly clear that the author, rightfully concerned about the reduction of the genre to a niche taste for the 'happy few', was prepared to sacrifice the contents for a more accessible and attractive wrapping paper. That the world of classical music does not reflect our modern, pluralist society in terms of minorities, is - in general - true (although I would not know to which extent sexual minorities would form a part of it without being detected as such), but the art form is not there to be a mirror of society. The problem cannot be located in the classical music world, but outside of it: in the information channels and education, and the general cultural level of society, which shows erosion of cultural awareness, and that has nothing to do with minorities. The article betrays a view upon the arts which is strikingly egalitarian, as the comparisons with pop and soccer shows; and this excludes the possibility that classical music may be far superior to any entertainment music that is around. It would be great if performers and audiences in the classical performance culture would be more 'diverse', but who is going to decide that it is the art form's mores that exclude potential newcomers and not the lack of interest and lack of sensitivity that forms the barrier? Some of my best friends are immigrants from Pakistan, and they have no interest in Western classical music whatsoever. Is that because they are excluded, or because they are from Pakistani background, or simply don't hear what it actually is because of never had any education on that point? To simply conclude that when a classical music magazine offers images of middle-aged white performers it MUST be the art form which creates barriers, is missing the point entirely. It is a much more complex question than that.

"The lack of diversity in the classical arts has been the elephant in the room for years." - No, it hasn't. Only among the obsessed. Classical Music is a white, European-based arena. That's why so many white folks. That doesn't make it evil. I would go as far as to suggest that it is wrong-headed to expect people of diverse ethnicities to care a whit about what we call classical music. Why should it mean any more to a Congolese woman, for example, than Japanese koto music means to an Eskimo? Art isn't about "achieving equality". It's about making your brain melt with beauty. If you have a different definition, then your concern is not about Art, it's about something else. Old-school notions of "classical music" are going away, thank god. That age was an anomaly. In Beethoven's day, no one in their right mind would have put on a concert of Vivaldi concertos (for example) or even know who he was. They didn't worship the past as we have been doing. THAT is changing, and we can all rejoice in the change. Thanks for your article. Thought-provoking.

Actually, in the 2nd half of the 18th century, the past was firmly getting into the minds of the most enlightened practitioners of serious music: Baron Van Swieten, the court physician in Vienna, organised concerts with 'old music' in his home, which presented programs of Bach, Handel and contemporaries; it was there where Mozart got to know JS Bach and adapted so much of it that it changed his own idiom. By the time Beethoven wrote his most 'advanced' works, he was equally delving into 'the past' and incorporated baroque procedures in almost every piece. At the time, the indifference to 'old music' was increasingly seen, by connoisseurs, as a primitive attitude of ignorant audiences, and rightly so. Since then, the past has conquered most of the repertoire of concert life, so to speak, and that has created a performance culture where many different periods come into their own, a veritable pluralist palette. Schumann, CHopin, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Brahms were all thoroughly educated on 'old' music and developed their music on that basis. Considering such interest in the past crazy, is revealing that 'old' prejudice again.