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Classical Music: Star Power

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The Music Void’s Chris McLellan introduces some of the recent issues confronting the Classical sector across the music value-chain.

In the youth-obsessed world of commercial and consumer music, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are interesting things going on besides Lady Ga-Ga’s noble efforts to re-interpret 80s synth-pop.

While it may have a reputation as the ‘posh Uncle’ of the music industry, the fact is that Classical is a vibrant and exciting area of the business which faces some interesting and unique challenges.  The recent popularity of the films such as Lord of the Rings and the use of Puccini as the theme for the 1990 FIFA World Cup, for example, have ensured that a whole new generation has been exposed to the drama and excitement generated by a large orchestral canvas, the very building blocks of classical or art music.  The truth is that there have always been more ‘fans’ of Classical music than recording sales would indicate. Movies alone expose millions to it every week.

Difficult To Define

Somewhat ironically, given the complex notation typically employed in the genre, Classical music can be extremely difficult to define. Generally, this class of music is categorized by the chronological periods in which it was composed and popularized i.e. Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern and Contemporary. However, these are very broad categories and the fact is there is a great deal of overlap between these broad periods, and the Contemporary period, for example, is in fact quite a diverse collection of styles.

Purists may scoff, but younger artists such as Mylene Klass, xx, and Welsh mezzo-soprano Kathryn Jenkins (who has sold 4m+ albums) are drawing in thousands of classical music consumers who simply weren’t there 10 years ago. Many of these new Classical stars are actually recording popular songs in a ‘Classical style’, which begs the question; is it still Classical? There’s no clear answer to this, but when Miles Davis re-recorded Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, I do not recall people claiming that the king of cool had gone pop.

Star Power

The truth is that the future of Classical, as with the rest of music, will rely increasingly on live performances rather than sales and publishing. In order to support this push towards live, however, you need stars. But this is where the traditions of Classical music tend to clash with modern realities, for it has always been the composers of Classical music who are held aloft and cherished over its performers. Bach rather than Bernstein. Puccini over Pavarotti. This is mainly due to the fact that, unlike popular music, this is a genre steeped in a written tradition where improvisations are not generally the norm, although many performer “interpretations” have been proved highly successful.

But if increasing live audiences is critical, is there any choice but to give in to the ‘cult of celebrity’?  Probably not.  It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that it will be the populist stars of classical who will continue to provide the entry point for live audiences, and possibly on an even larger scale.

The challenge to Classical music labels, websites, artists, publishers and promoters will be expose these audiences to a wider and more immersive consumer experience.

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