Thursday, June 23, 2005

Marketers, Elitists, Video, and Gentility

Mr. Henry Fogel, who is president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, warned arts leaders and all of us recently that classical music performance will have to change to survive. He echoes others, mostly orchestra administrators, who have been chanting the same lament for quite some time.

He noted that orchestras and other arts organizations have been separated by class and by race. Complex program notes, musicians in white ties and tails and dowagers who hiss if one claps at the wrong time, all keep newcomers out of the concert hall, he noted. After recently seeing a conductor wag his finger at concertgoers who applauded too soon, he wondered "how many more times those people will actually pay money for tickets so they can be humiliated?" Mr. Fogel also criticized concert presentations, which he said have become predictable and stale. "The impact of television, video and computers makes it impossible to continue our art form without some consideration of the visual," he said.

Marketers recite this litany to persuade us to allow them to make such changes as they pronounce necessary to correct falling ticket sales, empty seats, and diminishing endowments. Well, marketeering since the 90’s has changed almost every facet of our lives, not necessarily for the better, and not necessarily successfully. They presume to have the answers in the face of change; to reflect vox populi, the voice of the people, but is often instead aegrescit medendo, the remedy that is worse than the disease. Falling attendance is met by young, sexy soloists, selling “stars” with no mention of the music, Concert Companions (CoCos), seat monitors, and dumbing down “complex” program notes and decent social behavior. Marketers presume to have their cake as they toss it away.

This is what Thomas Frank calls "market populism", a very selective synopsis and paraphrase of which follows. Markets confer democratic legitimacy, markets bring down the pompous and the snooty, markets look out for the interests of the little guy, markets give us all what we want. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have always insisted that their job is simply to mirror the public's wishes - that movies, ad campaigns, and classical music concert presentations, succeed or fail depending on how well they conform to public tastes, not model it.

Marketeers guess that they serve all tastes, classes, and races, and they humiliate gentility. As marketers meld themselves theoretically with the will of the masses, virtually any criticism of them can be described as an act of "elitism", a sneer for the redneck and blue collar culture, or any attempt "to promote the interests of the few at the expense of the many." That pretty well defines me, so I’ll take aim.

I’ve repeatedly written (see Applause and the Dinosaurs) and said that change is a norm – inevitable- and we must change with it or be left behind. But, in not accepting the fact that most people, influenced by more clever marketing, just don’t care for classical music anymore, marketers for classical music now strive to change its presentation in concerts and will destroy what they are trying to preserve - even sooner.

I would reply to Mr. Fogel that of course classical music is separated by class and race. So is adventure travel and Harrod’s. Is he suggesting that somehow classical music discriminates or causes discrimination? That would be absurd. Complex program notes invites opinions. He sneers at hissing dowagers, but they are likely to be those that endow the orchestra, and someone needs to teach concert manners, whatever they are or will become-even conductors who wag their finger. His comments suggest a return to 19th century Promenade Concerts with technogadgets.

I have heard that it is not classical performance that needs to change, but people; that American society, with exceptions of course, has become crude, vulgar, impolite, casual, and ignorant, with a stunning belief, led by marketers, that society should consist of a common denominator; all is equal: a classical concert must be visual to compete with the media; Indie pop is art music; a classical concert is like a rock concert; wear sweatpants or levis in a concert hall just as in a tent program, a spa, or doing Saturday morning chores; guzzle liquor at concerts just as at gallery openings. Marketers would likely offer hot dogs and beer between movements if it would increase attendance.

The great and unique art of music at a classical concert is primarily an aural, not a visual experience. Yet, who would not say that observing the conductor, watching the passion of string players, the colorful entry of the woodwinds, a thundering timpani roll, Herculean brass chords, sudden or subtle dynamics, is not visual? But, we’re being told that it must be dumbed down to video to sell tickets. The real performance is up front, folks! Must we have a Concert Companion or monitor that draws our eye and distracts our ear and attention from the live performance?

No one will deny that classical music in America is ailing and that a prescription is needed that might cure it. Stiff formality can be relaxed, prohibitive prices and palatial venues can be changed, moth-eaten programs can be more innovative, tiresome concerts can be shorter and begin earlier for folks who must be on the job early next morning, parking and child services could be provided, museum and gallery food services seems to work, etc. etc. Any or all these might improve attendance.

But the biggest problem remains: public taste. Marketers could try to change that but they won’t. Their first commandment is to follow, but incredibly, they have made us believe they are Moses. In any case, people being what they are, they could not be successful anyway, and even if they were, historic, period, classical music as we have known it is (let’s face it) a dying dinosaur. Marketing cannot change that.

Whether or not anyone recognizes it anymore, there are some things in our western culture that are splendid, fine, elegant, inspiring- and yes- with musical/social manners and expectations. Classical concerts can move us emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually like no other art. Visual technology can only diminish it. And, if someone doesn’t know enough not to clap, talk, drool Redman and spit, turn off their cell phone, tap, cat-call, wear Stetsons, cough, smoke, eat or drink, at a concert then someone indeed needs to tell them it is unacceptable. Buying a ticket does not entitle the holder to be boorish, or worse, that it be encouraged by marketeers.

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