Classical music has to become a counterculture to survive, says CEO

14 Jul 2017

The days of people climbing over each other to get tickets to a classical concert are long gone. Classical music has been slowly moving to the periphery of people’s lives. It’s not a part of a bigger picture for the state and local governments anymore.


Actually, classical music had turned into a counterculture. And this is good, considers Alan Davey, who is the highest official at BBC Radio 3 (one of the world’s most respectable classical radiostations). This is exactly what classical music got to be in these days.


What for? Just to survive.


In his article “Don't apologise for classical music's complexity – that's its strength”, Alan Davey explains why he is optimistic about the future of classical music. Precisely because of the ongoing  process of turning classical music into an intelligent opposition to the modern pop culture.


Let's take a look at his arguments.


John Adams’s pessimism


First, Alan Davey writes about John Adams. Adams is one of the most successful classical composers of our time. He is the author of dozens of top-ranked compositions, multiple Grammy Award winner and Honorary Doctor at several prestigious universities, such as Harvard and Yale. And still he is fairly pessimistic about the future of classical music:


“Earlier this year John Adams read classical music its last rites. It was, he said in an interview on Radio 3, not at all certain that as a genre it would survive the shortened attention spans of the Twitter generation”.


Alan Davey does not fully agree with John Adams:


“There is no doubt in the classical music world that the future is looked at with some apprehension: how will future audiences know about classical music? And where are tomorrow’s audiences – and talent – coming from? There are new worries too, as technology makes things easier to obtain but harder to appreciate, and the monetary value of recordings falls.


But my own experience around classical music and contemporary culture … tells me a more nuanced story, and that there are more optimistic responses than Adams’s”.


What exactly gives Alan Davey grounds for his optimism? The slight positive changes that, as he points out, are noted already in the modern pop culture.


Quiet revolution is coming


 Alan Davey:


“While the traditional buyers of subscription tickets are getting fewer overall, audiences for live classical music in the UK are actually up 3% on the previous year…


…every year the BBC Proms sets a new record of some kind when it comes to audiences, virtual, broadcast or in the hall itself.


Look, too, at the return of vinyl. The value of UK vinyl sales last year was £2.4m, compared to £2.1m for digital downloads …This isn’t just bearded hipsterish posing. It is of a piece with the quiet revolution taking place across artistic and cultural consumption.”


 “The extraordinary resilience of both the printed book and the independent bookshop is testament, too, to this quiet revolution.”


“Podcasts, poetry slams, live poetry readings and the huge success of live screenings of theatre and opera in cinemas all show a growth in audiences of all ages.”


Younger generation is smarter than we think


Alan Davey doesn’t agree that the modern young people are shallow:


“Young people’s brains aren’t experiencing a backward evolution. Their ability to articulate points of rhythm, melody and the flow of words in musical genres they have made or developed themselves prove that, as human beings, our urge for musical expression and facility lies deep. Young people are not afraid of things that need to be worked through. Complexity, curiosity and adventure is the new counter-culture.”


Still, Alan Davey is not trying to place a happy face on a sad business. He acknowledges that classical music is in trouble and needs saving. He takes the honest position unlike some others in the business who insist that everything is okay.


Salvation of classical music


“I would suggest that the salvation of classical music lies in us being defiant about our counter-cultural place in society. Instead of apologising for what it is … it’s important to appeal to audiences’ desire for the special, for the event, for the thing that’s worth prizing, for the thing that gives them something of deep personal value.”


“I am optimistic that the inherent beauty, complexity and mystery of classical music will see it endure and continue to fascinate and delight audiences and artists alike. We are not out of the woods. But nor I hope are we lost, not just yet. Let’s be brave and revel in our counter-cultural strength. “


That’s the essence of Alan Davey's ideas.


His article published in “The Guardian” in May 2017 resonated widely in the professional community. It received 246 comments just in “The Guarduan” and was shared 7710 times all over the social media. An outstanding reaction for the classical musical subject for today.


I’d like to offer my own comments as well.


Up instead of down


It is of sheer importance that such an experienced practitioner and VIP of the industry as Mr. Davey calls to move up to complexity and meaning instead of moving down to simplification and superficial attractiveness. Actually, he acknowledges that the mainstream of the modern pop culture, which has entertainment in its core, is not relevant to classical music.


Reappearance of elitism?


Classical music these days is struggling to get rid of the scent of elitism. Many claim that it needs to become more democratic and more accessible for wide audiences. This way, it needs to become more simple, easier and fun. What Alan Davey suggests doesn’t match this trend. He suggests a kind of a new elitism.


Counterculture is the opposition to the mainstream culture by definition. In this context, to place classical music as complex, deep and qualitative experience means to pose the mainstream cultural experience as simple, superficial and cheap. 


Is it politically correct? And does it match the needs of the mass consumption industry?


The hidden rocks


With all due respect, Alan Davey’s position invokes more inconvenient questions.


• Attendance of classical concerts has increased over the last years, but musicians worked more and to earn less over this period (see my post on this subject here). This situation can’t be the basis for a long-term successful development in the sector. The argument of rising attendance is therefore not accurate.


• Attendance of classical concerts is increasing, but the share of non classical repertoire in these concerts is also increasing (my post on it here and here). That means that the share of classical repertoire is decreasing. Obviously, this modern tendency has little to do with the strengthening of classical music.


• Younger generation is really smart, but they are smart in a different way.  They are exceptionally  masterful in multitasking and processing  information within the short periods of time. But this does not facilitate the deepening into the complexity prescribed to classical music by Alan Davey.


• Vinyl recordings are really growing in numbers, but this barely happens among the digital generations, especially among those who were born with smartphones in their hands (generation Z). The return of vinyl is often explained just by the nostalgia of the old fans. Let alone the lion's share of this new vinyl production applies to non classical genres.


There are some other difficult questions arising from Alan Davey’s position as well.


And nevertheless, he seems to be totally right in his key idea that the urge for deep musical expression is an inherent part of a human nature, and that classical music is just the manifestation of this profound need.


As long as classical music relies on complexity and deep meaning, it has the chance to continue its existence. Otherwise,  it is destined to turn into a simply classical looking part of the industry of entertainment.   


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