Can Classical Music Give Pop Some Business Pointers?

Nov 10th, 2008 // 2 Comments

This weekend, a day after I witnessed someone dedicate a karaoke song to Jesus, I went to Carousel Cinemas here in Syracuse and saw the Met’s recent production of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. It might seem a little sacrilegious to watch opera at a movie theater, but the staging worked fairly well, since the scale was roughly the same, the music was well-recorded and played loud, and the HD images were immediate and live-feeling. (Though there were too many zooms for my taste.) Well-received gambles like this are a staple of the modern classical music industry, which is doing relatively well, though like everything else it has been hit by the financial crisis. But could some of its innovations be imported to the music biz as we know it?

Classical music has done well by emphasizing live performance. Those performances have become very user-friendly, going to different venues, offering access through educational programs, and utilizing the spectacle of opera to wow audiences, just as opera is intended to do. If there’s a band that works on this model now, it’s probably Of Montreal, which has a reputation for being an open and welcoming band, and a live show that’s a riotous spectacle that can draw in casual listeners. At the same time we’re being told that live performance is going to save the music industry, declining revenues make it harder for concerts to have the same visual appeal that they used to. Would it help to spruce things up?

Probably not, at least not without some fairly drastic changes in the model. As the WSJ article notes, classical’s success is only a relative one, and it is by no means independently wealthy. Instead it relies, as it always has, on donations and grants to get by. (For instance, I was only able to see Dr. Atomic because of “a generous grant from the Neubauer Family Foundation.”) The record industry, on the other hand, is an ostensibly capitalist, profit-seeking enterprise, and receives no (or very little) donated money. If things continue the way they’re currently headed, though, it may need charitable support. While unlikely in the context of an American system that offers few if any government subsidies to the arts, it would make things more like the systems in Sweden or (to a small degree) Canada. And we all like bands from those countries, right?

Well, sure. But for all of its protestations against the evils of the market, American music is unavoidably tied up with a Darwinian sort of system. There are always lost masterpieces and cult classics, but popular music is a different beast if it’s not based on popularity. Hard to say exactly what the changes are, but let’s put it this way: I was the youngest person in that theater by 30 years. Is that what we want the future of music to look like?

Live in HD [The Met]
The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music [WSJ]

  1. the rich girls are weeping

    Then again, the Washington National Opera just canceled its production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, in hopes of saving $6 million.

    It seems like the Dr. Atomic mania ($20 rush orchestra tickets, movie theater simulcasts) are the exception that proves the rule. And it seems to me that more organizations are going to slash less popular or risky productions (like fancy restagings of the Ring cycle) in hopes of bringing in revenue with tried-and-true Moneymaking Hits of the Canon. (Like, for instance, WNO’s current rather lackluster — but popular — production of Carmen.)

  2. RaptorAvatar

    Didn’t we kind of already get into this earlier in the year when Wrigleys helped finance that one huge single? If it’s gonna be about unit shifting anyhow, I for one welcome consumer pop music’s new product-shilling overlords. Maybe it’ll trickle down and we will see Adderall financing a prog-metal megatour before the middle of next decade.

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