Ten clichés of classical music journalism that I’d gladly never read again…

1) The sky is falling

Chicken Little

Chicken Little: This time the sky really is falling.

Take an isolated incident or a few numbers out of context, and use them to construct a picture of an art-form in decline: Audiences are getting older. People don’t go to concert halls any more. CD stores are going out of business. Major labels are laying off staff.

The world is changing, and there are upsides and downsides. There’s good money to be made scaring the pants off your readers, but the truth is that people live longer, concert halls are excessively lavish and inflexible spaces, CD stores are being replaced by much better online retailers and major labels don’t need so many staff now that they’ve recorded almost everything. Tell one side of the story, only look at the bad stuff, and you’re distorting the facts, using innuendo to suggest an unlikely outcome.

Why is it that almost all stories about the future of classical music betray spectacular ignorance of the status quo?

All too often, we confuse “niche” with “endangered” when in truth the top end of any market is usually quite unpopular. Mercedes Benz has a 3% share of the US car market. They aren’t worried about extinction. Why should we be scared?

The cheerleader of the Chicken Littles is Norman Lebrecht, who this week saw no irony in reporting Lang Lang’s $3m deal with Sony alongside a story about how record sales are abysmally low. Either one of these stories isn’t true, or somebody at Sony is retarded. Among his countless contributions to the genre, this one is a classic, providing a broad survey of one-sided negativity and weaseling its way out of a definite prediction so that he can live to cry “Wolf!” another day.

The irony of all this is that one place where the sky really is falling is in the world of music criticism. Somebody might want to look into that.

2) Dumb technology

Twitter: not going to save classical music from anything

It’s only natural that we should be desperately searching for any innovation that might save us from all this imaginary doom. There’s also something strangely attractive about the idea of old music and new technology coming together. Enter the mad scientists, with their crazy inventions that promise to end the precipitous decline. Program notes on your PDA! Twitter from the Podium!

The trouble is, they’re always stupid ideas, invariably funded and publicized by an organization desperate to appear innovative. They won’t work because they’re pointlessly complicated gimmicks that distract from the real task ahead of us: to be better at our jobs, to put on more compelling performances, to challenge and engage our audience, to avoid the tedium of snobbery.

It’s much easier to write a story about a gadget than it is to explain why a concert was boring, but if you’re a music critic, it’s your job to explain why a concert was boring. If you can’t do that, you might consider becoming a technology correspondent, where it will be your job to explain why an invention was useless.

3) Anything for accessibility

Linkin Park: completely irrelevant to classical music

It’s generally agreed that accessibility is a good thing, and it is a positive step to remove barriers to participation. Occasionally, the classical music was a barrier to participation, and that gets thrown out too. Katherine Jenkins thinks that recording pop songs will somehow make people like opera? You just write that down without questioning it? Mylene Klass is going to bring people to classical music through the medium of Linkin Park? There’s more to this than taking dictation.

Even if you’re not a specialist arts writer, you ought to have the sense to see that a bad pop story is being pitched as a good classical music story. Of course, if you are a classical specialist, the tendency will be to completely overreact instead, which brings us to…

4) Ew! Marketing!

Popstar to Operastar

When the baby has been thrown out with the bath water, why stop at saying “this is all jolly good fun, but it isn’t really classical music?”

This is a prime opportunity to get all ranty without offering any useful commentary. People will either already agree with you or they won’t care, but hey, why not look like an overly defensive, insecure music snob? A great example here is Rupert Christiansen’s rant about Popstar to Operastar (or Andrew Johnson’s), best served with Rolando Villazon’s entertaining rebuttal.

The habit of sneering at marketing is a destructive force in classical music. Do something that both sounds good and looks cool, and critics talk about presentation instead of substance. Artists reject innovative marketing because they’re afraid of losing credibility. Creative rot sets in. We all lose.

It’s possible to write entertainingly about a crossover project without talking about how much it upsets you, as Jasper Rees expertly  demonstrates.

4) Adjectives that don’t mean anything

Milky Way: beautiful and delicious

Classical music is as easy to understand as a starry night: you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to see that the milky way is beautiful.

In an age when performances increasingly converge on the middleground of consensus, I can understand that it’s tough to say something interesting about the 300th recording of Brahms 2. If you work at a magazine that mostly just carries reviews of new recordings alongside adverts for new recordings, I can see an incentive to pretend that there are really significant differences between them, but if you cover live music for a newspaper, I just don’t see the excuse.

Why, then, do reviewers insist on writing stuff that doesn’t say anything useful? Nico Muhly and John Adams have already written eloquently on this subject, so I’ll just add that it seems logically inconsistent for a reviewer to bullshit their readers. If you think you know better than us, then surely it’s ok to admit that you didn’t get it: nobody else will have got it either. If you don’t think you know better than us, what makes you think you’ll get away with bullshitting us? Is it that you don’t care? Is it only your editor that you’re trying to fool?

5) The audiophile myth

Is this analogy going too far?

There are two groups of people that buy cough medicine: people who have a cough, and people who want to make crystal meth. There are people who buy classical records because they like the music, and there are people who buy them because they’re a great way to showcase their stereo systems. The two groups are mostly separate. If you don’t believe me, listen to a random selection of classical SACDs. People aren’t buying these records for the playing. I’m not saying that there’s no crossover between the two markets, but if you’re serious about making good medicine, you’d be crazy to aim a product at meth dealers with sore throats.

If you’re going to write that people won’t download classical music until it is available in lossless formats, you’d better have some evidence for that claim. Perhaps one of the many stores offering lossless downloads of classical music has reported meaningful sales? No? Not a single one of them? Did you stop to ask why not? Would you like some meth with that?

6) Money will come from product innovation

SACD isn't going to save anybody from anything

What do minidisc, SACD, memory sticks, subscription, hi-res downloads and physical retail have in common? They failed to capture the mainstream market. People buy CDs online, and they download compressed audio. That’s how people buy music now. Audio exists independently of the media on which it is stored. Obsessing about formats isn’t going to change a market saturated with hi-fidelity recordings. Nobody is going to invent something that makes it ok to make the same mediocre record over and over again. Companies that make better records will succeed. Companies that don’t will fail. Customers will decide how they want to buy their music.

7) Aging audience

Old geezers: a dependable source

The truth is that nobody’s really trying to get young people to go to concerts. Young people buy tickets and expect to be entertained. Old people don’t just buy tickets, they give you money. Arts organizations are getting more sophisticated in the ways in which they pander to their most lucrative demographic: the elderly. That’s how Americans have built 38 new concert halls in the last ten years. We’re trying to hold up the sky, one $100m building project at a time.

8) Myths and Legends

Yehudi Menuhin: Prodigy, legend, and nothing in between? Really?

There are three stages of life for the classical musician: you start off as an overhyped technically adept wünderkind with little substance. That lasts for about two albums. Then you’re struggling to be taken seriously as a mature artist for about 40 years, until one day you wake up in the morning and you’re a legendary authority that can’t play like they used to and it’s time to retire while we mine your catalog. Somewhere between the myth and legend are a group of people who do a lot of practice and work incredibly hard to play music very beautifully.

9) Classical music has magical powers

The Blur effect?

On a slow news day, classical music will prevent loiteringtreat epilepsypunish unruly kidslower blood pressurehelp premature babies growmake you smarter (but not as smart if you’d listened to Blur).

Why are you wasting time on this crap? We need to know if classical music cures cancer.

10) Classical musicians are normal people really

Totally normal. All of us.

When we’re not in a panic about about being marginalized, we’re trying too hard to show everybody that we’re normal. The stories only make sense if you accept the the unspoken premise that everybody thinks we’re freaks. Why else would it be newsworthy that Joshua Bell went busking?

This just in: Unconfirmed reports suggest that James Levine is not a pedophile.

See what I did there? Right. Go find some proper news, and report it.



Post a comment
  1. February 9, 2010


    I would have added the word “blowhard” maybe 3 – 4 times. Otherwise, this is just about perfect.


  2. February 9, 2010

    Great article
    Niche is cool!
    Though… PopStar to OperaStar really is very very poor TV.
    It’s as if they took Later with Jools Holland, or Young Musician of the Year and created something diametrically opposite.
    A fun game to play re the presenters/ pundits… who turned it down?
    Keep it up

    • properdiscord #
      February 10, 2010

      What are you saying? That Meatloaf wasn’t the first choice? Surely not!

  3. Paul #
    February 9, 2010

    I think you’ve missed the point: Lang Lang was paid by Sony Corp., not Sony Classical. They didn’t have the money to get him themselves.
    A smarter look might have lead to you see that the Sony/Universal war is kicking up again, and this has exciting but serious implications for those of us involved.
    As for your slam of new technology, I suppose you’d be opposed to acoustic treating of buildings, or steel strings being introduced to violins, or shock horror, to electricity powering concert halls.
    Not everything works first time around, but it’s a dreadfully naive view that it shouldn’t be tried – it’s used in the rest of our lives, why not here?
    When Joshua Bell went busking, jt wasn’t newsworthy: nobody said it was. It was a slow news day and it was a syndicated article. In the same way that a busking guitarist would be ignored outside Carnegie Hall, so he was there: the context was wrong, and it’s pure hubris to assume that it would
    make a difference.
    Did you ever stop to think whether young people OWE the classical world their money? What’s the value in it for them? Is it relevant to them?
    Surely a news story would be “young people stop buying music” – genre aside, music consumption is great right now, and as you point out, we’re in the fine niche.

    I’m sorry for the rant but I do find this article painfully inconsistent.

    • properdiscord #
      February 9, 2010

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

      Does it matter who paid Lang Lang? If nobody buys classical music any more, they’re never going to see their money again.

      I’m not against new technology at all – I’m just tired of reading about products that promise to solve non-existent problems. Paper programs are pretty effective if you leave the lights (or candles) on.

      A whole bunch of people thought Joshua Bell’s busking was newsworthy enough to set up, write about, and print. A slow news day isn’t an excuse for anything. Perhaps this article was a bad example, though. I could have gone with any number of “classical musician also has rock on his iPod” stories.

      Nobody owes classical musicians a living. They have to earn it by creating beautiful things that affect people’s lives. Exactly what that means is a moving target. It always has been. In the past, we’ve called it progress.

      The “young people stop buying music” story has been written, many times.

      I’ll own up to inconsistent, but I don’t see where I’ve contradicted myself.

      • Gary Bachlund #
        April 8, 2010

        “Nobody owes classical musicians a living.” What a refreshing and honest assertion. I agree that classical music is doing just fine, progressing down its own paths, with new musicians adding to the repertoire in a variety of interesting ways. Attending the funeral Lebrecht wants to hold sounds just so silly. But then Lebrecht wanted to sell his book, didn’t he? So many ways to cry fire in a crowded theater. Music lives, grows and prospers according to its own ways. And it is agreed, not only by me but by a hard world, “nobody owes classical musicians a living.”

  4. Diane #
    February 10, 2010

    Interesting that last years winner of America’s Got Talent was an opera singer, and this years 2nd place was an opera singer. Their singing was visceral, the music profound, and people respond when they are moved.

  5. louisrichards #
    February 17, 2010

    Lang Lang? I was less than “impressed”; perhaps because the build-up was simply too great to satisfy my expectations; too, I found his body movements exceedingly distracting. I could only enjoy the concert by listening with my eyes closed.

    With regard to the demon, Technology, I remember the early days when the objective of “stereo” sound was to capture, as closely as possible, the sound of a performance. Nowadays, musicians can create so much layering in the “studio” it is almost impossible to recreate the same sound in a “live” performance. It was sometime in the 80s when the artist, formerly known as Prince, released an album on which he played ALL the instruments; try recreating THAT in a “live” show!

    What should actually be the topic under discussion is: Ethics in Musical Performance & Recording.

    As for the Death of Classical Music, well I have been hearing that litany for over half-a-century; yet, no one has even prepared the coffin, so I think announcing a wake is certainly premature.

    “Art”, in both high and low forms, has existed for millennia. Most often, it is the High form that continues through the centuries; though the Low form can certainly influence the High form. A perfect example of that is the (once) Popular Tune “L’homme arme”, which was so celebrated by the public it was incorporated into several Renaissance masses. Though we continue to hear the masses, nobody is singing the popular tune; a similar comparison can be made with Copland’s “Old American Songs”. When was the last time you heard someone belt-out the “popular” versions of the melodies that comprise “The Boatman’s Dance” or “The Dodger”? Never, would be the correct answer.

    Record Companies and Symphony Orchestras may be in difficult financial straits, but, they will consolidate – not evaporate.

    I contribute to this problem. Over the years I can’t begin to tell you how many Beethoven Fifths I have purchased: 12 inch vinyl, various cassette forms and now digital. To hell with that! I borrow them from my public library now and rip them into MP3s for FREE; the recording industry has gotten all they’re gonna get from me for the same recording produced in a different form.

    “Technology” may well change how we enjoy the Arts, but it will not erase them. One day (soon probably) we will sit in front of our 75 inch TV screens and listen to Philharmonic concerts via our 5000 watt speakers without the interruption of crying babies or the person behind you coughing on the back of your neck.

    As I said, for over 50 years I have been hearing that the “Sky is Falling”! And, lets not forget, “There’s a Commie behind EVERY Tree”!

    Fuggedaboutit …

    • properdiscord #
      February 19, 2010

      I’m pretty sure it’s the communists that are destroying classical music. I mean, really, what could be more unamerican than a non-profit organization?

      Does anybody else think that Sarah Palin would make a good McCarthy-style witch hunter general?

      “I saw Goody Proctor dancing with the NEA!”


      • louisrichards #
        February 20, 2010

        Curiously, following the Bolshevik revolution, it was attempted to have a Symphony Orchestra – without a conductor…

        At the first rehearsal evenything went smoothly: the oboist sounded Concert A, the players tuned-up and then all looked toward … the Concert Master; it seems that, even in this most egalitarian of ensembles, someone needed to indicate when to begin!

        Thus, that little “experiment” had a brief & unremarkable life…

  6. Meryl333 #
    July 3, 2010

    You said it. You took a prime opportunity to get all ranty without offering any useful commentary. I could given my full attention to listening to Bach. 🙂

  7. May 6, 2011

    When I ran into this piece I was expecting something about the pet phrases classical critics use, which are legion, but note that this piece is more about thematic devices and subjects rather than pet word combination. I was a classical critic at All Music Guide for a decade and wrote more than a 1000 classical reviews and never once fell into any of the traps listed above, although some of these conditions listed above are not necessarily common among classical writers — I do note them among non-classical writers who dip in to classical to write about something. Often they don’t understand what they are handling and then you get the “classical music is good for you” type of writing.

    When it came to adjectives, if I was unsure I would take time to make sure what I was writing actually said what I was trying to say, and I would expect nothing less from a colleague. But that problem is as common among pop writers as it is classical, it’s just that they aren’t taken to task about it quite as often. In pop writing there is something chic about using big words you don’t really understand. Moreover, I have to confess I am partial to SACDs. They deliver good sound generally with no special equipment though are especially responsive in systems designed to accommodate the format. I think with the prolixity of digital formats out there we have become desensitized to the idea that the newest thing is going to become the standard for all, and the gradual retraction from such notion may go back to the advent of Quad.

    Uncle Dave

  8. May 23, 2012

    I just noticed you have 11 clichés here. There are two number 4s. Krazy.

  9. properdiscord #
    February 10, 2010

    10/10 for the graphics.

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