A small number of performances are so exceptional that anybody can enjoy them. A small number are remarkably bad.

The overwhelming majority reside somewhere in the middle – not interesting enough to really engage an audience or inspire readable criticism. This is the stuff that seems to take up too much of my work day.

The audiences don’t complain about this because they’re afraid of pointing out that the emperor is naked. The critics don’t point it out because they think it’s their job to commentate on the relative mediocrity of the stuff in the middle.

Pavarotti’s massive crossover success wasn’t a result of selling out. He was successful because almost everything he did was right at the top end of good. Say what you like about his back-story, Gustavo Dudamel wouldn’t be where he is right now without incredibly compelling performances.

In trying to build a bigger business, we’ve crowded the market with things that are only just good enough to sell, and as people’s expectations for entertainment change, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that they’re not buying it any more.

There’s space for classical music to be marketed more effectively, but the biggest challenge our industry faces is an artistic one. Build it, and they’ll stand outside and take pictures of it. Do it well enough, and they’ll come.



Post a comment
  1. April 5, 2010

    I don’t understand this graph at all! Please explain!

    • properdiscord #
      April 6, 2010

      I posted some explanation above. I hope that covers it.

  2. April 6, 2010

    A note on the horizontal axis saying “garbage” on one end and “mucho fabuloso” on the far right may help clarify things.

  3. April 6, 2010

    Thank you for explaining this chart. Unfortunately I don’t believe that Pavarotti’s success was due to the quality of his voice. It was due to his marketability. There have been many singers as competent as Pavarotti, but none had the marketing machine (and an expensive one at that) to make a career like his.

    I know too many extraordinary musicians (singer and instrumentalists) who have never gotten the kind of recognition they deserved (or deserve) because what they have to “sell” isn’t profitable enough to attract the attention of enough of the general public to make the promotional work worthwhile.

    As a critic I always point out (when necessary) if the emperor isn’t wearing clothes. It really doesn’t matter to more than a relative handful of people though. Most people would rather believe the illusion that an “artist” is untouchable and infallible.

    This is not a new phenomenon. It has permeated classical music since for centuries. I shudder to think of the number of 20th-century composers who were not taken seriously by the American musical establishment because they did not abandon tonality like the followers of Schoenberg did (Schoenberg eventually abandoned atonality himself, by the way).

    It takes a discerning ear to separate the great from the good. Most people are swayed by the “impressive” or the “attractive,” and accept competence, however tasteless it may be presented, as “greatness.” It takes a lifetime of listening to develop the skills to recognize true musicianship, and it takes only a few minutes to respond to the skills of a publicist.

    • properdiscord #
      April 6, 2010

      To address your points in order:

      1) Pavarotti’s charisma was an important part of his commercial and artistic success. Charisma is underrated by a large part of classical music establishment. We tend to forget that opera singers are performers.

      2) Classical label marketing budgets aren’t what they once were, but where there are investments paying off, there will be investment. The truth is that most musicians couldn’t make good use of the sort of profile that Pavarotti had.

      3) You’re right and anybody that disagrees with you lacks the rare taste or knowledge to see things from your point of view? There’s no way of arguing with this. It’s a faith-based argument, but it’s also a fundamentally elitist one – you can’t say this and still complain about audience size or institutional funding.

    • properdiscord #
      April 29, 2010

      I just saw this:

  4. April 6, 2010

    Tastes have changed. Motivations have changed. Patterns of socializing have changed. Large performing organizations invest nothing or next to nothing in R and D and wonder why fewer people buy tickets. The best, most intriguing and most compelling will always attract, but the loud hissing sound you hear is that big bubble in the great middle leaking air, faster with each passing year.

  5. April 6, 2010

    In the case of Pavarotti, it most definitely was the case that his early success was on the quality of his voice, and I’m sure you’d agree, Elaine. The crossover dovetailed off of that elite opinion. When he came down from the mountain and sung music that had more popular appeal, it came with a seal of approval from his opera-star years. The assumption was that he was acknowledged to be great, and now he’s singing music I actually enjoy.

    And believe you me, just bc you have a great musician to hype, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to market them!

  6. April 6, 2010

    We are in the entertainment industry. We’d better have (sustained) charisma. No amount of marketing and/or money can sustain Britney Spears, yet The Stones are still able to sell out an arena based on the strength of Jagger’s charisma (and some pretty good songs to boot).

  7. April 6, 2010

    Here are a few examples of violinists that should have had far bigger solo careers than they had (I hope that they embed properly). These musicians are (or were–only Steven Staryk is still alive) committed to music itself, and not to the entertainment business. They all made good livings and earned a great deal of respect from their colleagues, but, somehow, other fiddlers made it into the “household name” category. Perhaps, with the limited amount of energy allotted to each of us, these three people sought to develop superb musicianship at the expense of charisma.

    Michael Rabin
    Steven Staryk 1
    Steven Staryk 2
    Steven Staryk 3
    Berl Senofsky talks about “the game” and listens a recording of himself playing when he was a child

    • properdiscord #
      April 6, 2010

      A lot of musicians have an excuse for not being more popular. This doesn’t seem like a particularly good one.

  8. Gary Bachlund #
    April 6, 2010

    I had a conversation with the post lady whom I saw regularly here in Berlin. She had been offended by yet another “moderne” staging of an opera to deconstruct its meaning a la the Frankfurt school. Knowing me to be associated with opera, she asked me why she should buy more tickets, when she can buy fine quality DVDs of operas with the world’s best singers, stay at home and enjoy the music, rather than sit in a theater and have crudity foisted off on her, a classical music fan. I was stuck for an answer, except to say that she was free to do as she wished. This is the problem with marketing and the avant garde. Babbitt asked a good question; “Who Cares if You Listen?” This little postal employee said she would stay home and enjoy her collection of DVDs rather than tolerate yet another bit of experimental theater. She voted by deciding to stay home — and yet enjoy fine performances.

    In the same vein, I sat next to a fellow who was chuckling at the program notes before a performance. I asked him what he found funny. He noted that the writer was being self-congratulatory for his group over “fifty years of subversive theater,” and commented “fifty years is not a subversion; it has become an orthodoxy.”

    Marketing cannot fool the public for long, and the great problem for music, classical or popular, boils down to this. Quality matters. Hype soon generates insensitivity to hype. And then, quality matters.

    “Do it well enough, and they will come” is in fact marketing through a quality product without the need of much advertising, in which the marketable product will generally attract its clientele. So it seems to me.

    As to Pavarotti, I was priviliged to hear him in rehearsals as well as performances. He was a class act as a singer of the first caliber, marketing or not. But in the battle of “who was the greatest tenor” I prefer to sit this one out….

    On another subject, with so much of public domain music finding its way into free sites, what will the “old school publishers” do for tomorrow?

    Good luck with your posts and discussions.

  9. April 7, 2010

    There will always be musicians who are more popular with connoisseurs who don’t find a large public – just look at Angela Hewitt and compare her to, say, Lang Lang today. He has some indefinable “star” quality that she doesn’t, for better and for worse, and it’s to her credit and his (and their managers’) that they’re cultivating what they feel they’re strongest at. In a just world, the musicians with the most discerning taste and eloquence of execution would rise to the top and be enjoyed by everyone. But the world is big enough that those players can be enjoyed by a significant group, all the same.

  10. May 12, 2011

    I like how a graph titled “Mediocrity” has half its axes misspelled.

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