This scene is literally being played out in my house right now.

I read with interest Philip Hensher’s article in Friday’s Independent, entitled “Will nobody mourn the death of classical music“. Having just started a company that sells classical music, I was a bit worried I might have made a terrible mistake.

Luckily, it’s all bollocks.

We could go over the minutiae of his half-assed argument but this has all been covered before, very well, here and here.

Instead, I’d like to look at why, if everything is fine, we keep coming back to this notion that classical music will cease to exist at some point in the near future.

1) Progress isn’t fair

Progress has winners and losers. We like to think growth occurs evenly and to the benefit of all, but that isn’t how it works. Just ask the dinosaurs, the staff of Edison Records, or any of these companies.

Here’s a graph music industry death-watchers might be familiar with. It shows album sales over time.

There’s an interesting discussion of the accuracy of these stats here, but this point concerns the growth, not the decline.

At the height of the CD boom, life really sucked for tape manufacturers. At the height of the tape boom, vinyl pressing seemed like a bad business to be in. In 1978, when LP and tape had both lost their novelty but CDs hadn’t come along yet, there wasn’t a lot of good news for anybody in the manufacturing sector, but it was great for Van Halen and Dire Straits, who released their debut albums in that year.

Just because it sucks for you right now, doesn’t mean it sucks for everybody, and even when things are going well, they’re still going badly for somebody.

This applies to consumers as well as producers. You remember all the vinyl snobs whining when CD came along? The death of quality sound heralded the biggest boom in recorded music history.

I’m not trying to make this personal, but it does tend to be older people who complain about this stuff, at least partly because the longer your memory is, the more likely you are to see the decline of something you’re used to.

Polyphony didn’t kill plainchant. Instruments didn’t destroy church music. Style galant didn’t spell the end of counterpoint. Romanticism didn’t obliterate formal structures from the surface of the Earth. Modernism didn’t eliminate harmony or melody, and Katherine Jenkins, the Internet and reality TV will not spell the end of an entire art form.

2) It is never our fault when things go badly

Here’s a graph of my income, from the day I left college until last week, when I quit my job on the board of a multinational record company. It’s not very accurate, and not to scale, but it’ll do. I’ve added comments to show how, at the time, I explained the various changes to myself:

As you can see, every time my income goes up, this is because of how brilliant I am, and every time it goes down, this was caused by some external factor entirely beyond my control. It’s an example of self-serving attribution bias.

I truth, of course, in the years I didn’t get a raise and inflation ate away at my income, it’s at least partly because I hadn’t done enough to get a raise, while in the years my income increased, I had also been in the right place at the right time.

Still, if I believed in the decline of classical music, I’d have an excuse I could use all year round. If something went well, it would only make my achievement all the more significant: I beat the trend.

Decline is an attractive notion. It’s a one-stop narrative to explain everything we don’t like.

It is, though, a destructive notion. It’s not just the wrong answer. Even if it were true, it would still be the answer to the wrong question. It doesn’t tell us anything useful. It’s just an excuse to have a good old whine.

It only matters how everybody else is doing if you’re planning to do the same thing as everybody else – and if that’s all you plan to do, you’re in trouble anyway.



Post a comment
  1. musicalassumptions #
    May 21, 2012

    Thank you for this. When I consider the concept of “decline” in the world of classical music, I remind myself that there are an exponential number of excellent instrumentalists and singers compared to the number who were around thirty years ago. There is also a constantly-increasing amount of repertoire available for those people to play, and the bulk of it seems to be from times other than the present. Recordings of great musicians from the past are available with the click of a button, and the contents of libraries can be downloaded with the click of another. I can make demo recordings of pieces I write without having to leave my house or pick up the phone, and I can send them around the world.

    As to income, mine hasn’t changed much. But like most of the people on the working end of an instrument or on the writing end of the music that we play, subsistence is as much success as any of us hope to accomplish. Recorded music can be bought and sold in various formats, but we musicians are ultimately the way that music happens. One of these days perhaps recorded music will cease to be of interest, and live music will reign supreme. But “classical music” isn’t going to die as a result of its various markets going through stages of ebb and flow.

    Musicians measure success by the quality of what we do, so we are essentially immune to having our success quantified. As for making a living, most of us have day jobs anyway, and those of us who don’t spend serious amounts of energy trying to generate business for ourselves and for our ensembles.

  2. May 22, 2012

    I’m incredibly glad this blog is back. I used to read it avidly (and enjoyed your dialogues on youtube). Thanks for this post, and the rest. I love the insight and the logic that you actually apply.

  3. January 26, 2014

    “It’s just an excuse to have a good old whine.”

    It’s also a guaranteed way to meet a looming deadline in only a couple hours — it makes for a canned article that almost writes itself and is also guaranteed to start a huge shitstorm that the original author will use as proof that he’s right. Seriously, saying “classical music is dead” on the internet is like going up to a bunch of Democrats at a cocktail party and saying, “Welfare queens! Discuss!” then using the resulting explosion of WTF as proof that you’re so correct that they can’t handle it.

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