Things aren’t looking too good for the future of music criticism at traditional media outlets. Last week, the major newspapers in Atlanta and Minneapolis announced that they are doing away with their full-time music critics. Nevertheless, could orchestras have actually been a contributing factor behind these recent cuts…
Even though this seemingly fundamental shift in classical music coverage may be attracting attention due to the timing of events in Atlanta and Minneapolis, some of those inside the business have seen the storm brewing for some time. I remember talking to a music journalist friend of mine not long ago and I mentioned that a full-time music critic position in a major paper may be opening soon.
His reaction caught me completely off guard: he shrugged and said something along the lines of thanks, but I don’t know if I really want a job at a major paper, I don’t think they are going to be a big part in the future of cultural journalism. We went on to chat about the topic a bit more and I learned that although he thinks some of the biggest and most established institutions will retain a full-time classical music critic and/or cultural reporter, he didn’t think the newspapers in other markets, even big markets, would fare as well. Apparently, he knows precisely what he’s talking about.
There is no denying that decreased full-time coverage of classical music events will only make the job of reaching existing and potential patrons more complicated. At the same time, I have to wonder how much orchestras have contributed to the editorial decisions behind these recent cuts.
Keep in mind, this isn’t a universal statement, however, this isn’t exactly a new topic either. This was first addressed back in an article I published from January, 2006 entitled Getting Over Our Bad Selves. Instead of trying to make the same points over again, I think it is more useful to reprint the relevant material from that article:
A great deal of the trouble behind limited editorial support for classical music commentary is the mixed messages they receive from external sources; in essence, there isn’t a good environment for most editors to support increased classical music coverage. Although there are some issues which are internal by nature, there are a number of external issues which contribute to this poor environment.
To begin with, the lack of positive feedback for publishing articles outside of the benign concert review is a sincere issue. When people take the time to write to an editor about these articles it’s usually with a complaint. They receive complaints from readers who don’t like the particular subject material covered when there are other “important” issues out there. For example, the classical music enthusiasts who write in to complain that reporter “X” took the time to write about composer “Y” when they should have been writing about composer “Z” and how dare they do that.
To make matters worse, classical music professionals contribute to the problem by hitting the editors from the other direction. I can’t tell you how many reporters and editors I’ve talked to who tell me about instances when the executive and/or board leaders from their respective orchestras have taken the time to show up at the newspaper offices or called them to complain about a “negative” piece the paper published. Unfortunately, these perceived transgressions are the result of the attitude adopted by most orchestral organizations that if it’s not a 100% good news puff-piece then it must be an “attack”.
As a result, many orchestra professionals don’t realize the damage they do when complaining about this “negative” coverage; all they’re doing is showing editors why it isn’t worth their time to support expanded classical music coverage in the first place. These executives may think they are applying some pressure to get what they want but more often than not their efforts boomerang by resulting in less overall coverage. This happens because when the majority of feedback directed toward editors is complaints from readers about how bad their existing articles are and complaints from orchestra executives they determine that it’s better to simply cut back on coverage to the point where most non-concert review classical music articles are coming across like CNN news crawlers.
In the end, although the recent cuts to full-time classical music coverage will undoubtedly come at great costs; one potential silver lining is that orchestras will have no alternative but to find new ways to connect with their public. As a result, the old adage necessity is the mother of all invention may result in the discovery of some new and wonderful ways for orchestras to reach their audience. Or at least I hope so…