Five Articles People Should Stop Writing

Adaptistration People 013In the silver age of new media, one might think that the proliferation of new voices and platforms would expand discussions about classical music. By and large, it has done exactly that; at the same time, it has also served as fertile ground for some of the least productive topics to proliferate like a super virus going airborne in midtown Manhattan. To that end, and in the same spirt as the #BanBeloved campaign, here are five topics that should never be written about again.

1. Classical Music Is Dying.

It’s been written about for nearly 100 years and it hasn’t happened yet but that doesn’t seem to be stopping folks from trying to write about it.

2. Classical Music Is Alive And Well.

The only thing more annoying than raining on everyone’s parade is blowing sunshine up their backside. Spoiler alert: just like all forms of art, classical music has ups and downs but that’s just a sign it’s moving forward.

3. The Graying Audience.

You’re not fooling anyone, this is just repurposed Topic #1.

4. Baumol’s Cost Disease.

Most articles are nothing more than painfully oversimplified summaries designed to appeal to arm-chair analysts. The next time someone tries to bring up the topic, dig into them with this.

5. We Need More Pops To Get Kids In The Hall.

This is just the sort of thing that gives good managers, bad ulcers. Fortunately, this nonsense is met with a flood of voices willing to point out a bad idea as a bad idea.

What other topics would make it into your shortlist?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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22 thoughts on “Five Articles People Should Stop Writing”

    • I, for one, would love nothing better than to see “Norm” go out of business, given his habitual narcissism, gratuitous potshots at anything related to New York City and megaphone amplification of any story that causes any NYC institution or person any embarrassment, and habitual passing off of unconfirmed gossip as news, among other aspects. Every orchestra musician of my acquaintance despises Lebrecht to no end.

      But back to the main topic: for good or ill, these themes won’t go away, since Lebrecht, and to a somewhat lesser extent Greg Sandow, keep harping on them, and others in the mainstream press harp on these memes, since they’re sort of classical music’s version of “if it bleeds, it leads”, metaphorically, of course, not literally (at least hopefully not literally). Granted, as others have pointed out, it all traces back to cutting down music education in schools. The consequences show up 20 years later.

  1. The assumption (mostly by the press) that “good” music directors equal fiscal success. If we just look at Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. – the music directors they had at the time were perhaps the strongest they could have had, and the most able to get the groups back to a better state. The financial situations were really a separate issue.

  2. Another quibble. Critics should also stop referring to “conservative” concerts. In addition to being a loaded term, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. aren’t conservative – they are fundamental. The foundations of everything that came later. Any amount of study of their music reveals so much that was revolutionary. So, we must assume these critics really don’t understand this music. What they need to realize, is that Mozart is actually new to them, like a modern work is new to them. People assume – “oh, Mozart, I understand that because it’s old.” “I’ve heard one piano concerto and the Requiem – I know Mozart.” But really, his other music can take as much patience as hearing a new work – and it’s after that effort, you realize why it’s great music, why it’s been recorded by every great conductor, and why we are still playing it hundreds of years later.
    There is no reason for critics to slam a concert that was played to very high standards, because they refuse to understand the music. If they don’t like the music, they shouldn’t be a classical reviewer. You don’t have rap music reviewers reviewing classical concerts – so, find what music you do like, and review that instead. It is very difficult for a reviewer that doesn’t understand/isn’t familiar with the music to make an accurate assessment of the performance. It inevitably impairs their judgement. And there isn’t a news source out there that isn’t guilty of this to some degree (in their defense, classical music is quite a lot of music to be familiar with).
    Back in the early days when reviews were a way to sort of clear the pollution – you had multiple orchestras in town, and many recordings to choose from – there was perhaps a need. But now that all the pollution is gone – we pretty much must embrace everything we have – and the reviews need to also take a slightly different tone.

  3. I disagree with Jon H., who has interesting elisions (critics who discuss conservatism in programming = critics who don’t like the music = critics who refuse to understand the music) and other straw men in his posting. The critics I know – from Joshua Kosman to Anthony Tommasini to Alex Ross to myself to many others – who would like to see more adventurous /less conservative programming all know, love, and understand the old masters. We just want more variety and more music by living composers. It’s really that simple, not that we don’t like or understand Mozart / Beethoven / Brahms.

    • If you saw my music collection, I think you’d know I agree with you. But attracting people to hear ‘new’ music is something that takes a real investment of time and money, and at a time when empty seats for traditional concerts are exceeded only by the number of empty seats at concerts of new music. For a couple of years I was on the board of a new music group and we were happy to see fifty people in the hall. It would be good if bloggers could continue to push out news of success stories in this regard in hopes of spread the seeds of change to other cities and other groups.

  4. About how a Strad has just reached a record price at auction…

    About the excellent investment properties of violins (with plenty of quotes from violin dealers)

    About the latest research proving that Stradivari’s secret was…[insert crazy hypothesis to do with mould, weather, ash, the moon etc]

    About rubbishing the blind test that shows audiences can’t tell the difference between a Strad and a modern instrument

    • I certainly agree with the first three but at the risk of offending (and I apologize in advance if this is the case) I would go an additional step and say that both articles lashing out against the blind tests along with the actual blind test articles deserve of a spot on the list.

      • I agree, Drew – I think blind tests may have jumped the shark! The fact is that from time immemorial they have consistently indicated that audiences don’t seem to be able to tell the difference, and yet there are so many different variables that it’s hard to see what they could ever do to prove it definitively. I do believe that the recent spate (Indiana, Paris) have tried to be scientific and to cover off as many of those variables as possible, but you’ll always have people saying ‘yes, but…’ and going back to their default beliefs. And you’ll always have journalists misinterpreting the data to create a good headline that taps into those beliefs. It would be nice to find ways to challenge the hegemony of classic old instruments, but I don’t think blind tests are ever going to achieve that, and may even ultimately backfire. It’s definitely time to move the conversation on!

      • The biggest issue of all, and it runs through all these points, is the tendency of media articles to over-generalize and make blanket statements like “classical music is dead” or “new music is the key,” and so forth. The truth is always more subtle.

        “New music brings in new audiences?” Sometimes; sometimes not. Depends on your community, the work, and the context you provide. No single example of how something worked with one piece provides a universal template that everyone may adopt.

        Similarly, if someone says “Playing the familiar classics is the best strategy,” I would also say “sometimes, sometimes not.” Depends on your community, how you market and position your orchestra and what you’re trying to achieve. We all have to please long-time subscribers as well as reach out to new audiences, and doing both simultaneously is a delicate balancing act in which what works in Dayton won’t necesarily work in Portland, and vice versa.

        Personally, I’d love it if we could stop characterizing the playing of new or unfamiliar repertoire as “adventurous.” Well-meant, but what does it say, in effect, about core repertoire – that playing it is timid or safe? Enough with the labels – let’s present all the music we do as worth hearing, on its own merits, without taking potshots, inadvertently or not, at other music.

    • I agree with Drew, on the basis of personal experience and knowledge: when the NYPO did Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” a few years ago, subscribers turned in a lot of tickets…and the three performances sold out, clearly to people who weren’t typically NYPO ticket buyers.

      More recently, SF Symphony’s new SoundBox series is selling like hotcakes to a much younger audience than we usually get at Davies, and the series has consisted about 95% of recent music (written since 1990) or contemporary classics going back as far as the 1950s or 60s – work by Cage, for example.

  5. Slightly off topic, but could we stop wondering why our orchestra (or other arts organization) is perceived as “elitist” when so many of our organizations use announcers or advertising voices with most “elite” British (why, oh why, always with the Brits?) or snooty American accents?

    I grew up near Chicago, and I knew a lot of working folks and immigrants who enjoyed the orchestra (even if they couldn’t always afford it), but you never hear voices like theirs promoting the orchestra. (One exception was during the CSO’s fundraising radio marathons, when WFMT-FM used to play a clip of a Chicago cab driver speaking eloquently about the power of music, in a beautiful “youse guys” Chicago accent.)

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