The classical music establishment has failed us: we need a second renaissance

This blog is born out of the utter frustration as to the current state of the classical music industry and a total lack of confidence in the establishment organisations who have been trusted with classical music’s survival.

The establishment organisations include the big professional orchestras, opera companies, conservatoires, agents, festivals and venues, who have all been jointly responsible for how our industry works… and ultimately they have failed us, and they have failed classical music.

The Dark

We really need to face facts. Classical music has been in trouble for a while now and the current system IS NOT WORKING.

A look back at news headlines show the same old story. Vanishing audiences, criticisms of elitism, inability to attract young people, failure to adopt new technologies and organisations being affected by funding cuts.

The thing is, when I say “a look back” you’re not quite sure when I mean… which shows just how bad things are! All those issues and criticisms are valid now, and were valid last year, 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 25 years ago… even 50 years ago!

So why on earth are we facing the same problems to our industry and art year after year? In my eyes, it is a total failure of the establishment organisations ability to function, change and innovate.

The establishment have been happy to take and rely on government funding and sit comfortably as they don’t need to worry about adapting and innovating. They have been happy to take the easy answer and repeat the same thing over and over, hiding behind the premise that “it’s the way things have always been done”, or that “it’s traditional”, rather than try new things and change with the times. On top of that, their reliance on funding has created a sense of entitlement… that classical music has an inherent right to exist, and if their business model suffers it’s because of luddite funders not appreciating what they do and not that it’s because the job they’re doing isn’t good enough.

Very few classical music organisations actually function to an acceptable standard. I’ve regularly seen people from the sports world come to arts conference and talk about how they implement change, or implement new business models, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone from the world of music to speak at a sports conference and give business advice. That is because what we’re doing organisationally just isn’t good enough.

On top of that, we’re still behind way behind the curve when tackling issues with diversity, sexism and the class divide. The conversation about mental health and performance psychology has only just begun, despite both being issues for decades.

Also, think about it for a second. If you had a blank piece of paper now, and were asked to create a business plan for a professional orchestra, you wouldn’t have part of your plan be to lose more than £2 million a year and ask the government for help? Especially now as funding cuts in the UK are everywhere! On top of that, we continue to see a systemic rigidness, a failure to adapt to new technology and a failure to adapt to cultural changes.

I have always hoped and dreamed that change, progress and innovation would happen and be led by the establishment, but it’s safe to say that after 50 years of a refusal to change isn’t going to happen.

The Light

So what next?

We need a total reset on how our entire industry and art functions…. we need a rebirth… we need a 2nd renaissance!

Looking back at the original renaissance, we had a total change on the way things were done and the traditional order and establishment. Exciting innovations with the printing press allowed for ideas to spread, ideologies to change and a huge cultural golden age was exploded into life as humanity pushed the boundaries in art, religion and science. Out with the old, in with the new.

We need the same now. We have our printing press, as the internet and social media has redefined how we interact as a species. It plays a pivotal role in day to day life, what we buy and who wins elections. To match this, we need a new golden age in classical music, turning everything on it’s head. Out with the old that has crippled our beautiful art, and in with the new to push the boundaries and secure its future.

Our traditional funding models stifle innovation, reward complacency and conservatism, and prevent new organisations from thriving. So let’s stop telling ourselves we need to rely on the pathetic Arts Council (who, let’s face it, make the Freemasons look transparent and accessible). Who says and orchestra can’t be financially viable? Why can’t we be brave and find a way to actually make classical music a commercial success?! After all, you rarely hear the West End or Broadway in financial trouble!

Concert audiences are vanishing (and yes they are… if you look outside of a Proms you’ll see it, and if you look out of London you can’t miss it). So why do we keep assuming our audiences should have the same product that isn’t work? We’re no longer fighting for people’s money… we’re now fighting for people’s time. We have to compete with salsa dancing, football, speed dating, French lessons, Netflix. People will now spend their TIME on what they see has most value, and classical concerts provide little value for time. So why not change things up and experiment?

Allow drinks? Sure…. Actually, why not make it into a wine tasting concert and monetise it. Why not let people interact via social media during the concert like they would at the football, or rugby, or an Taylor Swift concert? On top of that… why not have pre-concert sessions where people can come and try out instruments? Education outreach and performances combined in an interactive way.

We need to experiment with changing the status quo. Will all the changes be successful and the right thing to do? Of course not. But as an industry we need to get to a point where we can try new things out and not worry about the bloody Arts Council, or a shitty sarcastic article on Slipped Disc website. We need to accept change needs to come and foster a positive environment that supports innovation.

So where is all this change going to come from?

It’s clear that the establishment isn’t going to do it. They have been the guardians of classical music for the last 50 – 100 years and they have repeatedly failed us.

Change needs to come from the younger generations. As a 29 year old I even discount my own generation from this. Not because I’m lazy and I can’t be bothered to find ways to change, but that my generation is still living the lie that the establishment works for us.

Change will come from "Generation Z", "The Centennials", "The Post-Millennials". They are the ones facing this new world as it is in crisis. They can see the real difficulties our sector faces as well as some of the solutions. It’s time we have a total changing of the guard. Out with the old, in with the new.

So, for anyone who isn’t 23 and under, whether we are a university or conservatoire, a big orchestra, or a musician, I say this…

It is our job to empower the post-millennials, our job to resource them and ultimately our job not to pour scorn on them just for trying something new. We need them to secure the future of classical music.

We need don’t classical music to survive the 21st century, we need it to thrive.

We need a new golden age

We need a rebirth

We need a renaissance.

ThoughtsDavid Taylor