Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is "Classical Music" a Niche Genre?

Hat tip to Greg Sandow for linking to this article in the Guardian. Let me just give you the head and sub-head:

What the music industry needs to do with the classical renaissance

Boundaries are being broken across the music world. The industry can capitalise on it if it embraces the spirit of change
Well, I suppose it is a good thing that there is a "classical renaissance", whatever that means, though everyone has been saying quite the opposite for a long time now. But what bothers me are the words "music industry". Sure, I guess from most points of view, journalists' at least, music is an 'industry' like the telecommunications industry or the film industry or textiles. You know, the people in the music industry manufacture product for the consumption of the general public just like shirts and pants. Different colors and designs for different tastes. Different price points, too. A single track from iTunes is what? $0.99? Versus a season ticket to the Met? You have to dig through quite a few pages to find out, but it looks as if you could see a whole season for between $1800 and $2500.

But this seems an odd perspective on which to view the art of music. Surely we listen to music, at least some of us some of the time, because it speaks to our souls. Sorry to use that phrase, which some might find odd, but I mean that music, at its best, expresses something we can find nowhere else--a kind of ecstasy perhaps, or a vision of beauty or a spine-chilling power. Something we do not get from the other industries. I doubt very much that Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon thought of themselves as being components of an industry.

The article goes on to say:
We're currently seeing a melding of genres and a breaking of boundaries across the music world. This recent trend – listeners moving to the avant garde after they start demanding more from the mainstream– has long been acknowledged within pop. In recent years, mainstream pop artists have even started adopting aspects of the avant garde in their search for fresh output: it's a dialogue that has benefited artists, labels and listeners alike.
Up until now the implications for former "niche" genres – classical, jazz, world – have been largely overlooked. In a world where listeners no longer define themselves along firm genre lines, music is increasingly just that – music. As a result, we are now witnessing a musician-led movement gleefully adopted by listeners, in which classical is being rebranded from the ground up. Even the term "classical" itself seems obsolete in the face of what's being produced and consumed.
Actually, I think that everything they are saying here is not news. The Beatles, for example, most definitely were influenced by the classical avant-garde, especially in the White Album. Melding genres and crossing boundaries has been the modus operandi of musicians--well, forever. I doubt you could find a decade in the whole history of music in which that wasn't going on.

But what strikes me as most odd is the reference to classical music as a "niche genre". I suppose in commercial terms, that is, if you define a niche genre as one that sells relatively few recordings compared to the mainstream ones, that is what classical music is. But this is to be completely oblivious to the history of music. Classical music, as a high art practiced for more than a thousand years, is hardly the niche. It is pop music, which has ruled the roost commercially for the last fifty years or so, that is the niche. There has always been popular music and high art music and the two have always influenced one another.

Don't you really think, given the nature of the thing, that music, especially classical music however defined, is really more than just an industry?


Anonymous said...

I consider classical a niche because of the limited market for it.

If you go out and meet a random 100 people, you would be lucky to find classical listeners amongst them which is a shame.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, yes, economically, classical music is a very small niche and popular music the big industry. But aesthetically it is the other way around.