Saturday, September 24, 2016

Is "Crossover" a Gateway Drug?

Regular readers know how I feel about "crossover." What's that, the guy in back asks? Crossover is really a marketing niche where a classical musician might cross over some invisible line and play repertoire that you wouldn't expect: like the Spiderman Theme. Or it might equally be a popular vocalist taking a stab at some light classical repertoire. But that doesn't seem to happen much. There are also some musical groups that seem to live in the crossover zone like 2Cellos and ThePianoGuys. But for the most part it is simply a transparent attempt to jack up sales by pulling in some buyers that don't usually buy classical recordings. Here is our latest example:

Now don't get me wrong. Everyone should play the music they like and buy the music they like. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Usually I would make an aesthetic critique, but I want to take a different perspective on it. It is often claimed that one of the benefits of crossover is that it leads more people to become classical music lovers. This is one of the arguments used to convince classical musicians to play crossover and for symphony orchestra to add pops programs to their season. This is what I will call the "gateway drug" theory. Crossover is a gateway drug that leads to people listening to actual classical music. The "gateway drug theory" has been around for a while:
Gateway drug theory (alternatively, stepping-stone theory, escalation hypothesis, or progression hypothesis) is a comprehensive catchphrase for the medical theory that the use of a psychoactive drug can be coupled to an increased probability of the use of further drugs.
One day you are listening to Lang Lang and Lindsey Stirling hack their way through the Spiderman Theme:

and the next day you find yourself mysteriously attracted to performances of the Cavatina from the Beethoven Quartet op. 130:


I don't think that the gateway drug theory has much going for it either. I'm pretty sure that if you go and look at everyone's shelves next to Lang Lang crossover you won't find serious Beethoven. You will probably find Nora Jones (as we see on Amazon: "Frequently bought together").

In order to believe that crossover really brings people into classical music you have to presume a theory of aesthetic taste that says that the same people who like unchallenging, formulaic and maudlin music will equally like demanding and emotionally profound music. You know anyone like that? Me neither.

Of course just about everything we read in the mass media tells us different. Every single interview with a classical musician in the Guardian prompts them to tell us what they listen to when they are relaxing--and it is always some unlikely pop music. Sure, sometimes I'm in the mood for a little Led Zeppelin. About a minute and a half. Every ten or fifteen years.


Seymour said...

I worked in record retail for 13 years (70s-80s). We saw uncountable crossover albums come and go. The big sellers were undeniable, but you're correct that they did not lead to further exploration by those who bought them. Whenever someone talked to me about a crossover that they liked, I gathered that they liked the "approachable" quality that the pop performer brings to something classical (invariably something fairly lightweight to begin with), or the "open-minded", non-stuffy attitude of the classical performer in popular repertoire. In other words, these records were giving them exactly what they wanted, but on a dead-end street (although some had follow-ups, admittedly. But those were just more of the same).

One area of "non-classical" that can lead to a genuine interest in further exploration is film music. I can say this from my own experience. It's not such a leap to go from a film score by Jerry Goldsmith or Elmer Bernstein to Shostakovich, Mahler or Sibelius, for example. That is what happened to me. I read LP liner notes and found who influenced the film composers, the rest is a life-long obsession with challenging and profound music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Seymour and if you haven't commented before, welcome!

I think you might be right about film music and lately I've been wondering if another similar genre that might be leading people to classical is videogame music?

Rickard Dahl said...

I agree with your view on the crossover genre. It's some of the worst music out there. Sure, pop music sounds worse generally but at least it's explicit. With crossover you get music that pretends to be classical but is actually very close to pop music, it's like taking classical music and replacing all the interesting aspects with pop music.

I think film music and even video game music is indeed a far better "gateway drug". It of course depends on the type of film music and video game music but if it's classically inspired it tends to be a good indicator. It's also more genuine in that it doesn't pretend to be something it's not. One of the things that got me into classical music was actually video game music, especially through the game Eternal Sonata, which takes place in a dream world created in Chopin's mind (sounds like a strange concept maybe but it's a fun and beautiful game with a great story, one of my favorite games actually).

Here's some video game music I enjoy:

In other news I've finished listening to Joseph Haydn's works and started listening to W.A. Mozart works (on K 35 now). But more importantly I've started a blog and started making blog posts showing some of the photos taken during my walks. So far I made blog posts for 5 of the 30 long walks I've walked this year. You can find my blog here:

Here are the statistics for the walks: I actually walked 712km so far this year and it looks like I will do at least 3-4 more walks this year (probably more but the problem is that the days are getting shorter and shorter and I need to travel further and further to go for a walk, plus I'm busy with schools (thus there are less opportunities for walks)). It's funny, initially my goal for this year was to walk Hallandsleden (390km in total) but I also ended up walking Vildmarksleden (42km), Sjuhäradsleden (140km), one part of Skåneleden (maybe 21 out of 250km) and two parts of Gislavedsleden (intending to finish that trail this year, it is 100km in total). Actually, I even decided that I will walk the entire E1 and E6 European long-distance paths through Sweden, which I think I will accomplish within a few years. Here's a map of these: So far I've walked E1 from Varberg to Mullsjö and when I finish Gislavedsleden I will have walked E6 from Åsljunga down in Skåne to Hestra in Småland. Next year my first priority will be to walk Västra Vätterleden and Skåneleden. I'm not sure where I will walk after that but even for Skåneleden I will pretty much need to stay at a hostel since it takes too long time to travel each time (I live in Gothenburg). The longest travel time was when I walked the part of Skåneleden from Åsljunga to Koarp. It took me 4h to get there and then 3.5h to get back (after waiting for roughly 40-50 minutes on the bus).

Bryan Townsend said...

Great to hear from you Rickard and congratulations on the blog. You have some lovely photos. I encourage everyone to go check it out.

When I lived on Vancouver Island I used to do a lot of hiking, but here in Mexico, not so much.

JBB said...

I remember hearing Bernard Herrmann say something to the effect that audiences would happily listen to serial music as long as it was part of a film soundtrack, the implication, of course, being that the same people would stay away from orchestra concerts featuring that kind of music.

Herrmann's theory notwithstanding, I agree that good cinematic music can act as an introduction of sorts for 'classical' music.

Anonymous said...

"In order to believe that crossover really brings people into classical music you have to presume a theory of aesthetic taste that says that the same people who like unchallenging, formulaic and maudlin music will equally like demanding and emotionally profound music. You know anyone like that? Me neither."

I know plenty of people like that, and it would be easy for you to see the same, too. For years I have used to keep a record of the music I listen to. Among classical fans whose listening is documented there, it’s extremely common to see a Bruckner symphony or a Beethoven concerto followed by, say, a Kylie Minogue, Mylene Farmer, or Lady Gaga track. Perhaps these listeners consider both of the same ultimate worth, perhaps the lighter bit of music is just a palate cleanser after the heavy stuff. Rarely do I see people who listen exclusively to “demanding and emotionally profound music”.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmm! I welcome commentators who disagree with me, so thanks, Anonymous! If I am really wrong about something, I sure want to know about it. I know of two large and general groups of listeners: casual listeners who tend to listen passively to whatever is playing and lean towards popular and undemanding, and musicians who either don't do a lot of listening (they spend most of their time playing) or who mostly listen to demanding music. There are other groups, I'm sure, people who are music lovers and fans of either popular or classical. Presumably the ones you are referring to are in this group. I just have to say that I don't know any personally. People who are fervent fans of, say, popular music do not, in my experience, tend also to listen to Bruckner. But I haven't looked at the FM radio data you have. Could it possibly be the case that the broadcaster is offering a mix of genres?

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan, remember me? The one who started listening to classical music and even came to your blog thanks to 2Cellos? After enjoying a 2Cellos rock performance that had popped up on my Facebook page, I looked for more by the same artists and discovered their (not crossover) classical performances. Then I googled something or other, (Celloverse?) and landed on....wait for it... The Music Salon and I've never looked back. Gateway Drug!

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome back, Christine! I was thinking of you when I wrote this and wondered if you would leave a comment. Yes, you are the counter-example, for sure.