I talked for a long time yesterday with someone I’ve just met, Joe McKesson, a former opera singer (dramatic tenor), who’s now a music programmer at MTV, and used to work with classical music at iTunes. He thinks younger people—college age—are getting interested in classical music. This he bases on the kind of anecdotal data you’d develop if you were trying to sell music to college kids, and on buying patterns he observed at iTunes.
This makes sense to me. People these days have wider, more diverse musical taste than they’ve ever had before. Anybody who cares about music knows that music comes in many genres—pop, rock, country, alternative, Americana, blues, Latin music (of various kinds), dance music (in a bewildering variety of flavors), R&B, hiphop, world music, folk music, traditional jazz, contemporary jazz, new age, classical, and many more. When you look at it that way, classical music doesn’t seem so formidable. It’s just one of the many choices out there. (And when you think of the many subgenres inside classical—chamber music, opera, lieder, Baroque music, 20th century music, atonal music, Renaissance music, medieval music, so much else—and then realize that almost all the genres I listed above are also divided into subgenres, you start to see how wildly and wonderfully diverse music today really is.)
And how are college kids getting into classical music? According to Joe, many of them buy classical playlists on iTunes. (Or, to be precise, they buy the music on the playlists.) Joe made those playlists. And this, too, makes sense. We know that many people who like classical music, or think they might like it, have trouble buying classical CDs. They don’t know where to start. Which piece should they buy? And, worse, which recording of a piece?
iTunes starts to solve that problem simply by letting people browse. If they see a classical track that interests them, they can listen to a sample of it. Then they can buy it for 99 cents. That’s so much more friendly than spending $18.95 for a CD you don’t know if you’re going to like.
And playlists make the choice even easier. They’re organized in ways that anyone can understand. Slow music, loud music, piano music, contrasts between classical and jazz piano (that was one of Joe’s creations). There’s no limit to the imagination anyone can bring to this. If you want to explore classical music, you find a playlist that appeals to you, and try it out. Sadly, iTunes currently seems to have only a limited choice of very basic playlists, though if you want to learn about pop genres, the playlists look pretty fabulous. Still, the idea is fabulous, and the playlists can be very sophisticated. Certainly they’re one way to draw people into classical music, by giving them choices they can understand.
For an idea of how ingenious—and how much fun—pop playlists can be, take a look at the Automatic Mix Tapes Generator on the Tiny Mix Tapes website. It’s anything but automatic; people post requests for the kind of song mix they’d like, and volunteers provide it. Here’s a sample:
Tunes for a single girl who is about to turn 30 and can’t decide if she should move to
Part 1: Why you should not move to
01. Dropkick Murphys – “Eurotrash” (Singles Collection)
02. The Guess Who – “American Woman” (American Woman)
03. David Hasselhoff – “Night Rocker” (Magic Collection)
04. Fishbone – “Subliminal Fascism” (Truth and Soul)
05. Sly & Robbie – “Language Barrier” (Language Barrier)
Part 2: Why you should not get bigger boobs
06. Cuff – “Single Plastic Female” (Living With The Worryfish)
08. Alan Prince – “Look At My Face” (Between Today and Yesterday)
09. Larry Graham – “Don’t Let ‘Em Change You” (GCS 2000)
10. Willy Alexander – “Looking Like A Bimbo” (Willy Alexander & The Boom Boom Band)
Part 3: Why you should not lower your standards
11. Cracker – “Mr. Wrong” (Cracker)
12. Radiohead – “Creep” (Pablo Honey)
13. Social Distortion – “Ball and Chain” (Social Distortion)
14. The Rainmakers – “The One That Got Away” (Rainmakers)
15. Joe Jackson – “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” (Look Sharp!)
Bonus Track: The Payoff
16. Peggy Lee – “Love Is Just Around The Corner” (Platinum Collection)
I don’t know if we can be quite so clever with classical music, but we certainly could have some fun.