The relevance trap

All through the US, classical music institutions are searching for relevance. They want to be more relevant to their communities.

Don't ask if you're relevant. Ask who you're trying to reach.But I think the word “relevant” is itself a problem. It sends us down a path whose meaning and direction isn’t clear. And it reinforces some of the attitudes about classical music and the wider world that got us into trouble in the first place.

First problem: 

If we say we need to be relevant, then we’re also saying that — right now — we think we’re irrelevant. Which means we’ve defined ourselves as losers.

Much better to step out proudly and say, “We have something wonderful, even if other people haven’t caught on to that yet.”

Second problem:

If we worry about relevance, there’s a danger that we’ll pander to the people we wish we could please. We’re running scared. So we might do things we don’t really care about — things we might not even believe in — just to please the people we think we’re not relevant to.

There’s a double trap here. If we think we’re not relevant because our culture is superior, we’ll never get anywhere. The people we tell this to will think we’re insulting them. But if we try to jump the relevance gap — if we try to pretend that classical music isn’t really different from the culture other people share, by (for instance) drawing cute little parallels between classical composers and current pop stars — we’ll also never get anywhere, because other people know that what we’re saying isn’t true.

Third and biggest problem:

The word “relevant” has no clear meaning. So when we worry about relevance, we haven’t defined what we mean. Is classical music relevant? Well, people are going to classical concerts, and listening to classical music radio. So classical music is relevant. It’s relevant — passionately so — to the people who love it.

So what we mean, when we say we’re not relevant, is that we’re not relevant to enough people. Or that there are crucial groups — younger people, for instance — who don’t find us relevant

But what do we mean by that? Do we (to just look at younger people for a moment) want younger people to listen to classical music more often? Or to buy more tickets to our concerts? Or just to care that we exist in their community, whether they go to concerts or not?

These are separate problems. They’re related; they overlap. But they have to be separated, because very likely they’ll be solved in different ways.

And look what happens when we focus more clearly on what we really mean. We start defining our problems. Instead of staring at something huge and cloudy — relevance — we’re talking about specific things. Things we can figure out how to address, with plans whose success we can measure.

And the key to these plans — I’m convinced — is something quite simple. We have to believe in ourselves. Or, as I wrote at the start of this, we have to “to step out proudly and say, ‘We have something wonderful, even if other people haven’t caught on to that yet.'”

Which means we have to do things we believe in. Things we’re passionate about. We need an artistic vision, which drives everything we do. We have to make that vision visible. Tangible. Exciting. If the truth be told, we pander too much even to our established audience, fearing to do things we think they might not like. Instead of taking some chances, and stepping out to the center of the stage, and telling the world, “This is what we care about!”

Which solves the dual problem I stated above, in italics, of arrogance and apology. We don’t have to tell everyone that classical music is superior. And, at the opposite extreme, we don’t have to tell people that classical music will be easy, that it’s exactly like things they already know.

We need to trust people. We need to trust that they can — and will — take an interest in things they don’t know about, things that are different from what they already know. In music, that should be easy to trust. There’s never been a time — not in my lifetime, anyway — when people are so eager to explore so many varied musical styles.

We’ll still have to make changes. The people we’re trying to reach will have to see that we share their culture. Our music might be different from what they now listen to, but we live in the same world they do. How we show that will be a long story, which I’ll tell (and have told) in this blog, and elsewhere. But the key is really to share that wider culture. Not to pretend we do, not to grope toward doing it, not to guess what people will like, but to share — honestly, and for real — their outlook.

Which means that, if we want more people to care about classical music, we’ll have to involve people who really do share the culture at large. And — though this might be hard — we may have to realize that some of the people now guiding our efforts aren’t the people who ought to be doing it.

But that’s a long story. Let’s just start by throwing away the huge, vague concept of “relevance,” and focus on what we really mean.

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  1. says

    Hi Greg, I responded on FB that relevance can only be a relative term and as such we must focus on increasing it in effective ways. In breaking it down a bit though, I think you’ve hit two nails on the head! That popular culture will mainly only trust those already in the popular culture about the fine arts… and that many in popular culture are CURIOUS about fine arts. So if we play directly to the curious ones (those willing to meet us partway) and enlist the direct support of those in popular culture, we should be able capture their attention long enough to set a classical hook with… what exactly?
    See, I focus on what to play or say if I can get 5 minutes to tell someone why I prefer to play classical music over all the others I enjoy. It’s dramatic, it’s shaped, it’s beauty, it’s imagination, it’s virtuosic, it’s teamwork, it’s different, it’s living, it’s sustained, it’s ME wearing on the composer’s hat!

    • says

      Makes sense, Rick. You have every right to prefer classical music, just as others prefer hiphop or ambient music or country music or jazz or techno. Since people expect everyone to have a musical preference, nobody’s going to object to yours. As long as you don’t say your music is better than theirs! Which I know you don’t.

      Not sure, though, that people are curious about the fine arts as such. My sense — fallible, of course — is that a lot of people are curious about more or less everything. Younger people don’t even draw distinctions between fine and popular art. They like what they like. So maybe they’ll look into curling (that happened, bigtime, after the last winter olympics), and then the next week they’ll get curious about origami, then they’ll listen to the new Kate Bush album, and then a week later they’ll listen to some Bach. Of course tastes vary from person to person, and some people are more curious than others, but a lot of people are more than happy to give classical music a try. Fact: when iTunes started, 12% of the downloads were classical, as compared to 3% of purchases in record stores. The reason seems very simple. People could buy a classical track for 99 cents, and sample it before they bought it. They’d be much more likely to do that than to pay $15.99 for a CD.

  2. says

    Even if something doesn’t seem relevant in its own time, or in a specific locale, it might be a much needed antidote for a concert event. Can’t worry about what people think in the now–we all have to take chances. Case in point: I was in Canada this past weekend, performing the Canadian premiere of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Shadows”. Admittedly, several audience members and board members shared afterward their concerns about how their audience would respond. Well, we were all overwhelmed in that they responded more enthusiastically than they ever imagined. Moral to the story: if you believe something has relevance, and can be an asset to any community–anywhere–than, take the chance. Forget superiority–nobody is superior anymore, in my humble opinion. If we don’t try new things, new ideas, stretch the old boundaries, then we stagnate and progress is stalled.

    • says

      Good point, Jeffrey. You’re making me see that there’s yet another problem with the whole relevance concept — the idea that we can predict what will be relevant to someone. Ellen’s piece meant something to you, and you communicated that in your playing (and I’m sure in other ways). So people hearing the piece could pick up on your interest, and say, “I’m going to give this a try.” When we worry too much about what other people are going to think, we underestimate them in what strikes me as a very patronizing way. People are smarter and more open-minded than we often think.

  3. says

    Hi, Greg!
    Almost everything you touch on in this blog post: artistic vision; advocating for that vision because we care about it; working to interact and engage w/a wider audience, are much of what occupies effective Arts Administrators every day! I read a wonderful op-ed piece this morning by Lance Dickie (columnist for the Seattle Times) who points out from Pew Research that the “millennials”, at 80 million strong (a larger population block than us baby boomers) are “…the most racially and ethnically diverse cohort of youth in the nation’s history….they are also more liberal, more accepting and pretty damn smart….”. Some of these precious young folks are my students – and yours – bringing fresh and innovative solutions every day to the challenges and pressures we face. Mr. Dickie invites them to join the political fray, as they have so much to offer our future – I’m pinning much of my hopes for the arts on them – Thanks for your great work. – Anne

    • says

      Hi, Anne. Nice to reconnect with you!

      And I love what you’re saying. The people Lance Dickie talks about are the ones who — as I’ve observed them — have the most wide-ranging musical taste. And curiosity about music they’re never known about. Which makes them a wonderful group to present music to. Unless, that is, you’ve decided in advance how they’re supposed to react! Then they’ll very likely turn right off. We have to learn from them — and prepare ourselves to be surprised at what they’re going to think. They may take us and classical music in directions we never expected. But isn’t that how history works? How life works? And shouldn’t we be delighted at the adventure a new generation offers?

  4. says

    It’s a tricky business, trying to appeal to a new audience without tipping your hand, especially since the new audiences we want and need can smell pandering a mile off. In radio, change begins with the content — new programming, which, even when abetted by promotion, needs time, even a year or more, to find its new audience, and for the new audience to find it. Immediate reaction will probably be negative. Listenership may decline at first. Station personnel may shake their heads and say “it’ll never work”. But if the new programming is appealing and consistently high-quality (as judged by the listeners, not by the producers or the stations), it will be successful in the long run. Does classical music have the time and the will to try radically new things, and see which work? I hope so. Every institution should try at least one new idea, so we can all learn from each other. Everything should be on the table for potential change, including repertoire, venues, scheduling and whatever else…except for standards of musical quality. Lessen them, and we’re dead. I know that even saying “musical quality” opens up a can of worms and can lead to much discussion of what quality consists of and who gets to decide. I’ll admit that my idea of musical quality is as much inclusive as it is exclusive, and considers such virtues as appeal, enjoyment and entertainment to be as important as profundity, significance and our old friend relevance. But in the end, though musicians, programmers, critics, etc. may provide leadership, it’s the audience that will decide what’s good and what isn’t. Now, if we could only get them to give our stuff a try…

  5. A.S. says

    This article is extremely helpful and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing it

    The idea of the culture gap is particularly intriguing to me. In the visual arts context, anyway, this gap isn’t only about culture in the sense of high/low, pop/classical, 99%/1%, but fundamentally about what the arts are “for.” To generalize wildly for a second, for audiences the arts seem to be about enjoyment, participation, connection, and enjoying a non-pressured, non-commercial, communal space in a culture that has fewer and fewer of these. But to administrators, programmers, curators, and other leaders, the arts seem to be about formal education (facts/teaching), connoisseurship, cultural stewardship, and scholarship. That’s where I see a relevance gap: are the arts “about” experience or “about” knowledge?

    • says

      You’re on to something there. And hidden inside the idea of education is the maybe toxic idea that we’re not like our audience. We have knowledge, they don’t, and it’s hard for us to imagine them as human beings like ourselves.

      Or is that too strong?

      • A.S. says

        I agree — there’s definitely a power differential. But if we’re not like our audience, is it possible that “educating” them is an attempt to make them more like us? I don’t know if that’s democratizing or just patronizing.

  6. Judith Kurnick says

    Very relevant post, Greg. Seriously, I think relevance is often used as a catch-all to describe all the ways that people might connect with what we do: purchasing tickets, downloading music, contributing money to organizations, wanting to read articles or watch TV shows about it, and just being curious about it. We should also remember that the word arose in response to perceptions created by old boundaries, which fewer young people today may experience than in the pre- iTunes era. To them the word “relevant” may not be as relevant any more.

    But we still have to get them in the door. And what does concern me is how poorly most of us are prepared to explain to outsiders what we love and why we love it . We need to think more about language, perhaps in a more coordinated way, particularly when it comes to generating support. Many arts groups focus on describing how they enhance the economy; this is can be a useful argument but says nothing about the true value of experiencing art or music. Why don’t we ask our audiences and let them help us?

    • says

      Good points, Judith. Nice to see you here.

      In my view, at least, explaining what we’re about and why we love it is really simple. Also fairly easy. The students in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music — — do it every year. I ask them to make a five-minute presentation about a piece they love, probably one they play or sing themselves. I suggest that they speak very personally, avoiding any exposition on the history or structure of the piece (unless they’re really fired up by those things).

      The results have been consistently spectacular, for years. And no preparation seems needed! Just speak from the heart. I’m not going to say that’s all we need to do, because to put it in publicly accessible form would take some polishing. But that’s easy to do. Speaking from the heart is the way to start.

  7. says

    Greg, I really like this approach. I think of ‘relevant’ as being one of those typically 60s words and concepts that can really be a problem. “Huge and cloudy” just as you say! Instead of falling into that double trap you outline so clearly, we need to, as you say, believe passionately in what we are doing. I believe that a passionate performance of a great piece of classical music is the finest argument by far and one that will always win at least some people over. I was just reading a popular novel by Robert Tannenbaum, “Irresistable Impulse” in which one of the characters describes the impact of hearing Shostakovich’s E minor piano trio in deeply felt terms. Classical music is a powerful force. If we do the best job we can in performing it, it sells itself. We can’t please everyone, but we shouldn’t try to do that.

    • says

      Someone should collect powerful descriptions of classical pieces that show up in novels. There are quite a few of them, and often they’re strikingly more powerful than more formal writing about music. I’m reading the huge new Murakami novel, 1Q84, and the Janacek Sinfonietta plays a recurrent part in the book, described in very telling, evocative terms.

      I so much agree about the power of a performance. I’ve dreamed of doing a project with performers in which first we work out all kinds of enhancements to the performance of some particular piece — lighting, projections, video, spoken commentary, whatever. And then I say, “Now play the piece in a way that incorporates the effect of all those enhancements, and makes them completely unnecessary. The result, for me, would be a thousand times better than anything extra we could add.

  8. says

    Greg, I loved this part : “we may have to realize that some of the people now guiding our efforts aren’t the people who ought to be doing it.”

    That’s a very nice way of putting a difficult truth.

    To me, finding a way for all of us to publicly discuss that fact would be one of the most helpful things we could do to advance our artistically isolated field. Yet, there is strong resistance to even having that discussion, much less changing anything. I’ve heard the comparison made with gay marriage; to the younger generations, it’s a non-issue. They feel that they simply must wait for the older generations who oppose this to die off.

    i wonder how long we will have to wait to even begin having artistic discussions around classical music that are more interesting than what Beethoven wanted for a bowing.

    • says

      Thanks, Peter. I do try to be gentle. (Well, a lot of the time.) But some people actively engaged in working toward classical music’s future are in a difficult position for that, because they don’t have enough feeling for the culture outside classical music. Which means they don’t really know much about the people they’re trying to reach. Which means they probably can’t find the best ways to reach those people.

      And then what makes it harder is that these people don’t want to give up their leadership, because often they feel — honestly, and honorably — that they’re maintaining the dignity and quality of classical music, which might be threatened if large changes got made. I can sympathize with that feeling, but it can cause problems. People think the standard way of presenting classical music can’t be changed without damaging the music itself, and about that they’re simply wrong.

  9. says

    Greg, would it help keep us from running scared, as you say, if we focused a bit more on criticism? You know I take the view that all music of high quality that has stood the test of time is ‘classical’ music. So I am happy calling both Bach and the Beatles ‘classical’ and I’m happy to relegate some of the most boring baroque composers to the non-classical category. In any case, I don’t think we should be shy about criticizing classical OR pop music. I put up a post the other day about the Grammy concerts after reading a piece in the Guardian: