Come down from the mountain

Last week I went to a party, where I met a lot of people who are (1) precisely not the classical music audience, but (2) precisely the people we need to have in it: Smart, educated, intellectually curious people in (I’d guess) their 30s. The creative class, if you like, of Washington, DC, in 2014.

I talked the most with a couple who were very savvy, and very involved musically, involved enough to go (even though they have a two-year old) to New York for a music festival.

Of course the music they went to hear wasn’t classical. But later in the evening, one of the couple, talking with Anne and me, said almost humbly that they knew nothing about classical music, and could we recommend something for them to listen to?

Which of course we did. And of course I’ve often been in this situation, as I’m sure many readers of the blog have. But it makes me just a little sad. If I worked in country music, and told people at a party that, nobody would get apologetic for not knowing anything about country.

mountain blogBut classical music has a special status. People feel they ought to like it. Or sometimes they just run away from it (there’s a priceless anecdote about that, in an upcoming guest blog post). Or stop dead in their tracks when it’s mentioned, as happened to me once at a dinner party some years ago. Among the other guests were a cultural theorist, an actress, and a writer of mystery novels. When I, the new kid on their block, said I worked in classical music, everyone fell silent, not having any idea what to say.

Often, though, I (and, as I said, I’m sure many readers) get the reaction I got last week. Respect. At least implicit apologies. And a humble request for enlightenment.

We could say that’s a good thing. That classical music, because of its persistent prestige (even while most people, even artistic, educated people, ignore it), has a built-in recruitment mechanism. People think they ought to like it — or, to be more generous, think they might like it if only they knew enough — and so they’re drawn to it. There’s built-in appeal.

But I can’t hold that view. I think there’s a big downside. Precisely because it’s prestigious, precisely because people think they ought to be interested, classical music remains distant. And intimidating. This works against what pulls people towards it. They may think they should move in its direction, but they don’t think they can do that, not on their own. And so most of them won’t. I gave the people I was talking to some starting points, and was able to repeat them in an email, because we also had some parenting things to talk about.

But will these fine, smart, musically curious people — they’d also been to the Go-Go Symphony in Washington — listen to the pieces I suggested? And then feel both motivated and comfortable enough to go further on their own? I have no idea.

Though I’m certain that if there were some classical music group in Washington doing fascinating things each week, making noise about them, and meeting people like those at the party in the places where they live, work, and hang out — if there were some group like that, these people would be drawn to it on their own. They wouldn’t need me. And they wouldn’t be intimidated.

So that’s what we need. Classical music that feels like a normal part of life. Not like something sitting far away on some high mountaintop of art.

It was fascinating, I’ll say in passing, to find out what kind of pop music these people liked, and to make classical recommendations based on their pop tastes. When I last looked at Pandora, it didn’t work that way. They offered classical music, but in a separate silo. If you liked a classical piece, they could recommend more they’d think you’d like. But they couldn’t offer classical choices based on what you like in pop. Maybe they’ve changed that, but if not, I’d love to see them do it. And in reverse, too: Recommend pop music based on the classical things you like. 

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  1. MWnyc says

    From the bit you’ve recounted, Greg, I’d tell them that if they’re going to go to New York for a music festival, they should go to the Bang on a Can Marathon this Sunday.

    If I had to recommend some starting place in classical music for smart, educated, intellectually curious people, not having any other information about what music they like already, I think the Bang on a Can marathon would be a good and (relatively) safe recommendation. They’d get to check out a whole variety of music without the expectation that they’d have like all of it, it would all be contemporary music (classical music is not just by dead people!), and at the Marathon, they’d see right away that classical music doesn’t have to be stuffy, uptight, intimidating or otherwise uncool.

  2. says

    That people think they ought to know some classical music (and maybe it is possible to separate “know” and “like”) – can that be likened to a desire to know something about classical art, like Rembrandt, or classical litterature, like Shakespeare? It has some value to know about culture and history. Then of course classical music is seen as a historic, and not contemporary, art form, which is something you might want to avoid.

  3. says

    “and meeting people like those at the party in the places where they live, work, and hang out”

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Greg. The key to selling classical music is this type of personal interaction with persuadable individuals. No amount of marketing, advertising, publicity or promotion can replace the persuasive power of meeting people in their worlds, sharing common interests (you alluded to parenting) and talking to them about how classical music might appeal to them. Though the entire cultural sector is likely to recoil in horror at the word, the process you’ve described is known in the real world as sales.

    The accepted model for selling tickets in classical music is to have teams of deep insiders holing up in conference rooms figuring out how to spray bombastic, self-centered promotional materials at the world. I can’t help thinking it would be interesting, and probably a hell of a lot more useful, if music institutions started fielding teams of smart outside sales executives who would engage with their communities in the way you engaged with your new friends at that party.

    • MWnyc says

      Louis Andriessen. Start with De Staat.

      Maybe also Iannis Xenakis or Harrison Birtwistle. Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony and some of the noisier organ pieces. (With those, you’ll get plenty of the face-melting sound factor, though not much of a rockin’ beat.)

      If you’re looking for something to try from the standard classical rep, try Bruckner’s symphonies, especially the No. 9.

      But really, I bet Andriessen’s your guy.

      Who else has suggestions.

        • MWnyc says

          Ives could work. Maybe a good next step after Andriessen..

          Ligeti? Depends on the piece. Lux aeterna is a great piece, but it’s probably not going to appeal to a fan of heavy metal and punk.

          • richard says

            I like Ligeti’s chamber works more than the orchestral works, I was thinking more along the lines of “”Continuum” and “Volumina”.

    • Abdrew says

      Mahler! Mahler Symphony Number Five is probably your best bet, or Mahler 7. Avoid the choral symphonies if that’s not your kind of sound.

  4. ariel says

    Why do we precisely need these so called educated smart etc. etc . people who at the age of 30 something have not displayed any interest in what Mr. Sandow calls classical music … isn’t it a little late in the game, more
    to the point does Mr. Sandow think their lives are so barren that they need a dose
    of “classical” music to give it meaning ?
    Why were these people put into a situation in
    which they “humbly ” had to ask for enlightenment … and” of course the music they went to hear was not “classical “seems
    a little of a put down ‘– why does it have to
    be classical ?

  5. monxton says

    In my experience recommendation engines don’t work too well in general – mostly, as you have observed, the recommendations are just more of the same genre and, since they have so little WAM on offer that it is all categorised as a single genre called “classical”, so that’s what you get. But I do like your idea. There’s an assumption that people unfamiliar with listening to WAM should be offered easy listening pieces, which is insulting and probably also alienating.

  6. says

    Unfortunately groups that seek to break the accessibility barrier while maintaining classical musical standards face an uphill battle in marketing. The nouns “Opera”, “Classical”, and “Symphony” are a shut-off valve for the audience you describe, the people who would love this music the most. But how are you going to describe an accessible opera performance without using the word “opera”? If you’re doing pop with classical trappings, sure you can describe it without those shut off words. But for real classical musicians it makes tricky territory for the marketers..

    I sing with an opera band in Germany, and we definitely run into this problem (The Cast). We see it from two directions: we get a handful of “old people” at every show, who leave disappointed that this isn’t a concert style you’d ever see at the Staatsoper. They like the formality and ceremony, and we don’t fulfill that need. Secondly, this problem also makes it hard to market directly to the audience which tests the best for us: 25-40 year old educateds. This demographic loves an experience where it’s OK to enjoy a classical performance the way they would enjoy a popular music concert.

    Interestingly, social sales seem like the best way to break down this barrier. When the message is coming from a peer, people seem more likely to trust that maybe the stereotype is wrong. The other day I heard a fan (32yo, male, highly educated, no classical music background) explain to a friend, “it’s classical music, but it’s not like classical music, man. Trust me: you’re totally into opera, you just don’t know it yet.” It made me think of Benjamin Zander’s viral TED talk, and it was great to hear that out of an audience member’s mouth. It was just as great to see that it worked: the friend bought a ticket to the next show.