I recently read a Playboy article (SFW) where the author laments a stranglehold that he perceives nostalgia has on the output of Hollywood’s biggest movie studios. I’m going to spare you any jokes about Michael Bay’s obsession with ruining 90s-era television shows and simply point out that there is a real trend here that is equally prevalent in our world of classical music. It is a difficult argument to make that the upcoming release schedules for classical music’s largest record labels - Decca and Deutsche Grammophone - will generate any buzz whatsoever outside of conservatory music libraries just dying to catalog another edition of Dvorak’s cello concerto. If you look at the recent programming of premier orchestras, you will see a similar pattern: long-dead composers dominate, and “movie karaoke” performances of black-and-white Hitchcock films are seen as edgy attempts to woo the general public. It seems that we, too, in the classical music community have a serious nostalgia problem.
Now, there is rarely a less productive discussion than the one that seeks to assign blame for a complex issue. Truthfully, the woes of the classical music industry largely reflect those facing the music industry as a whole; and if we really want to understand what ails the broader music industry, we have to acknowledge a world where the average disposable income is shrinking and global industry has become obscenely consolidated. If we set aside these larger questions for now, we are left with the task of finding ways for creators of classical music to combat the aging of our audience and inspire new generations to become loyal listeners. This problem is fairly specific to our niche within the industry and is one that I optimistically believe is manageable.
This brings me back to that original Playboy article. It’s obviously true that programming classical “classics” is a proven way for orchestras to attract more conservative donors; and I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that Mozart and Brahms should be forever abandoned to obscurity. Students in conservatories certainly need a foundation in this standard repertoire; but it seems also imperative that young musicians and writers be empowered to shape the future of music in their own unique way that moves beyond what is standard. After all, a foundation is only as enticing and worthwhile as whatever you build on top of it.
If we’re going to shape a future of concert music that is exciting to others, as well as ourselves, we have to insist on an environment of creation and collaboration that doesn’t necessarily stop at the boundaries of the classical community. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say that the burden for this falls predominately on the shoulders of my own generation (we’ll say 18-26 year olds) and those who serve as our teachers and mentors. If we want people our age to take an interest in the music that we play, we have to stop relying so disproportionately on what has already been done a thousand times. The reality is that all young musicians can benefit from working with their peers to create and market a musical experience that is all their own. Teachers who encourage this sort of experimentation and provide opportunities for their students to collaborate with each other will be providing their students with invaluable experience and perspective for the rest of their careers. When the youth within the classical community begin to universally adopt a forward-thinking mentality and the release schedules of Decca and DG start to resemble those of smaller labels - such as New Amersterdam and Nonesuch Records - the future for classical music will be bright, indeed.
William Carrigan is a bass player and songwriter based in New York City, as well as the current Chief Operations Officer at Open G Records. He graduated from East Carolina University with degrees in classical and jazz performance and currently attends New York University in pursuit of a Master’s degree in music business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.