Why we should be mindful of the language we use to describe the music we love

The language we use to describe music has the potential to convince, persuade or reassure the newcomer, the sceptic, the wary, or the dubious-minded that classical music is a cultural journey worth embarking upon.

To that end those who are already fans or devotees of classical music play an important role in articulating their passion in a relatable way. It is us who have the opportunity to build community around the art form by drawing on our knowledge and enthusiasm to illustrate why this musical genre matters. Some might say its even a responsibility.

At a point time when the art form needs those advocates at every level to seize the opportunity presented by the gradual return of live performance, we have the chance to channel our collective passion and articulate why the music we love has the impact on us in the way that it does.

This is not to say that music impacts in only one way, nor that it will impact two people in the same way necessarily. Rather, by sharing our reflections on how music impacts us personally, we underline why curiosity and awareness are the only requirements for exploring this wide and varied genre.

Thoroughly Good as a business is built around this core value, a value discovered as a result of numerous conversations with artists and audience members. When the curious amongst us hear people talk about the music they love, we are encouraged, persuaded perhaps even compelled to listen to it too.

Being mindful of the language we use to describe music is vital. We need to present ourselves as a welcoming community, open to all.

The continuing strain on our mental health

Before the week draws to a close, I wanted to write a personal reflection about Mental Health Awareness Week.

After fourteen months or thereabouts of largely isolated human-less living, the prospect of final stages of eased restrictions might seem like the end of the pandemic. There is an assumption underpinning the approaching end of lockdown: the world is returning to normal; we can return to our normal lives.

But transition back into that ‘normal’ life is, it seems to me, a far different prospect.

Even today, with Nicola Sturgeon announcing some areas of Scotland remaining in a state of reduced lockdown whilst other areas are released.

For people across the UK their experience of returning to the world is subject to a vast array of differing timescales. Their perception of freedom will be based on the opening-up of activities, but also be rooted in perceived restrictions or perhaps imaginary ones.

Being able to hug people or step back into a concert hall auditorium isn’t the end of pandemic-driven mitigations; it is only the beginning of the regaining of freedoms. Some of those freedoms are real, tangible things. A great many others are in the mind.

For a considerable number who were made or took voluntary redundancy in 2020, finding another job has been hard. I have felt this at home supporting my partner whilst he finds alternative work. Recruitment is tough even with specialisms and experience on your side. Continued unsuccessful job hunting for those who lost their income during the pandemic prolongs the sense of isolation and restriction. The inevitable lack of purpose that arises damages motivation, and impacts self-belief. The impact that has on the state of mind for both job-seeker and supporter is draining. The pressure is immense.

Quite apart from the logistics, practicalities and financial responsibilities, there’s a sense of guilt stitched into this period in time. On a local level I see my world – the classical music world – opening up again. It’s by no means a straightforward opening up. It does in some respects feel a little precarious. Charlotte Higgins has a fairly punchy summary of the situation the UK arts scene faces from 17 May.

However, with conversations about future work for me coming in, the guilt that arises when one’s partner continues to wait patiently and positively for work opportunities to come his way is a little difficult to swallow. Freedoms aren’t freedoms if the ones you love can’t experience their version of freedom too.

That’s what I mean about how people will experience coming out of restricted living at entirely different paces. It will be different from that articulated by Government guildelines. Individual experience will be different from one another. Coming out of this (whatever that really means) will bring about all manner of pressures on our mental health too that we’ll need to be prepared for.

That’s quite apart from the experience of breaking out of the relative ‘comfort’ zone we’ve all become accustomed to over the past year or so. That transition places demands on our mental health as well.

I consider myself very fortunate this past year. I have benefited from regular freelance work when it was quite possible (and I did for a while believe) everything could have fizzled out right from the word go. Me and my partner have space to do what we need to do without getting in one another’s way. We laugh a great deal and, importantly, we’re able to speak openly about how we feel, with one another without consequence or judgment. We understand one another’s differences and respect them. We also know the importance of focussing on abundance rather than scarcity.

That said, it’s not always easy to keep the boat afloat.

I’ve also seen a shift in how we talk about our own mental health. This may of course only be a reflection of my circle of friends, colleagues and peers, and subject to confirmation bias too. But there feels as though there is greater openness in conversations. People I talk to don’t rush in to rescue with ideas to make things better. People check in more on a regular basis with a WhatsApp message or a call, and that prompts me to do the same with them. I am fortunate to be part of a network that sustains me.

It wouldn’t be authentic if we weren’t able to reflect calmly and objectively about our thoughts and feelings during Mental Health Awareness Week. So in the spirit of leading by example, here goes.

I find this time immensely tiring. I have no sense of when our situation will resolve, though the hope is considerable. The prospect of the world opening up a little bit more is exciting for me, but a difficult when I know someone I care deeply about is looking for work. Sometimes the worries that emerge as a result – ruminations on catastrophic thinking if you’re looking for the coaching parlance – are all consuming. They have become so familiar now as to be inextricably linked with the depressing shade of green I slapped on my office walls a few years ago in a bid to ‘finish decorating the office’. It’s beginning to feel a little oppressive now, so too the paintwork.

But this is where resilience is shored up. This is the moment in time when we surprise ourselves on a daily basis. This is the time when we begin by making small goals and commit to reaching them no matter what. The path out of this is not quick, not signalled by a Government announcement, or easy. And if you can’t say that in Mental Health Awareness Week, when can you?


Music’s biggest problem

Last night I posted a screengrab on Facebook of the Cameron Mackintosh quote that’s doing the rounds at the moment in response to the news about musicians being cut from Phantom of the Opera.

Responses were mixed. Some were shocked. Some highlighted how they knew already Cameron had a tendency for dickishnesh,

One individual (a friend of a friend) outlined how sorry he was that people had lost their jobs, adding that one shouldn’t blame Cameron Mackintosh ‘for wanting to safeguard his business’. This from someone commenting on how much he had enjoyed one of Mackintosh’s productions after receiving a complimentary ticket from the man himself.

I’m not angry with the individual who posted the comment (well, not that much). In a way I’m grateful. The exchange has deepened my understanding.

We are a society made up of multiple generations who demand music, entertainment, and maybe even art, but don’t appreciate, recognise, or even acknowledge that human beings are involved in making it. For the majority, it’s inconceivable that people should even derive livelihoods from their talent.

We do not value music. We don’t value the talent required to make it. We don’t even appreciate it. To dismiss valuing it is seen by some as fun. Sport perhaps. That is our biggest problem. That’s what we need to change.

Why not make your digital tickets available for longer?

A chance discovery of the Royal Northern Sinfonia’s actual livestream on Friday evening threw light on a surprisingly dissapointing user experience, one which led to one persistent question all weekend: why not make your tickets available for longer?

For context, tickets to the Royal Northern Sinfonia’s livestream on Friday night were made available for purchase until 8pm on the night of the concert. The concert started at 7.30pm. Anybody who had purchased a ticket could watch the concert from the time they purchased their ticket up until 48 hours later. Try and purchase the ticket after 8pm on Friday evening and you’d have been as disappointed as I was.

In fairness, when I explain the context like that you’d be forgiven for thinking, why did you even try to purchase after 8pm when you knew that’s when the cut-off time was. The answer is that in my rush to comprehend, I’d focussed on the ‘available for 48 hours’ bit more than the 8pm cut-off bit. My assumption was that if its available for 48 hours to watch when you want, then I’d be able to purchase a view on-demand ticket in that time.

The other point worth making here is that at the point in time when I’d discovered the stream I was feeling a little flakey post-vaccine. I wanted to watch the stream but figured I’d watch it when I was feeling a little more upbeat the following day. A user behaviour indicative of the on-demand world we’ve all become accustomed to over the past twelve months.

I messaged Royal Northern Sinfonia when I discovered my error.

Admittedly, its only 9am on Monday morning, so perhaps I should have waited a little longer before penning this.

But, the question I’m struggling with is, why would you cut off your ticket sales for a concert half an hour after the beginning of the livestream. It can’t be because there’s no on-demand version available, otherwise those who purchase between 7.30pm and 8.00pm would miss the beginning of the concert. For those who are in possession of a ticket, they’ll be able to watch whenever they like or watch again (which will be a recorded version). So there is an on-demand version available.

Why then limit the ticket sales by imposing an odd on-the-evening deadline? Isn’t that missing out on potential revenue?

Maybe, I’ve been thinking, its to do with licences or agreements with performers that dictate the stream is only available for 48 hours.

If that is the case, if you’re investing in social media support such that positive comments are retweeted after the concert, wouldn’t it make more sense to make those tickets available say up until 24 hours after the beginning of the concert so that people late to the party like me can get a look at it geed on by glowing remarks from people on social media?

There will be some people who roll their eyes at this and think, ‘sounds like someone’s pissing and moaning because he didn’t get a press ticket’. Well, in some respects I suppose if I had then I wouldn’t have made myself as aware of the ticket purchase system. So its swings and roundbouts.

And I don’t think I’m pissing and moaning. Not really. Because this isn’t really about Royal Northern Sinfonia either.

I’m flagging that there are a variety of different user expectations based on a consensus view of how to access content nowadays. At least, I think there is. That consensus is built on what we’ve come to expect from BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Amazon. You can watch live. But you can also watch on-demand. Some of it is free, but some of the higher-value stuff you’ll need to pay for (Amazon). And sometimes you can only rent things for a specific amount of time (Rakuten).

If you’re having to limit ticket purchase time because of a licence, then surely it makes better sense to extend the ticket purchase period to capitalise on the gains made on social media.

As it happens, I don’t especially see this as having a poke at RNS. Rather, it has reminded me of how I’m often interested in those digital experiences which have come to my notice as a result of social media, digital marketing, or emailed suggestions. By intentionally (or unintentionally) creating a unique user experience, classical music may well be in danger of falling into the trap its detractors have accused it of in the past: existing in its own bubble.

Now is the time for the classical music world to tell a compelling story

In a previous post I made a start on how I was focussing in on Thoroughly Good’s business-to-business services – bespoke digital content strategy and production services for the classical, orchestral and wider arts world.

In this post I’m digging down into some of my topline thinking.

I’m talking about owned vs. earned content

Digital Content Strategy will tell that story of transition, shifting from one situation to another, challenging audience perceptions and assumptions, and framing classical music in a different context.

This is owned content, nestling somewhere in between PR and comms on the one side, and marketing on the other side.

But importantly it looks wider than just social media. Its more than just video or audio or images or whether you’ve got comments or likes. It’s about storytelling. What is the story you’re telling at this unprecedented moment in time? Is it compelling? Would it make someone like me look up and take notice of you?

It’s not all about social media

There is, it seems to me, an over-dependence on social media. A falsely held assumption that social media will create new fans who will in time convert into viewers and ticket buyers. If the majority of your effort is expended on social media content it is, to my mind, investing a lot of time and effort into content which struggles to gain and retain attention amongst users.

There’s another point here to underline here – that being the assumptions made about digital content. Primarily that it’s easy and it doesn’t take very much time. Oh, and whilst we’re on the subject, that it doesn’t necessitate experience in order to create it because of the other assumption that underpins this that only ‘the young’ understand how social media works.

Digital content is more than just social media. It’s website. It’s copy. It’s the video (and the audio) that sits within a webpage. It’s a playlist. It’s a community. And it’s a conversation. And more than any of all of this is one basic principle: what digital content needs is storytelling.

Think about the story you want to tell not where or how you’re going to tell it

Which is handy, because right now the orchestral world and classical music and opera has a story to tell: it’s return to serving its audience.

That doesn’t mean only talking about live performance.

It means documenting what has changed over the past twelve months, what’s going to be different in the immediate future, and what elements are staying the same.

It’s telling the story of how a genre is adapting to position itself in the minds of its existing audience, and how its reaching out to those people who haven’t previously considered classical music or the orchestral or operatic experience as something they would be interested in.

Only yesterday I was talking to an infectiously driven individual about how experiences seemed like a good product to sell. Just the word ‘concert’ sounds a little dated. I have friends who used to go to gigs and will when restrictions ease. For some potential audience members the word that hooks them in won’t be ‘concert’. It might be an event. Or an experience. Or maybe just a night out at Battersea Arts Centre. Or Snape Maltings. Or Sage Gateshead.

This isn’t about disruption

I digress a little. This post isn’t intended to go into the thorny subject area of what classical music should look or feel like in the months ahead. There are plenty of people champing at the bit, demanding disruption and/or innovation. I’m not convinced the classical music world needs another voice on that subject.

Instead, I think there’s a need to document this moment in time. It’s a strange moment of transition. Change and conflict is where there’s story. And good story commands attention.

Enter into an open dialogue with your audience to harness ideas

For example, this is a moment in time when twelve months of challenge is coming to an end. Audiences have been denied something. In the coming months they get to revisit it. The story they tell about that experience is extremely valuable. How do you capitalise on that?

As another example, I’ve not seen much documentation over the past twelve months (maybe aside from Paul Carey Jones’ book Giving it Away) about the thinking arts managers have gone through. Why not? It is only by documenting that thinking that perhaps even some of the more conventional CEOs might even consider collaborating with their audiences and players publically, sharing thoughts and reflections in whatever form on whatever platform.

I don’t see anyone entering into an open dialogue, exploring how ideas could be developed. For a sector that is supposed to be creative, some of it even making a virtue of its love of experimentation, I don’t see anyone telling their story.

Digital content needs to start with story. We need to get away from infantilising in order to appeal to a perceived ‘younger audience’ (if I see ‘sneak peak’ again I will scream) and connect with our audience in a way that makes them feel we understand them (even if they don’t consider ourselves members of our audience).

That story (whatever it is) needs to be told using language that is aligned to the organisationals values. There needs to be a clear ‘why’ for content, a ‘how’, and after that there needs to be a clearly defined ‘what’. Those things are going to be different for different brands.

People need to start telling a new story now

Why say this now?

Because in all truth, there is a perfect opportunity RIGHT NOW for organisations to seize. But the challenge I think they may not realise they face is as a result of the impact of the pandemic. In addition to revenue-driving events being shutdown, a workforce has been put on hold, some not exercising their skills and experience for an extended period of time, or some organisations even losing valuable resources through redundancy brought on by the pandemic.

Owned (digital) content now falls to individuals who have taken on an additional workload with limited or no experience and precious little time. Or where in situations where an organisation has sufficient to sustain its lack of revenue-driving activity, digital content is executed tactically rather than strategically by those who don’t posess varied experiences.

A couple of organisations who have got it right

There are some organisations who have seized the opportunity.

If you’re looking for one example, look at Snape Maltings and Britten Pears Arts.

They’ve drawn up a clear content strategy that connects with its local audience being useful and human, reflecting the organisations multiple activities and told the story of its ‘opening up’ in a way that serves its local crowd.

In addition, they’ve found the sweet spot, triggering the oh-so-powerful nostalgia and homesickness glands in equal measure.

I detect someone with picture editor experience, a love of East Suffolk and access to a wider group of creative individuals who respond well to clear creative leadership, and most importantly are trusted to try and fail in order to, ultimately, succeed.

And up in Edinburgh, the International Festival are telling the story of Edinburgh opening up, reasserting its position as an exciting aspirational destination (even if though this year’s festival is necessarily for local audiences).

Talent, resources, strategy and development

And that highlights another really important element of the digital content storytelling opportunity that organisations face (and that some are overlooking). Recruitment of talent is a difficult thing. One CEO this week told me that there aren’t as many affordable digital content producers for the arts and classical music world as you might think. I can think of a few, but they’re paid the money they deserve for the value they bring to the business.

Ideally, digital content producers need to hold two perspectives in their head at the same time: how does the content I’m creating reflect my existing content, and how can it also reach out to those who aren’t already experiencing your product? If you are going to employ someone on a low salary and make them responsible for this potent storytelling, they’ll need to bring a deep understanding of the wider sector, a journalistic nose, the ability to write searingly efficient copy, be a brilliant picture editor, and be able to both assert your editorial vision and defend it. No easy ask.

The prize

The pandemic has been a moment to reflect, reassess and reframe. Now is the opportunity for classical’s rennaissance. It’s not only about what sort of events you put on, more than whether you offer it as a live or pre-recorded. Organisations that create content I care about a great deal have this splendid opportunity to tell a story that might reach out to an audience who wouldn’t otherwise consider their brand. Don’t overlook the opportunity.

The women who make me the person I am

International Women’s Day is as much for men as it is for women.

This may not be a popular view in some circles. But hear me out. I wonder whether the greater responsibility lies on men to listen, think and bring about change.

This year, following an annual tradition established a few years back, I notice that International Women’s Day is triggering more than just a desire to celebrate, but to think, specifically about personal responsibility.

See from a different perspective

Six years ago I was involved in recruiting PR trainees (paid) at the BBC. The recruitment brief didn’t as you might expect, demand we looked for people at the beginning of their careers, but those who showed curiosity, an aptitude and willingness to learn, and to develop ideas.

One of the trainees selected for the year-long contract was Mina – a Muslim woman who had previously worked in BBC Children’s ten years previously, who had left to have children. After a few years Mina was keen to return to work but try something different. She was the oldest trainee. We warmed to her strength, openness and, now I come to remember her, the stillness in her communication style.

Mina and I sat down for a meeting a few months after she had started back at the BBC. She took me by surprise when she explained that she was struggling. “I walk into a meeting room sometimes here and notice how people don’t notice me, ” she explained. “They look past me.” She went on to say that she believed it was because she was a Muslim woman. “They see my hijab and make up their minds right there and then. They see a box ticked.”

It was saddening to hear, knowing as I did then what had prompted everyone on the panel to offer her the opportunity. Our intent had been sound, but the experience for her wasn’t turning out to be quite as we’d hoped.

“When I look at you,” I replied, “I don’t see a Muslim woman. I see a person who is strong, intelligent, and vital.”

Quite apart from my words being meant with good intent, it was also something I genuinely believed. True to the characteristics which had secured her the role, Mina replied gently and with unequivocal purpose. “I want you to see me as a Muslim woman. I want everyone to see me here as a Muslim woman.”

It was a powerful exchange which triggered my thinking in a positive direction. The first exchange where I first became aware of my own privilege. I thank Mina for that. Many times over. I do still sense of guilt for having made the error in the first place.

The 2016 ‘Woman Map’

Back in 2016 I conducted an experiment. I drew up a list of all the women I knew from (or knew of) the present or the past, and put them on an A4 piece of paper. I drew circles around person according to the influence they had on me in the ‘now’. After that, I listed how each had influenced me.

Timeline

Going further, I plotted the impact of these significant women on a timeline.

Six years later

Just this past week, a conversation I had with a colleague touched on privilege again. It highlighted how in the subject areas of gender equality, opportunity, and (I say this as a catch-all indicative of the point I’m trying to make here) all women, I experience a sense of fear. After an extended monologue about the need to fiercly protect people’s creative spirit at all costs, I ended up saying how I was also aware that the best thing – perhaps the only thing – I could do as a privileged white male is to be aware of that privilege and ensure that the advantage I have in society that I often overlook, doesn’t inadvertently disadvantage others, and in particular women. Thinking that it doesn’t is in itself a manifestation of white male privilege. To say that you’re not aware it is happening is a defence, it’s evidence.

Awareness and difference

It seems to me then on this International Women’s Day that change can begin to happen when an awareness is brought (by men) to a situation. Curiosity combined with the willingness of others to invite looking at the world through a different prism is key. That is what all of my most valued colleagues have done over the years. They are the people I have learned from.

Balance

There is perhaps another perspective worth sharing. The majority of those I interact with, spark off, and develop ideas with are women. I feel most at ease in the company of women. That’s perhaps another reason why it takes an active decision on my part to look from a woman’s perspective. That in itself is a habit to adopt. Habits – building neural pathways – are difficult things to embed. But that’s no reason not to try.

In reflecting on International Women’s Day this year, I’m mindful of those who use gender politics as a cloak for destructive behaviours. I think it is more marked in the isolated remote-working world we are all in at the present time. Routing out faulty thinking unwitting or otherwise, collusion, and negative actions, is vital not only to interact with one another in a way that is respectful, but also respectful to the very need for change we’re all invited to think about on International Women’s Day.

And if we are to think about our personal responsibility in collectively bringing about a change in thinking in action, then that also extends to identifying those rare occasions when a rallying cry is being hijacked by an agenda manifest in negative behaviours. There is a lot of it about. And when I find myself bearing witness the energy required to unpick what the underlying opportunity is is always considerable. We all have a responsibility to bring about positive change as much as we have a responsibility to route out destructive behaviours.

I’m also reminded about those who have supported and developed me over the past twelve months. These are people who have been brave, determined, generous and strong. They are people who have shared their values in their actions. What links them all is a unshakeable authenticity underpinned by integrity. They are people who make the person I am.

So, thank you to the women who are strong, intelligent, articulate, empowering and emboldening. Thank you to those who listen without judgment, who gently challenge my thinking, and who help me. You are the people to create relationships I depend on. And you do that by creating a shared sense of trust.

Ivan Hewett in the Telegraph: a savage judgment on how audiences are accessing on-demand content

Ivan Hewett’s piece in the Telegraph last weekend (I’ve got to it rather late I know) roasting BBC Radio 3 about their two new mood-driven programmes is a difficult subject to cover here. I’ll give it a go though. I’m game.

On the one hand, I agree with Hewett. Music as something prescribed that will cure you of whatever ills you think you have is grossly misrepresenting the potential impact art can have on the individual. Hewett is – even if he doesn’t explicitly say so or realise it – worried about the rebranding of classical music, in the same way that those who love jazz always look over their shoulder at those who express an undying love for Dinner Jazz. Hewett is suspicious (and probably hates) ‘crossover’.

I sympathise with him. The music my neighbour proudly pointed to during a Christmas party (remember them?) a few years ago as ‘classical music’ isn’t what I’d listen to. But given that he was offering a generous platter of nibbles and is, like me, a big fan of red wine I wasn’t about to judge, dismiss or denigrate. I’d have to be some kind of an arsehole to judge my neighbour or suggest he listen to something different. Sure, I want Alan to be as moved as I often am listening to Rachmaninov (don’t judge me Ivan, I do like Rachmaninov), but I can’t make Alan listen to Rachmaninov. I’m certainly not going to tell him that he should be listening to Rachmaninov. Or Brahms. Or Mozart. Or whatever. You get my point.

This idea of music-as-therapy is absolutely everywhere. Playlists advertising the soothing and healing powers of classical music have become big business. The major names of this new trend are rapidly taking over classical music’s territory. For many younger listeners, classical music isn’t Beethoven or Stravinsky; it’s Max Richter, with his dreamy album Sleep, or Ludovico Einaudi’s slow, meandering piano meditations.

Why is Radio 3 downgrading classical music to a trendy form of therapy?

And whilst I get where Ivan is coming from (we don’t know each other), there are other things that are at play here that are worth flagging here.

We live in a fully-embedded on-demand world. I listen to the things I want to listen to when I want to listen to them. I don’t make my musical selections based on a deep-seated understanding of what my mood is and what mood I’d like to have, and then look for musical promises that can take responsibility for that mood transition. People watch the films or TV they watch for a whole variety of different reasons. They discover their own escapist routes using their own tried and tested methods.

What broadcasters have to do is anticipate what audiences think they need, and make sure their content is discoverable ahead of the competition. By doing that, those organisations that seek to underline their relevance to their audience and bill-payers will stand a better chance of renewing their source of income. What’s important is to be seen to be relevant rather than redundant.

To denigrate those who seek out curated music according to mood is to overlook the fundamental reason why rave culture took hold in the 90s. It reveals a lack of understanding of how digitally-savvy audiences access content. Audiences are fractured now, content sources and touch points for classical are far more than one just one authoritative source. The BBC is more than just Radio 3. The Reithian approach is on its last legs.

And more than all of this, to be so savage of those who seek out mixed musical experiences is to further misrepresent classical music. Listen to what you want to. But don’t judge people for their musical choices. If you do, then you’re not helping the greater good. You’re just projecting all us classical music fans as a bunch of snobs.

21 June. So, that’s all good then. Or is it?

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra responds to PM’s announcement about easing of restrictions

I will happily admit that I have, as a punter, found Boris Johnson’s announcement in the House of Commons this afternoon about the stages leading up to the doing away with social-distancing giddy-fying.

17 May for socially-distanced audiences in places like theatres (and presumably concert halls). 21 June for the removal of social-distancing.

June feels like a long way off. At the same time, there feels as though there is an endpoint. Imagination runs riot. Hope springs up perkily. The unthinkable might just end up happening after all.

The RPO doesn’t agree necessarily. In an official statement, they voice a note of caution.

“We welcome today’s announcement as a positive first step in the process, but more detailed information is required if performing arts organisations are to be able to plan for the future with any certainty.

“Opening concert venues for a handful of audience members is not economically viable without further government support.  The focus of the discussion should be on when we are likely to see venues return to fuller capacities.

“We are still completely in the dark as to what conditions and criteria will be required in order for this to happen. Until we have this information, it is difficult to find a way out of the situation in which we find ourselves.  

“During the course of the pandemic the RPO has regularly tracked the public’s views on music and the tangible role it plays.

“Seven in ten (71%) people who listened to orchestral music during isolation cited tangible and lasting positive impacts on their mood and wellbeing, while 41% of people regard music as among Britain’s greatest exports to the world.

“The performing arts will continue to play a valuable role long after the pandemic has passed, and it is vital that everything is done now to bring the industry back from the precipice and ensure its long term future.”  

London Mozart Players and Howard Shelley play Saint Saens Piano Concerto No. 2

London Mozart Players introduces the seventh series of LMP’s ever-popular Piano Explored series

The London Mozart Players have consistently demonstrated themselves to be a nimble tenacious organisation, brimming with energy, with an infectious kind of tenacity.

LMP’s second series of digital streams – this time focusing on pianist and conductor Howard Shelley’s captivating Piano Explored series – starts on Thursday 18 February 2021.

Recorded at St John’s Smith Square in London in February and March 2021, the seventh series of Piano Explored supported by International Piano will feature five hour-long programmes, with Shelley giving an entertaining and insightful introduction to one or two famous or not-so-famous works for piano and orchestra, before performing them in their entirety with the London Mozart Players. Tickets for the online concerts will be a very reasonably-priced £8.00.

I attended the first episode recording a few weeks back. It was the first time I’d heard live music in many months. The present UK-wide lockdown has starved the ear of a live performance listening experience such that when I heard the first chords in the Saint-Saens the effect was highly emotional, at times overwhelmingly so.

Some of that emotional response is down to the acoustics which supported a clarity of listening I’d almost forgotten about at St John’s Smith Square. To hear so many different textures and orchestration details was a treat, not unlike the experience of hearing after having your earwax removed.

The rest of the emotional response in the moment is created by the energy LMP consistently brings to their performance – charmingly unpretentious but fiercely authentic. Smiles all around and appreciative glances in response to Conductor Laureate Howard Shelley’s direction.

What was the lockdown recording experience like compared to last year?

Interestingly on this occasion the lack of audience wasn’t quite such a painful feeling as it was during the summer of last year when I attended the LPO Summer Session recordings at Henry Wood Hall. This didn’t feel like a ghost event in that respect. Shelley’s easy charm, uncomplicated but passionate explanations and annotations combined with his effortless ability to look straight down the barrel of the lens whenever he talked to the camera had the effect of tricking me into thinking there was an audience in St John’s Smith Square. There’s only one other musician I’ve seen carry that kind of delivery convincingly – violinist Lizzie Ball.

Emphasising the USP of live performance and active listening is key

Most markedly for me was that returning to a live performance experience reinforced the need to be talking about listening. We so rarely reflect on the audience experience of listening, pre-COVID believing that potential audience members were more concerned about dress code, when to clap, and where the toilets were.

Now mid-pandemic we’re thinking about what changes need to come into effect to shake up the classical music experience. Change may well be necessary in some areas, but the opportunity that presents itself now is articulating what the experience is of active listening. To promote the idea of listening for textures, to reflecting on the emotional impact a series of sounds has on the audience member, is to promote the idea of mutually understood language underpinning a communal experience.

Why do we still think there’s something wrong with the physical experience or hold the false assumption that knowledge is required, when the critical faculties that will elevate the experience is curiosity and awareness?

In this way, the London Mozart Players Piano Explored recording at St John’s Smith Square had a profound impact on me triggering my thinking as well as reacquainting myself with how it feels to be in the same physical space as another human being. To have been able to be present in that moment is very special and a manifestation of LMP’s generosity. What it also promises is that this, like similar projects by other orchestras last year, will in time act as potent musical triggers for a range of emotions and memories. And that means the same will be the case for audience members who set foot back into auditoriums, whenever that will be.

In the space of a year some orchestras have risen to the unprecedented challenge COVID-19 has brought about. Whilst many of us would regard filming a concert as a straightforward process, the appetite to do it not to mention the budget was lacking. Creating a audio-visual archive of activities wasn’t in the marketing strategy of many cash-strapped arts organisations. COVID has made digital streams a marketing must-have.

They’re not replacements for live performance, but as substitutes they keep musicians playing during this hiatus, keep the brand visible, and in some cases reach more pairs of eyes than orchestras play to in auditoriums. The really potent question we should be asking is whether digital streams will continue to form an integral part of an orchestra’s activities when the concert halls do open again.

How to watch London Mozart Players Piano Explored series

London Mozart Players Piano Explored with Howard Shelley starts Thursday 18 February at 1pm and is available online. Future concert recordings will be open to socially-distanced physical audiences government guidelines permitting.

Tickets for the online concerts will be £8.00, with films available to view
for six months via LMP’s website (except for the Shostakovich concert on 13
May – 30 days only).

Rattle, a trade deal gone wrong, and music’s managed decline

My husband doesn’t understand me.

He puts up with a lot of course. He possesses a good listening ear and, like any good coach’s husband, has mastered the art of listening without judgment. But every now and again when energy is low he’ll helpfully point out one of the major differences between us.

For him, Lockdown 3 isn’t really that much different from arrangements for Christmas, or indeed our day-to-day habits since we returned from Brighton truth be told. For him the announcement of something approximating a complete lockdown had no impact on him.

I on the other hand often overlook how things are the same day to day, and look at the potential implications of an announcement. I predict the future based on my own life script. In coaching parlance this is ‘catastrophisation’.

This is from a writing perspective quite useful, because it means I can take two things that crossed my day to day experience in a week (the touring musicians Brexit trade deal fuck-up and the disappointing news about Sir Simon Rattle’s departure from the LSO) conflate them and build them into a reasonably interesting piece of copy that serves me cathartically and might even drive a little bit of traffic in the process too.

My husband on the other hand, observes a kind of connection between these two things but refuses to move from the now to imagine a future where these events have contributed to a situation where musicians and their work have been irrevocably devalued. We often joke about this in lockdown when I point out to him that I think I’m a thoughtful, sensitive, empathetic kind of soul, and that he’s a cold-hearted bastard.

Brexit ‘deal’ for touring musicians

Never underestimate how much ignorance and ineptitude can bring about a fuck-up.

According to the Independent in a story published on Saturday, it turns out that post-Brexit musicians will, despite reassurances made by the Government throughout 2020, be denied exemption from touring visas and instead be required to complete a dizzying array of paperwork to be able to continue their international work – this from an ‘EU source’ who said that the U.K. was offered a standard exemption package as part of trade deal negotiations but turned it down.

Caroline Dinenage MP responded saying the story was incorrect because the story was based on an anonymous EU source (like the U.K. Government never briefs with anonymous sources). Cue: arched eyebrows. Note: it had taken nearly 24 hours for anyone to rebutt the story.

The rebuttal is rooted in how the failed arrangement came about. The question for me isn’t how this happened, but why did you let this happen?

The answer is down to not thinking about the bigger picture – not thinking outside of the Brexit bubble and thinking about the implications of a decision or non-decision on a section of society.

If you’re invested in what happens to a particular part of the economy then you’ll fight for it. Or you’ll think about the implications of it and find a work-around. That’s where a sense of trust begins – when you know that someone has your back.

There is no trust. The arts doesn’t believe the Government recognises what the arts and culture brings to this country. The Indepedent’s story confirms what I learned a few months ago, that even with a Secretary of State representing the cultural economy, bringing about change depends on the people he’s speaking to being willing to listen. They’re not. Because they either don’t instinctively see its value or they haven’t looked at the relevant line in The Spreadsheet.

Why, for example, commit the money the Government has to the Culture Recovery Fund at the same time as cutting off a valuable source of revenue for the same sector? It’s not joined up. That lack of connection is either deliberate (which would suggest a strategy being followed) or its ineptitude. Often the simpler explanation is the right one.

It’s hardly a surprise. The person who banged the drum for Brexit back in 2016 hedged his bets, drafting columns for both sides of the argument. And throughout the pandemic has said one thing only to implement and endorse policies that do the complete opposite. Why would anyone trust a man to lead a team that manifests trust, when you yourself can’t be trusted? Johnson is a failed leader (assuming you thought he was any kind of leader in the first place), so little wonder the people he entrusted to do the job on his behalf can’t be trusted either.

According to The Charlatans Tim Burgess‘ impassioned response in The Independent underlines what’s at stake: in 2019 UK touring musicians and their support teams brought £2.19bn to the UK economy.

That figure will shrink dramatically when bureaucracy impacts the smaller artistic concerns who along with the big-name brands help shore up our dwindling global reputation.

I know a significant amount of people whose livelihoods are assumed to be able to withstand any change brought about by increased bureaucracy. That’s because, I think, people equate that musicians because of their elite ability, or their high-level of success will be able to absorb administration costs as inconsequential lines in a budget.

The reality for rock, pop and classical musicians is that bureaucracy will stop opportunities coming their way, and the business they run (rock bands, pop groups and orchestras for example are all businesses) will be denied lucrative trade opportunities.

People predicted this would happen. A negotiating team promised it wouldn’t. And now it’s happened. Few in power have music and musicians backs.

Rattle leaving the LSO

Rumours surrounding Simon Rattle’s departure from the LSO emerged a few weeks ago, corroborated by various sources of mine. My post on Twitter about it triggered one or two people to ask me privately what I was talking about and, when I explained to one LSO person, it was suggested that this was all very unlikely. Just rumour, nothing more.

Yesterday, the LSO’s statement confirmed the news broken the night before by the Times’ Richard Morrison. Now today, Morrison has expanded on the reasons for Rattle’s departure – a heady combination of Brexit, the pandemic, and the UK’s ‘indifference’ to classical music as manifest in the halted development of London’s newest concert hall.

The arts doesn’t need Rattle per se, but his departure is a blow, and the timing of the announcement serves to highlight the fragile state of things. Most reasonably well-informed individuals predicted that taking control of our borders would have a negative impact on the arts ability to thrive on the world stage. COVID has compounded that and provided the Government with some bargain bucket blister pack of smoke and mirrors.

Back to the catastrophisation

In some respects my husband is right. These developments do not directly affect me. To think about them in the way that I do illustrates how I still see some drama to be mine. Social media has a habit of doing that. I’m a sucker for glomming-on.

On the other hand, these stories contribute to a growing fear I have that music is in trouble in this country. A crisis is being managed by people who don’t recognise the value that the arts brings to society, and the crucial role it plays in maintaining the health of that society. They understand only those things that generate big money. They overlook anything that appears to need subsidy. Music to them is something which is available on demand, in return for a subscription like say television. The mechanics involved in bringing art to an audience is of no consequence to them. The connection isn’t made between human beings creating art and human beings benefitting from it. So, ensuring that the arts is protected wouldn’t even occur to them. It’s not a priority.

If I’m wrong about that, then why would such a castastrophic error have occured in the Brexit trade deal negotiation? And why would Rattle have gone?

Without a thriving music scene there is even less incentive for future generations to engage with music-making. An economy will die, elected representatives overseeing its systematic decline.

And that does affect me. Something I care about, that I write about. Something I celebrate and advocate. Something I work in amongst is in crisis, because the people who can bring about change consistently and habitually overlook it.

International concerts for U.K. artists has been made more difficult for a significant number of the music-making industry at a stroke. Don’t think that music venues will be the first to reopen when all the vaccines have been given. Concert going and musicals and theatre won’t be like it was before. Programmes will be less daring because they need to be ‘safer’. And that will have a knock on effect for everyone who works in the arts.

I’d be better off being a cold-hearted bastard.