Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How to Make Classical Music Boring

Yes, I know. Many people already consider classical music boring. But public radio has figured out how to make it even more so by borrowing a page from commercial radio.

Audiences continue to drift away from commercial radio, in part because each song is market-tested to within an inch of its life. Only the songs that test well and appeal to the broadest part of the demographic get in -- bland, generic songs tend to do the best, as they offend the least.

The New York Times recently published an article recently about how fewer songs were being played more often.

Tom Owens, the executive vice president of content for Clear Channel Communications, ... said that “Apologize” [the song that's the subject of the article] deserved such heavy airplay because it had received “off the charts” results in listener research testing, and added that the song is devoid of content that might prompt more conservative pop stations to limit its airplay. [emphasis mine]
The article goes on to explain:
Some analysts say that responding to the decline by repeating the big hits even more will set broadcasters on a path to losing listeners.
“What most of these folks do is retreat to a more safe position, and in radio, the safer position is to play fewer songs more often,” said Mike Henry, chief executive of Paragon Media Strategies...
So in November, the Public Radio Program Directors organisation announced the results of their in-depth study of midday classical listener preferences. By rigorously testing focus groups with 30-second excerpts, they were able to determine that
The High Appeal sounds were positive and uplifting, with a soothing or reassuring familiarity, in style and overall texture if not always in terms of the actual melody....

Familiarity was important to both Serious and Casual listeners. There was no evidence of “burn‐out” of often‐played music nor do Serious listeners show a great desire for obscure or challenging music on radio in middays.
In other words, music devoid of content that might prompt more conservative stations to limit its airplay.

And so public radio continues at an ever-increasing pace down the road commercial radio's travelled.

So what's the big deal? Well, first off it's a given that general managers throughout the public radio system will use/misuse this info to make their program and music directors keep middays mellow -- you know, the way they used to on those easy listening stations. Which means fewer pieces in heavier rotation.

So what's wrong with that? Many people consider classical music boring already because they perceive it as a dead artform of little relevance to their lives. And, given the programming on most stations, they're not far wrong. According to the bulk of what's played, classical music apparently started around 1700 with Vivaldi and ended around 1880 with Brahms. And one would think that everyone either wrote for orchestra or solo piano; that no one wrote for other solo instruments (especially the organ), or chamber music, or the solo human voice, or choral music. It would seem that no female ever wrote classical music, and all the men that did died over a century ago.

If public radio stations programmed rock the way they did classical, you'd only hear doo-wop and early sixties pre-British invasion girl groups. If that was your only exposure to rock, would you think it relevant? Would you be surprised to find out that new rock music is being written, performed and recorded today?

Ditto with classical music. There are composers writing exciting well-crafted works right now, being played by young musicians right now, aimed at audiences who are alive right now -- and you will very, very rarely hear a note of it on public radio. And for stations that follow this study's findings and stick to the familiar few works, that chance plummets to zero.

And I have a concern with the methodology. I'm not convinced 30-second sound bites are an accurate way to evaluate classical music. For most genres, sound is pretty consistent throughout the song. In general, once the tempo's established it's set for the rest of the track. The timbre usually remains consistent throughout, and although it might vary in dynamics, in most 3-4 minute songs volume significantly changes perhaps once or twice.

Classical music is all about contrast. Tempos vary greatly between the movements of a work, or even within an individual movement. A full orchestra may consist of 80 members but rarely do they all play at the same time. Orchestral compositions routinely vary the combinations. You might hear a solo instrument one minute, all the strings the next, and then a brass choir after that.

Thirty seconds can give you a good idea of what an average pop song is like, but is it really a fair way to judge the character of a work lasting 10-40 minutes?

Here's a little test. If you were in one of those focus groups, which of the following selections would you like to hear on the radio? Which would you not?

1. Selection 1: Smooth orchestral sounds
2. Selection 2: Winds, brass and percussion ensembles
3. Selection 3: Operatic voices singing in a quartet
4. Selection 4: Full chorus

Of course, it's a trick question -- all four samples come from the same piece -- the final movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. So if you said "no" to any of the choices above, you've voted to ban the work from the air -- even if you said "yes" to the other choices!

In most markets, the public radio station is the only source for classical music on the air. Instead of continually narrowing their programming choices, what if those stations took the lead and began actively promoting the music of THIS country and/or THIS century? I'm not talking about contemporary music that sounds like a toolbox descending a staircase. I'm talking about the melodic music of substance that the casual listener, as well as the serious classical music fan, could enjoy.

It's not that hard. I do it every Wednesday morning on WTJU. Classical music really is an exciting, vibrant, living art form -- even if it doesn't test well in focus groups.

- Ralph

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