Embracing Diversity - Championing the people we've lost

24 November 2016

James Fleury dives into the challenges faced by minorities when engaging with the classical arts, why 'diversity' has become a buzzword for endless pie charts & self-aggrandising panellists – and how we can start to make changes for the better.

The word ‘diversity’ has been thrown around classical music so much that every time it surfaces, I hide under the duvet, de-activate my Twitter and dig out my West Wing box set. The show’s creator - Aaron Sorkin - is considered the kingpin of never stating the obvious in his dialogue, and there’s little doubt that classical music could learn a thing or two from him. I mean, it’s not like the problem of diversity came and hit us square between the eyes in an unprecedented act of audience natural selection; the lack of diversity in the classical arts has been the bull elephant in the room for years, and for me carries a striking resemblance with the fight in recent years to raise awareness on climate change. Everyone knows it’s there - lurking on the horizon - but those at the top of the tree have little or absolutely no idea of how to tackle it. Well, 2016 is the year that we came trunk to nose with diversity, and have no other option but to face it and find a solution. Fast.

Cue the self-aggrandising avalanche of diversity conferences, panel events and blogs. (Wow, this got awkward quickly). In fact, my frustration - and the reason for this piece - is reserved for those incredibly generous individuals who have taken the opportunity in recent weeks to politely ‘advise’ me that the decision to publicly expose their institutions for neglecting their duty to actively embrace all people is an incredibly poor one.

For someone who owns a business in the arts, and generally tries to remain open-minded to the eclectic rainbow of opportunities available to create something attractive and exciting, this is a tough beat. I was reminded by a close friend and confidant at dinner recently that I should only take up the fight if it was worth sacrificing that lucrative business real estate; wise words from someone who navigates the egos suffocating the music industry better than anyone I know. But by the time dessert arrived, we had both agreed that when an opportunity to be a catalyst for positive change presents itself, there is no doubt that those in a position of influence that look, live and sound like me have a vocation to sacrifice financial gain in pursuit of a greater, more critical goal. As composer Daniel Kidane cutely put it at Radio 3’s recent Diversity in Composition conference, “Don’t be afraid to stand up and speak out for what you believe in, because someone else isn’t going to do it for you’.

Achieving equality in the arts is that goal.

So, can we achieve it? Well, here are four areas which I feel could benefit from a ‘mental makeover’, and in the process open up our art forms to more people indiscriminate of race, religion, sex, gender, economic or cultural background.

Let’s start with the biggest misconception.

 

1. If someone tells you that their “strategy for diversity” revolves around revolutionising the music education syllabus, send them to the naughty corner.

It’s typical of classical music to be this complacent. Promoting our music is embodied in a larger responsibility to respect, support and nurture a wider sphere of artists, irrespective of genre or format. In the last 24 months, styles such as EDM and grime have both seen an explosion of sales particularly in the UK, where home grown acts like Stormzy, Jonas Blue, Disciples and Skepta have energised a different generation of listener, more malleable and adaptable in treading water through the bottomless PR pool of new exciting acts. With this in mind, why should we prioritise teaching classical music over other genres that speak to larger, faster-growing groups of fans?

Our education system needs to connect with everyone, and whilst there is a clear obligation to ensure that classical music is taught in order to sufficiently appreciate the historical context and evolution of more modern styles and sounds existing today, there is a more pressing need for our artist community to show a greater awareness and respect for other movements that have surfaced from very different conditions and social context. Films and documentaries have made a huge imprint in cultural education in recent years; the blockbuster film ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is one that immediately comes to mind when thinking about changing perceptions of artists and the communities from which they emerged.

In other words, before we press home the need to educate others about our art forms, these torch-bearers for education revolution should first spend time understanding the work of our counterparts, in order to pave a way for our artist communities to come together to create something new, spontaneous and borderless.

 

2. Re-branding classical music as, well, just classical music.

Never before has there been a time when genre lines are so blurred, and audiences so arbitrary in their music consumption habits. We have moved towards a culture of ‘curation consumption’, relying on new technologies such as on-demand streaming (Spotify, Apple Music, Netflix and Amazon) and tastemaker promoters and venues (Union Chapel’s Daylight Music, The Barbican and The Roundhouse) to spoon-feed us the latest exciting live music experience. Today’s music climate is much less conducive to convincing younger audiences to buy a ticket for three hours of Bach, instead favouring investing their hard-earned cash into live experiences brought together not by the period of composition style, but by a desire to evoke an emotional - and sometimes even physical - response from fans.

Tête à Tête & The Royal College of Music perform 'Crime & Punishment, 2016; © Chris Christodoulou. | Jacob Banks performing at the BBC Urban Classic Prom, 2013; © Mark Allan.

Never before has there been a time when genre lines are so blurred, and audiences so arbitrary in their music consumption habits.

We’re all aware of the connotations around classical music; the pressures of dressing, looking, and even talking a certain way (or not talking at all), engrained as part of a stubbornness to conserve the genre for those who perceive themselves to be educated and/or born into the middle or upper class. I recall not so long ago the challenges of deciding which concerts to invite my friends and family to in my time as a member of a London-based choir, so as not to alienate them by factors such as the venue we were performing in, the dress code, the density of the music, or the lack of a visual focus to support particularly the larger bodies of work that required a specific level of intellectual ‘buy-in’ from those sitting in the stalls.

Luckily, some progress is being made. The rise of live film/music experiences have seen hundreds of thousands flock to established classical venues like Hamer Hall and Schermerhorn Symphony Centre for the very first time, while collaborations between artists such as Pete Townshend, Alfie Boe, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Oriana Choir packed the Royal Albert Hall. Progressive institutions like the BBC Symphony Orchestra and composer Gabriel Prokofiev’s label Nonclassical have fused styles and musical backgrounds to create singular live experiences; the former selling out the Barbican Centre in 2012 with their Urban Classics concert, featuring Devlin and Ms. Dynamite.

And it’s not just our established venues that are welcoming this new approach to programming music. Tête à Tête and workshOPERA’s recent revival of immersive opera Boys of Paradise at EGG London nightclub saw hundreds of curious punters pack the venue for a week of performances (gaining notable attention from Attitude Magazine and The Independent newspaper), and BBC Proms’ Steve Reich concert at Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park sold out in just minutes.

It’s a sign that well-thought, progressive, attractive programming will always send people scrambling for their wallets to beat the online hoards for tickets to their favourite artists.

 

3. Embracing new technology.

The incredible thing about technology is that it becomes outdated at a rate that even eclipses Chelsea FC’s managerial appointments (a blog for another day). We’re constantly learning about the latest development – streaming, augmented reality, virtual reality, personal voice assistants… it’s hard to keep up.

I recently replied to a tweet from a well-respected publisher claiming that there’s no use in promoting streaming for classical musicians. My answer is simple. On-demand media - in particular streaming - isn’t going anywhere fast, and the sooner our classical institutions realise this is the case, the quicker we can unlock its potential for our artists. I’d actually argue that classical music is one of the few genres that organically benefits from streaming services and, in that it opens up the consumption funnel to those who can’t afford the inherently extortionate prices for a collection of Brahms symphonies or a St Matthew Passion. Equally, the financial opportunities around playlisting, which essentially aims to curate a collection of songs for a particularly mood or occasion, are especially lucrative.

When it comes to video, there are admittedly tougher financial obstacles to overcome, although the benefit on the other side is irrefutable; the BBC Proms’ Ibiza Prom with Radio 1 was the 13th most downloaded radio show on iPlayer last year. NextVR’s partnership with Live Nation has paved the way for never missing out on seeing our favourite artists live ever again, with the opportunity to stream gigs live using an Oculus headset from your bedroom or living room. No doubt these will be monetised in the near future, with promoters selling VR tickets to see the likes of Adele and Drake live in virtual reality, and in the process creating a secondary revenue stream for artists. Orchestras such as the Philharmonia have already explored the technology with their brilliant installation ‘The Virtual Orchestra’ at the Southbank Centre earlier this autumn, but others seem hesitant to follow. For me, seeing someone like the BBC Proms embrace virtual reality in the near future would propel itself out of touching distance of its competitors as truly the finest music festival in the world; a game-changer for all artists involved to be able to access the expensive, resource-heavy technology required to make VR a success, and the people at home who might be watching for the very first time.

 

4. A commitment to championing all people in our brand identities.

I’ve saved the most important to last, because it’s probably the most important paragraph I’ll write as an arts marketing consultant. For too long, marketers have been left out of the conversation around achieving equality in the arts, and I honestly believe - hand on heart – that we can be crucial in helping shape communications to better resonate with those communities that feel isolated by the correctness of engaging with the classical arts.

The fortunate thing for companies like Coca Cola and Dove is that the more they commit to championing minorities in their marketing machines, the more cash lines their pockets. It’s that simple. They have a financial interest; however, for those of us in the arts, our obligation to ourselves is a moral one, to not discriminate against anyone who might others have enjoyed our choirs and orchestras.

I have to be honest – I am tired of picking up a classical music magazine plastered with middle-aged white faces. It’s exhausting. In the same way that a 6 year old boy in Tower Hamlets can run around the living room in his Cristiano-Ronaldo-emblazoned jersey, screaming at the top of his lungs while he watches his hero play on the box, we need to ensure that the next generation of violinists, composers, marketers, vocalists, lighting technicians, managers, bassoonists and producers alike can have the same experience when they pick up their parents’ copy of Gramophone or Classical Music Magazine. As Tête à Tête’s Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones seamless put it, ‘We must put on stage what we want to see in the world’. I’d argue that it doesn’t stop at Row 1 of the stalls. It’s our flyers, online ads, social media banners, billboards and the presentations that we submit to funding programmes as well. Too often only the latter happens, because we want so desperately to convince the hand that feeds us that we are progressive and open-minded as we think we are.

Like Coca Cola, Dove and Air BnB, we also need to make it our mission to champion those people that we’ve left out of the conversation for so long. And that doesn’t equate to finding a poster BAME or LBGTQ+ boy or girl and pasting them on the front of your next season brochure, because today’s customer has evolved to see past such trivial methods. It’s about physically and emotionally reaching out, understanding what has built those minority communities into what they now are –acknowledging how and what music has become central to those communities, the places they congregate, the cultural occasions they observe and why they participate in them.

 

The education revolution that we so desperately need just can’t happen in our classrooms, but the single square foot of real estate that influences everything we do - our minds.

 

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About the Author

James Fleury is founder and CEO of Nouvague, a cutting edge music marketing agency based in the UK & Los Angeles, specialising in marketing services for classical music. 

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