Anyone who has worked in the classical music live sector over the last five years will be acutely aware of the profound challenges it faces. Ruthless funding cuts, limited work opportunities for musicians and the English government’s marginalisation of music education are among the hurdles faced. Then there is the alarming decline in audience numbers.
In an interview with The Observer in May 2023, violin virtuoso Nicola Benedetti highlighted waning attendances at classical concerts and the pressure to compete against genres such as pop, r’n’b and rock.
“You’ve only got to look at the audiences, at the numbers,” said Benedetti. “They are going down. With the economic pressures of today, it means that, without subsidies and without high audience attendance, the inevitable question is: how are we going to plan to sustain our environment if we can’t convince people that music without a strong backbeat is something still worth listening to? That it’s worth the time spent?”
“What we’re doing isn’t working”
Such questions are foremost in the thoughts of Jocelyn Lightfoot, managing director of the London Chamber Orchestra (LCO). Lightfoot is one of a number of people within the classical music live sector who believe a complete rethink is required, in terms of how live classical music is presented, promoted, marketed and perceived. Without this, says Lightfoot, the sector could face extinction.
“The number of people going to music colleges, the number of people coming out of music colleges who are able to work, the number of people who are able to be musicians full time – those things are just absolutely plummeting,” says Lightfoot. “People are going abroad, people are staying abroad, people are studying abroad.
It’s quite hard to admit that what we're doing and what we love isn't working, but we've got to be realistic because I think the industry is at a tipping point, you know. We could very easily just disappear.”
For the vast majority of the public, the classical music industry as a whole is just completely irrelevant. But what is relevant to them is film music, gaming music, TV music and many pieces of classical music that they hear on a daily basis.
Lightfoot believes that the genre label ‘classical’ itself is far too vague to cover nearly a millennium of music. She also believes that this genre label fails to properly evoke what potential audiences can expect. She believes orchestras need to work harder to show people in advance of the concert how the music sounds.
When it comes to promoting and marketing concerts, she suggests focusing on the themes, emotions or instruments used, particularly when trying to entice the all-too-elusive newcomers who may not have little or no experience of classical music.
Reassessing genre labels
Lightfoot outlined some examples of alternative descriptions for classical repertoire in a column in Classical Music in summer 2022. Rather than use historical time periods to define classical music, she suggested, it would make far more sense to define the style of the music. “What about ‘pre-cinema cinematic’ for the likes of Mahler and Wagner?,” she wrote. “‘Shifty beats’ for minimalism? 'Storm and stress’ is already a useful one for describing music from the historical classical period that is particularly turbulent and contrasting.”
Lightfoot says she would not advocate losing the word ‘classical’ completely. “I don’t think that’s necessary, but I think we’ve got to be realistic about our audience. Yes, there are people who are well accustomed to classical music and what that means. But what that generally means is people going to a concert hall and sitting silently and feeling really uncomfortable. Yes, some people love that, but we're not bringing in anyone new, and the people that I'm most interested in are the ones who don't know what classical music is, that have come to a concert, they haven't enjoyed it, and they haven't come back.”
Finding ways to engage and entice new audiences
There is some encouraging news. A 2020 joint report by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the streaming service Deezer concluded there has been a significant increase in the number of people listening to classical music recordings. These listeners aren’t solely the older demographic of classical music aficionados but a new generation of millennials and GenZers who are drawn to classical music via streaming, films and gaming.
The report showed that a third of those accessing classical music via streaming services were 18 to 25 yr olds, while classical music streams by listeners under 35 had risen by 17 per cent. The report also showed that classical music experienced a second ‘spike’ during the first pandemic lockdown, with streams soaring of traditional composers such as Mozart and Bach and contemporary pianists such as Khatia Buniatishvili and Martha Argerich.
This trend was reflected two years later, in December 2022, by a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra report into Christmas-listening habits, which found that 74% of UK residents under 25 years would “engage” with orchestral music at Christmas time by watching YouTube documentaries (18%), streamed concerts (16%) or through computer games (12%).
For the classical music live sector the big challenge is finding new ways to entice this younger demographic of classical music fans through the doors of concert halls.
“A lot of the conversations I've had with so many people over the last few months have been about the reality that for the vast majority of the public, the classical music industry as a whole is just completely irrelevant,” says Lightfoot. “But what is relevant to them is film music, gaming music, TV music and many pieces of classical music that they hear on a daily basis.”
Making audiences feel wanted and welcome
Lightfoot and the LCO are currently working alongside Dr Sarah Price, a lecturer in music industries at the University of Liverpool. “Sarah's interested in what motivates people to go, or more importantly, what motivates people not to go,” she says.
One of the areas ripe for change, says Lightfoot, is the relationship between classical venues and their audiences. Hospitality is key to the 21st century classical concert experience and potential new audiences need to be treated much better than they currently are, she says.
People say to me, ‘But what if someone turns up to play and they're just wearing jeans and a t-shirt and they're not looking smart?’ And I'm like, ‘well, why do they need to look smart?’
““It’s very difficult to tell [venues] ‘you need to train your staff to be more hospitable’,” she says. “Trying to get them to understand that when the audience walks through the door, they are our guests and we want to make sure that they feel like they're supposed to be there, that they're welcome, that they've got people who will help them.”
The key she says is “making sure that every single person who walks through their door feels like they're going to have a lovely time.”
Dismantling the dress code
To the uninitiated, the whole protocol of a classical concert can feel austere, oppressive and antiquated. Lightfoot and other like minds in the industry believe that such protocol is completely out of step with a 21st century world and all its. In 2021, the London Chamber Orchestra took a groundbreaking decision to remove the performance dress code for its musicians.
“We can't just carry on, you know, with this [notion that] classical music is sacred. We wear black to respect the composers…all those things that basically just mean that people are scared by it and don't feel welcome. So, we very much just ripped the plaster off and said, ‘right, well, let's not do anything that we don't have a very, very good reason to do’.”
For newcomers to a classical live concert, watching an orchestra dressed in formal evening wear could be alienating, says Lightfoot. Removing that barrier strengthens the link between the musicians and the audience.
“People say to me, ‘But what if someone turns up to play and they're just wearing jeans and a t-shirt and they're not looking smart?’ and I'm like, ‘well, why do they need to look smart? Why, why would I ask them to look smart? What purpose does being smart have and what is smart to different people is, is different, right?’. It will make the people in the audience wearing jeans and a t-shirt feel welcome.”
One outdated aspect is the gendered binary dress code of ‘ladies and gents’, says Lightfoot. “That's so outdated and you just wouldn't have that in another [industry]. Even airlines are ditching that these days.”
One overriding obstacle to enticing new audience members is the lack of diversity within the live classical sector, onstage and off. A 2022 survey commissioned by the BBC and conducted by BOP Consulting found that classical audiences were “not representative of the country”. The survey showed that nearly 80% of audiences were aged 55 and over and 84% identified as ‘White: British’. The survey also showed that only 2% of audience members identified as ‘multiple ethnic’; 2% as Asian or Asian British; and 0% as Black or Black British.
“Our industry is not good at racial inclusion,” says Lightfoot, who highlights the importance of building a connection between musicians and audience. “They're trying to make everybody on stage as anonymous as possible. Whereas actually, what the audience wants to understand is who these people on stage are.”
Lightfoot is buoyed up by recent conversations with industry leaders such as Association of British Orchestras’ (ABO) chief executive Judith Webster and MU General Secretary Naomi Pohl. “I'm really excited actually about both Judith and Naomi because they both really seem to understand. We’re setting up a number of action groups to build relationships with other organisations in a really meaningful way.”
Lightfoot is conscious that smaller orchestras can be far more agile than the big symphony orchestras when it comes to implementing major change. But both still share the same significant challenges, she says.
“I think we have huge problems in the industry [in terms of] how we run. That affects the next generation of musicians and it affects the public's perception of our industry. And it also affects how good we are at just being. It affects our ability to learn from other industries that are doing much better than us. It also affects our ability to objectively look at our successes and our failings and actively do something about it.”