Dudamel, Glitz—and the importance of asking the right question
Jason Caslor has a post on his blog today referencing a New York Times article that muses about whether “glitz” or other marketing gimmicks are useful or hurtful for classical music. The musing is in reference to the effect that conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s flamboyant hair has had on classical music (in conjunction with his musical talents). Is it good for the vitality of orchestras and opera companies on the long run? Some commentators think that anything that brings greater attention to classical music is good, while others think the “hoopla” will inevitably disappear anyway, leaving no lasting results and diverting resources from the actual music at the same time.
I think this is the wrong issue to be looking at. It’s too black and white. As Daniel Wakin points out in the Times, there have been superstar classical music figures since the beginning. But what he doesn’t point out is that there have been a lot of non-superstars that have gone on to memorable positions in music history too. So I don’t really think it matters one way or another if Dudamel is part of a media blitz. It’s not going to save or sink the LA Phil.
What’s perhaps more important to realize is what glitz is: it’s a focusing of attention. So the attention is now on Dudamel. What is he going to do with that? If he does something memorable and appealing, it will draw in new people and keep them. If it’s just the same stuff orchestras have been doing for the past 100 years, you might get a few new people interested initially, but most will not stay—there are plenty of opportunities to encounter the music of Beethoven or Brahms on an perennial basis. Classical music is not a genre that is shrinking because of lack of exposure.
By the way, classical music attendance at concerts has been shrinking, at least over the last 10 years, according to statistics I’ve seen. So has new classical music attendance. But what is interesting to me is that new classical music is shrinking more slowly. If you look at the music industry in general, contraction is the norm—that’s what all the anti-piracy rhetoric coming from record companies is about, after all, so shrinking audiences are not necessarily a sign of disinterest. More likely it’s a sign of the greater number of choices people have. So maybe the conclusion to draw is that glitz is fine, but if it’s just window dressing, it’s not going to have a long-term impact. You have to maintain real relevance and do things that have meaning to people’s lives. And the fact that new classical music is holding its own among the exponential growth in choice should be heartening for those involved in it.