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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking classical music pigeon-holing

David Bowie’s Life on Mars reverberates on the organ, in a glorious, spine-chilling triumph of art and virtuosity over crass commercialism

David Bowie died on 10 January 2016, orchestrated in a manner seldom before seen in the world of celebrity music. About which more in a separate post.

Two days later, organist Christopher Nickol at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow played a powerful, surging rendition of Bowie’s iconic Life on Mars in honour of the star and his life. I freely admit that seeing it on YouTube moved me to tears – the passing of an era, mourning for lost youth and the potpourri of aspirations and passions woven into all that. Timeless transcendence of musical boundaries, a paean to human creativity.

Out-of-my-depth musings about music

For me, one of the big touchpoints in the Glasgow rendition was the way the swirling, reverberating power of the organ added yet more layers and embellishments to this timeless rock classic. I’ve always enjoyed the way organ music swirls around the huge spaces in which it’s usually performed, adding new dimensions of sound, sensation and syncopation to the stone, carvings, embellishment and history of my favourite buildings.

But normally “classical” and “rock” music live in almost entirely separate worlds, and only rarely do the twain meet – and when they do it usually involves people getting miffed and confused when the pernicious art of pigeon-holing gets bent at the edges. Think Nigel Kennedy and Kim Sjøgren in the violin world, for example.  My own perceptions go wonky when I see the same musician (think Catherine Popper, for example) playing an electric bass guitar and a conventional upright bass. The sound is/can be pretty much the same, but his/her posture and positioning change, as do my perceptions of what s/he is doing, and about the whole format of what’s going on.

I simply don’t know enough about music to say anything meaningful about “classical” and “rock” intersections and overlaps – any naive thoughts I might hatch have almost certainly long ago been thought, tried out and made mainstream by the musical practitioners, for whom I have fathomless respect. It’s a magical language I don’t speak, a universe I can’t navigate …

The challenge of bifurcation

But in terms of my own world of commercial opportunity and killer communication, I can see some apparent challenges for the commercial survival of this traditional musical bifurcation.

For example, I attend a lot of classical concerts – in country houses, concert venues and local churches – where I live in the southern Fyn part of Denmark. When I look around, the preponderance of grey-haired wrinklies with distinctly limited shelf life is very noticeable. What will happen to the market for classical music in the next generation? Especially if the “modern music” part of the traditionally cleft stick becomes omnipresent, digitalised and commoditised, leaving “classical” music as just one among many tiny niche markets reserved mostly for nerds, practitioners, specialists and oldies.

Digital convergence and expansion

But the proliferation of digital technology means the body of music available to us is accumulating exponentially. At the same time, the best of contemporary/”popular” music is no longer fly-by-night ephemeral – witness David Bowie’s Space Oddity from 1969 performed on the International Space Station in 2013, and the Rolling Stones still prancing half a century on, still popular with the grandchildren of their first fans.

So there’s more and more music available to each of us. And once music has been piped into the digital arena, Shostakovich and Springsteen are equally available anywhere and everywhere, and musical pigeon-holing – from “classical” and “rock” to a myriad of sub-categories – becomes irrelevant except as search engine winnowing mechanisms. Our Spotify playlists can mix Metallica and Mozart with impunity, and suddenly a whole constellation of cross-breed creativity seems possible.

Celebrating the cross-over

And so back to Bowie, bent analogue. It seems that new market contours can either split the mainstream music world still further, or pave the way to amazing opportunities with new forms of musical cross-fertilisation and genre cross-over. There seems to be a proliferation of possibilities, not least because young musicians seem so good at whacking in computers and other digital aids as marketing leverage, performance primpers and in all kinds of digital workflows.

A few random examples of musical cross-fertilisation that occur to my musically illiterate head include American harpist and vocalist Joanna Newsom, the electropop wackiness of Moranbong Band from North Korea and the broad-spectrum skills of Danish flautist Ulla Miilmann.

There are of course certain likely limits – we probably shouldn’t expect to hear Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil on cathedral organs any time soon. But on the other hand cash-strapped cathedrals might end up as PPI business units to exploit new business models for commercially viable religion – so who knows?