Classical music’s mess

Twenty years ago, when I started listening to classical music, things looked pretty good for the form. A small revival was under way – lots of gorgeous new music, influential movie soundtracks and superstar ensembles seemed to promise some kind of renaissance. The subsidised concert halls were full and radio deregulation promised a wave of new classical stations. Now, things are much gloomier.

Classical music is a basket case, in fact. The generation that was supposed to save it has moved on – either to revitalised ‘serious’ rock or to some point on the huge and groovy spectrum of dance music. Classical album sales have collapsed, the labels can’t fund the big budget recordings any more and even the major orchestras are struggling. A decade of wasted investment in witless crossover acts and overpaid has-beens hasn’t helped. Worst of all, no one knows what to do – there’s no evidence that the industry has a response up its sleeve – either to the disastrous loss of audience or to the promise of new technology.

Meanwhile, Radio 3 and a bunch of top orchestras have got together to make classical performance available to people who wouldn’t normally see it. Disabled people are invited to call 0800 033 033 and book a free performance from some of the best musicians in the land in their own home. Marvelous: a really brave initiative – but it got me thinking. What classical music needs, I think, is something bigger, something much more ambitious.

The subsidised ensembles ought to launch the biggest outreach programme in their history. It’s quite simple (and it’s really just the disabled scheme on a bigger scale): for a year, anyone who can promise an audience of more than, say, twenty, should be able to call a single number and book an orchestra, a chamber group, a choir or a soloist for a free performance anywhere. I’d like to see a year of frenetic activity from the musicians and administrators, composers and conductors – a really serious effort to convert thousands, tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of new listeners, a really serious effort to rescue classical music from the heartbreaking spiral of irrelevance it’s caught in now.

Speaking of classical outreach, every programme in Radio 3’s brilliant Discovering Music series is worth listening to and they have a proper archive.

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