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Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Brand-Conscienceness in London

Via the indespensable I find a short essay in The Guardian by freelance violinist Philippa Ibbotson criticising the London Symphony Orchestra for a new venture with a company called Baby IQ. "Rather than aiming to instil a love of music or smooth away youthful anxieties, their new venture is, apparently, ‘all about brand recognition’." Ms. Ibbotson obviously means well, but I’m afraid I can't agree with her conclusions.

Her most fundamental problem is her unstated premise that classical music is a special, superior class of art to be treated differently from other kinds of music. "They wish these adults-in-the-making to associate music with the LSO. Music is to be seen as an object to possess, an item that may enhance the status of its owner. Leaving aside any arguments about the perniciousness of commercialism, and the fact that their stated aims are something akin to baby brainwashing, for a world-famous orchestra to admit openly to such cynical motivation is deeply sad."

It sounds as if she believes that the commodification of classical music is some sort of new phenomenon created by a decadent and callous modern society, but of course classical music has always been "an object to posess." What was the patronage system if not a method by which Duke So-and-so could have ownership of a Court Composer? It has also always been "an item that may enhance the status of its owner." Again, see the patronage system, but also the use of classical music concerts as a way to See and Be Seen By the upper class. Opera houses are round affairs with box seating so that you can see Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so across the way, and bee seen by them. And really, any music with class associations functions in part as a status item – going to the Philharmonic concert in your good suit is in this respect no different from blaring rap music out of the rolled-down windows of your car. Maybe her position is actually that such facts are bad for all music and not just classical – she doesn’t say so, but it’s plausible – but either way this is not a new phenomenon. Classical music’s decine is a direct result of its poor performance in the marketplace, which is in turn the result of the combined forces of changing consumer interests and truly abysmal promotion of classical music in the ways that matter to the world at large.

As a side-note, "baby brainwashing," alarming as it sounds when framed in those terms, is exactly what every other artform in history has done. Classical music has simply been the victim of brainwashing that has worked against it while other artforms have benefited from brainwashing that worked in its favor. And of course "classical music education" in elementary school is merely attempted brainwashing by a less scary name.
Ibbotson goes on to say "Doctors and teachers are generally respected because we think we need them; we know they are doing us a service, and not the other way round. Ignoring musicians' potential to give, for the sake of venal considerations, will inevitably increase public scepticism about the inherent worth of classical music." She approaches a valid point here, which is that some art is valueable to society but not viable in the free market, but seems only interested in "the inherent worth of classical music." But we do in fact compensate many pop musicians and pop-music-industry executives even more handsomely than we compensate doctors (and teachers are actually pretty severely under-respected, as evidenced by their paltry salaries) because we "know they are doing us a service," i.e. providing entertainment. I’m open to the argument that music in general has "inherent worth" but her argument starts from the implied premise that classical music actually has more inherent worth than other, better-compensated music. This equivocation between "music has value" and "classical music has greater value" is all too common, and I have yet to see a single convincing argument for the second statement.

She closes with her dream of "a future in which orchestras are perceived not as packages or brand-names, but as the donators of one of life's most precious gifts." Sounds lovely at first, but of course it’s an unachieveable fantasy. Branding is an unavoidable part of modern life – and the double-standard for classical music which she seems to be trying to protect doesn’t even exist. What if I said that I look forward to "a future in which boy-bands are perceived not as packages or brand-names, but as the donators of one of life’s most precious gifts." I’d get laughed out of the room. But the only difference between my statement and hers is that the classical music Brand includes the proposition that classical music is inherently vastly more valueable than other musics, and that branding is very well entrenched. Ibbotson doesn’t realize it, but she’s not opposed to the branding of classical music – she’s opposed to changing the branding.

P.S. I do think there are some other possible problems with the LSO’s plan to market to babies, but I’ll save that for another time.


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