Putting the Spin on Classical Music

Classical music never looked this good (Courtesy of www.tangquartet.com)

As a marketer for the arts and heritage, I am often faced with a conundrum when promoting culture. How far should we go to attract the masses? Is there a way to balance popular appeal with artistic finesse?

For the purposes of this post, let me focus on classical music which is a request by my heritage kaki Oceanskies who plays a mean double-bass. How does classical music, long considered the poorer cousin (at least in album sales) of other genres like rock, pop, jazz and electronica, make the mark with the masses?

Let me hazard a few guesses and let me know if you agree with me.

Firstly, it needs to bring down the "intimidation" factor. Have you noticed how classical music performances are usually done in grand and imposing concert halls? Resplendently decked in the finest wood and leather, these venues usually come with great acoustics. Most of its patrons and guests are dressed to the nines, in their suits, evening gowns, Manolo Blahniks and Pradas.

One way to make classical music more accessible is to perhaps to groove in the ghettoes. Go to where the people naturally are - HDB heartland malls, neighbourhood centres, and maybe even playgrounds and basketball courts. Think street magician David Blaine as opposed to David Copperfield. That will bring you greater affinity to the people.

Classical musicians should also show some skin.... flesh and bones. They need to unwind, get rid of that stiff upper lip and party. They need to develop fun and friendly personalities which can connect with your average Joe. In Singapore, Tang Quartet (above) has done a wonderful job in this area. Few would dispute that they are critically acclaimed musicians winning rave reviews, yet it is their unique sense of style which captures people's attention.

The other point is that classical musicians need to look at multiple channels ā€“ especially online ones ā€“ to get their music out. A good source of reading is The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. Explore ways and means to get your music online, through music e-tailers like iTunes, Soundbuzz or Amazon.com. Offer listeners a little sample of your music to reduce that psychological barrier before they make a purchase.

Being bold and experimental also helps. Look at the commercial success of Vanessa Mae Nicholson and Charlotte Church, both of whom are classically trained yet wiling to explore new ways of making their music relevant to the masses. Just today, I read about the Singapore Festival Orchestra which will be playing to sell out crowds at the Singapore Arts Festival. While they are undoubtedly a professional orchestra, part of their success is due to the fact that they will play music from video games like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros.

Finally, classical musicians should focus on their unique selling points. The more different and special you are (in a positive manner of course), the better. Is there a signature touch which each group embody that can be played up? How different does Kanon in ā€œDā€ sound when your quartet plays it compared to a run-of-the-mill group? Give it that personal twist and spill the beans to your listeners and audiences so that they know what makes you special and distinctive.

Of course, you need to be prepared for flack from the traditionalists. They may claim that you are selling out, dumbing down, and pandering to the lowest denominator. However, the reality is that one does need to step out of the boundaries and take some risks in order to be famous. Ali should go to the mountain and not the mountain to Ali right?

You will be surprised how such little touches add marketing magic to music.

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