Page last updated at 09:39 GMT, Friday, 27 January 2006

Orchestras plot 21st Century role

By Ian Youngs
BBC News entertainment reporter

As music-lovers celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday on Friday, UK orchestras are debating how classical music can reach new audiences and survive in the 21st Century.

Last Night of the Proms
British orchestras are struggling to compete with "popular" culture
On the way to the Association of British Orchestras' (ABO) annual conference in Gateshead this weekend, key figures in classical music may stumble across an example of how their art form is reaching the masses.

Across town from the new 70m Sage concert hall, where the conference is taking place, classical music can be heard coming out of the speakers at the Gateshead Metro station.

But this is not for the enjoyment of music-loving residents - it is to keep anti-social youths away.

"The young people seem to loathe it," a spokesman for Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport said.

"It's pretty uncool to be seen hanging around somewhere when Mozart is playing."

It may be an extreme example, but it highlights the problem facing modern orchestras.

There are record numbers going to music school, there are record numbers having instrumental lessons
Russell Jones
Association of British Orchestras
Their futures depend on making classical music appeal to new audiences rather than driving them away.

"Some young people hate Mozart, that's true," says ABO director Russell Jones, who admits classical music is not best suited to a soundbite world.

But most young people do not run a mile when they hear an orchestra tune up, he insists.

"There are record numbers going to music school, there are record numbers having instrumental lessons - much, much higher than 20 years ago."

The general state of British orchestras is rosy, he believes. Many are flourishing and attracting new audiences through innovation.

Research on classical audiences is scarce but the Arts Council's most recent figures say 10% of the UK population went to a classical event in 2003 - the same as 2001.

We are at the tail end of a very, very long cycle of decline
Norman Lebrecht
The ABO conference is debating ways to engage new audiences because "you can't be complacent", Mr Jones says.

"You've got to constantly renew the audience, and there are concerts that don't sell.

"There are orchestras that struggle, there are certain venues that are harder to sell than others. It's not as if all our concerts are selling out 100% all the time.

"And until they do, you're not going to find any of us taking our foot off the pedal to maximise numbers and the types of people coming to concerts."

But industry leaders are not doing enough to face up to the modern world, according to author and broadcaster Norman Lebrecht.

"We are at the tail end of a very, very long cycle of decline," he says.

"This is really the critical point of whether they can engage with new technologies and make new technologies work for the art that they present - or whether they go out of business."

New technology may provide new income for orchestras
Over the past five years, orchestras around the world have seen their sources of income slip away, he believes.

"The classical recording industry is finished," he says. "Audiences are heavily down. Public funding is in decline. Private donations are no longer what they were.

"And touring, which has been a staple of the orchestral industry, has been either hijacked by cheaper orchestras from Eastern Europe or simply eroded.

"So it's absolutely a critical moment and there are a lot of people in the industry who see this."

Orchestras must embrace new technology, he adds, following a BBC experiment that highlighted the huge demand for classical downloads.

More than 1.3 million people downloaded Beethoven's symphonies for free during a two-month period last year.

Untapped market

That proved there is a large untapped market for classical music, according to US critic, composer and consultant Greg Sandow.

"That ought to be really be a beacon for people," he says. "That ought to really say - you can engage a large number of people.

"There are more classical music fans than people buying tickets to concerts.

"Many people like classical music and listen to it on the radio and buy CDs but would never go to a concert. I think this is something orchestras are just learning about."

The ABO's Russell Jones says orchestras are trying to reach more audiences, explaining that there have never been more concerts and education initiatives.

"We're not complacent," he adds. "It's a rosy picture. There's more to be done, but let's have a bit of credit for what we do on relatively little public subsidy."

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