I just returned from the PRPD conference of radio program directors in Portland, OR and still have a bad taste in my mouth from the one classical music seminar I attended. A coalition of influential program directors, led by American Public Media, hired outside consultants to do research among classical music listeners and other radio listeners to find out what we can do to retain listeners and attract new ones.
The survey appears to have been conducted in an entirely rational way and the conclusions that were drawn from the survey were equally rational but I personally found the results to be distasteful in the extreme and even chilling.
Most people surveyed said that classical music relaxed them which I don’t have a problem with. I also find some classical music relaxing and certainly classical music radio, lacking the amped up, aging frat boy energy of a classic rock station, is much more relaxing than most places on the radio dial. But when you draw the inevitable conclusion from this, as they did, that classical music radio stations should aggressively market themselves as playing music for relaxation, well I find that highly disturbing.
It’s disturbing to me for several reasons:
1) Art should not have to justify its existence. I don’t like defending the existence of art, and arts organizations, in terms of jobs created, happiness produced, young brains made smarter, etc. Humans will always make art and that’s the only justification that’s needed, creating and appreciating art is part of our DNA.
2) You don’t see other art forms marketing themselves as a tool for relaxation despite the fact that people probably do find them relaxing. I’m one of I’m sure many people who finds it very relaxing to go to the museum but can you imagine the Metropolitan Museum of Art marketing themselves as a place to come to solely to relax? No, because that would be a disservice to the art and to the artists who created it.
3) I understand that most classical music stations are on primarily in doctor’s offices and all kinds of bland waiting rooms across the country and that’s fine and we should cater somewhat to that listener. But marketing ourselves specifically as music to relax, background music for a waiting room or elevator, well that’s just perpetuating a very hurtful stereotype about classical music in my view. If people relax to the music that’s great but we simply cannot go around telling them that the main benefit classical music has given to society is relaxation.
4) I know that program directors have an uphill battle attracting listeners to classical music but I also believe that the obsession with ratings is a very bad thing. Now we hear from these consultants that we should market classical music as relaxation and the idea is that we don’t change our playlists, we simply talk about them differently but it’s a slippery slope. How long until PD’s are second guessing the listener and only playing music they think the listener will find relaxing? I believe that this idea is death to innovation which in turn is death to, well pretty much anything. If an organization doesn’t innovate it dies.
5) We have a responsibility to hundreds of years of composers who gave their lives to the pursuit of their art. If we aren’t going to honor that and are going to instead mindlessly pursue ratings, then just turn the station into a traffic and weather station, that’s where the ratings are. If you can’t uphold standards and be respectful to some of the greatest music humans have every produced then please get out of the business because you’re doing more harm than good and people would be better off discovering the music on Spotify.