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The strange art of marketing classical music

Rick Rogers Published: May 6, 2013

You wonder what recording executives were thinking when they suggested album titles such as ”Classical Music For People Who Hate Classical Music,” “Power Classics! Classical Music for Active Lifestyles” or ”Top Ten Reasons to Listen to Classical Music.” They seem to have lost faith in their product’s ability to generate revenue based on the music’s own merit. Today, the market is flooded with repackaged releases that advertise music appropriate for dining, romance, exercise, relaxation and a host of other activities.

Whatever happened to listening to music for music’s sake? I shudder to think that so many of the classical repertoire’s great masterpieces have been relegated to the world of Muzak. Today, people hear rather than listen. You also wonder who decided which works were deemed appropriate for a specific activity.  Sony’s “Dinner Classics – Just Desserts” gives us an all-Mozart program, while the same label’s “Dinner Classics – A Cocktail Party” compiles music by Claude Bolling. “Dinner Classics – American Picnic” rightly features music by Gershwin, Copland and Scott Joplin, but for some unknown reason also includes a selection by the Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps.

The Eclipse label wins the most ludicrous prize with its “Classical Music for Women.” One might suspect this to be a collection of music by the likes of Ccile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich or Cindy McTee. Instead, it’s an operatic compilation featuring arias by Puccini, Bizet and Donizetti.

Such discs drive home the point that recording companies are no longer run by musicians but rather by businessmen who presumably have little interest in the product they’re hawking. Pity the poor CEO who assumes Elgar’s “Cockaigne Overture” is about an illicit drug or mistakes Haydn’s “Seasons” for Tchaikovsky’s. These marketing geniuses seem content to disguise the music to suit the public rather than trying to reach listeners based on the music’s own merits.