The Irrelevance of Classic FM

There has been a minor kerfuffle about the Ultimate Classic FM Chart. Classic FM is a very popular UK classical music radio station. They have 5.8 million listeners in total, and recently boasted about having 1.2 million listeners under 35. (For comparison, BBC Radio 3 has around 2 million listeners.) This isn’t as remarkable as a figure as it seems. Classic FM specialise in ‘light’ classical music and the dreaded crossover genre. They are the kind of station that thinks describing Arvo Part as ‘relaxing’ is a compliment.

The Ultimate Classic FM Chart is a list of the best-selling classical music records of the last 25 years. So it’ll be albums like Gould’s Goldberg Variations, or the Kleiber Beethoven symphonies, right? No, of course not. The top 10 is all crossover music, including two Russell Watsons, two Katherine Jenkins, and the Titanic soundtrack.

The subsequent debate is not an unfamiliar one: is Classic FM useful to classical music lovers, or a thorn in our side? In her Guardian article, Kate Molleson suggests that Classic FM — well, specifically the Titanic soundtrack — could be a ‘gateway drug’ to classical music.

The thing is, there really isn’t much crossing over involved in ‘crossover’ music. Thomas Ades fans don’t listen to Charlotte Church, and Charlotte Church fans don’t listen to Thomas Ades. Stravinsky fans don’t listen to Hanz Zimmer, and I bet you Zimmer has never been a gateway drug into the world of Stravinsky.

Classical music listeners are generally excited by challenging music. Classic FM listeners are put off by challenging music, so the radio station offers them easy listening. Their listeners don’t migrate over to ‘serious’ classical music (for want of a better word). I couldn’t see any Beethoven in the Classic FM chart. Neither is there any Haydn, nor any Monteverdi — not even any Tchaikovsky! There is a Shostakovich, but it’s Shostakovich: The Jazz Album. The only genuinely classical names I can see are Gorecki, Tavener, Vivaldi, Holst and Mozart.

‘Pliable’ (author of the On An Overgrown Path blog) made the point that ‘Classic FM audience trends have little relevance to the future of mainstream classical music’. I’m more Obstinate than Pliable, and would say that Classic FM is irrelevant to classical music, full stop. He’s quite right to suggest that ‘some of the more progressive forms of rock music and jazz may well be more productive hunting grounds for new audiences than the popular classical audience.’ Indeed. That’s where I came from, and it would seem I’m not alone. The philosopher Roger Scruton has written about how, to his surprise, metal fans are among the most receptive to classical music:

The true Metal fans could talk about its merits for hours, and it amazed me that they had such a precise knowledge of the chords required at every moment, and of the importance of the bass line in maintaining the tension behind the voice … it was the Metal fans who saw the point most clearly [that classical music is worthwhile and invites judgement], since their music had been for them exactly what Mozart had been for me, namely a door out of banality and ordinariness into a world where you, the listener, become what you are.

I have no ill feeling towards Classic FM and its listeners, just those who think that with the right marketing and a few superficial alterations, Classic FM listeners can become avid fans of ‘serious’ classical music. They’re a totally different and contented musical tribe. There are other listeners constantly searching for the new and challenging, who take music seriously but have, for whatever reason, found classical music unattractive. We should court them instead.

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