Music: Rosettes, Shields, Trophies and other gongs
(written in 2008)
In a world where commercialism and competitiveness are increasingly seeping into the world of performance and arts education, it is perhaps a good time to examine whether competitiveness has any place in music. Can it help the consumer, overburdened with commercialism and bombarded with “ eyeball” input, to come to any conclusion about what music they want to listen to, and if so, why?
I was lucky enough to win the BBC Young Musician competition in 1980. Because there were only three television channels, and because it was broadcast during a prime time BBC 1 Sunday evening slot, more people watched it than ever watch any single programme now (except the Queen on Christmas day, but then Her Majesty is now spread across the channels!). The effect of this win on my life and career was huge and it still has an impact now, nearly 30 years on. This is not to underestimate the subsequent work I have done: gritty practice, great experience on the road in other competitions, on the radio, television and on disc, and the maturing of myself as an artist now weigh a lot more heavily than one single competition win. That is good, as at the time I had an eerie feeling that the BBC competition was too much of an easy shortcut to success that I hadn’t quite earned. Protestant work ethic perhaps!
However, with an instrument such as mine – the oboe – starting a completely solo career would most likely have been impossible, or certainly much harder, without the huge boost provided by prime time television. Now, even without a major recording contract with one company (I have made over thirty recordings on many different labels) or a big shot international agent (my agent is wonderful and a fantastically supportive friend and partner in my development) I still have a deeply satisfying career that takes me all across the world and gives me and my family a great life, with concerts such as the First Night of the Proms this year, playing real repertoire – Mozart’s Oboe Concerto – and not crossover muzak-sludge!
I have judged the BBC competition and many others nationally and internationally and sit on panels where I cast an opinion on frequent occasions all over the world, including in my position as Professor of Oboe at the Musikhochschule in Trossingen, Germany. I take the responsibility of it very seriously, as has almost every colleague I have worked with, whether they have the same judging criteria as me or not.
So it looks like I am in favour of competitions, right? On the face of it, surely a competition helps the public cut through the bewildering variety of artistes on offer to one that is the best of the bunch? Well not exactly. I t’s not as simple as that.
Competition is a matter of taste. When there is a judging panel of “experts” there is a personal opinion being expressed that cuts through the rich world of different tastes and opinions for a general all purpose result that pleases an average of all the judges.
Let me explain the mathematical equation that leads to an average and bland result. This judging system is very commonly used in the world of music competitions. Eight judges a ll give marks, say, out of ten, the lowest and highest marks sometimes being cut off in case of bias. An average is then taken of the remaining marks. The performer that offends least people because of not offending too much of the individual taste of the jury will get an average mark of about seven out of ten. They don’t thrill, but they don’t offend. The startling performer with life, energy and individuality will come along, make a big statement from their performance, offend at least five of the judges, who are presumably there because they are well known performers or teachers with a strong opinion, thrill about five of the judges with an open mind and heart, and end up with an average mark of about five. Therefore we end up with a sort of “British New Labour” effect of a winner who tries too hard to please everyone and ends up somehow clinging on to first place despite only average performance and seeming to play the game right.
This also holds true even if the judging is done by conversation, as a panel that disagree will get an aggregate agreement and will award a prize with a majority decision. The result once again: bland winner.
I guess that with the X Factor system of judging, leaving the vote to the people through phone lines, online voting and SMS messages, you will get a result that pleases the majority of the viewing public. Look a little deeper though and you may see that it is possible, with three acts left in the penultimate round, for the ultimate winner to have more people voting against them than for them. Sound familiar? Democracy in action?
Of course, incredibly rarely, a winner comes along, such as Leona Lewis or ‘cellist Natalie Clein, who totally transcends the competitive medium. That competition then seems a somehow grubby and inappropriate medium, and overlooking the artiste before that time seems an error of judgement on the part of some record company or other.
I would be uncomfortable with a competition for the sort of music I play to be judged in this way, with the public vote deciding the ultimate victor. This is not because I don’t believe in the public’s instinct and taste (actually I do, and I feel this is greatly abused right now, but more on that later), but because the artist s themselves all have qualities and potential that don’t deserve to be belittled and wobbled by “coming second”. There are many of the most successful performers in the w orld who only ever got a second prize, and then twenty years later dwarf their previous conquerors as artistes. Also, there is often an age limit for music competitions: for the BBC competition it is a ridiculous eighteen years. Much of an artist ’s musical maturity comes after that age in the more lasting arts, and often after the age of thirty. Because of our obsession with youthfulness and shallow surface impressions, despite the fact that music is more about the ears than any other sense, the marketing of music has become more about the visual than the aural. As a result, the music-buying public, myself included, are often disappointed with the music we buy, and every time a promising performer disappoints they erode a little more of the goodwill given by the music consumer.
I believe that with modern media and the speed of disposability of recordings and artists (whatever happened to Daniel Bedingfield by the way?), there are dangers for the artist who needs time to mature and grow into something more than a one- hit wonder, whether it be the latest stunningly airbrushed and digitally edited violinist or a quality singer-songwriter such as Leona.
I believe that an artist has a responsibility to him or herself to make sure that their development flows in a way that allows them to continue improving and growing all their working life, and that it’s highly possible, indeed likely, that the public could get a deeper, richer performer with a more satisfying output with years of experience of their craft. There are a lot of “shooting stars” up to a certain age who can be marketed more easily when they are young, recent competition winners and wrinkle-free, and it appears that there is an obsession with youth in the world of the professional marketer of music. Particularly amongst women, performers with experience such as Kylie, Madonna and pianist Imogen Cooper are exceptions to the rule in being visible to that level at their age.
I have a great hope and dream that, with the benefit of the internet and mediums such as You Tube, with or without visuals, the general public can take a wider tour of discovery of the available performers than the controlling and narrowly opinionated record companies and music managers will allow them. I have a profound belief that the human soul can understand quality and honesty in the most complex music given by the most intense and personal performer, and that it doesn’t matter whether that is Stockhausen or Kanye West, John Woolrich or Leona Lewis, they can discover, sample and then purchase for themselves what their instinct says will bring them refreshment and stimulus.
I believe that there is a cultural environment where we have risked a huge amount of goodwill for short term commercial gain, and that there is a finite amount of time to put it right.
I have a hope that patient audiences can find and discover things for themselves, maybe with a specially created egalitarian platform like You Tube or maybe something like it that is non-judgemental and non-competitive. It’s possible that audiences need a guide to what they like, and maybe personal recommendation is a good way forward with this, either through comments or a ratings system that currently exist, or through a trusted person with great taste that is prepared to be open and share with the public their discoveries. Examples include the presenters of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, who do this without prejudice and commercial interest. I myself have been discussing setting up such an enterprise with a colleague of mine, sampling and recommending young artistes that come my way with a sort of stamp of quality unaffected by a promotion budget! It’s still musical judgement and taste, and therefore a kind of competition, but in a different way and only because people are so time poor. I don’t blame the public for deserting their previous record buying habits in droves – I honestly think that the big players in that commercial field have lost the plot, and I gather that even they themselves may think so too.
So let’s hope, music-loving brother and sisters, for a global cultural revolution enhanced by the internet and unaffected by ugly commercial values, where the greatest performers and performances are available whether they have won a competition or not, whether they are photogenic or not, where they are enjoyed for the benefit of their musical talent, and where the record companies are servants of their consumers, reflecting the public’s interests and tastes rather than trying to manipulate them. Is that too much to ask?