Showing posts with label The Apprentice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Apprentice. Show all posts

Thursday, June 07, 2012

On the future of music journalism

Here are a few thoughts I've cobbled together in the wake of last week's panel discussion at Classical:NEXT. A few things I aired there, a few that happened there, some that there wasn't time to air and one or two that have come to mind since. Just a tuppence-ha'penny, really. (Below, a pic from the panel: L to R, Oliver, Carsten and me.)

On 1 April I put out a spoof blogpost announcing that henceforth every music critic would be obliged to audition as a musician for the conductor Valery Gergiev. Imaginary quotes took differing standpoints: readers deserved the assurance that those pontificating knew what they were talking about, but it’s also true that some musicians can’t string together a proper sentence. To my amazement, some people actually fell for this. Perhaps it inadvertently contained a little truth. What can the future hold for a specialised area that first of all depends on two skills – musical knowledge and writing ability – that are dwindling in the education system; and that secondly remains inextricably linked to the prospects for print journalism in general?

Music journalism may sound like an ivory tower, but the issues that affect it are the same ones that apply to everyone in the wider creative industries. The question of education, or lack of it, is especially alarming. The UK’s arts and humanities courses in higher education, including the music colleges, are about to lose all their state funding; and musical education at school is a lottery. As for grammar, my first advice to youngsters who want advice on entering music journalism is all too often: “Read Eats Shoots and Leaves.”

With classical music no longer an accepted part of everyday life, the topics we cover have changed in the past few decades. When I first went into music journalism, after an academic and pianistic training, I thought I’d be interviewing my favourite musicians and conveying their hoped-for words of wisdom. Now, though, this would be seen as something for specialists: space is limited and “good musician” isn’t reason enough to fill it. We have to find topics of wider general interest – and work with the trend rather than against it in order to keep this art in the public eye at all.

The future of music journalism depends on much more than our ability to do our jobs well. This came into sharp relief during our panel discussion at the new classical music trade fair in Munich, Classical:NEXT. My fellow panellists were two highly respected editors, Oliver Condy of BBC Music Magazine and Carsten Dürer of the German journal Piano News. Both passionately defended print, and Oliver Condy pointed out, quite rightly, that music journalism must be recognised as the skilled profession it is, and should be respected and remunerated accordingly. Up went a hand in the audience: a woman from New York told us that her younger friends and colleagues read only online, and won’t pay for anything. Another delegate suggested that the future may lie in streamed exclusive videos. Yet print journalists - and writers who love language for its own sake - aren’t always renowned for simultaneous expertise in digital film editing.

The Internet, obviously, represents the biggest shake-up in human communication since the introduction of the telephone, if not the printing press. It’s no wonder if there are teething problems while we work out what to do with it. An audience member asked about my blog and why I write it for free. Easy: it’s an accident. Eight years ago, when blogs were relatively new – it seemed a good way to keep in touch with friends in far-flung places. Today, though, Facebook and Twitter serve that purpose, and just about everyone blogs. So now it’s time-consuming and it doesn’t buy the cat food, but friends say I mustn’t close it down because it is “part of my personal brand”. 

Blogging has become a sort of “value-added” model: you hope that if readers find and like you, they’ll buy your newspapers, magazines and books. In the blogosphere too, though, things are in a state of flux. Discussion has grown more immediate: by the time a post is written, it’s likely the topic will already have been done to death on Twitter. Meanwhile this twilit world has morphed from a mutually supportive, creative environment to something more combative. Online anonymity is pernicious, promoting false “reader reviews”, cyber-bullying, prejudice and hysteria. I suspect one day it will be quashed once and for all – though something frightful might have to happen first.

Technology moves faster than we can. What we can’t afford to do is ignore that technology. We haven’t got it right yet, but we do need to seize opportunities to make this medium work for us, not against us. Obviously that’s easier said than done, but the first step is embracing the notion and ditching the fear. We’re supposed to be a creative industry; it’s up to us to be creative. And if we “creative people” lack the necessary business and technology skills – let’s face it, some of us would be mincemeat on The Apprentice – then perhaps we should jolly well learn some.

But there’s a future for music journalism, just as there’s a future for music. Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more classical music around now than ever. It’s the dated means of hearing and enjoying it that are fading out, not the music itself. And as long as it’s there, people will want to write about it – in one way or another.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

...And a return to THE APPRENTICE!

It so happens that the house in the latest series of The Apprentice is on my jogging route up to Richmond Park... And suddenly I'm back in the board room and Siralun is saying:


(Above: part of Dal'Ouna in action: Dimitri the oud player, Oday the singer and Drew Balch the violist perform after the talk)

[The Qattan Foundation, Earl's Court. Siralun, flanked by Nick and Karen, faces Jess, Simon, Ramzi and Drew]

Siralun: Morning, all. Your task today is to solve one of the biggest problems in the world, through music. You have three days to put on a discussion and make use of the latest technology to convey it to the widest possible audience. Off you go."
All of us: Yes, Siralun...

[The House, Aldeburgh. Half past midnight. Frantic clicking of BlackBerry keys (Jess) and tapping of iPad (Simon).]

Drew: You know, those kids today were just amazing. They're real young artists, not just schoolchildren.
Simon: Damn, the internet connection's gone again!
Jess: I keep getting messages saying everyone's away. How are we going to raise an audience?
Drew: Doesn't matter, because the task's really about the webcast.
Jess: How does this webcast thing work, anyway?
Simon: Oh, it's easy, you just point the computer and press 'start'.
Jess (feeling abruptly old): Oh, er, right...I see...gulp...

[Thursday, 7am. Beethoven's Violin Concerto rings gently out of the dining room through a practice mute. Jess looks in.]

Jess (embarrassed): Sorry to bother you, Simon, but have you got any idea how to work this shower?
Simon (putting down violin): Oh, it's easy...Look, you just turn this switch, and bingo.
Jess: Er, right. Thought I'd tried that. Never mind...
Simon: We're going to get some coffee and croissants at the beach for ten minutes. Come and join us?

[8am. The beach. Brilliant morning sun due east. Pebbles crunch underfoot. Jess, munching croissant and enjoying cappuccino, can't find the lads anywhere. Might have been sensible to wear my glasses.]

The sea on the pebbles: Ahhhhhh...shhhhhhhh....Ahhhhhh....shhhhhhhh....
Jess: This place is unbelievable. But how do we get anyone to come to our debate the day after bloody tomorrow?
The sea: Ahhhhh.....shhhhhh....Ahhhhhh.....shhhhhhh....

[Back at house, everyone has finished their croissants and coffee already. Message pings into BlackBerry]
Jess: Hooray! Dennis can join our panel on Saturday!
Drew: My fiancee will be there. And Cassandra, and all of Dal'Ouna.
Jess: I managed to make a Facebook event and we've had several yesses and three whole maybes.
Simon: It's a real pain not having internet, Jess, when you get home, please could you have a look at this TO DO list... (shows Points 1 to 8 on iPad). It's very easy, you just...
Jess: Er, right, yes...

[Saturday, 1.30pm, Earl's Court Station]

Jess (wheeling an elegant purple shopping trolley): Sorry I'm late! Bloody District Line.
Simon (carrying suitcase, computer carrier, violin case, suit carrier, iPad and iPhone): Could you nip to Sainsbury's and get the refreshments? I've got to go and set up the webcast...

[Sainsbury's, Earl's Court. Jess meets the Automatic Checkout and unloads stuff at the side, not wishing to use plastic carrier bags but to place everything straight into elegant purple shopping trolley, which is what it's for]

Automatic Checkout: Please place item in bagging area.
Jess: So if I put the trolley on the bagging area...
Automatic Checkout: Checking weight of item... PLEASE CALL ASSISTANCE.
Assistant: Madam, you need to take the trolley off the bagging area, then place the item you've just scanned on the bagging area, or the machine thinks you've gone.
Jess: It thinks?
Automatic Checkout: Please place item in bagging area.
Saturday Afternoon Queue: Tsk tsk tsk tsk...
Jess: *%$%$^£&;*!*)!*&""!???///
[ten minutes later]
Automatic Checkout: You have successfully completed your purchase. Thank you for shopping at Sainsbury's.
Jess: At least I have enough HobNobs to feed an army...

[The venue. Big room: an art gallery with beautiful tall windows, elegant lighting and paintings - an exhibition by a young Palestinian artist who now lives in Venice. Small room: boardroom redolent of Siralun himself, with a big heavy table.]

Jess: We should use the gallery.
Simon: We should use the boardroom. That's what we did last time.
Jess: But the gallery is beautiful and the music might be better in there...
[Simon rushes upstairs to change into suitable shirt. Jess and Cassandra arrange the gallery with plenty of chairs and fold-out trestle tables, plus loads of HobNobs, brownies and drinks in the kitchen.]
Artist: Marhaba! How come the lighting's changed on my exhibition?
Simon: Look, I can't get the WiFi connection to connect, but in the boardroom there's a fixed connection so we'll have to go in there.
Dennis: Hello! Where'd you like me to be?
Simon: Dennis! Great to see you...just a minute...we're fighting the's easy, really....
[Jess and Cassandra decommission the gallery and set up boardroom instead.]
Artist: Can I have my lighting back now, please?
Simon: Jess, your laptop's connection's disappeared, can you please get it working again, I have to talk to Ramzi quickly...
Jess: You want me to fix a computer?!?
Simon: Yes, yes, it's easy....
[3.05pm. Webcast delayed. Three guests have arrived.]
Jess: Welcome, please come in and have a Hobnob...

[3.20pm We have lift-off. Simon has an iPad, an iPhone and my laptop open on the table. I clutch my doughty BlackBerry]
Simon: Hello, everyone, and thanks for watching! Please send us your questions on Twitter...
Dennis: So, Ramzi, tell us about Al Kamandjati? And what do you hope to achieve with the Road to Jericho project?
Ramzi: Music can be a form of revolution. Revolution does not have to be about throwing stones. Revolution is inside us. We cannot wait for change from outside, because it won't happen. We have to make the changes in ourselves...
Dennis: Can music help with achieving resolution or reconciliation?
Ramzi: Well, you can't have reconciliation unless you actually solve the problem first.
Dennis: Have you talked to Barenboim about all this?
Ramzi: I played for several years in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and yes, we discussed. Barenboim's parents were piano teachers in Argentina. He said that when he was a child, he therefore thought everyone who came to the house was there to play the piano. He thought the whole world played the piano. I grew up in a refugee camp where there was continual conflict with the soldiers, and for most of my childhood, I thought the whole world was like this - in continual conflict.
Dennis: So that was your normality?
Ramzi: Exactly. Then after the Oslo Accord, some musicians and music teachers who had left the country were allowed to return and that was when I discovered music and had the chance to learn the viola... We used, before 1948, to have a thriving musical culture. That was virtually destroyed. Now we are rebuilding it.
Simon by email to several friends: *Please* send us some questions by Twitter!
Clemency, by Twitter: Ramzi, what is the single biggest obstacle you face?
Ramzi: We'd need a whole extra hour for that one...
Pal in America, by email: I've never tweeted before! Can I send questions by Twitter without an account?
Jess, Blackberrying under the table: Email me your questions and I'll tweet them for you...
[Pal in America sends 3 questions. Jess tweets them, then gestures frantically with BlackBerry at Simon at the other end of the panel, hoping webcast won't notice. Meanwhile the laptop has switched itself off.]

Dennis: Ramzi, you're inspirational. We've learned a lot today. Now, we have some music from Dal'Ouna.
[The group switches places with the panel and perform three gorgeous Arabic songs with two ouds, percussion and viola obbligato. Left to right: Ibrahim, Dimitri, Oday, Drew, Ramzi.]
Simon, aside, to Jess: Actually, what we need is someone to run the digital side, take down the tweets and pass the chairperson a piece of paper with the questions.
Jess: Did you say...a PIECE OF PAPER?!?

[5pm. Mingling over wine, juice, brownies, tortilla crisps and HobNobs. We have far too many HobNobs and not quite enough wine.]
Simon: Er, we need to be out of the building in ten minutes.
Jess: Please, someone, eat the HobNobs?
Ramzi and co:  Shukran! Ma'a salama! We're off to see Big Ben!

[Sunday morning, 9am. The Boardroom. Simon and Jess wait anxiously on the black leather sofas.]
Secretary: You can go through to the Boardroom now.
Siralun: Well, well, well. That was a pretty pickle, wasn't it? And you sure as hell didn't bring peace to the Middle East.
Jess: Music can't bring peace, Siralun. But it can make people happier. It can show people - especially children - living under impossible conditions that there are beautiful things in life too. That's a good start.We can only do what little we can...
Simon: Siralun, I think we did commendably, under some very difficult circumstances and constraints of time, geography, internet connections and so forth.
Siralun: Jess, Simon knew the space and you didn't. He said 'We should use the boardroom' and you still went ahead and set up the gallery. You started the webcast 15 minutes late because of that. People were wondering what was going on.
Jess: No, Siralun, the set-up didn't take even two minutes as everyone mucked in. We started late because we couldn't get the computer connection up and running.
Siralun: But you didn't listen to the Project Manager.
Simon: That was the least of the problems. The technology really is easy, Siralun, when it works - but...
Siralun: Ah yes. Technology. Jess, is there one single piece of technology on the face of Planet Earth that you are actually capable of using without totally screwing up?
Jess: Well, my generation is the very last that just wasn't born into it, and...
Siralun: Your generation? Don't make me laugh. I've met grandmothers in their ninth decade who are better at working things than you are.
Jess: I'm a creative, Siralun!
Siralun (highly sarcastic): With all that that implies. Here's one piece of creativity neither of you thought of using: a good old-fashioned piece of paper and a pencil. Why didn't you?
Simon and Jess: Er. Um. The technology's easy, really, but...
Siralun: Jess, you're responsible for this - even pencil and paper seem to be beyond the reach of your birdbrained understanding.
Jess: I'm a technotwit, Siralun, and I've never pretended to be anything else. Personally I think this task was a great success. We had the most fascinating talk and viewers tuned into the webcast from as far afield as Rome and Oklahoma.
Siralun: Oklahoma? Oh, what a beautiful morning. Jess (points finger), you're fired!

Sunday. Back in sunny Sheen, I'm going jogging once I've finished this blogpost. I might take a different route today.

Catch Fifth Quadrant, Dal'Ouna and the Aldeburgh Young Musicians in The Road to Jericho on the opening night of the Spitalfields Festival at Shoreditch Church on Friday 10 June. I'm introducing the pre-concert event at 6pm. And in the main concert, as well as traditional Arabic music and a Dvorak string quartet, the guys will be giving the world premiere of Who is my Neighbour? by Antony Pitts, written especially for the project.

We had a lot of fun yesterday. Dennis chaired the meeting wonderfully and drew out the best that Ramzi and Simon had to say; my "prose poem" about things we don't know we do know seems to have gone down rather well; the music from Dal'Ouna was breathtakingly beautiful and performed straight from the heart; and the webcast, miraculously enough, worked. Quite a palava doing it all in just a few days, though. Huge thanks to Dennis Marks, the Qattan Foundation, and the long-suffering artist Mohammed Joha whose exhibition is called Dreams in Black and White, and a big bravi to all the musicians involved!