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Sex, Crossover Artists, and Oh Yea, More Sex

Sure, even in the world of classical music sex sells. But is it always worth buying?

by Drew McManus
September 13, 2004

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Finding a way to market classical music and make it more appealing to a broad audience is a problem that has plagued classical music for the past few decades. The all time low numbers of active classical music patrons, or consumers if you take a fiscal point of view, is bringing that issue to the forefront.
As a solution, the industry has attempted to market classical music over the years in a few different methods.
One solution that’s been tried over the years has been the concept of “crossover”, a term which itself is fairly nebulous. At its simplest form, crossover can consist of a classical soloist performing pop or standard tunes or traditional classical music instruments being used in the performance of pop music (consider that latest Pavarotti album).
But the more sophisticated methods of crossover are much more complex. They typically employ extraordinarily talented classically trained musicians branching out into different genera of music on their own accord. The results are usually unexpected and successful over long periods of time.
For example, some of the more successful crossover artists have been Bobby Mc Ferrin, the Turtle Island String Quartet, Mark O’Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, the Canadian Brass, and the Kronos Quartet. Each one of these artists and ensembles has successfully presented traditional classical music, new compositions, and pop music in decidedly non traditional methods for over a quarter of a century.
Artists like these have done a wonderful job at presenting classical music to an audience that may not have developed as much of an active interest in classical music otherwise. And they all have a common thread that has led to their successful career; their music and the manner they present it isn’t overly contrived.
They appeal to a wide audience because they are sincere, entertaining, engaging, interactive, and explore new artistic territory. And that brings the issue to another point; presentation.
If you want to rid yourself of a stuffy, elitist image then one of the best methods to use is something that is the perceived opposite. Most people associate classical music with formality, such as conventional attire and “proper” behavior.
An obvious inverse of this attitude is one which focuses on the raw, basic nature of humanity; sex.
Everyone  is well aware of the fact that sex sells. It sells everything from cars to kitchen appliances and even, well, sex.
And there are a number of soloists today that play standard repertoire but use sexy images as a marketing tool; Lara St. John, Anne Akiko Meyers, Chee-Yun,, and (to a lesser degree) Joshua Bell.
Each one of these soloists can stand up as consummate performers who can withstand critical examination (good and bad).
They draw a new audience to classical music and solidify those already participating by using the natural lure of sex appeal but they keep many of those newcomers coming back based on the merits of the music they play and their talent.
Distorting a good thing
One of the most disappointing aspects of using sex or crossover to sell classical music is the increasingly popular habit of deliberately creating a product to sell consumers. Unfortunately, the general public at large and classical music audience in particular don’t take very well to propaganda laden attempts to sell classical music.
One group currently riding an artificial high and is a good representative example of a contrived classical music product is Bond. This string quartet was created by veteran concert promoter and artist manager Mel Bush, with dollar signs and mass marketing appeal as his compass.
Artistic integrity and musical excellence were apparently only considered when Mel thought about how to combat the expected onslaught of music critics and classical music patrons that would, rightfully, accuse them of producing musical tripe.
And they ended up with exactly what they apparently wanted; a quartet of “classically trained” air-brushed string players playing techno trash music. The group lacks everything their successful crossover counterparts have; musical ability, artistic integrity, and the ability to expand the art form.
But they do sell albums; lots of them. However, Americans also buy a lot of pornography, McDonalds fast food, and plastic surgery. Go figure.
But you should decide for yourself if what Bond is producing is really benefiting the art form or if it’s making it worse by enabling an entire class of people into believing they are really listening to classical music. 
Go listen to a track from a CD of any artist listed above and then play something by Bond. Then ask yourself which one is doing a better job at benefiting the art and helping to draw people into classical music.
Not everything contrived is bad
Not all contrived classical music crossover artists produce such an insidious product as Bond. Look back a few decades to one of the kings of contrived classical music performances: Liberace.
There’s no denying he was all about over-the-top showmanship but at least he could perform and sell standard repertoire to his audience. He didn’t rely on a few measures of a classical tune buried under drum tracks and ear pounding electric bass lines to sell music to an audience (but he did enjoy some fairly schmaltzy arrangements of standard tunes).
When push came to shove Liberace could play the standard piano repertoire; and he did at most of his symphony concerts.
Although it’s doubtful that you could point to Liberace as a benchmark classical music performer, you can at least say he used flash as his draw but classical music as his product. Unlike Bond, who seem to be drawing people into psychedelic raves and contributing to the disco revival.

Comments (3)

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S.E. Shepherd from Chicago, IL writes:
September 13, 2004
I was wondering if you would include Victor Borge as a crossover artist? Certainly he did not use sex appeal, though he did use humor to bring classical music to a larger audience, which may be another alternative to the somewhat stuffy attitude most people associate with classical music and it's performances.

Drew McManus writes:
September 13, 2004
I really thought about adding Victor Borge to the list but in the end I don't really know if he could be considered a crossover artist or not. It certainly is crossover toward a comedy audience but I don't know if there's enough overlap there or not. Plus, the article seemed to be going on long enough.

In the end, I know there is a whole list of other qualified artists that I could have mentioned.

Thanks for writing in.

Frank Manheim from Fairfax VA writes:
September 15, 2004
Drew McManus hit another one out of the park with his discussion of Crossover Classical. However, he omitted the biggest Crossover fish of all, Josh Groband. The 23-year old singer, who dropped out of conservatory when his album with Canadian promoter David Foster hit platinum, may have outsold all other classical releases combined in early 2004. This is according to reports from Billboard Magazine.

For more details on the definition and listenership to classical music see my blog.

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