27 January 2012

Artists' Agent's Asininity

After the umpteenth visiting artist had arrived at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur carrying the baggage of an agent’s publicity materials, I began to tire of reading vast quantities of pointlessly adulatory “biography”.

Any concert goer knows the sort of thing.  The bio - which, if it includes any genuine biography at all, adds it as a minor afterthought at the very end where it is most likely to be ignored - begins with a paragraph saying how brilliant the artist is.  If the words “outstanding”, “mesmerizing”, “breathtaking” or “dazzling” don’t appear here, we can assume it is a mistake and refers to one of the office cleaners. 
There then follows a tortuous and exhaustive list of the places the artist has performed, the orchestras with which the artist has performed, and the conductors or soloists alongside whom the artist has performed.  These lists invariably include every concert hall and recital room (in the case of singers and conductors, every opera house too) in the world, as well as every known orchestra, conductor and soloist  (with preferential treatment given to those represented by the same agent as the artist). Short bios simply list these as “xxx has performed with such orchestras as… and under/alongside such conductors/soloists as…”, while longer ones expand into a season by season breakdown, always with the same venues, orchestras, conductors/soloists in each season.  The terms “return visit” and “immediate re-invitation” are obligatory in this section.

Then comes a paragraph listing the works the artist has performed.  They all seem to have done the same thing.  No Soprano has not sung Carmen or Mahler 4, no baritone has eschewed Carmina Burana or Elijah, every cellist has performed Dvořák, Elgar and Bach, while pianists and violinist have done all the concertos known to man (or at least the semi-literate unmusical imbecile whom the agency has employed to write this crap).  If recordings are mentioned, they come here, but must have won every single prize from a Gramophone Award to a Diapason d’or, and we must know that their recordings number in their dozen.
After a choir visited DFP along with four soloists whose biographies were, in every respect, identical, I began to smell a rat.  Then a young instrumentalist appeared who I knew had only made her professional début the previous year.  Once again, she had apparently performed in every concert hall, with every orchestra and under every conductor in the world (including one conductor who had actually died before the artist was born), and so I knew something was wrong.  True, she could have put the records on at home and played along, but I suspected this was just a cut-and-paste job from the agents.  So I took to checking facts and realised that few of these claims in any bio ever hold water.

When a world famous conductor came with a young, hitherto unheard-of pianist, I realised something had to be done.  The conductor’s bio was a terse paragraph; the soloist’s three pages of close-typed script.  It would have been a nonsense to allow this through, so I edited it heavily to ensure both bios were identical in length.  The problem is these agent-supplied biographies carry the warning “Not to be altered or changed in any way without permission”, and concert-hall managers live in dread of upsetting agents.  I insisted that the changes were made and, miracle of miracles, the hall remained open and no lightning bolt came from the sky.  Emboldened, I then set about revising all bios, reducing them to a standard length and cutting out all the unverifiable material.  It was a huge and time-consuming job – getting 3500 words down to 250 was the norm – but not only freed up our programme books to include more information about the concert itself and to add more substantial photos making it all the more attractive, it gave the audience a much clearer picture of what the artist had really achieved. 
Not a single agent commented, and while one artist wrote to complain, several more wrote and asked if they could use my edited bio in their own materials.

Agents send these biographies to concert promoters in the hope that they will read them and hire the artist.  Concert promoters tend not to know much about music, so such adulatory guff is excusable.  Unfortunately by adding that suffix about “not changing” the text, concert promoters then allow these bios to go out to the audiences, and in the end,  they are counterproductive,  It is accepted by most that the longer the bio and the more name-dropping it contains, the lesser the stature of the artist.
Raum Klang RKap10110 - Is this one of the best CDs ever?
However, it doesn’t always work that way.  A CD sent for review included vast pages of biographical detail about the artists on it.  I read that “Amarcord’s hallmarks include a unique tone, breathtaking homogeneity, musical authenticity, and a good dose of charm and humour”; ingredients almost guaranteed to signify a mediocre group.  But on this occasion the agent got it wrong.  They are infinitely better than this, and having now listened through their new CD a dozen times, I am absolutely smitten by it.  When my review is published, I’ll copy it here for you all to read, but in the meantime I venture to suggest it is not just the finest CD of early music to have been released for several years, but it is in the running, in my book, to be one of the great CDs of all time.  Now doesn’t that sounds like typical agency guff?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dr Marc,
    Since this posting, I have been On the look out for a bio which I find interesting. No luck yet. Concert after concert have programmes with exactly the formulaic bios that you mention. In a recent one, 22 of the 28 lines of text listed orchestras and soloists with whom the artiste had performed, and prizes won, 2 lines concerned CDs, and 4 lines told us of his life. At least that time we were spared the reviewers quotes about "ravishing tones" or "profound interpretations". Of course they have performed with a bunch of orchestras, and in various countries. Another recent one clearly had not enough orchestras to fill the page, so listed orchestras that were booked for the future.

    I for one would be far more interested in knowing about the artiste as a person - life, education, interests, influences, family, values or views, something surprising about them, or what it is that makes their performances stand out.

    Dr Peter

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