09 October 2016

Books, Bestsellers and Bars


If a book’s cover includes the phrase “The No.1 International Bestseller”, I put it straight back on the shelf.  How can a book, fresh off the press be a “bestseller” before it has even been on the market a week?  And how is it possible for it to have been translated into a fraction of the languages which would be needed for its popularity to be realistically regarded as “International”?  Obviously, if it has been snapped off the shelves around the world without anyone having had a chance to read or understand its contents, then that implies that its popularity is due to something other than literary merit.  Perhaps it makes a good doorstop.  Perhaps the cover is particularly eye-catching?  Perhaps the author is famous for something other than literary ability?

Of course we all know that “The No.1 International Bestseller” is a statement of aspiration rather than reality, and the fact that virtually every book in every airport departure lounge book stall is “The No.1 International Bestseller” tells us that the slogan is a desperate marketing cry rather than an unequivocal statement of fact.

Marketing people in book publishing never deal in indefinite articles, nor do they have any vocabulary which allows them to indicate any position other than absolute top.  For them “international” means someone has taken a copy of the book across the border from the USA to Canada, and “Bestseller” is synonymous with “available to buy”.

The book publishing industry has dug itself into this hole of meaningless aspirational claims ever since someone hit on the idea of putting a dust-jacket round a book and using that dust-jacket as a marketing tool.  First they put a picture on the front, then they put a synopsis on the back.  They sent out some advance copies (minus the dust-jacket) to critics whose reviews provided quotes which they could then print on the back of the dust-jacket before sending it out to the book-stores.  But this was not enough.  They needed to imply that sales for the book, even before it was openly available for sale, were so huge that they eclipsed just about everything else.  So they started inventing wholly spurious claims for the book in the hope that potential readership was daft enough to believe them. 

With the advent of the paperback, this use of the book’s cover as a marketing tool has become so established that the idea that a book would appear without lavish quotes of praise and unbelievable claims for popularity has become as inconceivable as Donald Trump coming up with a serious and honest thought.

Luckily the world of Classical Music has not gone down that path, and we still promote our new material by providing evidence of previous success.   True, in the world of opera, there are, very occasionally, press previews; but who has ever heard of a solo recital, a chamber concert, a symphony orchestra performance getting a “press preview” so that legitimate quotes about it can be used to entice audiences to the show proper? And a new work is never promoted before its first performance as “The No.1 International Bestseller”; rather its composer is shown to have a track record of usually modest success.  The implication is, of course, that “he did it once, so he may well have done it again”, but in the music business we fight shy of either predicting success or claiming it before it happens.

But how do new composers and musicians manage to get themselves into the public consciousness if they have no proven track record?  Statements of aspiration and claims of outrageous success just do not wash with the market for classical music, so most do everything they can to get a critic to attend an early performance or hear a debut CD. 

Recently, someone wrote to me about the reviews I write for a daily newspaper, telling me that “Nobody reads the rubbish you write.  Classical music criticism is just used by editors to fill space in their paper”.  They have a point, although the number of times I have suggested reviewing a concert only to be told by the editor that “there is no space to run another review” implies that editors of arts pages do not generally have a problem filling space.  But who does read the criticism in a general newspaper?  I doubt whether many people do, and that does not worry me one iota, for one of its prime purposes is to provide publicity material for musicians.  They need these legitimate and impartial opinions about their music and their performance if they are to survive in this hugely competitive environment.

I used to make a point of reviewing every student performance I could attend and posting that review on a blog.  The purpose was not only to offer a third-party assessment of their performance (students tend to focus their performances on meeting the demands of their own teachers and rarely hear disinterested opinions from their audience) but also to provide some serviceable quotes for them to put on publicity materials aimed at enticing future audiences to their work.  I stopped only because none of the students took advantage of this, preferring the world to think that the limits of their musical horizons were participating in competitions and master-classes and collecting a string of “mentors” as long as their arm.  I still wonder why they should imagine that this is more important than showing that they have experience in performing to an audience; but that’s how they present themselves in their biographies, so they have to live with the consequences.

But those with a more realistic outlook understand the value of getting some critical commentary as soon as possible.  I recently enjoyed a very pleasant evening with the American composer Nick Omiccioli, moving from bar to bar sampling a mixture of whisky, wine and beer (as well as some particularly spicy Indian food).  Nick is new to Singapore and his music unheard by just about everyone here.  How is he to make an impression, to get his name circulated amongst the Asian audiences? 

One of his works is being performed at a concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 10th November (which will also mark the inaugural performance of a yet another new - or, to be precise, newly renamed - Singapore orchestra, OpusNovus).  “You will come, I hope?” Nick asked. “Maybe write a review??”  And I will go.  And I will write a review.  I might like his music or I might hate it, or I might be totally indifferent to it.  I will review what I hear as fairly as I can, and it may be that Nick will never speak to me again let alone ply me with whisky, wine, beer or vindaloo.  But at least he will have some quote which he can use to promote his music in Singapore in future, so that attending a performance of it will not be quite the act of faith that going to the one on 10th November will be.

And if he becomes “The No.1 International Best composer”, I will, in my tiny way, have helped him along that path, but neither he nor I will have had the presumption to anticipate it before anyone here has heard a note of his music.

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