23 February 2018

Sexy, Cool and In Terminal Decline

My good friend from Sydney, Barry Walmsley, draws my attention to an article referring to research which reveals that, despite their own beliefs, students perform better when they have drawn their information from printed materials than online ones.  I had begun to wonder whether it was my extreme old age that meant I found it considerably more difficult to engage with online materials than printed ones, so I am glad that Barry – who is a mere stripling of a young lad – agrees.

Recently I have become seriously concerned about the growing trend to dispense with printed materials and focus exclusively on online ones.  Surely we need to engage with both?

Yes, it’s sexy and cool to be digitally savvy, but sexy and cool are not the same as informed and intellectually engaged.  For all our obsession with staring at little illuminated screens, the enormous amount of time we spend engaging with our electronic media does not translate into greater knowledge or understanding; in fact it seems to have quite the reverse effect.  A generation is growing up whose perception of reality no longer involves the world around them as a world portrayed through the filters of online search engines and questionably authentic social media posts.  This is now seriously damaging the world of classical music, and if it continues unabated will surely see the genre die out altogether.

A survey undertaken last month by a group of my students analysed audience perceptions at a number of classical music concerts.  Their findings were alarming to all of us with the future of classical music at heart. 

They very quickly identified a serious disconnect between the general members of the audience, largely middle-aged and elderly professional people, and students.  More than that, they identified a subspecies of student audience comprising full-time music students, whose perception of a live classical music concert differed fundamentally both from those of the general public and also those of their fellow students.  So pronounced were these behavioural attitudes that they were able to quantify them through a similarly large and representative sample as the general audience.

While general audience members and non-music students generally engaged with the music and voiced coherent opinions based on what they had heard and seen on the concert stage, the music students were, almost entirely, disengaged with the live performances.  They did not share the general audience’s reticence over engaging with electronic devices during the concert and, in fact, engaged with them to the exclusion of almost everything else.  For many of these students, the principal purpose of a concert was a photo-sharing opportunity, while when asked (as the general audience had been) to voice opinions about the concert and the music, included among their responses were “I find it boring”, “I only go because it’s obligatory” and “I’ve heard it before on YouTube – I don’t need to hear it again”. 

Never in a million years would I defend these students’ appalling attitudes, but I can see why they have arisen.  The ready and free accessibility of material through electronic media devalues the concept of a live performance, and the ease and intimacy with which electronic media can be engaged means that its very familiarity lures the individual away from the effort of being part of an audience, with all the implications that involves.  In short, if you can get everything you want easily from your electronic device, why go through the effort of seeking it out elsewhere?  Full-time music students have, in the main, become so fixated on the preparation for a performance that the end result seems to them largely irrelevant.  Consequenrly, they feel freer than others to disengage from it.

Concert promoters and venues are largely to blame by encouraging active engagement with electronic devices during a concert which, in turn, leads to a disengagement from the performance.  Too many venues are no longer issuing printed materials, taking the easy option of leaving them online to be accessed at the individual’s convenience.  But a concert flyer, poster or programme book is not just works.  If nothing else, a printed programme helps maintain the focus of attention on the performance, in that it is exclusively associated with the performance, supporting concert-goers rather than distracting them.  Illuminated screens, like annoying pin-pricks of light, create what is possibly the most comprehensive visual distraction at a live concert; not to those who look at the screen, but to those who try to look at the stage.  Eyes are instinctively drawn towards small points of light and away from larger vistas.

These desperately short-sighted and stupid concert promoters and venue managers hide behind the appalling lie that the emphasis on electronic devices over printed material is environmentally friendly.  They believe that the precious metals taken from the earth to put in phone batteries, the generation of power to charge phones and to provide wi-fi services, and the rapid deterioration of the devices’ hardware through extensive use, is apparently better for our natural world than paper from sustainable resources, recycled and printed with natural ink. (I may be showing a bit of bias here but, hey, this is an online blog so, like all online materials, it presents a highly distorted vision of one person’s perception of reality.)  That may be their belief (all the evidence I have collected contradicts that in a big way), but the harm they are doing to both music and musicians is conveniently forgotten in the desire to appear sexy and cool.

The printed programme has a value far beyond merely telling us who is playing and what they are playing.  It is a tangible souvenir of an event, the very presence of which in the future helps us to remember that event.  One audience member bemoaned to me recently that, without a printed programme or leaflet, he had nothing to use to collect artists’ autographs – a scribbled name on a loose bit of paper has none of the precious preservative power of a concert programme with the same scribbled signature drawn across the signatory’s face. 

The printed material also provides tangible proof of an artist’s activity.  Students, trying to break out into the competitive work of concert giving, have no future ahead of them if they cannot provide documentary evidence of what they have done in the past.  Yes, they can (and should) make YouTube videos to send out; but that’s not enough, especially if everyone does it.  How can they show that they have performed this, that and the other piece at this, that and the other place?  A sheath of concert fliers and programme booklets is vivid physical evidence of a concert-giving career.  Online resources are not; anyone can easily and quickly concoct a false online presence, while to forge printed materials in the kind of numbers and quality needed to be convincing requires the sort of time, effort and money that only the most criminally corrupted mind would consider worthwhile.

Dispense with printed materials and you deny the audience their souvenir of what should have been a memorable occasion, and you deny the music student a chance to build their own future.  If audiences have nothing to hold on to and new musicians no way of presenting in physical form their past achievements on the concert platform, it won’t be long until live classical music is extinct.

This MUST NOT HAPPEN.  If you go to a concert where no programmes are available, where you are directed to an online resource, write in a say you won’t bother going again – the place clearly doesn’t care about its audience, and the musicians have no future ahead of them.


  1. Dear Dr Marc,
    Thank you for another thought provoking posting.
    I completely share your feeling that a well written programme is vastly more satisfying than a down-loadable document to read on a portable device. Well, almost.

    The research suggesting that students perform better from printed material than online materials is fascinating. But this re-opens the argument of form vs content, and I would love to know what is the real cause – is it that people concentrated better on printed material, or that the environment for reading the printed vs online material was more conducive, or that the printed page offers fewer distractions and pop-ups, or that the test groups were in some way different ?

    .. continued...

  2. I agree with you that use of screens in concerts is hugely annoying, though I have sometimes done it myself (!) I do, however, suspect that part of the annoyance is to do with breaking conventions, rather than any actual harm. These days we see some audiences disapproving of clapping between movements, while others like it, yet a couple of hundred years ago it was common for clapping, speeches, encores, or even insert alternative pieces, to be interspersed between movements. Concerts were not the reverential events that they often are today. How would we take that now ? I fear that people of your (and my) age(s) have different expectations of concert etiquette, and much of the sense of distraction is a feeling of outrage. Close your eyes, or look at the stage, and you will be no more distracted by screen use than by the lady with the flowery hat, or the gentleman swaying in sympathy with the music.

    You are of course correct when you admit your comments on the environmental impact a distorted vision of reality – so well done on self-awareness. If viewers were buying a new iPad rather than a programme, then indeed there is a problem. But the incremental impact of viewing a download on an already purchased device is less than that of printing a programme. Some of your other arguments are also somewhat spurious – yes a programme can be a memento, but most likely ends up in the rubbish bin outside the concert hall, it can be useful to get an autograph (so can a ticket), but the iPhone generation have solved that one – you take a selfie with the artist. Do students actually keep programmes of their own concerts, to provide a record of their performances – well I have a few times, but mostly by mistake. But where I wrote my own programme notes, then I have them on my computer anyway and can reprint or share electronically whenever I want. And one could print a collection of fake concert fliers and programmes relatively easily, though I cannot imagine wanting to do so myself.

    Surely the proliferation of downloadable concert programmes is due to another reason – the promoter saves on printing and distribution costs. Unless they are planning to charge for the programme, then they want to make it as cheap as possible. And I, for one, would be more interested in the content than the form. You never know, at your next concert, rather than staring at some irrelevant advertisements colour printed on a large heavy glossy paper programmes, someone in the audience might be using their iPad to read your blog !
    You can’t be too outraged about that surely.