A couple of years ago, I was sufficiently outraged by a proposed UK government scheme that I banged out an editorial rant and sent it off to The Guardian for the Comment Is Free section of their site. The piece was accepted and went live on Sunday at noon. Within seconds the user comments starting pouring in. Within minutes I was hyperventilating.

That’s how long it took me to figure out that with my full name on display and Google at their fingertips, the digital mob had access to my whole back story – from my nationality (Canadian) to my husband’s job (Tory politician) – and that it was all fair game.

Coming so close to the launch of Dilettante, my company’s classical music social network, this episode was a little unsettling. Feeling rather sore, I started to wonder about the uses and abuses of this putative UGC ‘revolution’, and what it meant for classical music. Is anyone entitled to a view? And just as importantly, who decides?

After all, at Dilettante we’d committed to throwing open the gates to the genre, welcoming new listeners and providing a platform for performers. How many times had I heard from friends that they were curious about classical music but had no idea where to start and were too afraid to ask? Ravel or Purcell, Debussy or Stravinsky, Kissin or Lang Lang? Help! These were bright people anxious to decode a sophisticated art from – and unlikely to look to Gramophone for assistance.

But would a site aimed at unravelling these mysteries just become a forum for anonymous ignoramuses and philistines? (And wasn’t this fear just a reflection of my own elitism, whereby everyone’s entitled to a view so long as it’s the same as mine?)

On the flip side of these anxieties lies another grim suspicion: namely, that the self-appointed classical gatekeepers seem to relish dressing up the genre in snobbish pretensions that obscure as much as they clarify. You might ask why they do this. In order to maintain its exclusive status, hence the credentials of this brittle fraternity. How else to explain the paradox of hand-wringing about declining CD sales and empty concert halls on the one hand, while simultaneously dismissing as ‘gimmicky’ anything that dares to make the classical music world more ‘accessible’, whether it’s classical music in clubs, Popstar to Opera Star or Classic FM?

This knee-jerk accusation of (gasp) populism is propped up by a series of Trojan Horses that are trotted out to remind us all what’s really special about classical.

First, there’s the fixation on lossless audio formats, which relies on an unquestioning faith that no other benefit – such as mobile listening – could unhinge aficionados’ attachment to perfect sound quality. And speaking of perfection, there’s the obsession with concert hall acoustics, which starts with a baseline of flawlessness and goes downhill from there. Of course, these are the same folks who find the concert hall itself a bottomless pit of aggravation, from those who cough during the performance to those who clap between movements.

If you hadn’t already figured out that this aural intolerance is actually a not-so-secret handshake signifying membership in a very exclusive club, you’d be forgiven for wondering why they bothered to leave the house.

The classical genre is ripe for demystifying – and this is where the blog rolls have come into their own. Definitely not populated by mindless yobs, the classical blogosphere has spawned a growing number of clever and occasionally irrelevant writers, from Think Denk to Opera Chic. Or how about Proper Discord whose recent “10 clichés of classical music journalism” which include assertions like “Twitter: not going to save classical music from anything”, had us all ironically tweeting with pleasure. In fact, a survey of this provocative blogger’s comments reveals not just a delight in debunking the genre’s smug fictions, but an urge to cut through the facile populism that obscures such basic questions as ‘is it any good?’.

Still, it must be said that to the uninitiated classical music can seem like a play without a plot: it’s sometimes challenging to engage with, and gentle guidance from a knowledgeable source can be the difference between getting it and not getting it. And let’s face it: while UGC might have made the notion of ‘authority’ seem rather old-fashioned, authority is often precisely what we are looking for, even if we give it another name. After all, UGC’s democratic spirit can’t change the fact that some bloggers are simply better than others, some people actually know what they’re talking about, and learning how to listen to classical music can be pretty, well, life-enhancing.


(This piece appeared in MusicAlly on 18 February 2010)

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