EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the author and International Arts Manager, in whose magazine this piece first appeared.
For a venue that is the epitome of quality and class – and famed as an elite institution for classical music – Concertgebouw is all about breaking down barriers.
It’s an ambitious paradox because when it comes to classical music, and the arts in general, the word “elite” is laden with negativity. Yet in a broader sense “elite” can also be representative of top-flight achievements, a resting place for the cream of the crop, a signifier of ambition.
Concertgebouw is an open book on this issue: yes, it is an elite institution when it comes to its world-class programs and splendor, but it has no intention of downplaying its history nor its raison d’etre. Instead, the institution aims to shun elitist doctrine in favor of ushering as many people into its hallowed halls as possible. Once there, regardless of free entry or a high-value ticket, the emphasis is on providing excellent customer experiences. To that end, attending a concert at Concertgebouw is a highfalutin democratic process.
Explains Director Simon Reinink, “Last season we took a year with the management team to think about the strategy: what we came up with was not an entirely new strategy, but one with a stronger emphasis. The title that we chose for this strategy is Sublime.”
“Our mission is to enrich and connect people with a sublime musical experience – that’s what we do. What this means is that it’s not only the music that should be sublime, but everything about Concertgebouw should be sublime.
“Sublime is now part of everything that we do: from the first contact with the website, which should function well and be very effective, to the way people greet you at the door, the approach of the people who serve you coffee, through to the concert itself and your departure from the concert hall.
“From the very first contact with Concertgebouw to the end, the whole experience should be wonderful. On a scale of one to 10, our customer visitor reviews average 8.5, which is fairly high. As part of this new strategy we said we should try for an average ranking of 9 out of 10. And so we try to measure every point of contact on the customer journey, from the first visit to the website, to the moment they leave the hall, and everything in between. If we can see what people think of us, we can be sublime in every single aspect of what we offer.”
Sublimity is embedded in Concertgebouw’s brand strategy, continues Reinink: “The most important thing, I think, is that as many people as possible love us. The more people that support us, the more sponsors we will find, the better the occupancy will be in the halls, and the better the sales will be at the counters. So we aim to be as lovable as possible.”
This approach is immediately obvious when you take a look at Concertgebouw’s content, materials, and offerings. There are dinners in the Mirror Hall, restaurant partners, free concerts, tours, and more. Accessibility is a primary focus: children aged three and over are welcome, there is a wealth of options for hearing- and sight-impaired visitors, and plenty of support for concertgoers with a range of mobility requirements.
“The challenge is to show the world that everyone is welcome at the Concertgebouw and to bring more people through the doors that haven’t visited before – but that would love to come irrespective of their backgrounds. I think at all times we should avoid thinking that we should change our artistic core to attract more audiences – eschewing, for instance, those fusion concerts and crossover concerts that seldom seem to work out well.
“The strategy is more evolution than revolution,” explains Reinink. “In the sense that you need to stick to your artistic calling. Naturally, you can change your programs by adding a little more pop, a little more jazz, a few more family or children’s concerts, but in the end Concertgebouw remains one of the best concert halls on the planet for presenting classical music. That’s what we do well. How this is presented may change per client, but we stick to our artistic core.”
This approach extends to Concertgebouw’s education offering for you people. Reinink is also a member of the advisory committee of the Nexus Institute – a kind of academic alternative to TEDx, promoting international debate on artistic, philosophical, and cultural themes and European values. To this end, he’s spoken passionately about providing pathways to classical music for schoolchildren.
“Since 2000 we have had an education and outreach program that reaches up to 30,000 children per annum – but there are more than 1.5 million primary schoolchildren in the Netherlands and we’ve been devising a strategy to reach those kids, too.’
As a result Concertgebouw is currently teaming up with various organizations in the country to share its experience and knowledge in order to stimulate music education across the country.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of both the author and Interbrand, who published the author’s important and pertinent book Metaluxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence, which we encourage you to read for its enlightening discussion of the business strategies and philosophies elemental to success in the realm in which classical music lives.
Few characters in modern history are as controversial and divisive as German composer Richard Wagner. Many of his political writings and personal views are rightly considered an indelible and embarrassing stain, forcing virtually all critics to draw a clear distinction between the man and the composer. And even when considering only the latter, his creative work counts both fervent devotees and equally vehement detractors.
There is one point, however, which finds everyone in agreement, and it is Wagner’s unparalleled influence on the history of music and on the wider world of the performing arts. Whether one loves or loathes Wagner’s work, its significance cannot be overstated. Perhaps a simplistic indicator of this is the fact that the adjective “Wagnerian” has transcended the musical vocabulary, and now describes something grandiose and extraordinarily ambitious. There is no equivalent example; independent of the greatness of these composers, expressions such as “Beethovenian” or “Mozartian” have never crossed the borders of music.
Literally hundreds of books have been written about Wagner’s revolutionary, sweeping music; to the extent, for instance, that some of those books focus on a single chord, known as the “Tristan” chord (the four-note combination which introduces the musical drama Tristan und Isolde), which many take as signaling the birth of modern music. To Wagner, however, fundamental as it was, music was an ingredient, which blended with the narrative, the lyrics, the scenography, and the actual staging – all of which he had full authorship of.
He created the stories, such as Parsifal’s reinterpretation of the legend of the Holy Grail. He imagined the characters, inspired by ancient tales, such as the Nibelungs and the Valkyries in the colossal Ring cycle. He accompanied his scores and librettos with prescriptive visual references. And when he had the opportunity to oversee the construction of his own theatre in Bayreuth, Germany, he developed a concept (as we would call it today) combining a number of innovations which now seem obvious: the dimming of the lights in the theatre; the use of stage and lighting effects; and the disappearance of the orchestra from the audience’s view. These three simple, but hugely effective, design choices ensured the audience’s deep engagement. In essence, one could argue that Wagner invented cinema before the technology existed.
All of this shows that Wagner did not conceive his works merely as musical performances or operas. Rather, he was effectively masterminding monumental immersive experiences – and he was doing it to convey precise messages to his contemporaries, be it the creation of a shared Germanic culture through the reinvention of a mythical past, or to expose the dominance of man’s desire over rationality, years before Freud’s work.
Ultimately, Wagner believed in the power of experience to change the way people thought. He spelt it out in one of his best-known quotes: “Imagination shapes reality.”
Concept. Design. Experiences. Messages. Strange as it may seem, there are profound analogies between Wagner’s creative vision and our evolving thinking around brands.
Today, creating compelling experiences is the chief way in which brands can credibly express their raison d’être, as well as what differentiates them. Organizations wanting to extract immense, even disproportionate, value from their brands must, like Wagner, work as polymaths; they must be great storytellers, impeccable orchestrators, innovative designers, consummate engineers, as well as uncompromising perfectionists.
They must (like Wagner) own a single sense of purpose (the message) and bring it alive through emotionally intense content (the music and the drama) and the effectiveness of touchpoints (the staging). Most importantly, they must weave all this into a seamless, cohesive texture.
But how can that be achieved in our fragmented world, where the stage is at once nowhere specifically, and potentially everywhere? Where the audience is not sitting in a theater for hours, but is connecting on demand for minutes? Where each spectator is an active, and sometimes influential, critic?
The answer is, interestingly, in one of the musical tools that Wagner became most famous for:
In order to help us perceive a character’s feelings or motivations, Wagner needed tools at his fingertips. One such technique is his use of fragments of melody, rhythm, or harmony as calling cards of a character, a place, an idea, an object, or a memory. These musical cells, from which he created the whole web of the music, he called leitmotiv. At its simplest, leitmotiv is a straightforward association of a nugget of tune with a character. Every time the character appears, or is mentioned or thought of by someone else, we hear that nugget. In the Ring, every character has his or her own leitmotiv, or signature tune. Other motifs in the story are attached to concepts, such as “spear,” the “gold,” or the “River Rhine.” There are in fact hundreds of leitmotivs in the Ring. They became a vast tapestry on which the music and the story hang.*
It is inspiring to think of this as the brand leitmotiv: a signature concept that the brand owns, and that can be brought to life through a variety of expressions while always being instinctively associated with the brand. Just like in Wagner’s music, the leitmotiv is sometimes hard to distinguish; however, it is always effective in evoking the brand. It’s almost never explicit, but you know when it’s there – you just feel it. And it brings the entire brand experience magically together, giving the brand the status of a ubiquitous, indispensable presence.
A brand’s leitmotiv is not, for instance, a visual, verbal, or aural element; these are, rather, codes. The leitmotiv is the overall, unifying theme and concept that those codes should help express.
This reflects the fact that the days in which a brand could manifest itself through elements of a visual identity are gone. In a multidimensional world, brands must be able to manifest themselves through a far broader and nuanced spectrum of means. Developing a brand leitmotiv is a way of owning a relevant, wider concept that creates salience for the brand. It is also a way of superseding the increasing limitations of traditional intellectual property and creating an association which, if successfully consolidated, results in uniquely strong differentiation – the kind that provides stronger protection than any trade mark could ever guarantee.
Think of Burberry, a brand that has driven impressive business growth by creating a coherent and compelling experience across a wonderfully diverse set of existing and newly created touchpoints. What makes the Burberry experience particularly effective is its omnipresent leitmotiv, Britishness. Whether it’s the choice of British testimonials or the falling leaves in a pictorial, or even the use of materials and furniture in its Regent Street store, Britishness is what consistently underscores this brand’s presence. Or even its absence, in fact: introduce Britishness as a theme, and, by now, Burberry will be a very likely association.
In retrospect, the turning point for this brand was the shift from owning merely a code – the once over-exposed check pattern – to owning a leitmotiv (a much more flexible, engaging, and purposeful property).
For a brand like Prada, the leitmotiv could possibly be defined as being avant-garde. This echoes through the maison’s bold, provocative product design, the adventurous architecture of its flagship Epicenter stores; it vibrates across the brand’s selective artist collaborations, its landmark Fondazione Prada in Milan, and its involvement in the Venice Biennale. Prada’s leitmotiv is implicit, but it can be felt across every single public act of this brand. As a result, it brings everything beautifully together, giving the brand a salience that goes beyond its industry. This also provides the brand with a strong edge: when you think about it, Prada is very similar (in terms of its Tuscan origin, products, touchpoints, and business model) to the likes of Gucci and Ferragamo. Yet, Prada’s brand leitmotiv allows it to conceive and design an experience that creates, all other things equal, deep differentiation.
Or, think of Red Bull, a brand whose leitmotiv is at the border between energy and bravado. That leitmotiv is at the heart of the entire experience: from its F1 investment to Felix Baumgartner’s near-orbital drop and everything that’s in between, Red Bull has succeeded in creating a relevance that stretches far beyond its product – an energy drink. By finding highly impactful ways of playing to its leitmotiv, this brand has touched audiences that would have been completely indifferent to traditional product-focused communication initiatives.
These examples show the power of the leitmotiv in providing these brands with a “gravitational field” that expands far beyond the reach of their products as such.
To this end, a brand leitmotiv is rooted in, but radically distinct from, constructs such as a purpose, a positioning, or a proposition. While these concepts, in various ways, represent what the brand stands for, the leitmotiv is what will stand for the brand.
The leitmotiv translates a brand’s competitive position into a compelling, universal concept which can be successfully sublimated into a meaningful, narrative experience; an aura that is indispensable in igniting demand and desire in today’s fragmented world.
* Howard Goodall, The Story of Music, London: Vintage Publishing, 2013. The historical and musical context reported in this article owes much to this book.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The author’s book Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists is highly recommended for the psychographic insights it contains that potentially describe an important place for classical music in today’s market.
The connections between wine and music run unexpectedly deep. It isn’t just that many wine lovers are music lovers, too. The brilliant “postmodern” California winemaker Clark Smith has experimented with wine and music “pairings,” demonstrating that certain wines taste better when accompanied by particular tunes. Inexpensive Glen Ellen Chardonnay, he says, is especially tasty if you sip it along with the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”
I used to be a skeptic about this connection until Smith put on some music and asked me to taste a particular wine and then changed the music on me mid-sip. The taste of the wine turned from sweet to bitter right there in my mouth. It really did. How is this possible? One answer comes from sensory science research. It seems that there are parts of the brain that are particularly involved in appreciating wine and these overlap to a certain extent with the music appreciation areas. Change one element and you can sometimes change the other. Incredible.
Just because the sensory appreciation of music and wine are connected in this way doesn’t mean that there is necessarily much to learn about music by studying wine or vice versa, but sometimes I am struck by certain parallels. In one chapter in my 2013 book Extreme Wine, for example, in trying to understand the changing market status of the great red wines of Bordeaux, I ended up viewing the situation through the lens of grand opera. Once upon a time, I argued, opera was an integral element of the common culture. The composers, the arias, the singers – they were all part of everyday life: when someone whistled a tune in the subway or tuned into a radio program on Saturday, opera was there or at least nearby.
Bordeaux once occupied a similarly commanding height in the world of wine. But, of course, things changed. Opera and Bordeaux both became very expensive and associated with elites. Meanwhile competition grew fierce, especially as new generations emerged who did not automatically conform to the older norms. China kept Bordeaux in its exalted position for a while longer, as Suzanne Mustacich writes in her wonderful new book Thirsty Dragon, but now it seems that the interest has turned from Bordeaux the wine to Bordeaux the tourist experience, and Chinese investors are snapping up lesser estates to refashion into flashy destination resorts.
“Is Bordeaux still relevant?,” I asked in Extreme Wine. And I’ve decided that it is,
but in the peculiar way that opera is still relevant. Opera no longer informs us about music (or culture) generally as it once did. Opera is about opera now, and that is good enough. And Bordeaux is (just?) Bordeaux.
These are just my observations and since I am an only an economist who studies the wine industry I don’t expect that others who know more about music and culture will agree with them. But hopefully they show how I am how trying to use music to understand wine.
Does this rather pessimistic view of opera and Bordeaux apply to wine and classic music more generally? No. When I tilt my perspective just a bit, the outline of an optimistic future for great music emerges.
Fifty years ago it would have been easy to doubt the future of fine wine in America. A thin film of great Burgundy and Bordeaux wines floated on an American sea that was dominated by unsophisticated, industrial wines. Thunderbird, a high-octane lemon-flavored fortified wine, powered the rise of Gallo to its position as the nation’s – and now the world’s – largest wine producer. The best-selling imported wine of all time in the U.S. market was custom-crafted to appeal to mass market American tastes. Have you tried it? Riunite Lambrusco was created to be the “Red Coke” – fizzy, a bit sweet, low in alcohol and irresistible to American consumers. As the advertisements once proclaimed, if you haven’t tried Riunite you don’t know what you are missing, so you might want to pick up a bottle and unscrew the cap (a Riunite innovation among imports when it was introduced).
Most of the wines that guided America out of the wilderness of the Prohibition were commercial products, crafted to please the existing market rather than to elevate American tastes. And yet, while those mass market beverages are still with us, the market momentum has shifted dramatically and unexpectedly towards more sophisticated wines. Data from the Nielsen Company’s surveys of off-premises wine sales tell this story. The market for inexpensive generic wine is still large, but sales are falling in every price category below $9. Meanwhile sales are increasing in higher priced categories, with a 14+ percent increase in wines priced at $15-$20 and more than 7 percent rise in sales of wines costing about $20. The wines that American buyers increasingly seek today are in a different world from the Thunderbird of days past. They are more sophisticated and the best of them proudly reflect the great traditions of winemaking. How did we get here from there? How did wine escape, at least in part, from an industrial wasteland and begin the journey to return to its roots?
My 2011 book Wine Wars plotted the evolution of American wine culture in terms of the dynamic interaction of three powerful forces. First comes globalization that benefits local wine producers by expanding their potential marketplace, which is great. But it also produces a more cluttered and competitive market environment. Consumers, once starved for choice, are now sometimes overwhelmed by it. Upscale supermarkets routinely stock more than a thousand different wine choices that range in price from a couple of bucks to more than two hundred dollars a bottle! Big box specialty stores now carry 8000 wines from every corner of the globe. The “wine wall” where enthusiasts gather to choose bottles to take home is now plagued by the Paradox of Choice. Having no choice is bad (that’s why the communist empire collapsed, according to an economics joke – because everything was either mandatory or forbidden), but too many choices can be just as troublesome.
One way that people cope with globalization and the Paradox of Choice is to try to simplify things. This explains the increasing importance of branded wines like Yellowtail from Australia and Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) from California. An effective brand allows consumers to economize on information: they do not need to know the country, region, vintage, or even grape variety they like. They just need to know what brand they have tried before and enjoyed. The problem with brands, however, is that they risk breaking what I call Einstein’s Law. Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. I think he was talking about scientific theories, but the idea applies more generally. Simplifying wine helps consumers escape the Paradox of Choice, but it risks stripping wine of the very properties that make it appealing to us in the first place. Dumbed-down wine – would you like Bud Red or Bud White? – might be a commercial success, but it wouldn’t be wine anymore, would it?
Globalization and commodification are powerful forces. They push the idea of wine toward oblivion. How can wine resist? The answer, as I wrote in Wine Wars, is that there is a third force pushing back. I call it the “revenge of the terroirists,” adapting the French word terroir which roughly translates as a sense of place. I was counting upon wine lovers who care deeply about wine and wine culture to take up the fight to preserve wine’s soul.
Although there are many ways to characterize the war for wine’s identity, I think the framework that I developed in Wine Wars is fairly useful. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, however, is the fact that the war isn’t just about wine. It is about everything, or at least many elements of civilized life. The forces that serve to undermine wine’s complicated existence are mirrored by similar forces at work more generally in the worlds of food, art, literature, education, and even music. Given this fact, it would seem like the terroirists’ revenge is unlikely indeed.
Unexpectedly, however, the ubiquity of the challenge seems to have strengthened the terroirists’ resolve. The yearning for a sense of connection that slick brands cannot provide is widespread and growing. I see it manifest in the world of wine as consumers who are increasingly focused on things that matter prove over and over again that they are willing to pay for products that connect them to person and place, to history and inspiration. Having grown tired of the fake, they now seek out authenticity. I know a winemaker who confesses that he just follows the market and who consequently now focuses intensely on wines that are a tangible expression of a particular time and place. He sees the future in organic wines that bring buyers closer to the earth, and closer therefore to the ultimate source of wine experience.
The terroirist revenge, a renewed commitment to authenticity, was not created by wine alone and it does not apply to wine alone either. Rather, it is a movement among the new and the young today – exactly those not brought up in the traditions of grand opera and Bordeaux, but who seek out, nevertheless, the real, the genuine, and the authentic experience. To twist a Rolling Stones lyric, they are surrounded by what they want – or what they are told they want – so they search instead for what they need. And sometimes they find it. They see Einstein’s Law broken all around them, and they choose another path.
The unexpected success of the terroirist revenge doesn’t mean that the wine wars are over, but they give us hope. And the parallel patterns in craft beer, craft spirits, and other consumer categories underlines the pattern. The emerging terroirist class wants to be challenged and they want to learn. Who knows? – perhaps they will even one day embrace Bordeaux with the same ardor as their grandparents. Perhaps they will embrace opera this way, too – and the rest of classical music movement, if they understand what it really is and what it means. I am not sure how it should be done, but the effort must be made. If it can happen in wine, it can happen elsewhere.
Not everyone is cut from terroirist cloth, but there are enough who are for this to be recognized as an important movement – and for this to be an important moment in history of wine culture. Can it be sustained? Prediction is difficult, we economists like to say, especially about the future. But the factors that have provoked the movement’s rise seem unlikely to go away. Cheers to the terroirist revenge!
In the first part of this series, I acknowledged that there may be something wrong with the pursuit of luxury as exclusionary and materialistic, and that orchestras at least are right to be suspicious of it. But I also suggested that the things we most highly value are often those things that are surplus to our basic needs precisely because they reach beyond niggling reminders of our material world to present us with something that transcends our time and place in it. This class of surplus things we might call meta-luxury because, though they represent luxuries in the sense that they exceed our basic needs, what we value in them lies beyond anything we could define as material luxury. Classical music is only one example of this special category of things, but it is a particularly apt example because music itself is essentially nonmaterial.
Perhaps for this very reason Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins chose a Stradivari violin as the striking cover image for their bookMeta-luxury. Even more telling, of course, than a book’s proverbial cover is what’s inside it. In this case, inside the book classical musicians feature in three of ten conversations with inspirational people throughout the world whose legacies, practices, and achievements embody the values and principles of meta-luxury. Ricca and Robins set out, roughly within the disciplines of business philosophy and branding strategy, to understand the nature of enduring and iconic success – especially in light of the changing attitudes of today’s consumers, who face a marketplace glutted with meaningless luxury and materialism. Their discoveries about meta-luxury describe a deeply rooted culture of excellence, and lead them quite naturally to classical music.
It is absolutely critical for those of us who go about the business of classical music and who strategize its future to understand what exactly it is that makes classical music valuable to those we need to and hope will invest in it. That, in turn, must translate into our unwavering commitment to a positive vision. It is not enough, for example, for us to resolve to move away from an ill-suited association with the vulgar materialism of luxury. We should know specifically what we are moving towards; otherwise our moving is only a wandering. Or else it is not really moving at all, and we only stand around kicking at the box we busily congratulate ourselves for having just got out of. And we must have no illusions or flippancy about the direction we choose. Rejecting the “elitist” luxury of fine wines in the lobby, for instance, in favor of something we may think of as more populist – say, peanut shells on the floor – is not rejecting materialism, but in fact only changing the flavor of it. We must look much deeper than that to understand our strategy. In business we should be guided always by principles that describe the thing that we are about – in our case, with the thing that classical music is. And if our original instinct to reject luxury is correct, that is because classical music is certainly not just one more flavor of materialism.
I suggest that, like Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins, we will discover a natural harmony between the principles and values that describe classical music and those that define meta-luxury. Even more significantly, I propose that we will also find that those principles and values resonate most deeply in our human nature, transcending all the boundaries that so worry us when we contemplate the problem of luxury – boundaries such as age, race, or class.
We might agree that we already have a general consensus about what luxury is. We are much less familiar, however, with the idea of meta-luxury. It is tempting to assume meta-luxury is really just some kind of mega-luxury. So perhaps we should begin by making the distinction plain. In their book, Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins offer us a vivid and practical comparison:
‘Luxury’ is often self-proclaimed status; meta-luxury is always a restless pursuit. ‘Luxury’ is often about showing; meta-luxury is always about knowing. ‘Luxury’ is often about stretch and surface; meta-luxury is always about focus and depth. ‘Luxury’ is sometimes about ostentation; meta-luxury is always about discovery. ‘Luxury’ is often merely about affording; meta-luxury is always first and foremost about understanding.
It becomes clear in this light that meta-luxury is not just more or bigger luxury, but something that exists in a realm beyond it – in the same way that meta-physics exists beyond physics. It moves according to a different set of principles and embodies a very different philosophy.
Ricca and Robins go on to identify Knowledge, Purpose, and Timelessness as the three principles that drive the creation of meta-luxury. It’s important to remember that what drives the creator of meta-luxury is not the thought or idea of meta-luxury, per se, but rather the relentless pursuit of human achievement – and we can understand that achievement as the result of a tireless pursuit of knowledge, purpose, and timelessness. The creator of meta-luxury, too, is reaching for something beyond purely material manifestations.
From the very beginning man has cherished and sought after knowledge. It was the Tree of Knowledge, after all, for which he gave up paradise. Our libraries are full of books, but it is not the paper or the ink, however old, that makes them a treasure. It is the knowledge contained in them – hard won, pressed by time from the toil of human experience – that we consider priceless. And it is the value of that knowledge that makes it sacrilegious to burn a book – any book. We send our children, at whatever cost, to get an education because we know that knowledge is what will make their lives better – and not just in material ways. It is like the rising tide that lifts all boats.
And what is the tradition of classical music if it is not a repository of knowledge? From the instruments, some of which are still carefully crafted according to specifications mysteriously perfected ages ago, to carefully preserved compositions that chart, for instance, the developments in polyphony or the art of the fugue over the course of centuries, to the expertise and musicianship of the instrumentalist who learned under the watchful care of a master and spent untold hours in disciplined practice as now his own students do…to the tradition itself – the continuous and intimate relationship that the music has had with our history, with our dreams, our triumphs, and our tragedies…what is this but a most exquisitely complex repository of knowledge?
We have nothing to do here but to be what we are. The music only survives if the knowledge does. We all know this and always have.
Knowing just that, perhaps, is part of the conviction of purpose that drives the classical musician. But we know our purpose is more than that, too. It is also the purpose of mastering the practice and performance of these instruments and this music, learning to deserve this repertoire and our teachers, becoming a part of the legacy, and taking our place in the living tradition. It’s nothing less than a focus of purpose that compels the musician to spend a lifetime in the practice room when so many easier and more flirtatious diversions are always at hand. Likewise, it’s purpose that makes the devotee overcome life’s myriad little hurdles to find his seat in the hall on a Friday night and to sit, enchanted, through three movements of a concerto he’s never heard before.
Classical music is not a meandering even if there is a fair amount of serendipity involved. It is mostly a striving, with a purpose to be part of this thing that is bigger than you and that extends behind and before you.
And this leads naturally to the subject of timelessness. Music doesn’t necessarily belong to the moment in which it’s born. It is, of course, a product of the particulars of its birth, but it is also something universal. Much of the classical music born in our day will be forgotten and even more of it will never be heard. That is true of all eras, and our canon – like all canons – represents a small selection of the music that is our inheritance. It is the selection of music that has survived the amnesia of ages, the ravages of history, and the fickleness of fashion. And there will be a canon that has survived the ages to come, too.
But what is most astounding is that we can be more familiar now with a Bach cantata than almost anyone living in Bach’s day might have been. Bach wrote his music “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Did his contemporaries consider him irrelevant because he wasn’t writing music to address the problems of his age? Maybe we can imagine that they did. But when we turn our efforts toward the task of making ourselves relevant to a specific time, we risk forfeiting the timeless. It is because Bach recognized and reached toward the universal with his music that he is still relevant today. In fact, he is not only relevant, he is one of the most loved and respected composers of all time.
Classical music is essentially timeless. It lives only in the moment when it is being played and listened to. And when we bring a score to life again, we are playing the very same notes that were played perhaps centuries ago. Each musician brings to the performance something personal – and so does the listener. Like the composer, we participate in the miracle of touching the universal through the particular. And long after we and our world have passed away, the music will continue to live for as long as there are hearts, minds, and hands that learn to play it.
Returning to the earlier, only slightly exaggerated example where we considered replacing fine wine with peanuts as the theme of our concert hall’s repast, we might now consider the strategy in a different light. Before choosing between “luxurious” wine and “populist” peanuts, we might look more closely at the values and principles that guide the creation of a fine wine and compare them specifically with those that go into producing a roasted peanut. And then we might ask ourselves which of the two offerings harmonizes with the principles and values that create, say, a violin, a musician, a symphony, or an orchestra. As Ricca and Robins point out:
[I]t is difficult not to see the paradigm of meta-luxury manifest itself in some of the world’s most respected wine-makers, where the wealth and depth of diverse competences, often passed on from one generation to the next for centuries, blend with an intrinsic conviction about wine being the celebration of the fullness of life in the creation of rare masterpieces, some vintages remaining as benchmarks. Knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.
We could easily substitute the craft of musicianship for that of winemaking – and music for wine – in that excerpt. In fact, I’ll wager that you already did. It practically begs for the comparison.
But read it again. Who can doubt that what they describe is exactly what moves those who really appreciate wine, just as it is exactly what moves those who really love classical music? It was never about status or ostentation for the aficionado of either. Instead, it was always about inspiration, discovery, and dedication. It’s quite possible, of course, to find those who drink fine wine for the show of it, or who attend symphony concerts for the same reason. But they are to be distinguished from those who partake out of genuine love. The future of our orchestras depends on the latter. They are the ones who will return again and again, who will bring their children and their friends, and who will deem us worthy of their philanthropic investments. They are the ones who understand and value us as a unique achievement, because their love for us is born of another, deeper love for the nonmaterial things that we embody: knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.
So, returning once more to our example, if we reject wine as a symbol of snobbery and luxury – or reject it in parts by offering the offensively simple and uninspiring choice of a Sutter Home “red” or a Yellow Tail “white” – in our concert halls, then for the sake of the pettiest interpretation of the choice at hand we will have at once misunderstood wine’s appeal and its real nature, misunderstood classical music’s appeal and its nature, and worst of all undeservedly underrated the universal aspirations and individual motivations of our human nature. We will have reprimanded those who most cherish us for a materialism that is not theirs. And we will have judged those who do not yet love us to be incapable of rising beyond the material appreciation for peanuts or the churlish reaction against ‘luxury.’ We will have certainly abandoned the thing that classical music most essentially is – that doorway that opens for each of us onto the nonmaterial world.
No one in business needs to be told that a mountain of misunderstandings and misconceptions is not a strategy for success. But business-wise, what is success in the paradigm of meta-luxury? It is precisely what orchestras and our great musical institutions already know it to be:
The right term to describe meta-luxury would, in fact, be one that is now abundantly used in other contexts – sustainability. In meta-luxury, business results are meant to sustain – and never to drive – the enterprise’s mission and ethos. Economic success is therefore a requisite and a consequence, but not a primary objective.
None of us chose a career in music because we wanted to be fabulously wealthy. In fact, the miracle is that we went into music despite the fact that we might have preferred to be filthy rich. But there was something more important to us than material gain.
And orchestras, too, exist not to accrue handsome profits, but to sustain themselves. They sustain themselves in order to sustain the art form in perpetuity. Again, we hear the echo of the thing we already are. We might do well to look more closely at this paradigm we so perfectly and naturally fit. And in the next installment of this series, we’ll do just that by examining what Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins describe as the pillars of meta-luxury.
It shouldn’t surprise us that orchestras are distancing themselves from the idea of luxury. We generally and perhaps rightly sense that there is something wrong with it. The most obvious reason is the uncomfortable fact that luxury represents a category that might necessarily exclude us – or indeed anybody. That, of course, does not describe classical music, and the notion that it might solicits serious objections. But the problem of luxury goes even deeper than our egalitarian convictions and has serious ramifications for the symphony orchestra. For this reason, and because classical music’s association with luxury persists nonetheless both in the domain of luxury brands themselves and in the realms of popular culture, the subject deserves careful examination.
We may not, perhaps, recognize many of our efforts to eschew the lap of luxury as simply or overtly so. Instead, we might more immediately understand them as our response to shifting cultural realities and modern sensibilities. But those realities and sensibilities to which we are adjusting can also be understood as a reaction against luxury. For example, long ago luxury boxes gave way to un-luxurious boxes. Away went the sumptuous curtains and furnishings and the affectations that divided the audience with sharp distinctions suggesting class. Boxes began to resemble terraced seating, marked only by their proximity to the stage and the limits of their size. And now we see concert halls being designed without any box seating at all. Our immediate justification may be the predicted trend in ticket sales or innovation in the disciplines of concert hall design. But at the heart of it, what has really changed is our experience of the concert – more specifically, our social experience of it. What has changed is the way that we relate to each other as audience members and more broadly as neighbors who are also equals. Were someone to suggest the re-introduction of luxury boxes and their distinctions of exclusivity, I think we would learn quickly what our real objection to them is.
Or consider the increasingly controversial tradition of musicians’ tailcoats. Decried for being old-fashioned and irrelevant to our modern life, they will likely go the same way as luxury boxes in the end. But what’s important to note is that when they are replaced, it will be with something not simply more “modern” but, crucially, more informal. “Modern” alone will not satisfy the demand for change in this case because the tailcoat is, in fact, still modern. As it happens, white-tie events did not disappear with the dinosaurs. People do still attend formal affairs and they do still prefer to wear tailcoats that look very much like they did hundreds of years ago. The issue isn’t a matter of style, but rather a matter of luxury as a reminder of class-distinction. What we really want is something less evocative of the luxury of white-tie evening dress. If anything, for many of us it is luxury that has become old-fashioned.
But if the egalitarian objection to luxury is the most obvious, it is also – at least so far as the symphony orchestra is concerned – the least important argument against it. In fact, it grows out of the more pervasive and pernicious problem, which is the fact that luxury has come to suggest to us gross and conspicuous materialism. It suggests the pursuit of excess for its own sake, the glorification of gluttony. And the more obvious the display of luxury is, the more we sense that it is empty, ostentation being its sole substance.
Interestingly, the leeching of luxury into the mundane – of Louis Vuitton knock-offs, for instance, hawked on city street corners – and the popular cliché of “affordable luxury” attest to two important truths. The first is that most of us, regardless of our means, aspire to some level of luxury. I’ll come back to this point later. Secondly, for many of us luxury reduces to mere appearances. What matters is the appearance of the Louis Vuitton bag as such, and not any of the less obvious but arguably more important qualities that would distinguish the authentic article from its imitation. And for those of us who take home the fake, it doesn’t even matter that we know it really isn’t what it pretends to be. Our pursuit of luxury becomes largely a game of pretense, display, and excess – and one in which we must first deceive ourselves. That act of delusion chips away the gold veneer from the face of luxury, and we find staring back at us only the contorted visage of wanton avarice. So if we turn away from the idea of luxury in disgust, it’s most rightly because it has come to represent a vulgar and vain material world, littered with things we know to be inauthentic and trivial.
We are right to protest that classical music does not belong in this category. And yet it does represent something surplus to our material needs. Against this fact, of course, music educators are forever forced to battle. But if it is surplus, it is also essentially immaterial. Music does not appear as a physical object in our material world like, say, a handbag or a sports car. That it does not is the great challenge facing its advocates, who cannot therefore simply and empirically measure and sum its value, even for the sake of its defense. At the same time, that it does not appear as a thing in the physical world is the reason we can never conflate its value with its physical appearance. Instead, we value in classical music qualities that are also essentially immaterial – metaphysical qualities, which endure partly because they cannot be corroded like the physical qualities of material things, either by moth and rust or by the mockery of gross ostentation and cheap imitation. Perhaps it is for this reason that music belongs to the special category of immaterial and surplus things for which we will often sacrifice even our material needs. Indeed, many of the things that we value most highly in life are like this. Education, for instance, is like this, and so is friendship. For these things we are usually willing to sacrifice a great deal.
But while some things in this category, like friendship, might be free, other things like education and symphony concerts are generally not. And as is true for any category of things for which we can name a price or for which we are willing to make a sacrifice, we find that some such things are worth a great deal more to us than others. The question is, what makes one thing worth more to us than the next? Why, for instance, do we value this education so decidedly over that one? What distinguishes our best friend from all our other friends? We make these judgments all the time. And rather than it being simply a matter of taste, we often find our reasons in the fact that certain metaphysical qualities mean more to us than others – perhaps even more to us than a thing’s physical qualities. As difficult as these invisible qualities are to measure or quantify, most of us would have no trouble naming them.
This is also true of the immaterial qualities that belong to material things. While it seems that almost all of us aspire to some level of luxury, surely far fewer of us are motivated by abject materialism. In fact, for most of us it is likely the metaphysical and not the physical qualities of a thing that lead us to meet its higher cost in excess of our basic needs. Consider, for example, that you are presented with two apples. One is the conventional kind of apple you’d find in any supermarket: large, red, smooth, and waxed to an attractive shine. The second is not at all like that. It is a smaller apple, not nearly as physically attractive; but it comes from a small farm in central Pennsylvania where a third-generation farmer is taking great pains to conserve both the land by practicing sustainability and the old heritage varieties of apple that our supermarkets have forgotten all about. He doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides, and he loses a good deal of his crop every year because of that choice. For him, though, it is something like a labor of love. Most of us would not hesitate to recognize that the second apple is worth more than the first. And either will satisfy our basic need of hunger. In fact, perhaps the first apple, by virtue of being a little larger, would do so better. Nevertheless, many of us who have the means will select the second apple and duly pay more for it. The extra investment we make is an example of a kind of luxury – one based not on pretense and excess but rather on the value attached to metaphysical qualities.
This kind of luxury we could call “meta-luxury.” And it is the kind of luxury to which the avid skier aspires, for example, when he finally buys an expensive pair of expertly handcrafted skis. It is the kind of luxury that the very wealthy music patron aspires to when she invests in a rare violin that she’ll never even play. It’s the kind of luxury that moves the lover of books to bid on an illuminated, medieval manuscript when it appears at auction. And it describes the aspiration of the new professional who invests more than he can afford in a fine suit of cottage-spun and hand-loomed tweed from the Outer Hebrides islands. This is the kind of luxury that moves those of us who have rejected “luxury.” It is defined by values that transcend shallow materialism.
And it is those values that have already linked classical music with the idea of luxury. As much as we try to escape the connection, it is always and already there. Many of the world’s oldest and most respected luxury brands continue to associate themselves with classical music even while we try desperately to distance ourselves from their world. We see their advertisements printed in our concert programs. They sponsor our festivals. We hear our music in their marketing videos and in their showrooms. And we know it cannot be because classical music, which is entirely immaterial, lends them material grandeur. It’s quite the opposite. They are, in fact, the ones who supply the material grandeur themselves. No, it lends them metaphysical – or spiritual if you will – grandeur. What we sense in classical music is a set of transcendent, immaterial values, and these brands want us to know that these values are what they, too, embody.
What probably should surprise us is that these luxury brands – representing some of the longest-lived and most successful businesses in the world – firmly grounded in all of their worldly and material concerns, know what we pretend not to. And that is not merely that human nature aspires to something far more than the ordinary and to something surplus to our material needs, but even more importantly that our highest aspiration, whatever our means, is the one that seeks something essentially immaterial. This common impulse is neatly summed up in Oprah’s famous words, “Live your best life.” While to some that may conjure pink Lamborghinis, I hardly have to mention here that that’s not her point. And her point has not been lost on her many millions of subscribers.
Classical music, by its very nature, already represents some of our most treasured transcendent values – it is already like that second apple. Those of us who have experienced it and know it also know that it is already part of our “best life.” And as it is with so many of life’s most meaningful luxuries, the orchestra is also, by its nature, a costly proposition. So we must ask not how it can become cheaper or more common, but rather what are those values that make it worth its cost? The values that people are willing to sacrifice for are precisely what the orchestra should never sacrifice. Those, instead, are the values that should define it.
In the essays that will follow in this series, we’ll examine the principles of meta-luxury as outlined in the thoughtful book Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence, written by Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins. We think this work is vitally important for orchestras and other institutions of classical music, and we encourage you to buy or borrow a copy and read it for yourselves.