Promotion, presentation and the arts: a call for wider thinking

January 31, 2014

There’s a question percolating on Twitter this morning in connection with a talk to be given by Andrew Burke, Chief Executive of the London Sinfonietta, as part of an event organised by The People’s Salon next month:

Is contemporary music just aping some of the promotion and presentation tricks of the visual arts or are we more willing to take risks as contemporary music audiences?

Now, aside from the loaded terminology being used here – ‘aping’ and ‘just’ being burdened with negative connotations – the question itself presumes that particular aspects of advertising and presenting events are the sole prerogative of particular art-forms. This can be tricky territory; pigeon-holing the language of advertising serves only to perpetuate its clichés.

I realise, of course, than the language of advertising needs to be tempered specifically to its target audience: the tone of promoting a Saga Holiday for the over-50’s is rather different to that used to sell high-energy drinks to athletes. And not everything works across different art-forms. The giant fibreglass statues of Michael Jackson, one of which was floated down the River Thames in 1995 to promote the HIStory tour, might not be right for a new recording by John Eliot Gardiner;

Funky dollar bill...

Funky dollar bill…

That iconic baby-chasing-a-dollar-bill image on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind might not work to sell the next Dudamel disc (although if anyone uses the idea, you read it here first…). And in the current economic climate, it might be seen as excessively profligate to repeat The KLF’s stunt in 1994 of burning a million dollars. There are many pages on Andy Doe’s marvellous blog, Proper Discord, devoted to classical album covers that don’t work.

But that doesn’t mean that only pop culture has the right to use these methods. And the idea of classical concerts needing to be enshrined in concert-halls before devoted admirers is now obsolete. Festivals and organisations are looking elsewhere. To give but two examples: last year, the London Contemporary Music Festival enthralled audiences (according to the festival website, over 5,000 people) in a car-park in Peckham, embracing a vibrantly eclectic mix of events, including contemporary and electronic music, dance and improvisation and serving up works by Xenakis and Ligeti. The Park Avenue Armory in New York saw over seventy musicians filling the former drill hall with John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit as part of the Tune-In Festival in 2011.

All this is to say that what we really need is wider thinking beyond a sense that you can only deploy certain marketing for certain art-forms, and particular types of events can only take place in specific venues. Innovation is key: thinking of ways to engage audiences with culture shouldn’t see us rattling around in the same wooden boxes, limited to well-trodden campaigns that are deemed appropriate only because their use is enshrined in advertising history.  Andy Warhol saw through that back in the 60s; so can we.

Dan Harding is Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Follow Dan on Twitter.