During more than four decades in the music business, the question I’ve heard most often is, “How do you introduce people to classical music so that they become fans?”
I wondered about what actually makes new listeners connect to music when Apple Music recently announced the launch of its classical streaming app with “five million unique tracks to start,” following the acquisitions of Primephonic and the artificial intelligence startup AI Music.
Anything that brings new listeners to the beauty, variety, richness, and power of classical music is a good thing, and the availability of another listening resource is terrific. But over the years I’ve found that classical music listeners have a human connection with the music, an emotional link, and those kinds of connections spark most naturally when their initial experience is curated and not dumped on them.
While the idea of this trove of music is exciting, most listeners end up listening repeatedly to their favorites. That was the genius of Top 40 radio during the 1960s and why music radio stations — of all formats — continue to program the more popular works in a rotation with deeper cuts.
That is intelligent programming, and despite the current craze for AI, there is nothing artificial about human reactions to music and how we as broadcasters connect to listeners. Moreover, the classical repertoire is so diverse and varied that programming by algorithm may actually limit what else a new listener might discover. For example, if someone likes Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Turandot, is that person reacting to the incredible voice, the stunning melody, the rich underlying orchestration, the triumphant exultation in Puccini’s music, or all the above?
Further, offering large databases of classical music to a new listener is akin to telling someone who’s never been introduced to literature to find something to read in a library or offering a baby every available food. Where would they begin? How would they know what flavors or tastes might be most palatable? How could they form a diet that makes any sense? Imagine liking chocolate — what would the algorithm offer next? More chocolate? Chocolate with caramel? Chocolate with a side of chocolate milk?
Similarly, one might like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but algorithms would then bring the listener a steady diet of baroque violin concertos. And that’s OK, but that experience won’t begin to reveal the rich variety that exists in the classical repertoire.
So, after all these years and seeing countless attempts at increasing the size of the classical audience, I’m convinced people still need people. Nothing makes discovering new listening experiences more wonderful than a guide with whom one can make a human connection. And that is the role that broadcasters, hosts, and presenters can and do play. The audience benefits from their knowledge and curational talents.
Even the most complex algorithms and AI soundtrack generators will never replace the human connection we as hosts find and enjoy making with our listeners.
Anthony Rudel is general manager of GBH Music.