I’ve been reading Greg Sandow’s blog posts for a little while, and today checked out his “riffs” on the book he’s writing, Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music. I found the riff on chapter 3 (“The Culture Ran Away From Us”) the most interesting one thus far, because it discusses some of the questions around how the mainstream classical music community (institutions, performers, composers, and audience) has gotten separated from contemporary culture, in a way that other arts have not.

One of the most interesting questions is whether the mainstream classical music community will at some point link up again with the main strands of contemporary culture, or whether it will continue to be isolated and eventually risk collapse into irrelevance as its audience dwindles, perhaps to be replaced by a new community that springs up around what Sandow calls the “alt-classical” scene. You can see echoes of that question in the comments by Jerome Langguth and Sandow on the post announcing the riff.

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I’ve already expressed the opinion (near the end of my “music and the theory of disruptive innovations” post) that the “alt-classical” or “indie classical” movement will not likely give birth to a complete new community/tradition/movement, but instead will be co-opted into the general indie rock/pop movement as it continues to move up-market aesthetically. From that perspective the mainstream classical music community will remain isolated as it is today and will eventually see itself completely disrupted by whatever the indie movement evolves into.

However it’s also possible that the mainstream classical movement community could disrupt itself, as it were, and give birth to new institutions, musical forms, performance practices, business models, and so on that are relevant to today’s culture but still recognizably grounded in the classical tradition (while partaking of other traditions as well). This certainly seems to be what Sandow is working towards.

Not being that familiar with the nitty gritty of today’s classical music world, I can’t speak to all of Sandow’s ideas and whether they’re practical or likely to have the desired effect. However from a high-level perspective some of Clayton Christensen’s ideas may be relevant here, especially those discussed in The Innovator’s Solution regarding how established companies can renew themselves and avoid being disrupted by more nimble competitors. Of particular relevance is Christensen’s recommendation that companies avoid trying to force wholesale changes in strategy at the level of the entire organization, and instead establish quasi-independent spin-offs that have the freedom to experiment with new business models, product strategies, and branding approaches without having to incur the burden of the cost structure and differing priorities of the parent organization.

In the context of classical music this would correspond to, for example, having symphony orchestras fund groups of performers that wanted to do new music performance, not simply in the form of one-time events or special series under the orchestra’s aegis, but as autonomous subsidiaries that would be free to bypass the orchestra’s bureaucracy and rules where appropriate and establish their own “products,” brands, audiences, and funding sources and mechanisms. I’ll be interested to see to what extent this is being done today and whether Sandow’s book will address this and related ideas.