Tomorrow’s World: Classical Music beyond Isolation 

Controller of BBC Radio 3 Alan Davey writes for IAM on how online streaming is changing the world of classical music. 

This article was originally going to be a cheery look at how the classical music sector is working to attract younger audiences, and what this might mean for all of us involved in supporting and making such music available to as wide an audience as possible. In short, how we sustain and nurture an audience of the future.

But the COVID-19 virus has changed all of that. Now we are having to use all of our ingenuity to try and ensure that musicians can play and that audiences can hear what they do. This situation is raising new questions about our assumptions on how we perform music. It is also causing us to reconsider what music means in our lives and the value we attach to this art form and what we take from it.

It is possible that after this crisis things will never be the same again. I mean this in two ways: a change for the worse, compounding challenges we had before where some groups simply won’t survive; or an evolved scenario that brings about creative renewal and improvements. What I want to talk about is how we can shape the future for the benefit of classical music and for the audiences and practitioners of that music.

Even before the crisis we were experiencing interesting times for classical music. While the regular consumers of classical music, as evidenced by the age of the audience in some concert halls and venues, remained old (and in some markets the audiences were getting significantly older) there also seemed to be many hints that young people had developed an interest in classical music without necessarily having knowledge of it.

Research by MIDiA last year across a number of countries suggested that:

  • Classical music is the fourth most popular genre across the globe ahead of hip-hop and RnB with 35% of all adults listening to it.
  • 30% of classical music listeners are now aged 35 and under, 31% are aged 24 to 34, and 25% of the audience is aged 20 to 24.
  • 30% of all music consumers are ‘classical enthusiasts’ i.e. they enjoy listening to classical music even if they’re not experts, which represents a considerable opportunity for the industry.
  • 49.3% of classical listeners listen via audio or video streaming platforms; ‘mood’ playlists on streaming platforms play a large part in this approach: two in five classical listeners say mood playlists are a great way to discover classical music tracks for relaxation purposes or to aid concentration.

Such research and the experience of radio broadcasters suggest that the young are musically curious and open to discovering music across many different genres. After all, they are media natives that are familiar with playlists, these behaviours have formulated a sensibility that eases them to into approaching unfamiliar music: the rule of thumb seems to be that if music is interesting, it can be of interest.

“Our breakfast programme is not afraid to play new classical music as well as works by familiar composers and occasionally to present non-classical music such as jazz or folk”

Although music education is seen to be in crisis across many countries as it struggles to maintain its place in busy curriculums, young people still possess a high degree of musical literacy and have the ability to appreciate complex rhythms, keys and tonalities – they have an openness to new musical experiences that is refreshing.

This experience lies behind developments in the presentation of classical music: in the UK music promoters like London’s nonclassical host performances of often challenging contemporary classical music in pubs and other spaces.

The settings may be informal but the performances and the audience’s attention – the quality of listening – remains high. Often the silence during performances is more attentive than in more standard concert settings. The enthusiastic talking is saved for between the music.

Those of us who broadcast classical music have to cater for a wide range of audiences: from the traditional classical music fan, who will not react well to a misplaced catalogue number, to a person new to classical music who might want to try it.

In the recent quarter, BBC Radio 3 increased its reach and audience share – including the number of younger listeners – and reduced the average age of its listenership by a year.

We have partly done this by providing programmes that offer a way in to classical music for new listeners as well as by making the material played in our programmes more adventurous in terms of the range of music played.

For example, our breakfast programme is not afraid to play new classical music as well as works by familiar composers and occasionally to present non-classical music such as jazz or folk which makes musical sense in the context of our output: a jazz arrangement of a folk song that incorporates a vocal line from the works of Italian composer Luciano Berio, for example.

We have also introduced a new late-night programme, Night Tracks, that has classical music suitable for the late night as its starting point, but is not afraid to mix contemporary classical and non-classical when it fits the mood and is musically appropriate.

It seems the more knowledge you have about music, the more you try to figure out why a choice was made for Mix Tapes – this slot has become the equivalent of a musical crossword.

A similar approach has been taken for the ‘Mix Tapes’ that are broadcast each evening at 7pm. This session features half an hour of uninterrupted music, matched carefully by key, before the evening concert. Each piece is carefully chosen by a person with a musical brain. Initially some listeners were sceptical of the series but gradually people (whose musical knowledge I respect) have said that they appreciate the thought that has gone into this programme.


It seems the more knowledge you have about music, the more you try to figure out why a choice was made for Mix Tapes – this slot has become the equivalent of a musical crossword.

These developments were going on before the COVID-19 lockdown, but now the isolation in which so many people, including musicians, live has created a new environment.

Musicians have had to find new ways of performing for people, and have done so rapidly and impressively on the internet and the radio.

On Radio 3 we have commissioned home recorded sessions by musicians. From our BBC orchestras we have commissioned performances of solo works, which we broadcast in our afternoon programme. For this, the players talk about music and we learn something of their personalities as members of the community of musicians that make up an orchestra.

What has happened as a result of this necessity to use online platforms to reach audiences, is that we’ve placed a new emphasis on musicians as people: they are not just anonymous and self-effacing parts of an ensemble but individuals with enormous talent. Music has been conveyed with a new form of intimacy and, although mediated through technology, a new level of humanity.

What can this mean for the post-COVID-19 crisis world? I think there is an opportunity here. Going back to presenting concerts solely as they were before the virus would be a shame – though live concerts will, I hope, remain as popular and available as ever.

We can use the lessons we learned before the virus in attracting new and younger audiences and can utilise this new intimacy and curiosity engendered by some of the initiatives taken during the lockdown period to say to our new audiences: “Welcome – yes, classical music is for you too.”

This post is an extract from a longer article in IAM Vol 16 Iss 5. During the COVID-19 crisis you can subscribe to IAM for free