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Classic FM and market research

Robert Weedon | Radio | Saturday 22nd June 2013

While I'm usually a confirmed Radio 3 listener, there are times when they decide to broadcast the whole Ring Cycle in one sitting or some Inuit throat singing, at which point the only choice to hear something without gurgling tonsils is to turn over the dial to Classic FM.

I'm not sniffy about Classic FM; I suspect that a lot of Radio 3 listeners would admit that they started off with Classic FM. It's a perfect beginner's guide to the world of classical music, and a safe atmosphere in which you know what you're going to get. The M&S underpants of classical music, if you like.

In presenting a permanent 'best of' playlist with a few wildcards thrown in, Classic FM give people a good overview of composers and eras of music that they may find they like. If you enjoy the Lark Ascending, you might be inspired to go and buy a CD of Vaughan Williams and discover his transcendent Symphony No 5. Or if you like Einaudi's piano piece "Le Onde", you might be inspired to find out that everything else by him sounds exactly the same.

At Christmastide, nobody in their right mind would be anywhere but snuggling among the Rutter and Anderson on Classic FM with a brief switch over to R4 at 3.00pm on Christmas Eve. That's probably why sometimes Radio 3 decide to play the complete works of one composer non-stop for five days as a protest.

Classic FM has quite an interesting history. When it was launched in 1992, the playlist was not chosen by a committee or a poll, but by one man, Robin Ray. He was the son of the comedian Ted Ray, and a prolific broadcaster who made his name on the panel games Call My Bluff and Face the Music, and on the strength of the latter became a familiar authority on classical music.

In 1988, he was appointed as musical adviser to the forthcoming Classic FM Radio, which had just been awarded the first national commercial radio license. From roughly 50,000 CDs and 1,750 composers Ray compiled a list of 20,000 tracks that made up the first Classic FM playlist, and which is still quite a heavy influence on their playlist today, albeit with plenty of additions from the more populist side of classical music.

Classic FM was originally part of the GWR group, not the railway but the radio company, which numbered the Daily Mail amongst its majority shareholders. By 1996, despite having the only national non-BBC FM licence, Classic FM was not making enough money. So in an attempt to woo advertisers, they brought in a system of market research derived from that used by radio stations in the United States; finding out from a surveyed sample what people want to hear and then basing playlists on that data.

An important element of this market research was the Hall of Fame poll which, although ostensibly a vote to find out the nation's favourite classical piece, was a great way to collect data about the pieces that would keep people tuned in and therefore listening to the adverts in between the music. They also cut out the majority of speech programmes on the channel as these were found to be a turn-off, with the style of presentation becoming more akin to that of other commercial stations.

The main problem with having a rigid playlist derived from market research is that it makes the station scared of going "off the beaten track", and so most composers featured will be familiar, not obscure or under-appreciated ones; if there are unexpected composers in their playlist, it will normally be because they were made popular by their music appearing in an advert or film.

Retaining its audience also became another issue. Classical music, unlike the standard pop song, is very long. Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody is always cited as a very long pop song at 5.55. That's about average for a piece of classical music - it's not unusual for a whole symphony to last 40-60 minutes.

Obviously, for a commercial station that's a problem as you cannot feature as many ad-breaks and are therefore losing capital each time you play a long piece. So rather than play a whole work, you will often only hear the familiar opening movement of a symphony or a concerto's slow central movement (as part of Classic FM's Smooth Classics brand). This regrettably leads to pieces not being fully understood as a musical sequence by the audience, just as a nice piece of aural relaxation.

Quite often, these playlists have a rather jarring habit of playing a sublime piece of music from the Western canon by a figure such as, say, J.S. Bach and then follow it with an excerpt from Howard Shore's soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings. Now, I'm not complaining about film music being played, after all Mendelssohn wrote his Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music for a play, which is really no different, but I do find that neither sit comfortably when played in close proximity.

Having said all of this, I guess if you want a deeper, more nuanced playlist, then you would turn over the dial to Radio 3; in a way the two supposedly rival stations complement rather than rival each other.

In 2006, Classic FM were purchased by the giant Global Radio empire. This brought an even more commercial feel to the station; while they had always used market research, it began to feel like its influence was becoming all-pervasive. I happened to go for a tour around their Leicester Square studios in 2009 which brought home that it's most definitely a commercial radio station - the people working at Classic FM I chatted to were all very nice, but seemed to be more into marketing than music, shall we say.

The most obvious example of this was in 2010 when they decided to change their witty David Arnold jingles that had been with them since their inception with new jingles that sounded like the music that accompanies the "there's still time for a Coke" adverts at multiplex cinema chains.

I get the feeling that in the last year or two that they must have done some market research and found that they were putting quite a lot of people off with all this pap, so have reintroduced the David Arnold jingles and generally improved the format of some of their shows, albeit with an increased over-reliance on spent politicians and daytime TV presenters as DJs rather than any newly discovered 'talent'.

I also suspect that their online market research tools have greatly improved, and I have to admit they are quite fun to participate in.

The last one I tried was a web survey which played short excerpts of various pieces of music. Unless you know them already, they don't tell you what the pieces are, but you have to rate them "dislike", "it's ok" and "I like it" and "I love it". I remember taking great pleasure in "disliking" quite a few really famous-but-overrated pieces.

Another example I noticed were snippets of British light music appearing in the survey. I clicked the "like" button and I can only guess that a lot of the other participants did too, as I have definitely spotted more light music in their playlist in the last year or so, so perhaps this research does make a difference.

The annual Hall of Fame listeners' poll is probably still the most useful tool in gauging the classical music temperature, although since it's online only and I imagine quite a large demographic in their listenership don't have access to the internet, I do wonder whether it's probably slightly skewed. These are the top twenty in their 2013 poll announced across their usual Easter marathon:
  1. Sergei Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 2
  2. Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending
  3. Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy Series
  4. Ralph Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
  5. Jeremy Soule - The Elder Scrolls
  6. Ludwig van Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 5 ('Emperor')
  7. Edward Elgar - Enigma Variations
  8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Clarinet Concerto
  9. Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 6 ('Pastoral')
  10. Gregorio Allegri - Miserere
  11. Edward Elgar - Cello Concerto
  12. Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 9 ('Choral')
  13. Max Bruch - Violin Concerto No. 1
  14. Gustav Holst - The Planets
  15. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture
  16. Karl Jenkins - The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
  17. Samuel Barber - Adagio for Strings
  18. Johann Pachelbel - Canon in D
  19. Antonín Dvorák - Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World)
  20. Howard Shore - Lord of the Rings

As you can see, it's a strange mix of British classics (2,4,7,11,14), Beethoven (6,9,12), Classic FM pet composers (16) and tracks that were already quite famous, but made more so by films (1,8,10,15,17).

I suppose the main thing to wonder is "who the hell is Nobuo Uematsu?". Apparently both number 3 and 5 are soundtracks to video games and are there because of an orchestrated (if you'll excuse the pun) web campaign to rig the online poll, much like the recent chart appearance of a certain Wizard of Oz song regarding a certain politician's death.

I was all ready to be disparaging about music from video games making the top ten; if the poll is supposed to indicate the best of classical music, then the lack of Bach, Brahms, et all and two video game soundtracks in the top twenty is a little embarrassing if Classic FM want to be taken seriously. But then, I don't think they're too worried about that, and in a way the top twenty here perhaps illustrates a void that has built up between serious and populist classical music.

On reflection it's quite an indictment against contemporary classical composers (Karl Jenkins aside) that there is no room for any of their compositions. Perhaps the sort of epic, tonal music written for these games, heavily influenced by the late Romantic period, is filling that void?

I've often thought that film music picked up where the late Romantics finished when Western art music went down the route of serialism and other alienating composition methods. It's quite telling that rather than Stockhausen, the Hall of Fame is peppered with orchestral film soundtracks. So perhaps video game music is the next big thing? Who knows?

The Hall of Fame website is well worth a look, if only because it's a rather nice-looking bit of web design. If you can't be bothered to wade through that, here is something that somebody at Classic FM with too much time on their hands made to categorise the top 100, but which made me smile nonetheless:

Hall of Fame 2013 periodic table

I suppose looking at that list you can get a good idea of what Classic FM does best - the sublime, the ridiculous and the ephemerally popular all nestling amongst each other and given equal importance, not compartmentalised into 'good' or 'bad' music, but just an over-arching categorisation as 'classical' and whatever that means to people, or more correctly to their market research sample.

And to finish this article off, here is a selection of Classic FM jingles, still the best station identity package ever written.



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