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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 31st March 2010
Bombs, not Circuses?

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"I probably underestimated how resistant some people would be to anyone presuming to think they had anything new to offer..."

Juliana Farha, founder and MD of Dilettante Music, was one of only two women from the classical music world to be picked for the new Cultural Leadership Programme's Women to Watch list of 50 movers and shakers. We've featured Dilettante here before - it's a lot more than just another website. You may remember their composition competition to find a composer in residence, and in my round-up of the most exciting classical music sites on the web in the Jan/Feb edition of Standpoint it came out basically tops. So I decided to ask Juliana a few questions - and got back, amongst other things, some home truths about the British music business and national priorities... 

JD: What do you think it is about Dilettante Music that stands out from the crowd and has helped to bring you to such attention?

JF: There are several elements that make the Dilettante site unique. First, there's the tone: the design, the editorial 'voice', and even the name make it clear that we're challenging some of the stereotypes about classical music, while also communicating our own love of the music and support for the people who make it.  

Second, the point of Dilettante is to bring musicians and listeners together, and it's the only site that has set out to provide compelling features for both. Musicians can upload their concerts and their newest recordings, which listeners can discover on the site. Listeners can post reviews, debate concert hall acoustics in our forums, and buy music and concert tickets. We're also committed to broadening the audience and supporting young musicians and new work, and our Composer-in-Residence competition, which we launched last year to provide a year-long platform for a young composer on our site, is a good example of that.
 
Third, there's our revenue model: Dilettante is a business that presumes a somewhat altruistic motivation - namely, that registered members and casual visitors will choose to support our community of musicians and composers by using Dilettante to buy music and concert tickets from our retail partners. Of course, we've added value through our price comparison tool, for instance, but the altruistic element is still there.

And finally: we're still here. I suspect that when I first started telling people about our plans for the site, they figured it was a dot-com fantasy that would disappear as fast as it had arrived. If so, they vastly underestimated our stubbornness.  

JD: There are so few women in classical music on the list of 50 that one wonders why...do you have any theories about why the classical music world is still so male-dominated?

JF: Let's face it: we live in a male-dominated world, and I certainly think that classical music remains the most traditional art form so it stands to reason that it would be slower to change than some other industries. While music-making is often very collaborative, of course, there's a strong sense of hierarchy within the structures of classical music and I think certain kinds of masculine behaviour signify 'leadership' in that sort environment. Also, a lot of the classical music media is aimed at hardcore audiophiles because they're the people who spend money 'cultivating their collections', as we say in one of our adverts. The profile of your average audiophile is older and male, of course, so much of the dialogue consists of those people talking to each other.  

JD: What does it mean to you to be on the list?

JF: I was utterly delighted to be on the list. I've been at this for several years now and it's often been tough, so the acknowledgement of what we're trying to achieve and what it's taken to get this far was really welcome.

While I certainly never expected anyone to embrace Dilettante as the saviour of classical music, I admit that I probably underestimated how resistant some people would be to anyone presuming to think they had anything new to offer. This sector is a pretty closed shop, and in order to stay true to your vision you really do have to make up your own rules, if you'll forgive the cliche. I think that's doubly true if you're a woman. I've seen some other businesses launch in our industry - backed by big investment, and lots of swagger - that were received a lot more warmly than Dilettante has been, and yet those businesses certainly haven't proved to be more viable or visionary than Dilettante. Still, I gave up banging my head against the gatekeepers' wall a long time ago, because it sucks up enormous energy and gives nothing back except a bad headache. Instead I've focused on people and organisations that are genuinely open to collaborating with us and to understanding what we're about, and fortunately there are lots of them. That's what's kept me going.

The other reason I was so pleased is because I imagined the list would mostly be populated by women from charitable arts organisations, and I was right. Interestingly, I have it on good authority that there was a robust debate among the judges about whether being a private sector entrepreneur disqualifies me from being a 'cultural leader'. I find that shocking on the face of it, but of course many people in the arts are squeamish about money 'polluting' culture. Still, I'm struck by the irony that conceiving of how to support music and music-making, and then assuming significant risk to realise that conception, might disqualify a person from being recognised as a 'leader'.    
 
JD: Where do you hope to go from here?
 
JF: Well, there's lots still to do with Dilettante, both in terms of reaching new audiences and offering more to our users, so that will keep me busy for some time. In terms of a 'job', whatever I do will be driven by my conviction that we express and experience our humanity through culture, so it's vital that we support cultural output at every level. Recently, Simon Jenkins alleged that the arts need to make a better case for themselves. Perhaps he's right, but I'm astonished at the bottomless pit of money that's apparently available to fight wars on whatever flimsy pretext, while funding for culture and even education are axed with relative ease. I call it 'bombs not circuses' - and I'll take the circuses, thanks.

 

 
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Jessica Duchen
March 31st, 2010
4:03 PM
Fascinating response, Simon - thank you! I'd like to refer readers to last night's excellent report on Newsnight by Paul Mason, 'What's wrong with Britain?', which raised some very similar points - should hopefully be available to UK viewers on the BBC iPlayer.

Simon Hewitt Jones
March 31st, 2010
3:03 PM
Juliana Farha's diagnosis of Classical Music is very interesting, and thanks to initiatives such as hers we are starting to see change in Classical Music. Granted, it has taken far longer than it should have done, but it is finally happening. On a commercial point, and from my perspective as a co-director of the www.musbook.com social network, I must ask Juliana to stop referring to Dilettante as the 'only' site to be tackling these problems (and in your advertising too). Others, not least ourselves, are tackling exactly the same issues albeit in quite different ways. ** An very important point raised here is the idea that a company that is built with a commercial structure does not need to have profit at its central focus - something that big Classical institutions have always accepted. The CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, referred to money as 'the technology that allows Google to do what it does' (or words to that effect). Sadly, looking around at today's economy, big business - not least the City of London - just doesn't get this. It you even suggest it to many of today's leading business figures, they would shout you down as 'naive'. The problem that happens when companies get involved with music but have pure money-making as their ultimate goal (I'm especially thinking here of the major record labels), is that inevitably music will get hurt at some point from greedy people who do what is best for the short term. The history of market crashes shows that this isn't something that will go away soon (south sea bubble, anyone?!?). And of course it's not just music where that is true - it's true for every sector. Therefore it is left to 'microeconomies', which together form what some people are describing as a 'post-industrial economy', to actually put together models that work. But the brilliant thing is that now, affordable technology means that effective models can filter UP from the grassroots in a way that never happened before (pre-internet it was all a top-down hierarchy). This is the revolution that Juliana speaks of: it's an opportunity to raise cultural awareness in the world around us that actually leads to the reclamation of the humanistic values that have always been inherent in artistic culture, but which have often been forgotten in the 20th Century pursuit of profit. There is no reason why the arts cannot be at the forefront of this epochal transformation. It just needs enough of the dogmatic 'traditionalist' attitudes to change. Gradually, this is happening, as the old ways get disrupted by the new ways. We just have to persevere until it happens. The irony is that the entrenched attitudes of the last 30 years of the 20th Century were actually suppressing the creativity that the traditionalists were supposedly celebrating... But you have a point... try telling that to a funding body that wants to see tangible, quantified evidence of specific results... :-) [by the way, isn't the gender issue likely to be a symptom of the above, not the cause? that will change when the hierarchies break]

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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