Time to learn new tunes

Classical music outfits must be open about their carbon footprints

Chris Gunness

The titans of global capitalism are embracing social responsibility. In the US, the Business Roundtable (BRT), a club for business chiefs, has abandoned the decades-old doctrine of “shareholder primacy” for a new “statement of purpose”, which places the requirement to serve the shareholder on a par with responsibilities towards communities and establishes environmental protection as a business goal.

As commerce tries to look green and cuddly, the captains of the classical music industry look on nervously. Their business may not have the carbon footprint of the oil and gas industry. But it is not as clean as it looks.

Take this year’s BBC Proms, with 12 foreign orchestras coming to London. Most are from Europe, but they include the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, which played precisely 11 minutes of Chinese music, according to the Proms website, to show for their 11-hour flight. (The rest of their programme featured staples from the Western repertoire by Rachmaninov and Mozart.)

Similarly, the Royal Opera House, Wigmore Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican and other top British classical music venues all pride themselves on the international stars they fly in, often for a single appearance. An avowedly global offering plays to cosmopolitan audiences and boosts ticket sales.

Some have tried to develop greener business strategies: the Barbican has a zero landfill policy whereby all its waste is reused and Glyndebourne installed a massive wind turbine as part of its long-term carbon-neutral policy. Professor Richard Barker at the Said Business School in Oxford, one of the organisations behind the BRT initiative, argues that classical music institutions should declare their carbon footprints and be transparent about the carbon costs of international bookings. A “carbon premium” could then be added to tickets and passed on to carbon-reducing organisations, or projects that help those affected by climate change. The best-paid soloists and conductors might also contribute. The levy could also be spent on fostering models for reducing carbon emissions elsewhere in the classical music industry. International stars and their hosts might also
consider bolting on some other socially-worthwhile elements to help justify the cost of carbon-heavy engagements.

The shift in corporate thinking should also jolt classical music institutions on wider issues of social responsibility. These typically take “high culture” to deprived, often inner-city communities. But the benefits are rarely quantified or independently assessed. The Wigmore Hall, which uses an external evaluator for its education programme, is a rare exception. Without external scrutiny, these efforts risk being little more than disguised marketing—widening the customer base while looking good.

Such changes may seem a tall order—but so, until recently, would any suggestion that the flinty champions of shareholder value would brook any shift in their priorities. A dated, self-centred approach became politically and commercially unsustainable. That should be a catchy tune for the classical music industry too. 

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