The Piano Guys in one of their YouTube videos in which they perform a song from Les Miserables.

Courtesy of The Piano Guys

The Piano Guys in one of their YouTube videos in which they perform a song from Les Miserables.

October 21, 2018

GUEST ROOM | How Classical Music Became a Commodity

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Guess who’s been topping the charts in the iTunes classical section — The Piano Guys.

I can’t be the only one that picked up my phone and frantically googled when I found out that The Piano Guys would be playing Trump’s inauguration. I didn’t know who they were, but with millions of YouTube hits and the word “piano” in the name, I was intrigued. I watched the dramatic music video for “Beethoven’s 5 Secrets” — a mash-up of OneRepublic’s brief hit and Ludwig’s famed fifth symphony — and understood the appeal. Classical music, packaged for easy listening. For the layman.

This isn’t a new phenomenon in the world of classical music. By any metric, it’s a niche genre. A lot of people see the potential to popularize classical music by incorporating elements of the modern mainstream, humanizing a field that’s at best an acquired taste. Lindsey Stirling’s stint on America’s Got Talent as a dancing violinist comes to mind, and her videos on YouTube amassed a huge following before her descent into relative obscurity. Despite a lack of accuracy and nuance, it’s true that her flashy outfits and high production value attracted a lot of people to the realm of classical music. But did they really stay to discover more artists, or did they leave as soon as the dancing stopped? Did The Piano Guys gain a new following for Beethoven? Probably not.

I could generalize this trend into the whole community. The community orchestra in my hometown went bankrupt several years ago and then rebooted under private ownership — with way more emphasis on the fun, relatable pops series. Various concerts included guest appearances by Cirque du Soleil acrobats during a performance, holiday tours and performances of the soundtrack from every hit movie ever created. I’m not arguing against having fun and catering to families, but it’s unfortunate that these establishments need to pander so much to even peek their heads into mainstream culture.

I see a sea of gray hair every time I walk into a concert hall. Retired people generally have more time to patronize the orchestra, so it makes sense that the people willing to go support their community institutions would be relatively geriatric. However, it makes me concerned for the future of the genre. It’s not resonating with our demographic. I haven’t met a young kid that’s psyched to tell me about that new Brahms symphony he just gave a listen to. Kids don’t do that.

Clicking through performances by my favorites on YouTube, I stumbled upon TwoSetViolin, a channel with videos titled “21 Types of Orchestral Players” and “INSANE 2X SPEED PAGANINI.” Presumably, they’re tapping the relatively niche demographic of the Gen Z teenage musicians looking for relatable content. I could go without the kitsch, but it gives me some hope that there’s people out there using music from centuries ago to connect with people that are still enthusiastic about hearing it (albeit at 2x speed). I’d rather see a mashup of Buzzfeed-esque clickbait and classical music than classical music tainted by another genre and presented as something it’s not.

So if The Piano Guys want to make fun, radio edit, easy-listening versions of my favorite songs for the general public, so be it. If these people generate interest in playing instruments, that’s great. If people want to watch videos of Beyoncé-style dancing with a violin, cool. But if all I have to look forward to in the future is my favorite Gershwin tune mixed in with Star Wars and Harry Potter, I’ll lose a lot of the respect I have for this community.

Maggie Gaus is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at mbg227@cornell.edu.Guest Room appears periodically throughout he semester.