Going for a song

This little item (see http://www.isleofman.com/News/details/82375/new-york-bound-choir-perfoming-this-weekend ) has been the source of some amusement to me and mine in recent weeks. If I was related to Martin Luther King Junior I might also be very embarrassed – even if the rumours that his family aggressively chase a financial percentage in any scheme involving his name did turn out to have substance.

For various reasons I knew of this sad enterprise (for it is little more than a financial enterprise) some time ago, and can safely say that media reports are a little light on the fuller facts. In brief, this isn’t so much an invitation to take part in a world premiere as a bizarre pyramid crowd-funding scheme, and both Jenkins and Manx socialites have form for this kind of thing.

It goes something like this…..

In the traditional arts model, a composer is commissioned to write a work, and in order to maximise impact obviously wants the best venue and performers for the premiere – which can require a lot of upfront funding if that work is ambitious, involves a lot of performers and only works well in a large venue. More recently, it would be quite normal for the composer or performers to get some sort of TV, DVD and CD deal to lay off those costs. But the management behind Jenkins – whose product sells well in the amateur and semi-pro choir world – found a way to take that even further.

Jenkins has built a reputation for producing safe, middle of the road, vaguely religious waffle to order for public authorities, the Beeb and Arts Council. It’s cheesy enough for any small town mayor to sit through – no controversial themes, no postmodern wierdness, just do-goody topics like World Peace with extensive plagiarisation of the words of religious “thinkers”. It has the added attraction that even a beginner can pick up the tunes in about 5 minutes, so the sheet music sales and performing royalties flowing back from small town choirs are humungous.

Then the Jenkins marketing machine had another wizard wheeze. What if, instead of paying professional singers for the world premiere, you “invite” amateur choirs to do it, then charge them an arm and a leg to perform? You can even take it further than that – having milked one lot for the world or national premieres, why not tender for places on the CD recording too?

So somebody at the IOMCS answered the web call for choirs, and oddly enough somebody in New York wrote back to say that a choir from a place known worldwide only for a tax-avoidance industry had made the shortlist.

Crikey, that must have been a surprise. Almost as surprising as the comparative absence of choristers from poorer countries with top quality amateur classical musical groups like, say, Bulgaria.

Having – of necessity – endured numerous performances by the IOMCS and other local choirs over the years, I would have to say bluntly that if the selection for the NY gig was purely on musical ability they would not have a prayer. Because Manx musical groups prefer to overcome technical shortcomings by sheer numbers and volume, rather than diligent practice.

Ten people singing slightly out of time and tune is obviously and painfully wrong. With 140 wrong, but in roughly identical ways at the same places, the audience will tend to think it’s right – especially if they are not too familiar with the music. On that basis Manx national ensembles are falsely judged “better” than smaller groups, and being both “national” and expensive to join attract socialites of minimal ability (who do nothing to drag standards up but do ensure sufficient funding).

What the local reports also neglect to mention is that (1) the real cost for each participant is around £1500, of which about a third is paid direct to the Carnegie organisers and (2) the performers are not allowed to view either rehearsals or performance of any other item on the concert programme.

But presumably the offer also pulls in more than the choirs, because relatives will pay to go and watch it too. Which is where the next sting comes in, because friends and relatives have to pay for their own concert tickets (prices start about $500) and if they want to come along to the post-gig reception with the singers (who have already paid for that as part of the package) that would be about another $500 – possibly far more depending on what Noo Yawk glitterati are prepared to pay to swan about with the likes of the Luther Kings.

So, to sum up, you go to New York at the height of winter, get herded into two long rehearsals, kicked out again and told not to come back before the night. If at any stage in this a connecting airport is closed, New York is snowed in for a week, etc., you are on your own. Nightmare if you actually have to work for a living and a family to worry about. Minor inconvenience in return for some swanky pics when you have money, time on your hands, and nothing better to do.

But something about it this also reminds me of a scam a senior Manx cleric used to run to pay for his (frequent) foreign holidays. In essence, he struck up a deal with a local travel agent to run tours to the Holy Land, or some traditional UK or European pilgrimage site. For every 10 places on the package holiday the cleric flogged, he got one free. So, 20 and he and the Mrs got a free holiday.

Being connected to charitable and government bodies, he soon branched out, to the extent he was taking maybe half a dozen free foreign holidays a year. Oddly enough, his church and various statutory bodies he chaired managed perfectly well without him, which says something else about the way such organisations work on the Isle of Man.

I hear that invitations to perform, at first restricted only to the richest members of IOMCS, are now being thrown about ever more desperately to a wider circle of less and less musically able (or even interested) punters. It is quite possible that the eventual Manx contingent will entirely consist of tone-deaf wealthy retirees.

It is even more amusing to speculate if (on the same basis as their own concerts) their duff notes will be drowned out by more able singers from elsewhere, or if this is a global phenomenon. In which case I hope at least the sound engineer at the Carnegie recording this for posterity will be a professional and get union rates for the job. If he’s as mercenary as the Jenkins machine he could even make a small fortune on the side flogging unedited versions of the master-tape.

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