The Gentle Art Of Marketing Mod Musicians

March 24, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Nigel Kennedy uses more mousse than he does vibrato. But at last count, Kennedy's recording of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" had sold more than 1 million copies in Great Britain alone. That's more records than Nathan Milstein -- one of the 20th century's greatest fiddlers -- sold in an 80-year career.

But Kennedy, a 34-year-old violinist with strands of hair that stand as straight on his head as spikes, is only one of a number of attractive young musicians in their 20s and 30s who are marketed as though they were perfumes or any other product that might induce you to take off your clothes.

There's Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, a violinist who plays in sneakers, pink eyeglasses and a halter top -- but who cannot play in tune; there's Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is a great violinist but whose equally wonderful shoulders and decolletage are shown to advantage on album covers in designer-made strapless gowns; there's cellist Ofra Harnoy, some of whose album covers show her reclining on a divan, locked in an embrace that suggests an unnatural act with her instrument; and, last but not least, there's Tzimon Barto, whose talent is as phony as his name (it's actually Barton Smith), but whose dissolute-night-after photographs (in dishabille) suggest Caravaggio's "Bacchus."

A lot of people are outraged by the way classical musicians are hyped. But there is nothing new about hype. Paderewski, Caruso, Toscanini and countless others were hyped at the turn of the century. That we remember them among the nameless multitudes who received similar treatment only suggests that tTC their legends persist because they possessed something unique and genuine -- though what it was in Paderewski's case (his recordings sometimes suggest that he was no "Paderewski") is sometimes difficult to ascertain. All that is different now is that marketing techniques are more sophisticated -- but so are those for perfume.

Critics who decry advertising campaigns for "serious" artists worry that talented ones will be pushed aside by less talented ones for lack of glamor. Not to worry. Think back 15 years and remember violinist Eugene Fodor and the pianists Misha Dichter and Lazar Berman. Fodor made the cover of People magazine; Russia's Berman made the cover of the New York Times Magazine; and for a while it was impossible to read the lifestyle section of a major newspaper and not read about "Dinner at the Dichters."

Dichter still has a fairly important career, but long ago lost his record contract. When last heard from, Fodor had completed treatment at a drug rehabilitation center and Berman was giving concerts in unheated gymnasiums in Siberia. A good marketing campaign will often work, but the sustained success of the product depends on whether or not it offers something that people really need or want.

Hype is about myth and sex. Listeners often have a deep-seated need to imagine that the musicians they admire are attractive people who are in all ways fascinating. Perhaps the decline in general musical education has resulted in a cheapening in listening standards, but we also seem to need to participate vicariously in a life of glamor and heightened sensuality that has nothing to do with music.

This need is illustrated by the case of Martha Argerich, a very great pianist who concertizes and records rather infrequently. Now in her late 40s, she is still youthful-looking, has a reputation for being a free spirit, and she plays like a demon. Although she is completely unhyped and never glamorized, many of her male fans talk about her as if she were Isabella Rossellini. Her playing is so volcanic and passionate that there seems to be an inherent need to fantasize about its source. Those who market classical musicians try to find a short cut to success by tapping into this tendency.

While this is all very understandable, sustained success in music (and not just classical music) has little to do with glamor. It has a lot to do with hard work, with what previous generations called "character," with dedication, with talent and with good luck. None of these things -- except perhaps the last -- has anything to do with the values that entice us on current record covers.

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