Proms queue diversity

Last week when I was taking a look at what people were saying on Twitter about the first night of the BBC Proms, I came across a tweet by someone called Gavin Dixon:

Time, once again, to lament the lack of social diversity in the #BBCProms arena queue. Quite literally #middleclassproblems

As he refers specifically to social diversity, and given the hashtag, the implication is that he feels those queueing for the Proms are overwhelmingly middle class.

Royal Albert HallI should start by saying that in general I feel the Proms have quite a diverse audience, more so than many people realise, and certainly when compared to many other events. When it comes to social class, however, I have to wonder how Dr Dixon determined the class of the people in the queue. Unless he handed out questionnaires, I would guess that it is based on appearance, so for a start that shows some prejudice against people of certain social classes, with the assumption that they dress or behave in a particular way. I would have thought anyone attending an event, from whatever background, would turn out in attire appropriate for the occasion.

Perhaps Dr Dixon’s definition of middle class includes enjoyment of classical music. In that case, it is hardly surprising that the people queueing for a classical concert are “middle class”. The Proms has attempted to introduce some slightly different styles of music in recent years: a Comedy Prom, a Gospel Prom, music from the musicals, “World Routes” artists, and this week even a work by the Pet Shop Boys. Even so, these are still relevant to the Proms and its broadly classical music ethos, featuring orchestras or traditional music of other countries. Changing the programme much further to include an even wider variety of concerts, especially if it meant reducing the number of traditional orchestral concerts, would mean the festival was no longer the Proms but was something else. Ultimately, the Proms is going to attract mainly people who enjoy classical music. Personally, I do not think there is anything wrong if someone does not like classical music. Everyone has different tastes, and one preference is not superior to another: they are simply different, and are catered for by different events. Why try to persuade someone to like something they are not interested in; or why change something many people like just to attract others whose interests lie elsewhere?

Of course, there is always the argument that the Proms are subsidised by TV licence fee payers to the tune of £5-6 million per year, so it has to be more inclusive. This takes us into the realms of arts funding in general, where I do feel public subsidy should be for art forms that would not be financially viable otherwise. Given the sheer numbers of performers on stage, an orchestral concert will always struggle to make money, even a sold-out performance in a venue such as the Royal Albert Hall. Besides, many of the people at the Proms have TV licences (although not the diverse overseas visitors!) and the Proms does provide Radio 3’s evening output for couple of months, plus many hours’ television. The money involved is a drop in the ocean for the BBC – in the bad old days, it was equal to Jonathan Ross’s annual salary! While there are often heated discussions about the BBC licence fee in various forums, spending on the Proms never comes up as it is not something most people are concerned about in the grand scheme of things.

Gavin Dixon is a classical music journalist who writes for publications such as Gramophone. I wonder if he ever worries about the social diversity of writers in such magazines? I see plenty of people hanging around in the town centre each day who are looking for jobs, if he would like to step aside. Alternatively, perhaps his column inches in Gramophone could be given over to a rap DJ or some former X Factor contestants.

One group of people I do find over represented in the Proms queue, who tend to be fairly cliquey, are people involved in music, be they critics, students or teachers. Perhaps the real problem with the Proms audience is the people with PhDs on symphonies of fairly obscure 20th century composers. It would be much better to stop over-analysing the music, stop over-analysing the make-up of the queues, and simply enjoy sharing the concerts with all the other promenaders from a wide range of backgrounds, who may have just one thing in common: a love of classical music.

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