Prom disposal unit

It’s not often I take up my ArtMuseLondon pen in literal anger, writing to purge myself somehow of an irritation that has been eating away at me for a day or two now. I speak – as you have no doubt guessed – of the latest BBC Proms recruitment ad, seeking candidates for roles in ‘Live Events and Communications’.

“Here’s a short video,” the BBC Proms Twitter account chirped, “to give you a taster of what it’s like working at the Proms.”

With a cute ‘technical-glitch’ shimmy, we’re immediately introduced to a freshly-minted young BBC publicist. Against a percussive, rhythmic soundtrack, she says: “One thing about the Proms that people don’t know is that it’s not all just about classical music like Mozart and Beethoven.” Cue frantic burst of definitely-not-classical music. She continues, over montages of Proms passim: “The Proms showcases so many different music genres and styles from House, Ibiza music, to Sci Fi film music, to breakdancing music. So there really is something for everyone, and you don’t necessarily have to have a background in classical music to work at the Proms.”

Then we switch to a colleague, whose ‘stand-out moment’ when working for the Proms was dressing up as an astronaut and jumping about on stage during a performance by the band Public Service Broadcasting.

Perhaps anxious to avoid the tone becoming any more ‘space cadet’, the video returns to our first correspondent, who says that “Working at the BBC Proms helped me to build up so many skills. This allowed me to get another job at the BBC working in publicity for TV programmes instead.”

We finish with the Spaceman warmly recalling the various teams within the overall Proms department feeling like a large, happy community, with further images from concerts in which, thankfully, some classical musicians are included.

It may be a feature of lockdown, and the slightly dislocated mental state it can produce, that the oddest and most unexpected things can really push your buttons. THIS really pushed my buttons. I checked to see if it was 1 April. On a second viewing, I felt like gnawing my own arm off, and by a blinking, disbelieving third, I wanted to cry. I assure you, my flippancy is disguising – perhaps not very well – a deep-seated hatred of this advert and the thinking that went into it.

When the ad first appeared, some people reacted with distaste, sadness or horror – similar responses to mine, in other words. Others played its impact down, more or less saying that it’s only aimed at getting a certain type of dynamic, can-do employee through the door and that the ‘audience’, in this case, is not the audience. And yet – it’s out there for all of us to see, isn’t it, as circulated by the BBC Proms team? They endorse this ‘message’.

And what a message. Taking it from the top, what have we got?

  • Luckily, the whole thing isn’t just classical music ‘like’ Mozart and Beethoven. Boooo-ring!
  • The Proms offer a wide range of musical genres, but I don’t know what any of them are. I thought they had quite broad, well-known names like jazz and soul, but someone handed me a piece of paper with ‘Ibiza music’ and ‘breakdancing music’ on it.
  • For those of you who aren’t really interested in the music aspect at all, there’s the jumping astronaut element.
  • After all, you’ll only be using the skills you learn at the Proms to get another job doing what you really want to do.

Forgive me: it turns out I am still angry.

This ad was put together by people who are, unaccountably, embarrassed by classical music – to the point where they feel the need to sideline it, to apologise for its irksome presence. They couldn’t be bothered to give their poor participants some kind of script or direction to sound at least vaguely interested – let alone well-versed – in music of any shape or form. Why bother, I suppose, if they’re only going to hang around for a minimum length of time before moving on?

The Proms is the world’s ‘largest’ classical music festival. I believe this claim is undisputed. Normally, I’d be the first to say size doesn’t matter, quality over quantity, and so on. But I think the sheer scale of the Proms says something positive. It would be pointless, unseemly and of course, wrong to say we have all the ‘best’ venues, singers, players, and so on: this is the arts, not sport. But the ambition shown simply to mount the Proms year in, year out – notwithstanding the virus wrecking the 2020 season – sends a signal about how much we care about classical music. Under the BBC’s stewardship, some 80 concerts take place each year, which reach well beyond the capital: every minute of Proms music goes out on BBC Radio 3, and a handsome amount makes it to TV on BBC4. Programming is deliberately wide, and at its inventive heights it seasons the classical music line-up (which, let’s get this straight, is the absolute backbone of the repertoire) with forays into other genres which complement the whole. The diversity can be itself diverse: macro – full concerts foregrounding musicians from all corners of the globe – or micro – lining up premieres from living composers alongside the old ‘warhorse’ pieces to ensure new music is heard. And as everyone involved knows, there’s still a lot more the festival can do, and a lot further it can go.

I try to get across in all my writing (and occasional speaking) that classical music is approachable and accessible as long as you treat it as such; as vital, vibrant and valid as any other style of music. As a result, the Proms recruitment ad felt like a kick in the teeth. It could have placed classical music proudly alongside the genres it inspires, supports, complements and interacts with… and accordingly, win over some applicants who would want to work in a classical music environment and stay there.

Instead, everything good the Proms sets out to achieve, this unthinking dumbshow throws into reverse. I hope they accidentally recruit some excellent communicators.

AA

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