In Conversation: Mary Jo Capps

In Conversation: Mary Jo Capps

Keeping our beloved ABC alive with Musica Viva CEO, Mary Jo Capps. 

Mary Jo Capps
Sydney, Australia

In Conversation: Mary Jo Capps

Keeping our beloved ABC alive with Musica Viva CEO, Mary Jo Capps. 

With the continued talk surrounding changes to the ABC’s programming and recording services sparking controversy and speculation, we sat down with the CEO of Musica Viva Australia, Mary Jo Capps, to chat about what we can be doing to keep the radio station we love alive.

I’d like to get your current thoughts on the budget cuts and where the ABC is right now. ABC Classic FM is a hugely valuable resource for all people - young people, those in regional areas, people who cannot physically make it to a performance.

There are some really necessary changes in the pipeline, and I do believe that media shouldn’t stand still. The fact that the Classic FM model has worked well for the past 20 years doesn’t give it some inalienable right to continue as is for the next 20 years! It needs to change, but the danger with change is always throwing out the baby with the bathwater. So, you must look very carefully at who is responsible for managing the change, what the consultation process is, and who will be responsible for implementing it. If any of those elements are lacking empathy or lacking a full understanding and canvassing of all the views that may be out there, it will be a flawed outcome. That is our main concern at Musica Viva at the moment: we know how vital it is, especially for regional audiences - they shouldn’t be condemned because they don’t live next door to a major concert hall. There are also a lot of people who simply cannot get to a concert hall: maybe they can’t afford the tickets, maybe they can’t afford the time, maybe they’re not well enough to get out. These are people who also have a right to hear what’s going on.

Why is recording live music still relevant in the age of downloads and pre-prepared playlists?

Of course, you can easily just churn out music in a not particularly relevant, local way, and that is certainly a current trend. You can work on algorithms and play through a Spotify- or Pandora-style playlist, but it is not the same at all. The danger is in looking at a cost sheet and making a judgement call about the fact that it does cost a lot to record the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra doing a performance of a Brahms Symphony. The question then becomes do we really need it, or can we just go into the archives of thousands of recordings? Sophie Galaise made a wonderful comment in that regard and said “well, we can just play the Grand Final from four years ago!” It’s the same game and the same rules, so why not? That’s the sort of understanding required to say there is relevance in having a current interpretation by local performers who can be seen the next week - people can go to the hall, or read about them: they are real people. The danger right now, in change, is that it fails to consider all the important elements of being sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently aware of the impact of local content. We have to be vigilant.

As a student, it’s not always easy to see professional productions even when there are fantastic student deals available, and it’s vital for professional development to be listening to productions and performances, and broadening your own vocabulary around music making.

Absolutely, and it’s also more than just being able to hear the local voice, though that is really important. Radio in all its forms - whether it’s Triple J or Classic FM, any station - my overall concern is that people increasingly want to hear what they already know. It’s this risk aversion that I find worrying and perplexing. People discover new music - not as in contemporary music, but different music to their usual choices - through radio. Radio programs should surprise, and having been a radio producer at one stage of my career, I know how much thought you put into your music selection. You choose carefully what piece follows which, how things link, and where your program is going. It’s that idea of discovery which radio does in a way that downloaded algorithmically-driven music doesn’t – that’s so important, and we can’t lose that.

The curation of programs is so important! I have discovered lots of new-to-me favourites from listening to the radio. What about the recording that ABC Classics does - how important is that in the broader landscape?

It’s the way that young performers first get their go! Even if it’s not broadcast at prime time, it gives the young performer a calling card that they can take elsewhere - it’s been recorded professionally, in ideal circumstances, by people who care about what the sound is like. We’re already finding out how tough it is when you have sound recordists who are used to working with a rock band and don’t know how to approach recording classical music. You can’t record a pop group and a piano sonata in the same way. It’s important to have people with those skills, who have the opportunity to continue exercising their muscles. You must practice. And it’s really important that we’re continuing to make work for recording engineers to maintain their expertise - that’s critical.

There’s a huge flow on effect, isn’t there? You take away the drive home classical music program, and you’re not just taking a job from the presenter, but the whole team behind the program. It upsets the ecosystem!

The other part that I think is really important is that people listening need to stand up and say something. There is this perception that the only people actually listening to classical radio are over-70s, and that’s not true! Disrupt the perceptions. I keep saying to every taxi driver I meet who is playing Classic FM to write in and tell them that people are listening! Send them an email! It’s important that people running radio stations understand that people are using that platform in a number of different ways. There is a belief that people can be pigeonholed, and I think we should always resist. There have never been more people studying classical music, so it must have some attraction! And I would hope that it’s a two-way street - that the next generation coming through are talking about ways in which they would like classical music presented on the radio and in concert halls. It can’t just be “this is the way it is, and it will never change”. The more people speak up about what they’d like to hear, the more they’ll realise that lots of people are listening! We need to reflect the love of this music from listeners, whether they are seventeen or ninety-seven. 

It goes to how we program our concerts as well. We’re excited by people who are disrupting the status quo: programming concerts in bars, and engaging popular music alongside classical music. We need to push back. Can you tell me about Musica Viva, and the effect this has on your operations?

A third of our work at Musica Viva is in regional areas, and we know how important that is to our audience members there. They don’t get surveyed, but we know how much they’re listening to Classic FM, compared to the inner city where you might have 55 stations to choose from. That sense of national connection with the regional members brings this issue very much home to us. We are particularly adamant that it remains for the time being on the FM network, rather than digital - which will immediately disenfranchise regional listeners, and keeping up local recordings. We have listeners who can no longer make it to performances, so prior to every concert we send them the program notes and tell them the date of the ABC broadcast, so they feel like they’re there, they feel a sense of connection with the performance and the audience. That has been so appreciated. They’re sitting at home imagining they’re in the concert hall with their friends. We know about the links between music, wellbeing, social connection and mental health, and this is a community of people that we want to keep well.

It’s so special that you have that kind of family feeling, as a nation-wide organisation!

I really think it’s crucial that those who can no longer, or cannot yet physically attend a performance, still have a right to engage with music and with community. That’s incredibly important to all of us at Musica Viva.