In Praise of (the antifragile) Andre Rieu

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I’m currently reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fascinating book Antifragile, and I’m finding it has wide ranging implications, including for classical musicians.

Taleb’s definition of ‘antifragile’ is anything “that gains from disorder.” He is careful to point out that it is the exact opposite of fragile, which isn’t – as you might first think – ‘robust’ or ‘resilient.’ Given that fragile things “hate volatility” because they are damaged by it (think of a glass cup), antifragile things love it because it makes them stronger; better; improved. So that’s one step beyond ‘robust’, which just means that volatility and disorder fails to alter the status quo.

In the front of the book, Taleb includes a large table that rates a number of items and classifies their different “types of exposure” from Fragile, to Robust, to Antifragile. Under the heading of “Reputation (profession),” he lists the following:

  • Fragile: “Academic, corporate executive, pope, bishop, politician”
  • Robust: “Postal employee, truck driver, train conductor”
  • Antifragile: “artist, writer”

That made me pause. The artist’s reputation as ‘antifragile’. I must confess I probably would have classified it as ‘fragile’. If you are attacked critically, how are you going to get hired again? What will your audience and/or clients think?

But Taleb makes a good observation.

Under the heading ‘Please Ban My Book: The Antifragility of Information’, the author explains that “books and ideas are antifragile and get nourishment from attacks.” He goes on:

“Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signalling that it is not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book.”

Now, Taleb uses books as a good example, but he is referring to art and artists in general. Replace the word ‘book’ with ‘artist’, or indeed ‘musician’, and it still very much rings true. Unlike the professions listed as ‘fragile’ above, where criticism and scandal can cause long-lasting and irreversible reputational damage, the artist can thrive on it.

It’s easy to think of pop musicians who have profited from criticism in an antifragile fashion: Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Robbie Williams, and on and on and on. But it made me wonder, are there any examples in the classical world?

Well, yes. And the most antifragile of them all has to be this guy:

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From my experience in the classical music industry, I know that Andre Rieu (pictured) is almost universally shunned. His two most common pejorative labels in the media seem to be “The Schmaltz King” and the “Liberace of the Violin” (ouch). And then there’s this article in the Irish Times by critic Donald Clarke, which is simply a masterclass in vitriol (one of his more elegant jabs is that the Dutch impresario “essays a class of decaffeinated classical music that makes Richard Clayderman seem like Karlheinz Stockhausen.”

Rieu’s typical response to those attacks from critics is that they are “snobs”, and it’s interesting that he never comes across as bitter. When asked about the ‘schmaltz’ tag in a 2016 interview with the New York Times he remarked, “I rather see it as a compliment”. Such defiance no doubt exacerbates his critics and fuels more scorn from them, which in turn gives him more publicity.

Indeed, Teleb says it’s “quite perplexing” that we often benefit far more from “those who have tried to harm us” than those who have “tried to help us.”

But perhaps the most antifragile thing about Rieu is how he thrived after financial ruin. In 2008 he had a marvellous time performing in front of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and, in what can only be described as a moment of mad hubris, decided to build a full-scale replica for his upcoming world tour, replete with “fountains, an ice rink, a ballroom full of dancers, [and] a state carriage covered in real gold.” (Liberace, anyone?). When the dust settled he found himself €34 million in the red and had to declare bankruptcy.

Of course the media hyperventilated about the Schmaltz King going under, and we in the Industry, who “knew all along” he was a charlatan, laughed heartily. And how did Rieu respond when asked about this seemingly fatal error of judgement?

“But it was such good advertising that all concerts were sold out the next year, and the next year I had €20 million plus”

There you go. Not only did Rieu rebound from the adversity, he benefited from it, so he goes beyond mere robustness and sits firmly in the antifragile category. No doubt about it.

 

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I think there’s a couple of big takeaways from Taleb’s concept of antifragility and the example of Rieu, regardless of what you might think of him (and I wouldn’t call myself a fan).

Firstly, it’s worth remembering that if you’re an artist, you’re uniquely placed to benefit from criticism and attacks, which definitely isn’t the case for everyone. If you’ve been anxious about whether or not your ideas are too conservative or too outrageous for the “experts” or traditionalists, Rieu’s example might help to steal your resolve.

And secondly, we’re reminded that there’s only a narrow margin of conformity in the classical music world (something I’ll expand on in future posts). Bar the odd film or pop song arrangement, Rieu and his orchestra perform standard repertoire in a very conservative manner. Sure the frocks are a bit outrageous, but he’s hardly swinging naked on top of wrecking balls. In the pop world you’re expected to be subversive and edgy, which means you have to do really extreme things to raise eyebrows (like, well, swinging naked on wrecking balls). But that’s demonstrably not so in the classical world. So, good news if you’re an artist in that sphere: it’s not too hard to be controversial!

Finally, Andre Rieu is a good example of how the artist can use volatility to its advantage. As Taleb points out, volatility forces artists to “adapt and change continuously under pressure to be fit”, and it’s this “continual supply of stressors” that provides valuable information about what works and what doesn’t. Comfort just creates atrophy, and if you’re not facing any resistance to your art, you could be in danger of becoming that “very bad thing” for an artist: boring.

So there’s another reason why adversity is perhaps something to be relished rather than feared.

Thanks Andre. I, for one, salute your antifragile ways.

(but I’ll never forgive you for this album cover):

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RC