Does Amazon “get” classical music better than everyone else?

The series stars Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo, a character based on conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

I’ve just finished binge watching Season 3 of Amazon’s Original “Mozart in the Jungle” (“MITJ”) series, based on a book of the same name by Blair Tindall.

As someone who works in the classical music industry myself (I’m the co-founder of a concert series in Seattle called Emerald City Music), I’ve spent months hearing my colleagues either condemn or praise MITJ. Now in its third season, and renewing for a fourth, I felt it was finally time to publish my take on MITJ.

And I can say — with utmost confidence — that Amazon has figured out something important about classical music that many of the world’s finest orchestras and classical presenters have yet to discover.

Before I divulge this magic key to Amazon’s success, allow me to first share the fruits of what Amazon was able to do with Mozart in the Jungle.

In the 10 episodes of Season 3 alone, MITJ had:

- An entire episode devoted to the music of Olivier Messiaen (Season 3, Episode 7, Not Yet Titled). And before you think, “it must have been a subtle mention to the 20th century composer’s infamously dissonant music”, think again. The entire episode was a straight performance of Messiaen’s work, with spoken program notes and biographical information from stage.
- Five straight episodes highlighting opera music, featuring the wonderful Monica Bellucci. It all arrives at a barge performance of music by Rossini, Mozart, Schubert, and more with Monica Bellucci and Placido Domingo (Season 3, Episode 5, Now I Will Sing).
- There is new music commissions scattered throughout the season, including a vocal work by Nico Muhly (Season 3, Episode 2, The Modern Piece) and an Impromptu by Missy Mazzoli (Season 3, Episode 9, Creative Solutions for Creative Lives).
- The standard orchestral repertoire features, some chamber music selections, and even an array of cross-genre music (notably, the conductor character Thomas Pembridge taking a deep dive into the EDM genre).

Outside of the context of an Amazon web series, this actually sounds a lot like a normal orchestral season. It has a selection of standard repertoire plus a few commissions and a deep venture into the life of a lesser-known composer. But anyone who works in the administration of an orchestra can tell you about the classical industry’s fear of premiering new works or delving into the lives of controversial composers like Messiaen. This fear doesn’t affect all organizations, but many have thoughts like, “Who would buy tickets to that?! There will be empty seats, but we’ll do it anyway.”

So answer me this… if real-life orchestras fear programming this music, how did a fictional web series like Mozart In The Jungle get away with it successfully?

To me, the answer is delightfully simple. What Amazon offers its fans is so radically different than what classical music presenters offer, but it’s such a subtle thing that it’s easy to overlook:

Amazon gives viewers open access to the unfiltered stories of people who genuinely find classical music meaningful in their seemingly relatable lives.

Or perhaps in a more condensed statement, they build a relationship between the viewers and the show’s characters.

Watching MITJ, it’s impossible to not become intoxicated by these dynamic and very human characters. You see their flaws, their joys, and their passion for the craft. It’s clear that every decision they make is informed by their love of music. But they are painfully human, and even the viewer who is completely unaware of classical music can relate to their struggle, regardless of the context of that struggle happening within an orchestra.

Real-world orchestras and classical presenters do a great job of marketing musicians’ accomplishments (“Hey, our soloist won these awards and played Carnegie Hall last night before coming here!”), but they do an awful job of making the audience feel like they know the musicians personally. Sure, they do interviews and ask musicians about their favorite foods, but it’s extremely rare that such features capture the actual day-to-day struggle and joy of being a musician.

Yet what’s even more important than the relationship between the characters and viewers is the trust that results from that relationship. The character’s passion for great music is contagious, and— regardless of how evocative or fringe any of the music might be — the viewers trust the character’s passion. It’s why MITJ can afford to do an entire episode of music by Olivier Messiaen, presented in a manner that’s not a far cry from what real-world orchestra’s offer (spoken biographical information about the composer, stories of each piece, etc.)

It shouldn’t go without mentioning that the open access to this relationship with the characters also contributes to MITJ’s success. We live in the world of “on-demand”, and without some reasonable adoption to that lifestyle and consumption preference, orchestras won’t find the same success as Amazon in reaching the classical audience.

So, what now?

If you’re an orchestra or classical presenter, find ways to throw open the real, raw, and human stories of your orchestra members. Video is a powerful medium still, but how you use it matters far more than the quality of filming. Be transparent; tell of the joy and passion, but also show the struggle and sacrifice that musicians make in their everyday lives to maintain this quality of great art. Don’t fear the music itself, or the stories that make this music come to life. Trust your audience and they will show trust in return.

If you’re an audience member or MITJ viewer, never stop exploring. This music is everywhere, and the stories told in MITJ aren’t far from what real-world organizations face every day. You can make a difference for these organizations, (1) by attending and engaging at concerts and events, but (2) by providing your leadership and perspective to these organizations. They are here to serve you, so tell them how to reach others like you! You don’t have to wait for MITJ Season 4 to “feel the blood” again…

If you’ve never seen Mozart in the Jungle and your interest is piqued by this article, check it out on the Amazon Video app. A Prime membership is required to watch, and all three seasons are available to stream once you are registered for Prime. You can also binge-watch the full series with a free 30-day Amazon Prime trial.