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Is Classical Music Dying?
Journalism in a Minor Key

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

For some time now, the classical music press has been holding a virtual deathwatch.

Lugubrious rhetorical questions are the headlines of choice.  Are live concerts dying [The Guardian]? Has opera ceased to be relevant [Philadelphia Inquirer]? Are audiences deaf to the charms [Village Voice] of new music?

Is orchestral programming stuck in the past [NYTimes]? Is opera programming deaf to everything later than Wagner [The Age]? And are orchestras themselves becoming marginalized and irrelevant [Gramophone]?

With so much else to grab listeners’ attentions in the 500-channel digital universe, worries composer John Corigliano, classical music can easily be overlooked [Sonicnet].

The harbingers of doom are everywhere – orchestras, like the debt-burdened Toronto Symphony, struggle to meet their budgets [CBC], the chamber music boom of the 1980s has deflated, and fewer piano recitals are being given [New York Observer]. There aren’t enough good conductors [San Francisco Chronicle] to go around, and orchestras are failing to fill their halls because they have become "stratified, self-absorbed and scared of innovation" [The Telegraph].

Even blue-chip classical musicians – like John Eliot Gardiner [The Independent] - and household-name orchestras have lost their recording contracts, and the major recording labels have cut back or eliminated their classical operations [The Telegraph]. Broadcasts of classical music fail to find audiences – a December opera broadcast in the UK got historic low ratings [The Guardian] for its network – and even long-time sponsorships of classical music – such as Texaco’s 60-year sponsorship of weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts are imperiled [Hartford Courant].

The number of classical music radio stations in the US has shrunk to 30-some commercial outlets and a little more than 100 public channels, and new casualties are added with each year. Longtime Chicago classical station WNIB was recently sold [Chicago Tribune] and no longer plays classical, and Washington station WETA is eroding its music schedule [Washington Post] in favor of more news/talk. Many mid-size American cities no longer have radio stations that play classical. Those that do (and are successful at it) are accused of dumbing-down their play-lists, [Minneapolis Star-Tribune] till they are little more than a background pacifier [Minnesota Public Radio].

It’s not just radio stations. Nearly every symphony orchestra in the U.S. has conceived of some sort of "casual classics" series designed to bring in listeners who ordinarily shy away from the formalized rituals of the concert hall. But most of these series program little more than classical elevator music [Chicago Sun-Times] and assume that the rock'n'roll generation will be turned off by anything challenging. Orchestra managements are so scared to offend anyone they have managed to lure in with pops concerts, they’re even reluctant to enforce bans on cell phones and pagers [Boston Herald] in the concert hall.

Core classical recordings struggle so hard in the marketplace that quality recordings may sell  as few as a couple hundred copies in the US. In Canada, the sales figures are worse; the average classical recording sells 300 copies [National Post] recouping only a tiny fraction of its production costs. As a result, the classical genre has become so marginalized that classical best-seller lists are dominated by crossover recordings [The Guardian] by the likes of Andrea Bocelli and Charlotte Church that only a few years ago might not even have been considered for the classical category.

On the Other Hand

It’s difficult not to be pessimistic when readings of so many vital signs suggest the worst. All the same, reports of the patient’s demise may be premature.  Positive reports may be fewer, but they are there.  The real question is whether they suggest recovery or only remission.

The classical share of the $12 billion recording market might be down (it’s about 3 percent of the total), but consider how the global recording market has expanded in recent years.  A $36 million business is hardly a cottage industry.

There are more choices of recordings than there ever have been, and the recordings are more available than ever. So the Philadelphia Orchestra doesn’t get to record a new version of the Beethoven symphonies whenever it wants. But maybe it will when it makes a new version that can stand out from the other 87 recordings already in the catalog.

Orchestras like the London Symphony - which has recently formed its own recording label - are reinventing the classical recording business [The Guardian] and actually making money at it. Small classical labels are banding together [Sonicnet] to record interesting projects, and a consortium of 73 American orchestras [Wired] has taken to the internet to get its music out to audiences. An impressive 15,000 fans recently paid $2 apiece to listen in on the net to a New York Philharmonic concert.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that “classical groups large and small are mounting some interesting online experiments. In an inherently conservative field, "visionaries see the Internet becoming a super-efficient box office for concert ticket sales, a global network for selling CDs and a vehicle for broadcasting live concerts."

The orchestra business is improving too. While “in 1992 three-quarters of American orchestras were posting debts - the business of making music has improved markedly over the past eight years. Today, three-quarters of American orchestras are balancing their books each season, accumulated debt has decreased, and some prominent and once-troubled groups have enjoyed unprecedented philanthropic favor and are on the road to stability," the Washington Post recently reported.

For the 14th season in 15 years, the Chicago Symphony has balanced its budget [Chicago Sun-Times], posting a modest surplus, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, recently in budget distress, seems to have stabilized [LA Times].

The Glasgow Herald reports that “Classic FM is one of the most popular radio stations in Britain, with something like six million listeners, and its annual Hall of Fame, in which listeners vote for their three favourite pieces of music, attracts hundreds of thousands of entries.” It also says that concert attendance and CD sales are up in the UK, and that "Gramophone" magazine recently recorded its highest-ever circulation figures. “Even demand for music lessons and instrument-making is booming.”

In San Francisco last winter, the top music radio station in the Bay Area wasn’t easy-listening or country. It was the classical music station KDFC. [San Francisco Chronicle]

 And fans support even experimental music [The Globe & Mail] when programming is done imaginatively. In coldest darkest January, the Winnipeg New Music Festival, filled with thorny, experimental music, manages to draw thousands to a week of concerts. The festival is ten years old, and no one can explain exactly why the city has taken to contemporary music with gusto that defies easy explanation.

Opera attendance [Chicago Tribune] in the US is the highest it’s ever been, and composer John Adams recently admitted: "It's been my impression that in terms of commissions there's never been a more bullish period [NewMusicBox] in American history.”

So which is it? Remission of recovery?  Death throes or (could it be?) labor pains?  One has the impression, at times, that classical music critics and reporters prophesy doom in order to forestall it.  If this is their tactic, one can only observe (though cautiously) that it seems to be succeeding. 

Letters, opinions, reactions, suggestions?
Send your e-mail to mclennan@artsjournal.com

Additional Reading:

Death of Classical Music archive (50+ stories)

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