IS CLASSICAL MUSIC DYING?
Journalism in a Minor Key
Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan
some time now, the classical music press has been holding
a virtual deathwatch.
rhetorical questions are the headlines of choice. Are
concerts dying [The Guardian]?
Has opera ceased
to be relevant [Philadelphia Inquirer]?
Are audiences deaf to the charms
[Village Voice] of new music?
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]?
so much else to grab listeners’ attentions in the 500-channel
digital universe, worries composer John Corigliano, classical
music can easily be overlooked [Sonicnet].
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"
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].
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
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
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.
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
the Other Hand
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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].
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
opinions, reactions, suggestions?
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