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July 24, 2006

Classical music coverage

by Barbara Jepson

Since Doug mentioned changes in the newspaper business, I'd like to note another symptom of ill-health in the
classical music world: the steady attrition in classical music coverage at many daily newspapers, which means less coverage for local music institutions. In 2004, the Dallas News eliminated one of its two full-time critics, though he continues to contribute occasional freelance pieces. Recently, Wynne Delacoma, the longtime classical critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, took a buyout and will not be replaced with a full-timer, though a freelancer is providing some coverage. Two critics at the Detroit News, one of them in the classical area, reportedly took buyouts as well and will be replaced by one full time critic covering both beats. There are papers in major U.S. cities where a staff classical critic is being asked to cover other disciplines at the expense of classical coverage or where the full-time critic has lost the ability to assign stringers to cover some events during the peak season. (Even at the New Yorker, Alex Ross gets less space than his predecessor, Andrew Porter.)

If online subscriptions are compensating for the decline in readership of the print editions, why is this happening?
In other words, I don't think it's just economics; it's this blasted stodgy image that classical music has when the greatest classical music itself anything but stodgy--it's vital, involving, soul-satisfying, exciting. Newspaper managements are chasing a younger demographic and classical listeners--at least at your garden-variety symphony orchestra or chamber music concert are not in that younger demographic. But If your definition of the classical audience also includes those who attend new music concerts or who download classical music to their iPods or or subscribe to online classical services, the age demographic goes down. How can we get that
across to newspaper management? Should classical critics be paying more attention to what's offered online and what's going on in new music circles? The latter is a hard sell at most papers. So it seems like a vicious cycle,
but that doesn't mean it can't be broken. And one way to break it is to shed that sense of entitlement that Joshua
Kosman pinpointed, which in my experience is often accompanied by outrage and whining.

On a more positive note, the New York Times has actually increased its coverage of classical music compared to a decade ago and has hired Daniel Wakin to cover the genre (as well as other disciplines) from a business perspective. And other papers are asking their classical critics to write page one stories, which I think is a
welcome development.

Going back to our larger topic, I have always believed that classical music is elite but it is not elitist--anyone can enjoy it. The most successful music institutions on the current scene have found the right combination of enticing artistic product and wise fiscal policy/leadership to offer to their communities. Continuing deficits are a symptom, a signal that something isn't right in an individual institution. In some cities, it might mean that corporate donors have re-located; in another, it might mean population loss or a music director who just doesn't connect to the audience, no matter how solid his or her music credentials. It might mean an irresponsible board, or an ineffective one. Or it might mean that for a particular community, a 52-week contract is insupportable. A 40- to 48-week contract might
be better artistically as well as financially for many mid-size cities. It might mean that in some regions, fewer
orchestras or opera companies or chamber series might actually prove healthier for all concerned. What I find
inspiring is that despite the formidable challenges facing the classical music industry, new festivals, concert
series, record projects, etc. continue to be developed every year. That's a testimony to the formidable power of the art form itself.

Posted by bjepson at 08:39 PM | Comments (4)

Concertgoers Just Wanna Have Fun

by Allan Kozinn

I'm not sure it's so much a question of people wanting to be associated with a winner; I think it's that they want to be excited by the musical events they attend. They're spending a lot of money to go. And much of the time they could be having a similar but more enjoyable and immensely less expensive experience at home listening to a CD. What orchestras have to do -- and I'm not sure why we're focusing on just them, there's plenty else out there, but maybe they're the most change-averse -- is find ways to give their audiences an experience that they will find memorable, moving, visceral, or whatever (depending on the program), both musically and extra-musically, and that will make them want to go back for more. This is what I don't see a lot of at the moment, at least on the orchestral level. But where the beasts aren't quite so ponderous -- that is, with chamber orchestras, chamber ensembles, soloists -- there seems to be greater freedom to experiment, and the experiments are yielding more hits than misses.

Posted by akozinn at 07:19 PM | Comments (0)

Healthy But Strained

by Peter Dobrin

Orchestras cannot be truly healthy until they stop operating in a climate of fear (which unfortunately, is our zeitgeist - but that's another story). A lot of the strain orchestras feel comes from the fact that they are being asked to be all things to all people - "entertainment" for the masses, "art" for the aficionados, and enlightenment for school-children. They're getting pulled in different directions.
If orchestras are going to grow (what better sign of good health is there than growth?) they would do well to take on all of the roles they are being asked to play, and to find special funding for each of them. But here are some of the things standing between orchestras and a bright future, as I see it.
1. Growing the repertoire. Nothing is more harmful in the long run than programming the same pieces repeatedly. It's deleterious to the musicians, the artform, and in the end will erode audiences. Orchestras should not only commission new works, they should find size-appropriate venues to try them out. If an orchestra thinks it can't sell such works on its subscription series, why not perform them on a special series in a church or smaller hall? Growing the repertoire might mean not only creating entirely new works, but also a new body of transcriptions. Think of the critical and popular stir it would cause to commission, say, three composers to transcribe the Brahms violin sonatas for orchestra? Audiences love Brahms, and it would give composers a way of connecting with audiences in an artistically substantive way.
2. Growing audiences. Can't orchestras do a better job of performing at times and places that are convenient for the people buying the tickets? A number of orchestra managers have said to me in the past year that they feel that their jobs are about meeting the demands of the musicians' contract, not the demands of the audience. Here in Philadelphia, Sunday afternoon concerts - which the musicians resisted until recently - have been popular.
3. A more collaborative relationship between musicians and management. Tremendous progress has been made in the past three to five years in getting players and management to the table for reasons other than contract negotiations, and it can only be good for heading off misunderstandings and getting to good ideas.
4. Making risk possible again. Orchestra managements are often criticized for their conservative approach to repertoire and guest soloists and conductors. How about a national endowment to which orchestras could apply for funds that would support risky projects?
5. Getting over yourself. Joshua Kosman is right in emphasizing that we live in a pluralistic, multicultural democracy, and that classical music's sense of entitlement is something that needs to be shed. Likewise, I doubt that the collective whining and begging ("this business is so hard," "why don't people understand that classical music is good for them?") makes anyone feel like attending a concert or giving money. People want to be part of something they perceive as a winner. The sooner classical music marketers can figure out how to create a sense of event to concerts, the sooner classical music becomes a more visible part of our cultural landscape.

Posted by pdobrin at 06:20 PM | Comments (0)

The Greater Niche Theory...

by Douglas McLennan

Last week Disney's movie studio laid off 650 people and drastically reduced the number of movies it makes in a year (the irony of the announcement being made in the same week that the studio scored the biggest box-office in history wasn't lost on most observers).

Everywhere you look, producers of "popular" culture are scrambling to reinvent the ways they do business. The movie industry's best year at the box office wasn't last year or five years ago or 20 years before that; it was the 1940s. At the turn of the 1900's there were more touring theatre companies in America than at any time since. Radio's biggest audiences were decades ago.

There may be many more magazines no than there used to be but even the most popular of them attract a fraction of what they did 20 years ago (our perceptions are slow to change, though. People magazine, widely thought of as mass market, sells about 3.5 million copies a week - reaching only about 1-2 percent of the population, while the New Yorker, considered a niche publication, sells 1.1 million).

TV has also changed; top rated shows now get a fraction of the audiences they used to back in the 70s. And music: of the 100 best-selling albums of all time how many were released in the past five years? None. Where the biggest bestselling books used to spend months at the top of the charts, now it's rare for a book to stay there for more than a few weeks.

Is it that we've gone off culture? Not at all; it's a major American industry and the country's top export to the rest of the world.

The 1990s saw what was arguably the biggest expansion in the arts in America in history, with hundreds of new performing arts centers, concert halls and museums being built and thousands of new arts companies of all shapes and sizes. Audiences for what was traditionally call "high" culture have not experienced anywhere near the declines that "pop" culture has. In a world of niche cultures, it may turn out that some of the biggest niches are arts niches like classical music.

The news business may be an interesting parallel. Newspapers are under intense pressure right now. Their print circulation has been declining for years and the traditional print business model doesn't work like it used to. But it isn't that newspapers are less popular; when you factor in the online audience, newspaper readership has soared in the past decade. It's just that the business model hasn't yet adapted.

TV news has also seen declines in traditional viewership, but new viewers haven't been captured with web operations. As ratings have declined, TV news has reinvented itself out of the very thing we would have considered news 20 years ago in favor of nightly episodes of fire and crime tales in some odd infotainment spectacle.

Look at the top of the classical music charts and very little of what you see is what would have been considered "classical" music 20 years ago. It's a mix of crossover music that doesn't reflect what most orchestras consider their core repertoire. Look at the growth in most orchestra seasons and it's coming largely from pops/crossover concerts rather than the traditional stuff. So the question is: is classical music like the newspaper business, with a healthy audience waiting to find a new business model? Or is it like the TV news business reinventing itself out of what it has traditionally done well?

Posted by mclennan at 06:13 PM | Comments (0)

Cruise Control

by Allan Kozinn

Between my article at the end of may and the subsequent discussion on Greg Sandow's blog, I'm not sure I have a lot to say that I haven't already said, and perhaps worse than that, I don't see a lot to take issue with in the posts so far. The data is, in a way, contradictory: there are clearly challenges facing musical organizations, and particularly the biggest ones -- symphony orchestras and opera companies. They have to think seriously about how to move forward, because quite clearly, they can't keep doing the same old thing and expecting everything to be fine.

Yes, they can cruise along for a while, perhaps a great, long while. But that's what they've been doing for the last couple of decades really: their cruising days may be coming to an end. I mean, remember the 60's (and, okay, early 70's)? Clearly the height of Western Civ for other reasons as well, but think about the kinds of things the New York Philharmonic was doing. Prospective Encounters. Rugs concerts. Series that presented new music of all kinds and got people interested and involved and talking about it. Where is the equivalent? Lorin Maazel considers it big news when he does a Beethoven festival because a previous time he did one, the orchestra had a nurse in his dressing room in case he collapsed. Sorry, doesn't cut it. Other orchestras are far more inventive -- I'm thinking of LA and SF, but from what Janelle says, Cincinnati too) -- and no doubt it's still a struggle, given the humongous budgets orchestras carry these days. Manifest anti-creativity, one would think, is right out.

Which is why for me a lot of the promise seems to be among more modest (but also more creative) endeavors. Chamber orchestras like Alarm Will Sound. Series like the one at the Miller Theater and, increasingly, Symphony Space, which focus on new and/or unusual works -- and also, in the case of Miller, on early music. Or the programs Carnegie has put into Zankel Hall. Or the mini-festivals that Lincoln Center has booked all over town, which take in symphony orchestras as well as smaller-scale ventures, and use everything from Lincoln Center's halls to churches across town. And, while I admit that I'm not always crazy about the result, in terms of the musicmaking (or even, sometimes, the repertory choices), Leon Botstein's original ideas about what to do with the American Symphony Orchestra -- failing when he took it over, and drawing bigger audiences, at least, now -- were basically sound. New things can be done that will attract the curious and that also offer real musical sustenance. Orchestras need to realize that thinking in those terms is no longer optional.

Posted by akozinn at 04:39 AM | Comments (4)

The Best of All Possible Worlds

by Frank J. Oteri
"There is at this moment of writing a serious hurdle ahead of...all music of an idiom later than the romantic nineteenth century. This is the hurdle into the regular symphonic repertory, so that the big works can be heard often and well played, and become at least as familiar as the Pines of Rome or the Heldenleben...

"The more responsible conductors, who insist on a hearing for contemporary works, have tacitly agreed with orchestra managers on a quota system: the 'difficult' work they many introduce are limited to two, three, or four a year. Until the mid-forties no American conductor who by training and experience knew his own cultural tradition could get a job with a major symphony orchestra, so almost all the 'difficult" works chosen by the conductors of the major orchestras have not unnaturally been European ones.

"The demands of the Musicians' Union, which quite rightly insists on a living wage and a full season's work for its men, have had the unintented effect of crystallizing the personnel of the symphony orchestra to suit the requirements of the works most popular at the time the union contracts were first put into effect--the works of the popular nineteenth century big noise composers: Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and so on. Orchestras find it so nearly impossible to make ends meet financially that demands for 'irregular' extra men--saxophone players, a fourth flute player, a fourth trumpet, a second pianist, or extra drummers...are a real threat to the budget. If a composer varies his instrumentation by keeping some of the men on stage idle temporarily, to the management it not unnaturally seems wasteful, since those men have to be paid for a whole evening's work anyway. Moreover, it is only the familiar works that fill the hall safely and surely. So managerial pressure will always be on the side of well-established kinds of music--which have the added virtue of being so familiar to the players that the require a minimum of rehearsal time."

The following words were penned more than half a century ago by Henry Cowell in the biography of Charles Ives he penned with his wife Sydney Cowell in 1955.

I agree with Barbara Jepson's assessment that all is not healthy at the moment for classical music despite classical music being far from dead. However, it seems like it's always been the worst of times for classical music and these times are better than any I can imagine.

I am a composer of new music based in New York City and the Editor of NewMusicBox, the Web magazine from the American Music Center which covers music being created all over the United States of America. And from my vantage point, exciting new music is everywhere if you keep your eyes and ears open for it. Although it always feels like there could and should be much more of it and that more attention should be paid to the music of American composers by the mainstream music industry, presenters, audiences, patrons, the media, etc. In the realm of classical music, while the music being created in our time by American composers as well as international new music might not be as front and center as a new music junkie would want it to be, the range of listening possibilities is staggering both in terms of live performances and recorded ones. That said, classical music does not often seem to connect to the general public. And much of the popular music that seems ubiquitous feels mindless, superficial, and destined for forgettability. Exploring deeper, however, reveals alternative streams of popular music as well which, though they seem marginalized, are as rich as the similarly seeming marginal stream of contemporary classical music. And there has never been a greater connectivity to the music of the whole world.

The erosion of a mainstream has made the concept of household name popularity seem like a distant pipedream. But technologies that have arisen in the wake of the mainstream, like the personal computer, the personal recording studio, and the internet have made self-publishing, self-producing, and the possibility of a global audience more of a reality for a larger number of people than ever before in human history. And this is probably why, despite a decline in music education among the general population, there are more active composers and performing musicians in 21st century America than in any other time or place in human history.

The worst of the above assessment sounds remarkably close to Cowell in 1955. It has after all always been the worst of times for classical music. The best of it however seems more hopeful than ever before.

Posted by foteri at 04:14 AM | Comments (0)

The view from the heartland

by Janelle Gelfand

Indeed, there are multiple issues here, from the perspective of orchestras and arts organizations, as well as that of the consumer. Let's look for a moment at the industry's impressive growth of regional orchestras and performing arts centers, that Doug mentioned.

Here in Cincinnati, Ohio in the past dozen years, the region has seen the establishment or expansion of about a half-dozen regional orchestras, including one across the river in Northern Kentucky. There is now a plan for a performing arts center in the Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash (home of the Blue Ash/Montgomery Symphony). A couple of years ago, a stunning new performing arts center opened in Dayton (home of the Dayton Philharmonic and Dayton Opera). Why is Dayton relevant? Because within a decade, census predictions are that the 50-mile stretch on I-75 between Cincinnati and Dayton will be solid suburban sprawl.

So, it would seem the best of times for the music-loving pubic, but one of the worst of times for the venerable Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which used to be the only game in town (it's the nation's fifth oldest orchestra). It struggles to fill an enormous, 3,400-seat hall in a declining neighborhood on a weekly basis. Consumers, faced with so much choice right in their own neighborhood, seem to choose what is convenient (free parking, restaurants nearby) and safe (Over-the-Rhine is usually prefaced with the word "crime-ridden"). And tickets are cheaper.

Yet, under music director Paavo Jarvi, concerts haven't been so exciting since the Thomas Schippers era of the early '70s. The quality of the playing is undeniably improving and Jarvi's programming (I think) is a stimulating mix.

But what does "quality" mean to someone who may love downloading Mozart from iTunes, but who has had little other exposure to the art form?

This is also a town with a major music school, the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. A couple of years ago, I attended a CCM Philharmonic rehearsal, where a show of hands indicated that none of these music majors had ever attended a Cincinnati Symphony concert. Is the problem a dumbing down or a general apathy of our culture?

I am optimistic, but I think major orchestras have some major selling and educating to do.

Posted by jgelfand at 03:33 AM | Comments (0)

Could It Be? Yes It Could...

by Joshua Kosman
Robbie Robertson: We wanted it to be more than just a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration.
Martin Scorsese: Celebration of a beginning or an end?
Robertson: Beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning.

The end of classical music, promised for so long and in so many ways, is taking its sweet time in coming. The full-time Cassandras -- Norman Lebrecht, Greg Sandow and others -- wag their fingers and warn us, "Just you wait, this is all going to come crashing down." And maybe they're right. But the prediction is always vague enough to be unfalsifiable. Each year that classical music manages to survive is read as merely a small delay of the inevitable; there are no data, no eventualities, that could actually refute the proposition that some day, some way, something bad is comin'.

Which is not to say that there isn't something winding down around us. There is -- but it's something we should be perfectly content to see the last of. It's the sense of entitlement that has attended classical music for so long, the unthinking assumption that this right here is musical culture and all those other sounds are -- well, something else. You can see how that attitude isn't going to get you very far in a pluralistic, multicultural democracy, and some of the resulting setbacks are frankly a little overdue.

But as classical music's inflated sense of self gets battered by reality, it seems to me that something much healthier has begun to emerge: An awareness that in the cultural marketplace, you have to pay your way. You have to bring something to the table that people currently want, or can be persuaded to want; you don't get grandfathered in.

Fortunately, classical music is something people want, in one form or another; that's why I feel so optimistic about its future. And I'd go further in my optimism and say that the troubles besetting the field -- which are real, no doubt about it -- can only have the effect of forcing the purveyors of classical music to state their case more clearly and more persuasively. The result may possibly be fewer performances -- not an inherently bad thing, if so -- but it will certainly be a culture whose participants have a clearer sense of the value and importance of what they're doing.

The kind of process I'm describing has already been observed in the area of contemporary composition. Hard-core high modernism was premised on a similar sense of entitlement -- the idea that carrying out the will of history trumped other imperatives, and that fulfilling that goal was the only ticket required. We can see how well that worked out. The decline of doctrinaire modernism has meant a flood of composers eager to beguile, fascinate, seduce and engage their listeners; in other words, the beginning glimmer of a golden age of composition.

I think the same dynamic is about to play out in the larger world of classical music as well, and for the same reasons. It's not the best of times yet, but they're coming.

Posted by jkosman at 02:09 AM | Comments (0)

Definitions & responses

by Barbara Jepson

Webster's defintion of "healthy" includes this one: "implies full strength and vigor as well as freedom from signs of disease." "Vigorous" and "flourishing" are also mentioned and, I think, apt for our discussion. So I throw these out as tools to help define what "healthy" means for music lovers, music institutions, performers and educators alike.

As for our primary topic, I definitely don't believe that classical music is dying. Nor do I think that every seemingly negative or discouraging development is necessarily bad (more on this later). But it's hard to agree that this is the best of times when there are a variety of symptoms of disease.

Bigger picture wise, I think the classical music industry is in a major transition time, and times of transition are always challenging. Some of these transitions, very much still in process, include:

1. In the orchestral world, the transition from traditional ways of selling tickets (subscriber model to single-ticket buyer model, box office/mail/phone to online sales) and, even more challenging, experimenting with all this at a time of financial challenges. Lowell Noteboom raises some important questions. But I'm not sure that figuring out how to convert single-ticket buyers to first-time subscribers should be the goal anymore. I look forward to hearing more about that from the perspective of music presenters.

2. For musicians with union contracts, the transition from traditional ways of obtaining compensation and protection to exploring new models. For example, the members of the New York Philharmonic recently opted to forego their usual flat fee up front to take a percentage of future royalties and retain ownership rights to the live recordings they're making under the aegis of DG Concerts for download. By contrast, the new provision of the Philadelphia Orchestra that Peter Dobrin noted in his July 19 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (where 5 extra string players are presumably paid for showing up just in case someone is sick) is the old, work-rules kind of approach that has contributed to some of the financial challenges orchestras currently face.

3. For consumers, the transition from the purchase of physical CD's to online downloads(which hopefully will improve in sound quality over time)

Each of these transitions are opportunities as well as challenges, and I believe that the classical industry in the broadest sense (including critics, music lovers, etc.) has the potential to move forward in creative and vigorous ways. The question, as Lowell has noted, is what to change and how to change it without diminishing the core value--the presentation and enjoyment of the music itself.

Posted by bjepson at 01:33 AM | Comments (1)

The challenge for orchestras

by Lowell Noteboom

While reliable statistics may be elusive, no one has put forth a credible argument that there has been a real decline in the percentage of the population that appreciates the classical music art form, broad as that category may be. Most polls and surveys suggest that number has remained fairly constant over the years and is in the 10-12% range.

What has changed dramatically, of course, is the way in which the consumers are accessing and enjoying the music. For those of us who worry about this on behalf of professional orchestras and the challenges presented to them by these changes in consumer patterns and preferences (I am in my sixth year as Chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra), innovation and experimentation are critical. You all know the old joke that defines insanity as doing the same old thing in the same old way, over and over again, and expecting a different result. America's orchestras are recognizing, some sooner and better than others, that, while change can be scary, status quo is scarier.

The question, of course, is what to change and how to change it. Who decides? What if it fails? How do we assess the risk? How can we fix what's broken without dumbing down the product? At the SPCO we know that what happens on stage is what matters most. It's still all about the music. But we also know that it's more than that.

As the blog continues, I hope we can talk about how organizations that perform classical music can understand all the dynamics and ingredients well enough to know what is at the heart of truly engaging our audiences, whether they are in the hall for the live performance, listening in on the radio, podcasts, etc., listening to live streaming, etc. How do we make it the very best it can be? How do we collect and respond to their feedback? How do we convert them from casual listeners and single-ticket buyers to first-time subscribers? And from there to second-, third-, and fourth-year subscribers (once they do it four years in a row, they're usually hooked)?

How do we convert them from loyal subscribers to become donors and eventually true patrons of the orchestra?

I look forward to your perspectives.

Lowell Noteboom

Posted by lnoteboom at 12:34 AM | Comments (0)

Taking Temperature

by Douglas McLennan

I can't decide whether the reason there are so many stories about the health of classical music is that so many people care about it or whether it really is an art form whose best years have past and whose activity can't be supported in current form. In either case, the "classical music is dying" story line seems to be the most enduring, and there are continual attempts to take the temperature.

One of the problems of course, as Greg Sandow has pointed out repeatedly, is that it's very difficult to get real numbers that measure good and bad. (it's much the same problem, I think, making declarations about which orchestras are playing the best - who actually gets to hear enough orchestras consistently through the year to be able to make such statements with authority?). Likewise, there are so many different numbers measuring different things in the classical music world, how do you make general statements that mean something?

As a consumer, this does seem to be an amazing time to be a classical music fan. Virtually all of recorded history is at our finger tips. There are more opportunities to hear live performances than ever before. More opportunities to play music in any of the thousands and thousands of community groups that have sprung up in recent decades. The level of performance generally across the land seems higher than ever (another statement difficult to quantify, I know). The 90s were a time of incredible expansion in music - dozens of new concert halls and performing arts centers, many new music ensembles, more concerts... And if you want to get into statistics, there are plenty to throw around that suggest health - not the lest of which that there are something like 14,000 new graduates of music schools each year, and every opening at major orchestras attracts dozens, even hundreds of applicants.

So maybe one of the problems here is coming up with a definition of what "healthy" is. Maybe if we're talking about the business of orchestras it mans one thing, the artistry of orchestras it's another, and maybe it depends on which vantage point you're trying to measure from. It undoubtedly looks different to you depending on whether you're an orchestra manager, musician, critic, recording exec, or consumer...
So how do we agree on terms?

Posted by mclennan at 12:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack


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