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March 06, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 2: Game Over

In episode one:

[This is the start of the book’s introduction.]

This is a book about the future of classical music. It’s a necessary book, because classical music is in crisis, and people have burning questions. Is the classical music audience growing older? Will classical music disappear?

Many people can get caught up in these questions —classical music professionals, people in the classical music audience (who often love classical music even more than the professionals do), people who like classical music but don’t go to classical concerts (and might wonder why), and of course people who care about the current state of culture. I’m writing this book for all these people, including those who don’t know much about classical music.

But now I’d better state my own beliefs (which in any case keep sticking their heads out as this introduction unfolds), and give my own answers to the big questions I posed at the start. So here goes. Essentially, I think the game is over, by which I don’t mean that classical music will completely disappear — that nobody will compose classical pieces any more; that no one will go to music school to study the bassoon; that opera companies won’t be staging Rigoletto for the four thousandth time (no, wait, maybe they really will cut back on that); or that I won’t be able to go online and instantly download a recording of the first Brahms piano sonata, as I did the week I’m writing this, because I just couldn’t wait to hear it.

[I found it in three places, in case anybody’s curious: emusic.com, the Naxos Records website — where, with their Naxos Music Library service, I can stream their entire catalogue — and of course iTunes, which offers three recordings.]

But what will disappear, I think, is the classical music world as we know it today, with its loyal audience gathering in silence to hear musicians in formal dress play Brahms, while printed program notes offer scholarly disquisitions on his work.

(And maybe never mentioning how that first sonata, which Brahms wrote when he was 19, ends with a burst of pure teenage exuberance.) Not, of course, that the classical music world hasn’t already begun to change, since (to mention just a couple of relatively new developments) musicians sometimes dress less formally, and often break the silence of the concert hall to say things to the audience. But the changes will continue, growing larger and more startling, and classical music institutions that don’t change fast enough —orchestras, opera companies, concert halls, chamber groups, including even some brand-name enterprises—might well collapse.

How startling will these changes be? Very startling, at least to some people. A decade ago, the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony ran some mildly lively advertising (they compared the sound of their orchestra to a Harley roaring down the highway), and one long-time member of their audience called the marketing director to complain. “One would think,” she said, “that you wished to address those who do not go to the symphony.” Exactly! That’s precisely the key to the necessary change, which with any luck will break classical music out of its ghetto, and allow it to speak…well, for a start, how about to the artists and intellectuals who gave up on it many years ago, let alone to any wider audience? By positioning the change that way, I hope that I’m preempting any notion that it might dumb classical music down. Just the opposite; for me, these changes ought to make classical music smarter, and also give it much more depth, until (again with any luck) it becomes a truly contemporary art.

But more on that later in the book. I sympathize, I have to say, with everyone who’ll mourn the passing of the classical music world we know, since I grew up in it myself, and as a composer, I often feel I’m writing music that belongs in it. These emotions, too, will find a place in what I’m writing here. And they lead me to ask, with maybe more force than I expected, why all these changes should be necessary. The answer, of course, is very simple —the old ways aren’t working. Why else would we have a crisis?

And the old ways aren’t working, first of all, financially. The classical music world, as we’ve known it now for generations, is moving toward a sea of red ink, in which it won’t be able to support itself. The audience — getting back to the first of the questions that I asked at the beginning — really is growing older. Data from the National Endowment for the Arts pretty much proves that, at least for the United States. (As we’ll later see, there are questions about the NEA’s methodology, but even the people raising those questions think the numbers must be accurate.)

And if the audience is growing older, then it’s very likely growing smaller. Older people, in their last years of concertgoing, aren’t being joined by younger people starting to attend. So as time goes on, the audience will shrink. As it happens, there’s another theory, which says the older audience is good news, not bad, because it means that people now live longer, and will go to classical concerts for many more years. But that’s not likely. If this were the only reason that the age of the audience is going up — because there are more older people in it — then the age distribution of the younger portion of the audience wouldn’t change. If, let’s say, we went back 10 years, and found that twice as many people in their forties went to concerts than people in their twenties, we’d expect to see the same thing when we look at the audience today. But we don’t. Instead, almost the entire curve has shifted to the right:


age of audience -- my chart from NEA data.jpg


Yes, there’s a small increase in the percentage of the audience that’s 75 or older, but it’s more than offset by the marked increase in people 45 to 64, and corresponding decrease in people 18 to 45.

And in fact there’s also data that suggests — rather strongly — that the audience is getting smaller. This comes from many places, for instance from anecdotal and newspaper reports of shrinking sales for classical concerts at performing arts centers (these come almost unanimously from everyone involved in these events); from anecdotal and newspaper reports of declining ticket sales at major opera companies; and from figures gathered both privately and by the American Symphony Orchestra League that show declining ticket sales for orchestras.

Though here’s a notable discrepancy. The League’s figures show a peak in the 1996-97 season, with a drop thereafter; the private figures show a steady drop since 1990. Which is right? Well, why not both? Because the numbers measure different things. The League’s data speaks for 1200 orchestras, and the private figures only for the largest ones; more importantly, the League’s numbers are for attendance at all orchestral events (including Christmas music, and free concerts in the park on the Fourth of July), while the private numbers zero in on tickets sold for serious classical performances. And the serious classical performances have been losing more of their audience. So then aren’t orchestras having trouble with their core mission — performing the masterworks of the orchestral repertoire — and making up the slack (whether or not they consciously planned to do this) by expanding into other areas, like holiday concerts, pops events, and sold-out performances of the music from Lord of the Rings? And wouldn’t this support my contention here, that the old ways aren’t working, and that things will have to change? (Whether Lord of the Rings — and, more generally, other populist events —would be the only change I’d want to see would be another story.)

And then along with the aging audience and the falling ticket sales inevitably comes a financial crunch. That’s not just because falling ticket sales bring in less money; there’s also a snowball effect. No classical music organization can support itself on ticket sales alone; they all have to raise money, first of all from private donors. And where do those donors come from? Most of them are ticket-buyers. So if ticket sales are falling, donations will fall, too. But now pull back for a larger view. Classical music organizations also raise money from the community at large, and above all from corporations, foundations, and all three levels of government, local, state, and federal. So if fewer people are buying tickets to classical concerts, then fewer people care about them. And if fewer people care, then of course money from any source is going to be harder to find.

Which, once more, is exactly what’s happening, while the expense of putting on classical performances keeps rising. Orchestras therefore report (at least in private) that they’re facing structural deficits, or in other words that they see a long-term pattern of expenses rising faster than income. Their private projections can be very dire. I’ve heard a prominent person in the orchestra world say, safely out of the public eye, that a representative large orchestra (which he didn’t name) might have so large a deficit by 2010 that it would have to go out of business. And I’ve heard another respected orchestra professional say that, if present trends continue, all orchestras will be playing to halls only 20% full 10 years from now. And while it’s true that these prophecies come with disclaimers attached (the conclusions are only tentative; more studies need to be done), most orchestras act, at least in private, as if the danger was real.

The first part of this book will ponder these financial horrors, along with related crises, like the declines of classical radio, classical recording, and media coverage of classical music. [I should add that my analysis is still preliminary. I need more data, especially about opera companies and chamber music concerts.] And I should say that catastrophe hasn’t hit yet. There are still bright spots in the picture — kids still are learning to play classical music, and so both youth orchestras and music schools are thriving. Classical downloads sell better than classical CDs. Classical concerts can still be exciting; some of them still have sold out houses. But the collapse (if that’s what it’s going to be) has begun. The trend is downward, and so empty seats are sometimes very noticeable. Some concerts, even in healthy times, sell more tickets than others; but if ticket sales are generally falling, the events that sell the least soon start looking very empty. And projections for the future, as I’ve said, look even worse.

In the next episode, which goes online March 20: the introduction to the book continues, with an outline of some other problems the classical music world will have to face — its growing distance from contemporary culture, and an uneasy blankness at its core. (Readers of Book 1.0 already know my thoughts about that last point.)

If you'd like to be notified by e-mail when new episodes appear, please subscribe to this book! Just click on the link; you'll see a blank e-mail form. Just put "subscribe" in the subject line, and send it off to me at greg@artsjournal.com.

Posted by gsandow on March 6, 2006 01:07 AM


Mr. Sandow's writing is important enough to me ( I'm a composer ) to save this and to send it to all my musician friends.

Posted by: Robert Jordahl at March 6, 2006 07:16 AM

There may be fewer sit down concert audience listeners, but there are a great many more classical music listners (and lovers) than those in the few cities that support professional symphony orchestras.

Funny that you failed to include Rhapsody in your list of sources for the Brahms sonata. Classical music is alive and well and very popular at that site, and not only is Brahms readily available but so are the other classic composers.

I'd read your "book" but the premise is a bit silly, so what follows can't be but more of the same.

No art form is ever in static condition. Every thing is in evolution. With communications now so easy, streaming of concert music is available to all people and the need to flock to a concert hall for refreshment is less important than it was.

The symphony orchestra however, will remain as the fountain head from which recordings will flow. And always there will be people to support those orchestras, even though that funding may decline, and music makers may have to adopt as they always have.

The urge to make the music will never pass away. It is basic function of human existence. The need to support those who make music is likewise fundamental to human experience.

The game ain't over, it is only changing. But in the end, the game will go on, just as it goes on changing.

Posted by: Richard W. Galloway at March 7, 2006 03:55 AM

". . . most orchestras act as if the danger was real." I wish thay were true -- it looks to me like too many of them don't. They act as if things are hunky-dorey, as if things can keep going as they are -- sort of like that Talking Heads song, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." They deny that audiences are declining, and they deny that the audience is aging -- which amazes me. I mean, the whole country is aging, wouldn't it be a miracle if the classical audience wasn't getting older?

Of course, the NEA stats say the classical audience is not just getting older, it's aging at a much faster rate than the US population, and is the oldest of all performing arts audiences.

It seems to me we have two choices. We can continue putting a smiley-face sticker on the problems, denying their existence and saying "Crisis? What crisis?" Or we can acknowledge them and start doing something about them. I submit the former does a disservice to the art we love, and the latter is the only responsible choice.

And it's not like we don't know what to do. I think a lot of the diagnosis is pretty well-known, the prescriptions are pretty clear. The problem is we're not doing them. And that's what fascinates me -- what keeps the orchestral world from evolving? Why is there such resistance? Of course, it is evolving despite itself, in ways it really doesn't want, as evidenced by the statistics you cite.

It reminds me of George Carlin's quip about the "Save the Planet" movement. "The planet will be just fine, it's survived a lot" he said. "We humans, though, are toast." Music will be fine, it's just the orchestras that are denying their way into the past tense.

Posted by: Anonymous at March 8, 2006 07:08 AM

I have a couple of comments/questions about these statistics you are quoting here. I wonder if the increase in the age of the classical music audience could be explained by a shift in the average age of the population at large. The chart you show makes me want to see it compared to a chart of the change in the average age of the general population. I think that the baby-boomers lie right in the range that appears to be increasing in classical audiences, so that might at least partially explain the statistical shift.

On another place in your blog a chart shows the somewhat surprising fact that the number of classical concerts has been increasing. I wonder if that might explain anecdotal evidence of "empty halls" and increasing deficits. It seems that many organizations (not just musical) define success as a constant state of growth and expansion, rather than maintaining a successful status quo. Perhaps classical music institutions should face the fact that they need to stop expanding or actually reduce the number of concerts they do?

I also can't help but think that the outrageous demands made by directors and administrators, as well as musician unions. When I see what music directors and members of high profile orchestras make for a living (Boston is an example which springs to mind), it seems to explain a bit about why it so difficult for these organizations to balance their books. The gap between rich and poor in the classical music world seems to be rather extreme. Perhaps the salaries need to reflect the reality of increased options of entertainment in the 21st century.

Anyway, just some thoughts, good luck with the rest of the book.

Dan, thanks for this. Another comment addressed your question about the aging of the entire population -- the classical music audience is aging faster than the population as a whole. My chart, in any case, was based on figures adjusted for the change in age distribution among the general population. That is, I allowed for those changes.

I suspect that the increase in numbers of concerts is due to events in the community -- that is, more school concerts, more parks concerts, things like that. Or else things like the Lord of the Rings symphony, added to the normal schedule (and typically selling masses of tickets).I haven't noticed orchestras doing more serious classical events.

As for "unreasonable" pay demands -- orchestras may well calculate that the loss in ticket sales, if they had non-famous music directors, would more than offset the cost of hiring a famous one. It's hard to argue with the market here. This is what these people get paid, and if they don't get hired in the US, they'll just stay in Europe.

Musicians' salaries are more negotiable, and of course many orchestras are trying to negotiate them (downward). That may seem reasonable from a business point of view, but it's a severe shock to the musicians, especially those who entered the business 20 years ago, and now have mortages and kids in college, all possible under the old financial ways, and understandably hard to give up now. Are we really telling musicians they can't get paid like professionals in other fields? Maybe here it's once again hard to argue with the market -- maybe it's just not possible to employ so many musicians at current salary levels -- but to call the musicians "unreasonable" for wanting to live the way other professionals do seems quite unfair.

Posted by: Dan VanHassel at March 11, 2006 07:46 PM

this is trully a tragic state of events right now. Music is not appreciated by anyone and that really bothers me. I am 15 years old and I spend a lot of time trying to introduce real music to the kids in my school who listen to the new stuff that can barely be called music. Music is a reflection of my life as a whole, especcially classical music so if you have any ideas for me I would appreciate your input

My suggestion to Josh is that he take more interest in the music his friends like. Hard to see why they should like his music when he doesn't have anything good to say about theirs. Not that he's in an easy position, since he genuinely doesn't like that music! I remember when I was in school and felt the same way.

Does anyone have any other -- maybe better -- ideas?

Posted by: josh at March 12, 2006 07:32 AM

I think it is a valid assertion to say that classical music is experiencing a depression, some sort of revolution/modernization, and to wonder who on earth is going to fill concert halls and opera houses when 80% of the audience nowadays has white hair...but it is possible to prophesize the death of the art form? Perhaps the thought is too scary for me to even consider. I like all kinds of music, but consider classical music not only the most passionate and exciting, but also recognize it as the basis for most pop music, musical theater, etc. As long as there are musicians who are interested in more than selling catchy tunes or their bodies, there will always be classical music. Modern classical music is arguably a denigration of the art itself, however, there are enough tonal composers to keep the art form alive. Do not despair.

Posted by: Anonymous at March 19, 2006 02:06 PM

I empathize deeply with Josh. I felt the same way growing up and I have to admit that the feeling has anything but disappeared. I wonder how much of this is due to the changes in American public education. With exceptions of course, the national system can't seem to teach basic functional concepts let alone foster a love of learning and ordered thought. The music programs are being axed and this might be a huge reason why younger patrons are declining in numbers. The notion of a developed and complete education has changed drastically over the past fifty years which has made the climate for the arts quite hostile. Any comments?

I'm sure the schools are in bad shape, for all the reasons everybody mentions (including No Child Left Behind). But I wonder if phrases like "a love of learning and ordered thought" don't conjure an image of sometehing very far removed from modern life. I don't mean to say that learning and ordered thought are missing in our lives today, any more than they were missing 50 or 100 years ago. Some people study, and think coherently, probalby in the same (small) numbers that they did in the past. But the marble-statue or hushed library connotation of the phrase suggests an atmosphere we don't find today, something linked to coherent thinking in the past, but not necessary for it any more.

And not necessary for art, either. Everybody interested in these subjects should see the DVD about the making of Springsteen's Born to Run album (it's in the box set released last year, with the remixed album and a live performance from that era). You watch Springsteen at work. Clearly he's an artist. But a working class artist! We'd need a new language to describe what he does, though it's quite learned, and thoroughly coherent.

So that for me is a symbol of our situation today. There's plenty of art, but a lot of it happens in places far removed from "the arts." I don't think any large number of people are hostile to "the arts," and certainly not to art. At least, I've never run into that (and remember that I was the guy who defected from classical music into pop, and had to tell everybody I met in the pop music world that I didn't know anything about pop music because all my experience was in classical; nobody rejected me, nobody called me a geek, nobody, and I really mean nobody, was anything less than respectfully or even eagerly curious about my classical experience). It's just that the arts, as formerly defined, don't get as much support as they used to because they're not as necessary as they once were, and don't carry an automatic jolt of high prestige. And to the extent that they've removed themselves from modern life, they're going to have a hard time regaining their former place.

I can imagine that a lot of people will disagree with me…

Posted by: Joel McCoy at April 4, 2006 09:28 PM

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