April 17, 2006
Episode 5: Specific Steps
Previously, in episodes one through four:
[Everything so far has been a draft 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. I think the game is mostly over, by which I don’t mean that classical music will disappear, but that the classical music world will change, maybe drastically, and that classical music institutions — even big, brand-name orchestras and opera companies — that don’t change fast enough might collapse.
Change is needed because the old ways aren’t working. The audience, as data from the National Endowment for the Arts pretty clearly shows, is in fact getting older. Younger people, even people in their fifties, aren’t starting to go to classical concerts in the numbers we saw in past generations. Fundraising has become more difficult. In the orchestra world, there’s a long-term pattern of expenses rising faster than income, which — especially when combined with falling ticket sales and falling donations — means a serious financial squeeze, which if things down change, will only get worse in the future, leading to notably dire private projections about where things are going. The trend is downward, and concerts that don’t sell well are starting to look very empty.
But lying behind everything I’ve talked about are two much more basic problems, a drift away from classical music in the culture all around us, and, within the classical music world, something very like stagnation, a failure to engage with contemporary life. These trends Obviously these two trends are tied to each other. If people lose interest in classical music, and the classical music world refuses to engage with them, then of course they lose interest even more, and the classical music world finds them even harder to engage. And of course as classical music (and high art in general) recedes in our culture, popular culture rises up to replace it. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Popular culture can be many things, some of them pretty ghastly, but at its best it’s the greatest outpouring of popular creativity that the world has ever seen. For classical music to ignore it would be suicide. How can you attract a new audience if you turn your back on everything they like? How can you be a contemporary art form if you turn your back on contemporary life?
Popular culture is many things, some of them pretty ghastly, but at its best it’s the greatest outpouring of popular creativity that the world has ever seen. It’s also gotten smarter over the years (an insight nailed in Stephen Johnson’s ironically titled book, Everything Bad is Good for You) and for classical music to ignore it would be suicide—financial suicide, because how can you attract a new audience if you turn your back on everything they like, and even artistic suicide, because how can you become a contemporary art form if you turn your back on contemporary life?
Which is exactly what classical music has done, most obviously by maintaining its formality. But what’s worse is what I’ve elsewhere called “an odd blankness,” or in other words a massive failure to communicate. Even facing their own constituency, their own loyal (if shrinking) audience, classical music professionals won’t even explain very basic things about what’s going on—why, for instance, when an orchestra plays a Tchaikovsky symphony, there might be five horns on stage, when the program book says Tchaikovsky wrote the piece for four.
The enterprise of classical music operates from the top down. Students are taught in music school to obey the rules, to learn the officially sanctioned ways to play the music, and keep their creativity in check. Professional musicians say their job is only to realize the composer’s intentions, thus reducing themselves to a servant’s role. Scholars tell the world that the meaning of a classical piece lies in its abstract structure, thus muting the force of everything we hear in the music.
So classical music is robbed of its force, and ends up as a refuge from the contemporary world—which then explains why we can’t find a new audience. People in the new audience would have to be socialized into the classical music world; they‘d have to accept its odd blankness, with all its contradictions, and all its secrets that are never explained.
But now how can we fix all these problems? First, classical music needs to become a contemporary art, part of contemporary culture, just as the visual art world is, or world music, or smart alternative rock bands, or art-house films
To do that, it has to look and feel contemporary. So we have to get rid of formal dress. The look (and content) of everything involved in a classical performance ought to be contemporary—advertising, brochures, everything printed in the program books given out at concerts, the way the musicians dress and act onstage, the way the music gets talked about.
And the music needs to be contemporary, too. Half the pieces played, maybe more, should be recent or new. New pieces, almost by their very nature, put us somewhere in the modern age. We need to tear down the walls, and let classical music breathe the same air that the rest of the world breathes. Once that happens, then the older repertoire should easily find its meaning and its place. If we’re deeply engrossed in playing John Adams and Steve Reich (along with composers we barely can imagine now), and we know why we’re doing it, then when we turn to play Bach or Mozart, we’ll know why we’re doing that, too.
You can still read the full texts of episodes one, two, three, and four. And I encourage you to do it! (I’m thinking that, as the book unfolds, I’ll always keep the most recent episodes online, even if older ones eventually will disappear. Maybe I’ll keep entire sections of the book only—as I’m doing with the introduction—until they’re finished.)
I’ve been reading my past episodes (from the second version of this book, that is), and three things strike me:
- This really is (as I’ve been saying all along) a rough draft, an improvisation. There’s plenty in it that I’m going to change.
- In spite of the above, I like it quite a bit.
- I want to start revising it right now. I won’t give in to that urge. Or at least I won’t until I finish the present set of episodes. But then I might take some time off, and polish what I’ve got. (And, very likely, post the revision here, or at least send it to my subscribers.)
I also decided that I’m better off writing this informally, acknowledging at every step that it’s not a finished text, even (if I have to) leaving part of it simply as an outline. That might especially happen in the section of the book that comes after the introduction, the quantitative study of the classical music crisis. I have some of the data I need; there’s more I don’t have yet. It’ll take me time to find the missing data; I'm better off improvising this chapter in the book (or these chapters, plural, however it works out) as a report on a research project, without trying to pretend it’s finished text.
(Comments on this, anyone? I also think I should do more to make everything I’m saying clear to people who don’t know classical music, or the classical music world.)
So now on to episode five, in which I want to build on episode four, and suggest some concrete steps the classical music world could take right now. This discussion, as I said in the last episode, will make up the final section of the book. How, I’m going to ask, can we fix the crisis? And the answer to that falls naturally, I think, into two parts. First, what will the classical music world look like when it’s fixed? And second, how do we get from here to there? The first part I took a stab at in the last episode; it’s time now for the second part.
One answer—one way we’ll get from here to there—is simply that we’ll have to. We’ll go under, if we don’t change what we do. There’s nothing like the fear of extinction to alter one’s perspective. Ideas that seemed impractical, if not ridiculous, not long ago may shine on us now like rays of hope.
Another answer is that a new generation is taking over. Younger people see things differently. They may not believe in all the classical music taboos. And if anyone can make contact with a younger audience, it’s surely them.
And one last thing to bear in mind (before I move into specific things that we might try) is that everything doesn’t have to change at once. In fact, it can’t—life doesn’t work that way (not usually, at least), and the classical music world will very likely go broke if overnight it changes everything. We still depend on our established audience, and even if we plainly see that this audience can’t support the enterprise much longer, it still supports us now. Which leaves us, as I’ve often seen in my consulting work, caught between two impossibilities. The first impossibility: to continue what we’re doing now, without trying something new. The second one: to find the time, the energy, and money to risk a new departure, while still doing what we’ve always done.
And yet we have no choice. We have to try some new departures. So for the next two years, we might see classical music moving down two roads, one for the existing audience, and another for the new one. The new road won’t be entirely new, of course. Things already have been changing. So sometimes what I’ll recommend here won’t be something startling, but just an expansion of things already happening.
Here, then, are some ideas. They’re meant to simply pave the way toward a much longer explosion of new ideas in the final section of the book. This introduction, as I’m shaping it, will outline what I’m going to say (as introductions often do), making sure that everyone knows where I stand before I make the detailed presentation. (This online draft of the introduction, I might note, now seems a little more detailed than it needs to be, but if that’s really true, it won’t be hard to fix.)
Acknowledge pop music. Bring pop music into the classical music world. I said in my last episode that classical music has to become a contemporary art, part of contemporary life. And acknowledging pop music is one big way of doing that. It also tells the outside world that we’re not hopeless snobs, that we know what’s going on in the culture all around us. How do we acknowledge pop music? Three ideas.
First: the next time some big pop star like Aretha Franklin starts singing opera—and doing it fabulously, as Aretha did (though of course in her own style)—we should embrace it. All the major opera companies should have praised Aretha, and invited her to sing opera (and anything else she wanted) from their stages.
Second: many classical musicians play pop music, too. They should bring that into their classical performances, or their classical music into their pop playing, by combining both in a single show. Orchestras should show off their musicians who play pop, presenting their pop performances alongside regular orchestral concerts.
Third: classical music organizations
should honor the non-classical music (especially the noncommercial kinds) in
the towns they’re in. WDAV, a classical public radio station at
We need to talk to our audience, and—even more important—create forums where they can talk back to us. We’re starting to do this; when a conductor comes out on stage and says hello to the people in the concert hall, that’s clearly a departure from classical tradition. And it’s not uncommon now. But it’s not enough. The audience, even if the conductor greets it warmly, still is passive. We need to activate the audience, encourage it, make it feel that its opinions matter. And then act on its opinions, or rather on the new ideas that surely will emerge when professionals and audience are in constant communication. To do this, we need to create forums for the audience—discussion groups, message boards (seeded, daily, with provocative posts by people we’ve recruited), town meetings, blogs, even formal audience councils within classical music institutions. Members of the audience, eventually (or maybe right now!) could write program notes, and introduce supposedly difficult contemporary pieces. None of this should be confused with education—lecturing our audience, teaching them the finer points of listening. It has to be a two-way street. Professionals will learn just as much as the audience does.
We need to connect to other arts. Other arts are more imaginative than we are, and function better in the current world. They have more to talk about. We complain that the media won’t cover us, but what do we offer them? The arts coverage in The New York Times (and, I’m sure, in other papers) can be quite revealing here. In today’s “Arts & Leisure” section (April 16), there’s an item about a show of digitally altered photographs, in which images of first responders (to emergencies) in hazmat suits are made to look like stylized portraits from past centuries. The images supplied with this are stunning, at once chilling and quite beautiful. Art like this, written about in features or reviews, shows up almost daily in the Times. And meanwhile, what’s happening in classical music? More performances of Bach and Beethoven. (And of new music, too, of course, but how much of this new music really separates itself from Bach and Beethoven?) Classical music groups should open themselves to the other arts, and put on what might seem like avant-garde performances, the musical equivalent of the kind of art I’ve just described. And if they themselves can’t do this, which might be understandable, they should remember that we have a long history of new classical music, often tinged with performance art, that’s been going on for decades outside formal concert halls. Some of the musicians involved in this can be sponsored by more orthodox ensembles, or can join in collaborations. This should be done even if the audience, at least at first, is tiny. It will send an important message—“we know [again!] what’s going on outside us, and we want to be part of it.”
We should empower our musicians. A long story. Classical music students (as I’ve discussed here earelier, and as readers have so strongly said in comments) are told, implicitly or openly, to damp their creativity. As are grownup classical musicians. They need to emerge from hiding, and assert themselves. One way to make that happen is for those in authority to give encouragement. Michael Christie, the music director of the Phoenix Symphony, reportedly met with every player in his orchestra, to ask them what their own artistic goals might be, and how the orchestra could help to realize them. We need much more of that.
We must create events. Each performance should be an event, not just a musical performance. We tend right now to define ourselves by naming the music that we’re playing, and, for large classical music institutions, who’ll be playing it. Sample headline from almost any orchestra advertisement: “Perlman Plays Mozart.” We’ve got to get beyond that. What’s going to happen when Perlman plays Mozart? One student in my Juilliard course about the future of classical music told me about a concert she was part of—many pianists playing Chopin nocturnes, starting an hour before midnight in a darkened space, lit by candles. That’s an event. I’m not saying every classical concert has to be so outspokenly staged. But they all have to be events. We have to turn them inside out, and learn to talk about what’s really going to happen. That might be something simple: “We’re going to play Beethoven’s Fifth, and we’ll make the finale really radiant.” (And if we find that nothing, as we planned the concert, is really going on…)
We need to find a context for new music. For many years, the classical music world has been guilty of a great discourtesy. (I was going to say “has committed a great crime,” but that seems too extreme. Or is it?) We’ve forced modernist music—Schoenberg, Berg, Boulez—on a mainstream audience that simply doesn’t like it. We put it on our concert programs, not constantly, but reasonably often, and then wonder, sometimes resentfully, why it’s not catching on. But clearly it isn’t catching on because it wasn’t written for that kind of audience. Who was it written for? We’ve got to find those people. (Most likely they’re the audience for other kinds of modernist, or else contemporary art.) We also have to think about what kind of newer music our audience might like. Suppose we slip it in unnoticed? Why not find composers to write new pieces for classical radio stations, pieces that wouldn’t disturb the flow of all the music classical radio listeners already like? (There are practical difficulties—who’s going to pay for this? who’s going to recruit people to play these new pieces? who’s going to record the performances?—but surely they can be overcome.) But let’s not think we have to compromise, playing only easy music for our existing audience. Many people in that audience are more adventurous than they might seem. But we shouldn’t, as I’ve said, just force new music on them. How can they participate? What will make them listen actively?
Idea: play three short new works at a concert, and ask the audience to vote on which one they prefer. Then play the winning piece again. (Or take it even further—play the winning piece again, and commission something else from its composer.) The Masterprize, a British competition for new music, works more or less this way, and I saw exactly what I’m describing here done by the Pittsburgh Symphony, with fabulous results. People in the audience were energized. They argued over which piece was best. They cited favorite passages from each piece. Two members of the audience told me that they’d guessed (correctly, as it happened) which piece would win, and even though it was their own favorite, they voted for another one, because they liked it and wanted it to get support. Now, that’s involvement!
And finally, one last, but very important idea: Let’s stop thinking that classical music is so very special. Well, it’s special to us, and certainly it has some special qualities. (It presents long spans of coherent musical thought, something other kinds of music, whatever their own virtues, mostly don’t do.) But we shouldn’t pretend that it occupies a uniquely lofty plane, and—worst of all—that it requires special education for its listeners. When we think that, we separate ourselves from everyone who doesn’t listen to classical music. We put ourselves on a different plane (and, if truth be told, implicitly a higher one). But wait! Wasn’t that the problem? Aren’t we already separated from the rest of our culture, and specifically from that new audience we want to reach? So why should we believe things—and crank up lofty education programs to enforce those unfortunate beliefs—that reinforce the separation? Especially since it’s absolutely false that classical music requires special education. In my experience, people take to it quite quickly. What they don’t like is how it’s usually presented. So that’s where our emphasis should lie. We need to make classical concerts vividly engaging, from the moment anyone steps inside a concert hall. And it would be a great mistake to think this means we dumb them down. Instead, I think, we make them smarter—in ways I’ll joyfully describe in the last part of my book.
In episode six, coming on May 1: I finish this introduction, with a personal note about what these changes mean to me, and with some thanks to others whose thinking goes along with mine—not just theorists and scholars, but also classical music professionals of every stripe, and also music students and members of the audience, who are working for change within the field.
If you'd like to be notified by e-mail when new episodes appear, please subscribe to this book! Subscribers help me; I feel wonderfully encouraged each time somebody new asks to be put on my subscription list. And feel free to add a note to your e-mail. I’m always curious about who’s subscribing, and why you’re all interested. That often leads to an e-mail exchange, and often enough to some sharing of ideas (from which I learn a lot).
If you’d like to write a comment, may I ask you to put it at the end of the current episode, instead of here? More people will see it that way. And it will contribute to the always lively new discussion that emerges whenever I post a new episode. If you put your comment here, it will appear only at the end of this episode, the one you’ve just been reading. And that will isolate it from the current conversation. Thanks!
Posted by gsandow on April 17, 2006 2:45 AM
I enjoyed reading Episode 5.
I would recommend that more emphasis is put on developing concert programs that emerge from more bottom-up, organic approaches. For example, music-focused social networking sites such as Last.fm offer a possible model for how the collective interests of music fans can determine what music is played at a concert.
Last.fm users can categorize (tag) the music they listen to, join in groups with others that share the same musical interests and listen to a range of music. Why not harness these developing social networks of people with shared interests both to find out what classical music they are listening to and also as the actual audience for upcoming concerts?
Performing arts venues, orchestras and other musical groups could become active supporters of these social networking sites for music fans, encourage the creation of Meetup groups (if they don't already exist) and then have a readymade audience (a very involved and loyal audience at that) for upcoming performances.
Doug, thanks for this. Classical music organizations should do what you're suggesting. And then, I think, they should work toward genuine two-way communication with the people in their audience. The audience would be empowered if it had some say in programming, but would also, I think, find itself a little disappointed. That is, there's got to be room in programs for things no one was expecting. That way, we'd have some give and take, and a sense that when you went to a concert, you'd be surprised. Not that anything you said ruled this out, of course.
Classical music groups are largely pretty backward in doing all this. I know of one orchestra that has a message board on its website -- with one message from 2003 and another from 2005. And that's it. Nothing else. Universal Classics, the big record company, seems to understand things better. They've actually set up sits on MySpace for some of their artists. (Well, I assume it was the record company. Somehow I don't see Renee Fleming doing this herself.) We'll have to see how this works out, but at least it shows some awareness of where a newer, younger (well, quite a bit younger) audience might be hanging out.
Posted by: Doug Fox at April 17, 2006 8:00 PM
A couple of quick comments, Greg:
1) Writing informally, improvisationally, and being clear about it is great, and of course is a model I've found quite helpful. And my sense is you are writing in a way that would be easy for non-musicians to follow.
2) Talking to the audience: some of my academic colleagues sneer at this, unless the event is billed as "lecture recital," which of course sounds even more stultifying than just "recital." I always talk a bit about the pieces I play, and non-musicians in the audience always thank me. And I don't "lecture," I just explain some interesting things about the piece. For example, Wednesday night my piano trio at DePauw will play a program including the Shostakovich Trio No. 2. It's a work that is very hard to "get" until you understand the ironic use of Jewish folk tunes, and that Shostakovich learned while composing the piece that the Nazi's were forcing Jews to dance at the edge of mass graves before they machine-gunned them. Explaining this will create a vastly different experience for the listeners, just as it has created a vastly different experience for me as a performer to know about it.
3) OK, several comments, not just a couple. Talking with the audience. Now there's an idea. I think I'll give that a try: announce we'll have a short discussion after the concert for those who are interested. I run a summer chamber music series--good opportunity to try this out.
4) And incorporating popular music. What springs immediately to mind is how many of the great players of the "golden age" of string playing did this. Think of all those McCormack/Kreisler recordings, and Elman/Caruso. And there are recrdings of Casals playing "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" and the like, if I'm not mistaken.
Posted by: Eric Edberg at April 18, 2006 12:16 AM
I just wanted to say, it's so exciting to see somebody writing a book about this. I've only really been into classical music since I began playing cello (2 years ago) and I've had many similiar sentiments about the classical music world as it exists today and the problems it's facing.
The first big clash I had with it (outside of the fact that I think it's ridiculous to have to be formally dressed in order to play a piece) was when I saw a free concert by the NY Philharmonic, they played at a large church in NYC (St. John the Divine's???) and the program included Scherezade and Tchaikovsky's (sp?) Romeo & Juliet ... I had been to a few rock concerts prior to that... let me just say, what a difference... while there were some "younger" people (the youngest I met were already out of college and had degrees), the age trend certainly was apparent, and the orchestra was so far away from where I was sitting, that even if it sounded great, it was like watching olympians from afar, I felt like there was no way for me to get involved and the audience evenironment felt very stifling and a far cry from the energetic, lively environments I was used to for concerts...
On a somewhat tangential note, I think at some pt. there will be a shift towards electric string instruments & I think the classical world could incorporate these in interesting ways & explore completely new possibilities with them (I'm not suggesting they will or should completely replace acoustic instruments, but that they will be used increasingly and may eventually become standard).
Anyway, it's off to sleep for me... I'm so excited to read about this and will make it a point to share this with my friends at school & people I know in the classical music community ... for the record, I'm 18.
Michael, thanks. I love what you wrote. The management of every orchestra should read it. You're ont alone in what you think. Even in orchestras you'll find people who agree with you -- musicians, administrators, you name it. I think it's only a matter of time before things change.
And that's a very good point about the instruments. The instruments of the orchestra haven't changed in more than 100 years! Well, sure, you'll sometimes have a sax or an electric guitar, or a synthesizer, in a piece of music by a living composerk, but these instruments come into the orchestra from the outside. They're certainly not part of the standard lineup.
Which is silly, because they're standard instruments elsewhere in the world. And plenty of people in classical music have worked with electric strings, computer enhancement of instrumental sound, purely electronic sounds, and quite a lot more. It's nothing new. But still it's on the fringes -- and you'll almost never hear any of it in an orchestra.
Posted by: Michael Lunapiena at April 18, 2006 12:51 AM
I have no doubt that many of the points made in this book will help classical musicians and the institutions they work for better reach their audience. It seems that your basic point is that orchestras like any other business need to provide a new and improved product or continue to do it the same way only much cheaper. It is pretty basic but unfortunately it is probably something that those in the business both on stage and off could stand to hear.
What troubles me is the direction you are taking. It seems that your goal is to undermine musicians and the traditions they have inherited and are trying to pass on. At the same time you virtually condemn the audience who cares for what we presently do. I know you argued that if the status quo were working than there would be no point in writing this book. It is a fair point but there is nothing anti- intellectual about wanting to sit in silence, read program notes, and listen to a piece of standard rep. uninterrupted.
As a full time orchestra player in my late twenties I feel like I can speak to some of the issues you have brought up about music education and the workplace environment. In your class a Julliard you are still teaching kids in their teens and twenties. Just like any other highly specialized field their will be some who are doing great work but most need guidance and a lot of it. The school and faculty has an obligation to pass on a certain amount of accumulated knowledge that is essential for a professional to have. Four to six years is barely enough. I attended a major conservatory and I did a fair amount of experimenting with contemporary music that is only really helping me now but I feel like my professional studies did not prepare me for the realities of what it takes to succeed in this business. I got what I would consider my most valuable advice for people outside of school who were working. In other words based on my own experiences a few years ago and many of the players I see right out school there needs to be more structure.
More distressing is the tone you take with the people out there working right now. The overarching sentiment is " you musicians are about to get what you deserve." There is only one place where I can find where you mention that it is reasonable for musicians to earn a living playing their instruments and it is a response to a comment not in your text. Even there you don't concede that a living wage is essential to the product only that it is an expectation. You refer to our profession as a "game." You have said that there are audience members who love music more than us. What does that even mean? That we should "grow up" and do things outside of the contracts we worked so hard to get. What profession has people in it who as students faced greater odds against getting a job? Many of these very coveted jobs are not exactly making anybody rich. This speaks of a profound sense of optimism and love of the craft. I suppose that virtually every member of a professional orchestra who you would call rigid or inflexible is an asshole but maybe there is another reason. Maybe it is people like you who every so often come along and tell us that everything we are doing is uninspired or not up to your standard. If it is not you it is some manager that wants the orchestra to dress like cowboys or have dancers during a Beethoven Symphony. These things never work and are precisely why we negotiate specific contracts. Why should we believe you? Because you are presumably a paid consultant taking money from our organization that you say is on the brink of "collapse" to tell us that everything is wrong. Not just wrong but unsustainable. Musicians are not idiots and we know that fund raising is hard and making the operation run so that we can play is hard. But do we really need someone telling managers that it more than hard but impossible. I would argue that despite whatever your intentions and despite however sincere that is not a solution. Telling us to be more like a rock band and that our training was irrelevant and therefore many of the reasons we got into this profession are irrelevant is not going to win you many fans among players. If you believe that the model of the orchestra where it gives a concert every week and pays a salary is over just say so. At least your readers will know clearly where you stand.
This, like Scott Belyea's comment (below), is one of the most helpful that I've gotten, and I'm grateful to the anonymous person who offers it. Among many other things, it helps me with a couple of obvious things I've overlooked. (But this is only the beginning of why I value it so much.) Clearly I need to say something very early in the introduction to the book about my own committment to classical music, and also about my professional credentials. Any writer -- certainly anyone who's written journalism -- knows that there's no way to guarantee that absolutely everyone will understand what you're saying. You can write in the strongest terms "I believe X," and somebody is sure, incredible as it seems, to come along and say, "He says X is completely wrong!" But still it's helpful to be as clear as possible. In this case, I think that if I'd said near the start what my own feelings about classical music are -- the ways in which I love it, and precisely how they're served and not served by the present way we do things in the field -- the musician who wrote this comment wouldn't be so quick to think that I disdain so much of what he cares about. Likewise, if I'd talked a little about my professional work, he'd have seen that I've worked not just with students, but with many professionals much like him, many of whom share my views and in any case would be quite surrpised -- since they know me -- to read the portrait that gets painted here.
But I want to say very clearly that I don't resent anything this person says. I wince a little at the line about dressing like cowboys; I've never advocated anything even remotely like that. But what comes through very strongly in this comment, at least for me, is (1) is a great sense of distress at changes that may affect orchestral musicians, and (2) a sense that these changes may be imposed on serious, committed musicians, who won't have much say about what the changes will be. I can understand why orchestral musicians might feel both these things, and of course one of the changes I most strongly support is empowerment for musicians -- they should be equal partners in the orchestral enterprise, with their committment, passion, intelligence, and creativity fully involved in all planning for the future. (That's surely something else I should say more about in my introduction, since orchestral musicians will be reading me.)
I could reply at great length to many things in the comment. I'm sure I didn't say that silent listening to orchestral music, with attention paid to program notes, is anti-intellectual. It's more, for me, that the program notes aren't intellectual enough (in the true sense of intellectual), and that the audience isn't fully and intellectually engaged.
It's also strange to read that I might be convincing orchestral managements I talk to that their job is impossible. They'd never believe such a thing from me; I don't have remotely enough experience to make anything like that plausible. It really goes the other way -- I hear from them how difficult things are. What I tend to do, given the difficulties that I hear about from people in the field (including musicians), is to advise whoever listens to me about some of the reasons for the trouble, especially the disonnect with contemporary life. We can't very well move into the future without knowing what kind of territory we're going to be moving through. So, for instance, we have to know (putting this very simply) what people out there in the world are like nowadays. There's no shortage of studies showing how younger people think about art and arts events. It's clear that we in classical music aren't presenting ourselves in terms that younger people respond to. Doesn't mean they won't like the music, or that they won't listen in to it in serious silence. It means they won't come in and give us a chance. The musician who wrote this comment has to face this, just as the rest of this do. He or she might come to different conclusions from mine, but surely something has to be done, or else in the future we might not have any audience at all.
What's sad for me, as things stand right now, is that after this comment, and my response, there's no promise of further dialogue. I completely respect the commenter's need for anonymity, but I'd be grateful if he or she would e-mail me privately, so we could exchange some ideas. I can guarantee complete privacy.
One sign, I think, of great vulnerability in this comment -- and I don't mean that as any kind of criticism; we're all vulnerable about many things -- is the musician's distress at my saying that the people in the audience may love the music even more than professionals do. I'm surprised, to be honest, that anyone would have thought I was saying that professionals don't like music as much as they should. I meant it in just the opposite way, as a deeply felt compliment to the audience -- saying that, even though professionals love this music with total committment, some of the people in the audience may love it even more.
Enough. I'd love to sit down and have a long talk with the person who wrote this comment. I'm sure both of us would learn things we didn't know.
(One sad further thought. If this musician thinks I don't care what happens to him or her if the classical music business collapses -- if he or she thinks I don't care about the loss of income or (maybe especially) the lack of musical fulfillment musicians would face -- what does the writer think would happen to me as a composer?
Posted by: Anonymous at April 19, 2006 3:29 AM
It seems to me that there's one aspect of the situation that's getting short shrift.
There's lots on the current realities, and lots of "it's obvious that ..." ideas about actions that can be taken. What I don't seem to see much about is this missing element - what's the goal? Or to phrase it another way, how will you know if you've succeeded?
Here are two goals as examples. They're quite different, and may well be incompatible. Goal #1 - public bums in seats. The goal here would be to reverse the trend of dropping audiences for fee-based public performances. Goal #2 - define and maintain some core values to prevent unacceptable deterioration and dumbing-down of the product. In this case, you'd structure the "industry" within whatever "bums in seats" numbers are compatible with these core values.
There are lots of other possibilities, some having little or nothing to do with bums in seats at all.
I'm not suggesting that this can be turned into a mechanistic sort of exercise, but I don't quite see how you balance one idea against another and decide which actions are worthwhile until you have some idea of where you're trying to go.
Scott, this has to be one of the most helpful comments I've gotten yet. Obviously I need to address this, and obviously, too, it belongs precisely in the section I've been drafting, the introduction to the book.
That said, I don't think I'd set forth possible outcomes on the spectrum you propose. I don't get involved with dumbing things down in order to sell tickets, and I also wouldn't use ticket sales as a measure of success. Lack of ticket sales is clearly a measure of failure, but if we sell a lot of tickets by some marketing magic, or something else, and the nature of what we do doesn't change, then I'm not interested.
What I care most about, you're helping me see, is a change in how classical music is done -- thought about, played, presented. I think the current crisis shows that a change is needed, and provides an opportunity for change. I think the changes I propose would both make classical music more intelligent and more artistic, and at the same time address the quantifiable aspects of the crisis by selling more tickets.
But if the changes in the nature of what we do don't occur, then -- I realize, thanks to your very helpful question -- I can't get strongly involved in how the crisis works out.
And so of course I need to state what those changes should be more strongly and clearly than I've done. That'll be fun (and very hard worik, too).
Posted by: Scott Belyea at April 19, 2006 9:46 AM
WOW! Considering your intelligence, good intentions, experience and the grace with which you handle these comments, the field is so blessed to have you lead us through this much needed revolution.
Wow back to you. I'm deeply grateful for this. And not just because of any leadership I might offer. I think there's something larger at stake. People should be treated decently -- including of course the person who took all that trouble to write such a long and heartfelt comment. For me, that's one of the most basic things in life. Often I think that common courtesy would (if we only practiced itI be the answer to many of our problems. I wouldn't claim to live up to that ideal as much as I should, but I believe in it very strongly. So this endorsement goes right to my heart. Thanks again.
Posted by: Anonymous at April 21, 2006 9:58 AM
These two goals -- "bums in seats" and "staying true to core values" -- aren't necessarily incompatible, and I'd suggest that framing them in opposition is part of the problem. What if our core values including something about the audience, and a commitment to turning people on to our music? I realize Mr. Belyea offered these goals primarily just for the purpose of illustration, but it gives me the chance to point out that "bums in seats" does not = "dumbing down." Dumbing-down isn't a sustainable strategy for long-term audience growth. All the research I've seen says the audience is a lot smarter than we think they are, and they don't want to be pandered to. At the same time, The Audience is composed of a variety of segments, each with their own tastes and motivations for going to concerts. A sophisticated understanding of the audience would lead to the conclusion, I think, that the way to put bums in seats is to adopt as one of our core values a commitment to turning people on to the music.
One other comment re. the earlier post from the anonymous musician. There is a clear and direct relationship between the decline in ticket sales and the downward pressure on wages for orchestra members. For many of the larger orchestra orchestras the decline in sales amounts to literally millions of dollars over the past decade or so. Not only does this affect musicians' pocketbooks, it impacts artistic quality. So, once again, there's a relationship between bums in seats and the values to which we aspire.
David is Director of Marketing at the New York Philharmonic. Anything he says is based on very solid knowledge and experience.
Posted by: David Snead at April 22, 2006 10:12 AM
Clearly there is at least some degree of conflict between the various goals - serving the broader community, artistic excellence, maximizing attendance, adventurous programming, commitment to new music, etc - that orchestras have. Of course it is not a simple matter of 180 degree opposition. But there are real choices and tradeoffs to be made. The idea that there's some magic formula out there that will enable us to start filling concert halls with young, diverse patrons while simultaneously keeping the existing audience all while seeing a newly commissioned work is one of the great myths that seems to keep people from making the hard choices that need to be made to put classical music on a surer footing for the future. We have to understand and acknowledge the inherent conflicts between goals before we can steer an appropriate course towards a realistic, well thought out destination.
Very sensible. And very helpful. I'd add that sometimes it's possible to move toward more than one goal. It's becoming common, these days, to talk about orchestras having more than one "product line," serving more than one audience. So you could have some concerts that presented new music to the audience that wants it, while other concerts catered to the more traditional crowd.
We also should remember that sometimes goals are reached obliquely. For instance, suppose an orchestra does a new music event that gets a lot of attention, but not so many people buy tickets to it. A failure, we might say, to put butts in seats. But the event may help get some buzz going about the orchestra, so people start thinking that the orchestra is an interesting institution. That, in turn, makes at least some people more likely to go to any concert the orchestra presents -- and so the badly attended but exciting new music event turns out indirectly to be a step toward selling more tickets.
Posted by: Aaron M. Renn at April 23, 2006 11:55 AM
The expression "bums in seats" has always seemed to me to be very disrepectful of the audience. We want their mind to be engaged, not just their bum in the seat. If it isn't (the mind, I mean) the bum is unlikely to return.
And that, I think covers Scott's second point. A dumbing down of the music might get the audience their once, but they won't come back unless it is giving them something else.
Posted by: ken nielsen at June 11, 2006 3:01 AM