Not so fine

Gavin Borchert’s rant in the Seattle Weekly — linked today in ArtsJournal — gives me a good opportunity to sum up some reasons why classical music is in trouble. Borchert ratns that classical music is just fine, and that the whole commotion is mostly hype. Here are reasons why he’s wrong:

Orchestras that fold [Borchert writes] make headlines; healthy ones don’t. A decade ago, it was San Diego and New Orleans; this year, it was San Jose, with Toronto and St. Louis teetering. This is tragic–but it’s not the apocalypse. A few baseball teams have recently been threatened with closure for financial underperformance, but I don’t recall reading any elegies on the death of spectator sports.

Well, I thought the same thing a few years ago. But it turns out things in fact are really bad. As I’ve written here, the pessimism among orchestra managers (or at least the many I know) is fairly stunning, even if their own orchestras happen to be doing well. Some point to a long-term problem — expenses have been rising faster than income, not just recently, but for decades. Now that income has been falling, that spells trouble. Along, of course, with sinking ticket sales, and the aging of the audience (see below).

Borchert notes that orchestras aren’t all of classical music, that opera is doing well, and that “the Seattle Symphony posted a budget surplus for its 2000-2001 fiscal year.” How about more recent figures? I don’t, in fact, know how Seattle is doing (except that they’re in bad trouble artistically), but most of the larger orchestras I keep up with have been posting deficits.

Have opera audiences, as Borchert says, “crescendoed”? Certainly not in New York. And how about presenting organizations — arts centers and other institutions that present touring classical attractions? They book far less classical music than they did a generation ago. At the annual presenters’ conference in New York this past January, several people said (speaking from the audience at a panel discussion I was part of) that, at their institutions, the audience for classical performances has grown so small it’s hardly worth programming for any more.

About the classical record industry, Borchert says:

Check out the new-release racks at Tower Records, and you’ll find one, two, three dozen composers you’ve never heard of. Right now, more of music history is available to music lovers than ever before. This is dying?

Tower is the only national record chain with large classical departments. It’s close to bankruptcy. Its two classical departments in New York — one of which was downsized this year — are often nearly empty. How long can Tower support them?

Ten years ago, New York had five large classical record departments; now it only has the two at Tower. And as for the classical recordings themselves, a huge majority of them, even some at major labels, now are subsidized. Either the record companies raise money to support their overall operation, or the artists raise money to pay for their recordings. Even the Metropolitan Opera raised money to pay for its CDs of Wagner’s Ring. A generation ago, classical recording was a for-profit business. With very few exceptions, those days are gone.

About the age of the audience, Borchert says this:

A legitimate concern about audience age–since the public schools, by and large, have tossed classical music overboard–has become an obsession. The audience is graying. Soon they’ll be dead, taking classical music with them unless they’re replaced, runs the conventional wisdom. But is this anything new? Why the panic? Was there some distant golden age when America’s concert halls were filled with teenagers?

Figures from far in the past are hard to find, but in the late 1930’s, the median age of the audience at orchestral concerts was 27 in Grand Rapids, MI, and 33 in Los Angeles. (See America’s Symphony Orchestras, by Margaret Grant and Herman S. Hettinger, W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 1940, p. 227. The authors aren’t remotely surprised by these figures, which suggests they believe other orchestras they didn’t survey would have reported the same thing.)

In recent decades, the audience has gotten older. You can see that in the following graphs, which I made from statistics published by the NEA. They show what percentage of the audience came from various age groups in 1992 and  2002. Compare the two decades: You’ll see the curves shift to the right, toward the older age groups, which means that older people make up a larger proportion of the audience now than they did 10 years ago. That’s true even in opera, which supposedly had an upsurge of younger ticket-buyers:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I adjusted the NEA’s figures to reflect population shifts. The proportion of the population in each age group changes from decade to decade, and my comparison reflects those changes. That is, if a higher percentage of the population fell into the 45-54 age group in 2002 than did in 1992, I made a downward adjustment in the proportion of people 45-54 in the audience in 2002.)

Borchert then rants that “the classical establishment would rather buckle under to our society’s market-driven credo: If white males aged 15 to 29 don’t want it, nobody gets it.” But that’s just silly. Classical music institutions aren’t looking for people in their teens and 20s; they want to attract people in their 30s and 40s. Borchert, though, has solved the problem of the younger audience, whatever age anybody thinks it might be:

Incidentally, there is an easy way to attract the young: Program new music. In my observation, between a third and a half of the audiences for the Seattle Symphony’s “Music of Our Time” concerts and the majority of the Seattle Composers Salon audiences are under 30. Problem solved.

It’s not that simple. These audiences are smaller — by a lot, I’d guess — than the audience for normal Seattle Symphony concerts. (Some, moreover, may be music students attending the concert because they’re involved in new music themselves, or because attending these concerts is a course assignment.) The orchestra couldn’t begin to sustain itself on the diminished ticket income it would get if it mostly did concerts like these. Or, for that matter, on the diminished ticket income it mostly likely would get it if simply did a lot more new music on its mainstream concerts. We’re in limbo right now; yes, orchestras can attract younger people if they do new music, but they can’t draw enough young people to make up for the older people who’d stop coming.

And the donors — the all-important individuals, corporations, and foundations that give the money any orchestra needs to stay alive — mostly give to support the standard repertoire. An exciting new audience of younger people, even if it existed in great numbers, wouldn’t give nearly as much money as the present audience does.

And if classical music institutions decide to go for broke, forget about the old ways, and only do new music, how are musicians going to make a living? Strange to say, the classical mainstream supports new music, by giving musicians a chance to make a living. Many new-music specialists in New York — the musicians who play in new music ensembles — actually make their living playing mainstream classical events.

I don’t mean to come down hard on Borchert. He looks around, sees what looks to him like a lot of classical music activity, and then asks, “How bad could things be?” But if he’d look a little deeper, note the current trends, and project them into the future, I things might not look so good.

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