The crisis

For the benefit of my Juilliard class — and because I don’t know any writing that sets forth, in full gory detail, the extent of the classical-music crisis — I’m going to list some of the ways classical music is in trouble. I’m taking this from remarks I made on a panel at the music critics’ conference in New York back in October.

1. There’s less media coverage than there used to be, maybe drastically less. In the early ’80s, as a critic/columnist for The Village Voice, I could write long and serious classical music essays. They don’t run anything like that any more. The New York Times used to review every debut recital; they don’t do that any more. Some newspapers don’t even have classical critics. In 1980, Time magazine wrote about classical music twice as often as it wrote about pop; by 1990, the proportions were reversed. This isn’t some evil media plot, as some classical purists seem to think. It’s a change in cultural weather, the natural result of people being less interested in classical music than they once were. The editors who make these decisions simply share the taste of their readers.

2. There’s less classical music on the radio, both on commercial classical stations (there are fewer of them) and on public radio. To some extent, this reflects a more competitive — or, if you like, greedier — corporate climate: Even if classical stations are profitable, their owners can make more money from pop. But the public radio situation is really dire. At WNYC in New York, fully 80% of everyone listening turned the dial away when “Morning Edition” ended, and classical music began. That’s why WNYC cut back on classical programming. Not only were people not listening; they were actively turning away.

3. Major classical record labels hardly record classical music any more. Again, this to some extent reflects a changed corporate climate. Major record labels are owned by huge media companies, which expect serious profits from each of their divisions. Plus, looking back a generation, record companies learned in the late ’60s and the ’70s how much money they could make from pop (when bands started selling millions of albums, instead of just millions of singles). The companies may well have wondered why they should settle for smaller profits from classical. But this is more than corporate greed; again we’re talking about a change in cultural weather. Back in the ’60s, and of course earlier, it seemed natural that large record companies should support serious classical divisions. They did this not simply for money, but also for prestige, and out of genuine interest. In the ’40s, after all (and in earlier decades), classical radio broadcasts had reached millions of listeners, and NBC (one of the big radio networks) had even created an orchestra for Toscanini. Some of that spirit lived on into the age of television, but as the decades marched on, the record companies cared less and less. Not long ago, a spokesman for BMG, commenting on the Sony/BMG merger, turned out to have no idea that BMG had legendary classical artists in its catalogue. Classical music, it seemed, didn’t matter to him at all.

4. Going along with a decline in major-label classical recording is a decline in classical record stores. Only a decade ago, there were five serious classical record departments in New York, at the two Tower Records branches, at two HMV stores, and at J&R Music World. J&R has decimated its classical department, the two HMV stores have closed, and Tower teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. The classical department at its downtown store is smaller than it used to be. More to the point, though, is the complete disappearance of stores selling any large number of classical records in smaller cities, and even some large ones. There simply isn’t a market. And when I go to the Tower Records classical departments in New York, and see how comparatively empty they are, I wonder how Tower can sustain them. How can any store — especially in a city where real estate costs as much as it does in New York — afford to maintain so much space that generates so comparatively few sales?

5. Classical records are now largely subsidized. This is the dirty little secret of the classical record industry. Look at a serious classical recording — especially something large-scale, like an orchestral performance, or an opera — and you’ll usually find private sponsors. Even the Metropolitan Opera’s commercial recording of Wagner’s Ring was at least to some extent privately funded. (Or so the Met’s press department once confirmed to me, while remaining cagy about exactly how much of the cost the private donors paid.) What this means is that very few classical recordings are actually commercial, as, back in the 1950s and 1960s, almost all classical records (even on small labels) once were. It’s important to remember this when you look at the vast array of small classical labels, many of them putting out notable, even compelling releases. How many of these labels are actually paying for those recordings? Or, maybe more to the point, how many of these recordings earn what they cost to make? Most, from everything I’ve heard, aren’t even expected to earn much money. Instead, they’re financed by the musicians who make them. Or else the record companies themselves are non-profit entities, supported by private funds.

6. There’s been a decline of state support for classical music in Europe. There’s also been a decline of government support here, but that doesn’t matter so much, because it was small to begin with, not much more than 3% or so of large classical institutions’ budgets. (Often, though, government support has supplied a higher percentage of what small institutions spend, so they’re hurt by the decline in arts funding). But in Europe and especially in the former communist countries, the decline in government arts support has sent orchestras and opera companies scrambling to find new sources of funds. (And, again, whatever the economic factors might be — governments, for many reasons, are finding it hard to pay for all sorts of things — there’s also, once again, a change of cultural weather. Classical music, which often draws small audiences even in Europe, isn’t as important to people as it used to be.)

7. Nonesuch, once an exclusively classical label, now records many things that aren’t classical. This is worth mentioning for many reasons, the first one being that Nonesuch is one of the few labels that really does have commercial success with classical music. But maybe it’s better to put this a little differently, and say that Nonesuch is one of the few commercially successful labels willing to record serious classical stuff (almost everything John Adams writes, for instance). Behind this different phrasing lies the reality that Nonesuch doesn’t necessarily make money from its classical releases. Instead, it makes money from things like the Buena Vista Social Club, its wildly successful Cuban band. Not that there’s anything wrong with Buena Vista Social Club, or with any of the Nonesuch pop artists, like Sam Phillips and Emmylou Harris. And this is the second reason the change in Nonesuch is important. Nonesuch, formerly a classical label, now has become more generally an art music label, with art music not necessarily defined as classical. (And, in fact, largely defined as not classical.) This doesn’t only reflect realities in the market. It also reflects changing tastes, and changing artistic realities, including what ought to be obvious to anyone who takes music seriously — that pop long ago evolved its own forms of art music, and that this is what educated, cultured, intellectual people tend to listen to. Listen to, that is, instead of classical music.

8. In Britain there’s been a decline in people studying the less popular orchestral instruments, like the viola and the bassoon. This has been documented in several British newspaper stories linked here in ArtsJournal. According to some of these stories, the decline has been drastic. No such thing has happened in America, as far as I know (and I’ve made some inquiries). But if it did happen, that would be bad. Where would orchestras be a generation from now, without violists or bassoonists?

9. Performing arts centers don’t book as many classical performances as they used to. This was documented in the ’90s by a story in the New York Times, written by (if I remember this correctly) a former Times culture editor who seemed absolutely shocked at what he learned — that arts centers, in order to attract an audience and pay their bills — had to book non-classical music. Last year I was on a panel about the future of classical music, at the huge annual conference of the Association of Arts Presenters. Several people who came to this panel discussion got up to say that at their arts centers, chamber music concerts were attracting smaller and smaller audiences, and that if the trend continued, it simply wouldn’t be cost-effective to present chamber music at all. (This year I was on a panel again, this time to talk about the relation of high and popular culture. Everybody at the discussion, panelists and audience alike, seemed to agree that high culture wasn’t a useful concept any more.)

10. For 20 years or more, there’s been a steady decline in subscription sales. Orchestras, which once sold around 80% of their seats by subscription, now sell around 60%. Some orchestra marketing directors (and other people involved in selling tickets to other performing arts events) think this decline is speeding up, and may have reached the proverbial tipping point, at which the trend becomes a stampede. Whether that’s true or not, a decline in subscription sales is a serious problem for orchestras and opera companies (and, I think, for dance and theater companies, too), because these institutions aren’t all that good at selling single tickets — which would cost more, and probably require a larger marketing department. Even as things stand, orchestras spend more money (even adjusted for inflation) than they used to, to sell fewer seats (see below).

11. There’s been a steady, 10-year decline in orchestral ticket sales. At some orchestras (Baltimore, for instance, or Pittsburgh) this has been quite dramatic (though sometimes there are special reasons for the decline — in Pittsburgh, for instance, the population of the city has been shrinking). Some orchestras, of course, have done well, and figures I saw for the Big Five (New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston) showed sales generally declining only one or two percent. But for orchestras generally, sales have been slipping, and recently that’s become true for opera companies as well, despite the notion, left over from the boom of the ’90s, that opera companies are thriving, and even appealing to a younger audience. That, I’m afraid, is yesterday’s news. (Some orchestra people I’ve talked to, marketing directors included, simply say that fewer people want to go to classical concerts. Once again, we’re talking about a change in the cultural weather.)

12. The audience does seem to be growing older. I’ve massaged some National Endowment for the Arts statistics to show, at least to my satisfaction, that both the classical music and opera audiences (broken out separately by the NEA) have gotten older in the past two decades — and, most crucially, have aged more than the population at large. The American Symphony Orchestra League says that the orchestra audience is now, on the average, 57 years old, as opposed to 55 years old not long ago. Subscribers, I’m told, are older. And while people in the classical music business tend to believe that the audience has always been this old, there isn’t much data to support that. Nor is there much data to say it isn’t true, but for whatever it’s worth, a study of American orchestras in the 1930s reported that the average age of the audience was around 30! This news was based only on information from two orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the orchestra in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but the authors of the study didn’t seem surprised by it, leading me to believe that they knew (from their own experience at concerts, for instance) that audiences, generally speaking, were more or less that young.

13. I’ve heard rumblings about a very troubling trend — a 20-year pattern of orchestras’ expenses rising faster than their income. I don’t know how well documented this is, but I certainly know sober people in the orchestra world who think it’s a fact. Along with this goes talk of “structural deficits” — a long-term trend for orchestras to spend more than they take in (or could possibly take in). This trend, if you believe the people who talk about it, was masked during the ’90s, by the economic boom, but now has returned with a vengeance.

14. And that leads directly to my next point, that orchestras are asking their musicians to accept lower pay. We see this over and over, when orchestras, even the largest, negotiate new contracts, though it’s sometimes (or maybe all too often) hidden by settlements in which the musicians agree to take lower pay, or the same pay, for a year or two, followed by increases later on. Privately, though, you’ll hear people in the business saying that orchestras can’t afford those settlements. And a long-term struggle seems to be taking shape, in which orchestra boards and managements are starting to insist that they simply can’t pay what musicians have made in the past — pay levels that musicians have understandably come to expect (and have built their lives around, incurring mortgages, as anybody would, based on what their past salaries lead them to believe they can pay). Something to watch in the future — the 52-week contracts most large orchestras give their musicians. How long will these be affordable?

15. Speaking in private, orchestra managers strike me as more pessimistic than they let themselves be in public. In fact, throughout the classical music there’s a sense of crisis. This becomes, in a way, a kind of tautology — there’s a crisis in classical music because the classical music world thinks there is on. But people in classical music really do think the field is in trouble, and the classical music world is honeycombed with people looking for, and generating, new ideas. The radical stuff I’ve been saying for years now goes over far better than it used to. In fact, people now hire me to tell them things or suggest ideas that used to seem vastly surprising. This, too, is a measure of how things have changed — the classical music world now expects change to happen, and is trying to figure out what the changes ought to be. As I’ve often (and very happily) said, the most widely read piece of classical music writing in years was Alex Ross’s long and excited piece about the future of classical music, which appeared in The New Yorker almost a year ago. It’s as radical as anything ever written on these subjects, and people in the field just ate it up. I haven’t heard anyone disagree with it. And why, in a field as conservative as classical music, would people be so eager for change if they thought things could still work the way they used to? Not, of course, that people don’t look to the future with some excitement, as well as worry. Echoing still in my mind is something a dean at a major music school said some months ago, at a small, private discussion about the future of professional music education (I’ve quoted this here before): “Classical music is like East Germany a month before the wall came down.”

That’s a good note to end on. Someone I know, who writes about classical music but isn’t sure there’s a crisis, asked me to include some hopeful things if I ever published the list you’ve just read, and I’m happy to oblige. The delight in change I just mentioned is one hopeful thing. So many people I’ve spoken to, some in very high positions in the classical music world, can hardly wait for change, not just because it will save their careers and their institutions, but because it will make classical music more lively, more fun, and even more artistic.

And then there’s the younger generation. No, young people aren’t buying tickets to classical concerts (and it’s fair to ask whether — given the way classical music is receding in our culture — they’ll ever buy tickets in the future, even when they’re 60). But some of them still study classical music. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of young musicians. Youth orchestras, from everything I’ve heard, are thriving; there’s no fall-off in kids applying to music schools.

Combine that with the new longing for change, and classical music might just have a future.

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