Sobering statistics

One way to define the classical music crisis is in terms of shrinkage, starting to happen now, and maybe accelerating in the future — shrinkage of the number of people interested in classical music, and thus in the market for it, and then in the organizations that perform it.

So for anyone who thinks this is a danger, or, worse, even a reality right now, a story linked on ArtsJournal yesterday is really sobering. It’s from the Chicago Sun-Times (their music critic, Wynne Delacoma wrote it), and it’s about staff cutbacks at the once-triumphant Lyric Opera. But Wynne, in what I think is a piece of impressive journalism, really did her homework, and reported problems at other opera companies, which put what’s happening in Chicago in a troubling context.

I’ll quote the most telling passage in the story:

Lyric’s year-round staff will shrink from 101 to 90.…

“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this,” [general director William] Mason said of the staff cuts. “The idea of doing [staff cuts] earlier was anathema to us, and we wanted to try to avoid it. But when we started looking to the future, we realized reductions were going to have to be made. We’ve always been very lean, and we tried desperately to avoid this.”

Lyric has been struggling to keep its annual budget, typically close to $50 million, balanced for the past three seasons. This season’s budget is higher than usual, about $58 million, because of Lyric’s 50th anniversary celebrations and three sets of performances of Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung.” The company ended 2002-03 with a $1.1 million deficit, but closed 2003-04 with a $700,000 surplus.

“After 2002-03, we looked at an economy that was changing,” Mason said. “That was the first year [in 15 years] we didn’t sell 100 percent of our tickets. We really didn’t know where the economy was going, and we had to start to think about economies that could be made. Obviously, the very fact that we changed those two operas in 2003-04 [substituting Gounod's 'Faust' and Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Pirates of Penzance' for two more expensive, less popular operas] was a response to the economic situation.”

In recent years, many major arts organizations throughout the country have sacrificed staff positions in the quest for a balanced budget.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, struggling with shrinking ticket sales and relatively stagnant annual donations, made similar staff cuts in 2001. Through attrition and general belt-tightening, the CSO’s full-time staff has shrunk by about one-third, or 50 positions, from its 2000 level. The CSO’s current full-time staff is 102.

The San Francisco Opera, which has produced up to 11 operas per season in recent years compared with Lyric’s eight, suffered much more severe financial problems than Lyric’s in 2002 and ’03, incurring deficits of $7 million and $3.8 million, respectively. The company’s total budget and staff have been cut by more than 20 percent over the past three years, and its season reduced to nine operas.

We don’t get reporting like this in New York. One question, though, is why people blame these things on the economy. That’s an optimistic explanation for the problems, since if the economy is bad right now, it’ll probably get better. But then we ought to ask why previous downturns didn’t have the same results (note that the Lyric Opera never made staff cuts like these before). And we also have to ask why the downturn has lasted so long, and hit the classical music world so hard. Someone at a major orchestra told me not long ago that donations were persistently down for each of the past four years, and that this was the longest decline he’d ever seen.

So maybe there’s something else going on — maybe (once again) there’s a decline in interest in classical music, and maybe this decline has picked up speed. It’s easy to see how that might happen. Suppose there’s a long-term decline in interest in classical music. Of course younger people are the most affected. So now imagine the pool of people who might be interested in classical music, or in other words the potential classical music audience. The older people, 50 and above (roughly speaking), are the ones who buy the tickets. Up till recently, the people in that age group had grown up at a time when interest in classical music was still relatively high, so when they reached ticket-buying age, they bought tickets. And donated money.

But as they grow older, they leave the active audience. And the pool of potential ticket-buyers changes. The younger people who come into it grew up at a time when interest in classical music was declining. So as they grow older, they buy fewer tickets than previous generations did.

With each passing year, then, the pool of potential ticket-buyers changes. In the old days, so to speak, once people reached the ticket-buying age, around 50, a reasonable percentage of them — enough to keep classical music in business, anyway — bought tickets.

But now time passes. The older people get older. Younger people coming into the ticket-buying pool are less likely to be interested in classical music. For a while this doesn’t matter, because new people coming into prime ticket-buying age still grew up in the days when classical music was more popular. So ticket sales remain strong.

Still more time passes. Now a new group of people starts to be 50 years old. They’re the first to grow up in the age when classical music became less popular. So now the prime ticket-buyers — the people of prime ticket-buying age who actually buy a lot of tickets — are a little older. They’re 52 and older, maybe, not 50 and older. Ticket sales begin to fall, though this might be hard for any individual institution to detect, because there’s always a natural fluctuation, due to many factors (the economy, programming, the weather, many more). So a year or two of decline might not mean anything. It’s easy to think that it could be reversed.

More time passes. More older people leave the ticket-buying pool, and more younger people enter it. Again the people entering prime ticket-buying age grew up at a time when classical music’s popularity was falling. Again they won’t buy as many tickets as people from earlier generations. So now, let’s say, it’s people 55 and older who are still buying tickets at the old rate. People 50 to 55 buy fewer tickets. There’s even more decline in overall sales. Maybe now everyone starts to notice the decline. It’s talked about. “The economy,” people say. “9/11. Competing entertainment options.” But still people think that sales can go up. The economy will improve. 9/11 was a long time ago. Better marketing will make classical music more visible, more likely to be chosen, among all the competing forms of art and entertainment.

More years go by. The same process continues. After a while, the prime ticket-buyers are 60 years old. then 62. Then 65. A larger proportion of people from the prime ticket-buying age grew up at a time when classical music was getting less popular. They buy fewer tickets. At some point, the decline in sales gets inescapable. People start saying, “We’ve reached a tipping point.” Or, “Maybe it’s not a change in weather. Maybe it’s a change of climate.”

That’s where we seem to be right now. Or at least these things are what people now are saying. Not that anyone is certain — it’s all “maybe.” But people think it’s possible, at least, that a long-term decline has set in, which can only be blamed on large-scale changes in our culture. (Which, of course, are pretty obviously taking place.) Of course, the ages I used as I presented my theory are hypothetical. I’m not saying ticket-buyers now are mostly in their 60s. The latest figures I’ve been told about, in fact, show the average age for people buying orchestra tickets at 57, up from 55 a few years ago. (Uh-oh!)

These figures need interpretation, though, because I think they’re for all orchestral events. The core subscription series might sell to even older people, while the average age of someone buying tickets for a family or holiday concert might be younger. I’d love to know the age of people buying tickets to the serious classical events; if my theory is correct, it might be rising faster than we think.

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