The young and the beautiful

I’m often asked how classical music can attract a younger audience. There aren’t any easy answers, but it’s pretty obvious — or ought to be — that the younger audience, if it ever showed up, wouldn’t be much like the older one. Or, to put this another way, the younger people the classical music world would like to attract aren’t much like the older audience classical music already has. Oh, of course you’ll find a few younger people happy to attend on the same terms the older audience does — or in effect to become part of that older audience — but they’re going to be in a minority. Younger people these days rather famously have a new kind of culture, and it’s very different from the culture of classical music.

(As an aside, I have to laugh over what I mean by “younger people.” From a classical music point of view, these would be people in their thirties and forties. People in their forties, though, would surely be amazed — though maybe flattered or delighted — to find anybody saying that they’re young. They’d surely think that “young” people would be in their twenties or their early thirties. Only in classical music would young people be older.)

So what’s this new kind of culture, the one younger people share? It’s almost silly to ask, since embodiments of it (not to mention descriptions of it) are all over the media, for instance in the business section of The New York Times, nearly every day. Or in The Onion, the fabulous satirical weekly that also has one of the best culture sections around; certainly it has the best film reviews I read.

Or you could watch people in their 20s and 30s, or 40s. Or you could ask them how they do things. Or you might even be one of these people yourself! (Or you could read Alex Ross, who writes about loving classical music very much from the point of view of this generation the classical music world doesn’t know what to do with.)

And now I have to laugh again, because the classical music world is only beginning to learn about all this. Or, for that matter, to understand that in a large classical music organization, many people on the staff are members of that prospective younger audience. Not that they commonly go to the organization’s concerts. Which means that “know thyself” would be important advice for orchestras, among other institutions. If you want to know why younger people don’t come to your concerts, ask the younger people on your staff! They’re a built-in focus group.

I made a presentation not long ago to part of the board of one of the largest orchestras in this country, and talked a lot about this problem. I’ll post here some of the things I said. But for now I’ll just start with one of them, which is a problem with the word “beautiful.” Often classical music marketing copy stresses this word, as if beauty was one of classical music’s great attractions. And so it is, for members of the traditional older audience. But not with younger people, I think. Or at least not with many of the smart ones. “Beautiful,” at best, means not much more than “pretty,” these days, and music that only can be called beautiful would seem pretty empty. How about thoughtful music, challenging music, ambiguous music, wry music? Or even troubled music, conflicted music, since all these words might show up in some description of smart alternative bands.

If classical music is mainly “beautiful,” then it’s not even playing in a very intelligent ballpark. It’s just about advertising its emptiness, or rather what people are going to believe is its emptiness. “Beautiful” music is many things, but in modern terms it certainly doesn’t sound very interesting. “What’s your friend Melissa like?” “Oh, she’s a beautiful woman!” “Yes, and…?” Is she a supermodel type, a bimbo, or a gorgeous woman with brains and attitude? You’d want to know more. And the same is true about music.

And I treasure this little gem, sent to me in an e-mail exchange about this very subject:

“Beautiful” [has] gone to this magic point beyond overused adjective. It’s become one of those words you just don’t even notice, just there to connect other words and fill up space. At this point I just classify it with “the” “an,” “it” and “or” and such…

Coming: more about the culture of today, and how it relates (or doesn’t) to classical music.

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