Contribution to the debate

Here’s a pithy and (I think) important comment from Joe Kluger, who ran the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years. He

stepped down a year or so ago, and now works very happily as a consultant. He

sent these thoughts to me as part of a private e-mail, and I’m posting them here

with his permission. (I’ve also put it into the absorbing debate on Allan Kozinn’s piece that’s raging on one of my comments pages.)

I agree with those on your blog who

say that his premise and yours (or Noteboom’s in

Symphony?) are not mutually exclusive. I

think Allan is correct in saying that there has been a dramatic increase in the

number and variety of classical music events in the last several decades. (The ASOL stats you put on your blog in March

showed a 36% increase in the number of orchestra concerts in the last 10

years. Even if this data is flawed, no

one can contest that the number of concerts has increased dramatically.) Where Allan’s article fails is in the use of

this isolated data to counteract the conclusion that some orchestras have major

financial problems. They DO for all of

the reasons you and others have articulated.

What really frustrates me about this is the polarization of people as

either Pollyanna-types, who think there is no classical music industry problem

or that it is only temporary, or Chicken Little-types, who say that classical

music is doomed to extinction.

I firmly believe that this music as

an art form will stand the tests of time and societal changes and may even be

more appreciated in the future than today.

The institutions which create this music may not survive, however, if

they don’t acknowledge the necessity of adapting themselves to their changing

industry environment. This means:


Reducing concerts to meet the expected

demand. (If the number of customers

increases, but their frequency of attendance decreases, overall sales can still



Reducing expenses to meet the expected

revenue. (If contributed revenue and

endowment income exceed 50% of the expense budget, I believe the expenses for

conductors, soloists, musicians and administrator should be reduced

accordingly.) and


Presenting performances of “value” to audience

members. (“Value” is defined here as a

high quality artistic endeavor, performed with passion, presented in a format

to which the audience can relate, and at ticket prices

which generate sales that average 90% of capacity.)


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Andrew Bales says

    The discussion of the age of audiences is intersting, but I doubt it is any more credible than any of the other data points we all hear about.

    In the late 30’s a New York reviewer wrote a now famous review stating how wonderful the concert was, and how troubled he was that he was certainly sitting in the “last audience” classical music was ever gong to have.

    His concern was the age of the audience. The same concern we talk about all the time.

    The study you quoted from the early 60’s was telling, but I might suggest it was taken at a particulalry unique time in classical audiences. An average of of 38 could be met with a number of over-60 grandparents following up on the fabulous success of Bernstein on TV and taking their 10 year-old grandchildren to the concert hall. The ticket buyer was still in the elder class, but the average age would have fallen.

    Attend a concert of the Rolling Stones or any other major 60’s/70’s revival tour and see the age of that audience. It too is vastly older that the population as a whole. When we were listening to Brahms for the first time in the concert hall there was a younger audience being attracted, but I suggest many who are older are likely to attend to rekindle the musical love affair that we see at Stones concerts today.

    If modern classical music was seen as widley approachable we might see that age range fall, but that is not the perception of contemporary classical music. Remember, I am speaking about perception not reality as the latest music tends to be more approachable than it was 30 years ago.

    My point is that we serve a large population that is growing in numbers and wealth. Our continued focus on the fact that no one will ever replace them in the concert hall is overstated. It may be a niche audience, but it is vast and supportive. Presuming that the grass is always greener is rarely successful. Serve those who love it and see if they bring along a few friends to keep the audience replenishing itself. It simple, but then success often is.

    Andrew, the study was done in 20 cites. Not just New York. It also appears that there’s been a steady increase in the age of the audience since the 1930s until the present. The increase in recent decades has been very striking, and the numbers indicate pretty clearly that people are leaving the audience in greater numbers than are joining it. From 1982 to the present, if we’re to believe statistics that the National Endowment supplies, the age distribution of the audience has shifted. Not just are there more older people, there are fewer younger people. It’s as if a single generation of people makes up the bulk of the audience, and as this generation ages, it’s not being replaced. The numbers, unfortunately, seem quite clear about this.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, the age of the audience, per se, isn’t a problem. Nor is the size of the audience. It’s whether the enterprise — with whatever kind of audience it has — is sustainable. Classical music in the present era doesn’t appear to be, and thus we see a financial squeeze afflicting so many classical music organizations. I’m glad you think the solution is simple, but I’d love to see you explain that to the people who actually have to sell the tickets, and raise the money.

  2. Andrew Bales says

    I do both. I live it every day. I produce concerts and sell tickets to classical music. I have to meet and orchestra payroll and we have expanded the musician employment considerably over the past “declining” years. (Yes, our circumstances are unique and it is somewhat unfair to use our example accross other comunities, and yet if we are finding audiences others seem to have lost maybe we should all keep watching and see what happens next.)

    What you state about an audience that is shrinking nationally is true, but its the cause that I have concerns with. I think there is a preoccupation with serving the audience not there rather than the one that is.

    What if our audiences left the theatre feeling invigorated and engaged? What if they were open to sharing their musical experiences of the night before over the watercooler rather than feel those are private pleasures that others wouldn’t understand or appreciate. What if it was the music that did that? I am open to many options, we have presented concerts of video game music and other novelties. But our core audience and our core appeal is strong performance of classical repertoire. I know we are bucking the trend and our experience is currently an anomoly, but our sales are growing, and have for a few years now. I think it possible that people actually love this stuff.

    I founded this symphony and did so from a long history of working in another performing arts discipline. I did it because I didn’t believe the art form at its root had lost the ability to enagage an audience. I wanted to see if we could find a way to produce successful concerts without an army backing the players up. Let the musicians and the music tell our tale. It is an on-the-ground case study in progress. It will require more years to see if the simple changes we applied work over time, but for now our 5th season is on sale and selling well.

    Sounds like a fabulous success story. Congratulations. Here we’re very much on the same page, and I’d love to know more about what you’re doing.

  3. Paul Robinson says

    I have conducted orchestras, and I have managed orchestras. And yes, I have played in orchestras too. Several of Joe Kluger’s points are both obvious and wise. But in the current climate they will be ignored or discredited, especially by self-righteous and self-perpetuating organizations like the ASOL. Take only one of Joe’s observations to the effect that expenses must be reduced to match revenue. The first priority of sound orchestra management is to fully study the demographics of their community, the history of their organization, and economic trends to determine what income is realistically achievable, and then set the budget. But it is nearly always done the other way around. Why? Because the cost of musicians is regarded as untouchable. This means that concerts will probably be given for which there is no known audience, and money will have to be raised from people who either don’t exist, don’t have it or would never give it to this organization. No other business could survive trying to operate on this basis. But then, of course, an orchestra is not a business.