Age footnotes

It’s going to take me a few days to go on with my “Where We Stand” series. I’ve had to deal with the start of the courses I teach on the future of classical music at both Juilliard and Eastman, which includes a lot of work preparing materials for each course. Every year I teach this course it changes, in part because I keep on learning more. The Juilliard course outline, for anyone curious, is here. (The Eastman course is shorter version of the Juilliard course, so it makes more sense to look at Juilliard.)

Now’s a good time, though, to talk about some questions that came up in comments on my recent posts. And which, I have to say, have come up elsewhere, too. Probably I should have talked about these things in my posts.

The questions I have in mind are two objections to the data I’ve offered on the aging of the audience, or maybe more precisely to my interpretation of that data. Some people wonder if the rising median age of the audience, over many years, isn’t due to increasing life expectancy. People live longer; they go to concerts for more years than people did in the past; thus the audience, if you take its median age, seems older.

But even if you leave the oldest people out, the rest of the audience is aging. See the graph I included in my first post in this series. Take out the oldest age group, and you see that everybody else is older than they used to be. Of course, this is only for the 10 years between 1992 and 2002, but why shouldn’t the process also have been going on in earlier years? We can guess that it has been, even without detailed age breakdowns for earlier decades, because of the comments made in the 1937 and early ’60s studies that the audience then was young. The 1937 study notes this in a very factual way, without surprise. The 1960s study stresses the youth of the audience more strongly, saying that one of the most decisive characteristics of the performing arts audience, across all disciplines, was its youth.

Thus, in past decades, the audience seemed young even to people living then. It’s not just my perspective, looking back; it’s what people thought at the time. The classical music audience, in long-past decades, was young not just in comparison with the audience now, but in absolute terms.

Which brings me to the second objection that people often raise. The entire population, they say, is getting older. So that’s why the classical music audience used to be younger than it is. The audience for everything was younger in the past, because the population was. But in fact the rising age of the population doesn’t make much difference, and certainly not enough to account for the age increase in the classical audience. And I should note that when I made my graph I adjusted for the change in age distribution in the population at large. The result of doing so was fascinating. Rather than smooth out the aging of the audience, an adjustment for the changing age distribution of the overall population actually makes some details of that aging stand out in stronger relief.

But that’s a digression from the point of the question that I’m discussing. So, getting back to it, I can answer the question — whether the increase in the overall age of people in this country makes a difference — in two ways. First, I can say that I looked into the aging of the population, and did some calculations to adjust for it. And the first thing I found is that the age increase, in the population as a whole, isn’t as great as many people seem to think. Certainly it’s smaller than I thought it was. The median age of the population in 1958 was 30.2 years old. In 2002, it was 35.7. (My source is U.S. census data.)

Even so, the audience, adjusting for this, would be aging a little less than it seems to be otherwise. (In effect, we have to subtract a few years from its median age now, to make a proper comparison with the 1950s, because some part of that increase is just due to everybody getting older.) But still the audience is aging, as we can plainly see if we compare the median age of population at large with the median age of the orchestra audience (since it’s for orchestras that I have the most statistics).

Let’s assume that, in 1958 (the earliest year I could get this census data for), the median age of the orchestra audience was 33, the same age it was when the Minnesota Orchestra (then the Minneapolis Symphony) did its audience study. (Or, in reverse, we could assume that the median age of the population was also 30.2 in 1955.) We then find that the orchestra audience wasn’t much older than the general population, just 9% older.

But in 2002? Let’s assume that in that year, the median age of the orchestra audience was 55, a figure that’s often cited, and which is in the ballpark for the major orchestra whose 1980s and current age data I cited in my post. How does this compare with the rest of the population? It’s 54% older, or in other words far older, relative to the rest of the country, than the orchestra audience was in the 1950s. The orchestra audience is aging quite a bit faster than the population at large.

But of course there’s also a second answer to this question. It’s the same answer I gave to the earlier question about life expectancy — the audience in past decades seemed young to people who talked about it back then. So what difference does it make that the population as a whole has aged? People in the past looked at the classical music audience, and said it was young, relative to what they saw in the world of their time. Would anybody say that today?

Which brings me to a question. Why do some people have so much trouble accepting this data?  I think, quite honestly, that these facts I’ve unearthed come as a real shock. None of us, including me, were prepared for them. Like so many other people in classical music, I believed the conventional wisdom that the audience had always been the age it is now. Why shouldn’t it have been? And then I discovered two things. First I discovered that there isn’t any data to support this belief. Or if there is, nobody has been able to show it to me, no matter whom I asked.

Second, I discovered the data I’ve been promenading here, which clearly shows the aging of the audience. I was absolutely amazed, and I’m not surprised that others are. I am a bit surprised, though, that some people want to reject what I’ve found. To question it is one thing; I’ve questioned it myself (largely because of methodological questions), and have vetted my conclusions with a sociologist who knows at lot more about these things than I do. (I passed.) But to simply deny what I’m finding, and raise to objections as if they surely were decisive — that, I think, is due at least in part to the emotions all these questions raise. What’s at stake, after all, is the future of the classical music world as we know it. And the data makes that future look thin.

Here’s comparable data in another field. According to an AP article printed in the Albuquerque newspaper while I was visiting my in-laws over Christmas, the average age of model railroaders has been going up. It was 30 in the 1970s, 40 in the ’80s, 50 in the ’90s, and presumably is even higher now. Model railroaders today, the story says, are largely retirees. And so everybody connected with this hobby takes for granted that model railroading is toast, that in another 20 years, hardly anyone will care about it. No complications, no denial. Just a clear perception that if things go on the way they’re headed, we won’t see model railroads any more.

I know very well that classical music is more complicated, that there really are younger people avidly involved in it (I taught a classroom full of them at Juilliard this very morning). And I also know that clearly more is at stake, that it would matter in a far more vital way if classical music disappeared, compared with model railroading.

But still the numbers tell the same story. The average age of the classical music audience has been rising, almost precisely in the way the model railroad age has been (though over a longer stretch of time). Why shouldn’t that just as clearly spell trouble for the concerts that our audience attends?

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


  1. Andrew says

    As one of the young’uns avidly interested in classical music, I can’t say these data come as a HUGE shock to me. My very much subjective and anecdotal impression of the demographics of patrons at my local orchestra (Toronto) bears this out each time I go. There’s always a smattering of groups of young people, a few mid-rangers and business types, and a sea of older people (dominated by older older people). In fact, I would not be surprised if the TSO were more aged than the average…

    Nor is this data much of a shock to the older people in the audience, who often wonder, wistfully, where all the young people are. I’ve never thought to ask any of these people if there were more young people at concerts when they themselves were young. Such an obvious thing, and I’ve never thought to do it! I’ll try to make up for lost time. I tend to assume that these now-older people remember more younger people in the past, which is why they’re so wistful.

    But then, to be fair, I’m in my sixties, and I’ve been going to classical concerts since my teens — and I can’t remember how old the audience was then!

  2. Jonathan says

    Can we connect to a younger audience through a new generation of musicians in the orchestra? This seems to be a largely untapped resource.

    I agree. This is a paradox — there’s no shortage of young musicians, even while younger people don’t go to classical concerts. There should be a way for young musicians to connect to this potential younger audience. I think we’ll do better once the current younger generation starts to run the classical music business.

  3. says

    At 36 I don’t know if I’m helping the average age or hurting, but I’ll also speak up as a relatively young classical music fan who does still go to concerts.

    Problem is- I don’t go very much. why? Money is one factor. Also I have a very time consuming theatre habit, which is my profession, so that makes music my hobby. I’m lucky if I get to one concert every two months.

    Maybe that’s still exceptional.

    But I do know that it takes a lot to get me interested in going through the concertgoing experience these days. Like- I want to see a specific performer, or a specific piece.

    The philharmonic is just boring now. And Avery Fisher is a cold impersonal barn that it takes eons simply to get in and out of.

    As I’ve become more interested in early music, I seek out expert ensembles–but unfortunately those tickets are among the most expensive.

    Speaking of cost (an obvious culprit) many concerts I might be interested at Fisher or Carnegie I forget about when I think is it worth it to pay north of $30 for the last row of the upper balcony? For a solo recital???

    There should be no more solo recitals in such big halls. No one gets anything out of that experience except the $100-folks.

    Some of the concert venues I’ve found the most worthwhile recently:

    – the Mostly Mozart late-night soirees. Intimate space, amazing soloists, in about an hour. Plus free drinks! I’m absolutely convinced that more publicity for this would be the most guaranteed way to turn the younger generation back onto classical.

    – Leon Botstein’s Classics Unclassified. At first I resisted thinking it would be “Music Appreciation 101”. But even for a trained pianist like myself, these were informative, playing both to the specialist and the generalist. Again–short program. One big piece preceeded by lecture/demonstration. Plus, it’s in the Miller Theatre, which is terrible acoustics, but again, small.

    And cheap.

    – Operas at the BAM Harvey. Again, the smaller venue. Like Glimmerglass, Opera suddenly becomes good drama when you can see the singers’ faces.

    In sum: best way to lure young classical-friendly people back to the concert hall–give them something worth seeing at a price not necessarily cheapo, but that they can afford to bring a date to.

    Postscript: Worth noting, as I’m sure you and others have, that concert attendance is only one measure of interest. In this day and age, just listening

    to the music–in all the technologically new ways one can do so–may be an even more accurate–and encouraging–measure.

    Wonderful, helpful thoughts.Thanks so much. I’m going to put this on the blog for everyone to see.

    The cost of tickets really is a problem. Recently I got an e-mail announcement from the Curtis Institute of Music, the famous music school in Philadelphia. They were announcing a bassoon recital — ticket price, $28. Now, the player is the principal bassoonist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, so obviously he’s good, but how many people want to pay that much for a bassoon recital? I’ve been to several, in my music-student days, and again in recent years, when I’ve been teaching. The appeal is somewhat limited (with apologies to John Steinmetz and other bassoonists who might be reading this!).

    I agree about interest shown in ways besides buying tickets. Unfortunately, it’s still tickets that sustain the business. Classical recordings, for instance, aren’t making much money for many people right now.

  4. Ann says

    Where were the elderly ticket buyers when I was young? Where are the young ticket buyers now that I am old? True, we now have more time and money to attend more events, and perhaps give the impression we are everywhere in greater numbers. But visit a conservatory to see the dedication and talent of the young people.

    I agree — I teach at two conservatories, and the students are very dedicated. And numerous! It’s a paradox. They do say that their friends don’t understand what they do. As for elderly ticket buyers generations ago, they certainly existed. There were just fewer of them, proportionately. As far as I can see, the orchestra audience then was more like the general population – -in age, at least — than it is now.

  5. says

    Fascinating. As a bassoon player, I have long been aware that my work seems bizarre and marginal to most people, and so I’m not surprised by the data showing that classical music is losing steam. I don’t see this as a bad thing; it’s an opportunity to ask what kinds of musical life we want to create. After all, the old structures are not all that fulfilling. As computer scientist Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Well, what kind of future do we want to invent? Where and how do you want to encounter music? With whom? What aspirations do you want the music to serve? What role(s) do you want to play?

  6. Paul A. Alter says

    I think the situation MAY be even bleaker than it looks.

    The population as a whole is expanding exponentially — somewhat similar to compounded interest. But the demographic in which concertgoers and potential concertgoers sits may be shrinking. A couple in the general population tends to have more than two children, so that population grows. A couple in the concertgoers demographic tends to have two children. But there is little assurance that those two children will turn out to be concertgoeers, which means the concertgoers are not replacing themselves.

    Further, audiences for “cultural events” tend to have a large proportion of homosexual males, who tend not to reproduce themselves at all.

    That last comment is challenging, to say the least. Seems to me that if we assume that this is true, and that gay men are some large proportion of the cultural audience, then maybe things aren’t so bad. There will always be the same proportion of gay men (and women) in our society,and if there’s something that makes them more interested in some kinds of culture, they’ll still keep going.

    But of course this whole topic is sensitive. I hope no one was offended by what’s been posted here.

  7. Jeff Dunn says

    The biggest problem with doomsaying is projecting out current trends while saying “if things remain as they are today …”

    We’re dealing with cultural, economic and technologic forces here that are highly volatile, and which will certainly recombine in ways to surprise us in the future.

    For instance here’s just one possible future and reasons for it:

    The audience is aging today because it’s less important to succeed socially to “be cultured.” Therefore, fewer parents take their children and teens, willing or not, to concerts. Fewer adults go because they discovered their liking for classical music at a relatively early age. Those who do go are going more for the inherent enjoyment than “to be seen” as part of the upper eshelon.

    The age at which classical music is “discovered” by hearers, I would hazard, is increasing as much as the average concert attendees’. And since the “social” reasons for attendance are less important*, that proportion of the audience is decreasing.

    If these suppositions have any merit, one could foresee a future where total audiences decrease with respect to the population as a whole, but the passion of the audience increases. This would result in fewer, but still high quality–and more touring–orchestras, not the end of a tradition.

    I would also suggest that economic factors, as have happened in other industries, would put downward pressure on musicians’ salaries and the excessive packages given to music directors.

    So maybe we’ll have 50% fewer orchestras for the classics, paid less; but they’ll still do a good job. Meanwhile, new music will thrive all the more with the ability for fewer musicians to emulate orchestral experiences with electronic instruments in concerts of comparably compex musics as traditional classical, which will more and more occupy a solid niche along with today’s “period performance” movements.

    In short: I see changes, transformation, but not demise.

    *although social reasons seem to be enjoying a boomlet for Asian audiences.