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?