Where we stand (2)

My first post in this series got more comments, the first day it was online, than anything I’ve ever posted here. So now I’ll give my argument in more detail. My thesis, as I’ve said, is that the classical music era — which began around 1800, when the classical music world as we know it now began to take shape — is ending.

Why do I think that? Here are my reasons, starting here, and continuing in later posts.

1. The classical music audience is disappearing. The classical music audience is now, on the average, more than 50 years old. There’s a common belief that it’s always been this old, but I’ve uncovered data that shows this isn’t true. Some of it goes all the way back to 1937, when, as part of a large-scale study of American orchestras, audience surveys were taken at the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. How old were these audiences? Much younger than the audience now. In Grand Rapids, the median age was 27. In Los Angeles it was 33. Or we can look at 1955, when the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) studied its audience, and — just like the Los Angeles Philharmonic two decades earlier — found a median age of 33.

In the early 1960s, a study by the Twentieth Century Fund, a major foundation, found that the median age of the performing arts audience was 38. This, the authors of the study said, was the same for all the performing arts disciplines, classical music included.

From the 1980s on, there are several sources of data. The National Endowment for the Arts has published periodic studies of the classical music audience. According to these studies, the classical music audience was (on the average) 40 years old in 1982, and 49 years old in 2002 — a steady process of aging. And at major classical music institutions, the audience seems to be older still. In Minnesota, the median age of the orchestra’s audience had gone up to 48 in 1985, and 51 in 1989. At one of America’s largest orchestras (which I can’t name, because I was given the data privately), the average age of the audience was around 50 in the late ’80s, and now is 58. And subscribers (an important part of the audience, because they’re the ones who go repeatedly, and tend to give money) are even older — their average age is 64.

So clearly the audience is aging. And — most crucially! — this isn’t a recent development. It’s been going on (if we trust the Minnesota and Twentieth Century Fund data) for more than 50 years. A trend that’s been established for that long has to reflect some kind of deep-rooted cultural change — and the change it represents, I’d guess, is that our culture, over a long span of time, has lost interest in classical music. Certainly there’s other evidence that this is so. Just look at classical music on television. In the 1950s, it was broadcast on network TV. In the ’80s, it was common on PBS; now we hardly see it at all.

And this is where the age data starts to look devastating. If the audience has been getting older for 50 years, then clearly younger people aren’t coming into it. And in fact NEA figures show that the percentage of people under 30 in the classical music audience dropped in half between 1982 and 1997. But that’s not all — the percentage of people from 30 to 45 has been dropping, too. Here’s a chart I’ve made from NEA data, showing the age distribution of the classical music audience (the percentage of the audience in various age groups) in 2002, plotted against the age distribution 10 years earlier. (The figures are adjusted to reflect the changing distribution of these age groups in the population at large.)


What does this chart show? Look at the peaks of both curves. In 1992, the largest part of the classical music audience was 35 to 44 years old. In 2002, the largest part of the audience was 45 to 54 — which means it was the very same people who were the largest part of the audience in 1992, now grown 10 years older. This gives us a vivid picture of an aging audience, an audience whose core is growing older, and isn’t being replaced.

Will this be the last generation of classical music listeners we’ll ever see? (Or at least the last generation attracted to classical music as it’s currently performed?) I might put it this way. Some people, of all ages, will continue to join the classical music audience. But there won’t be as many of them as there used to be. Remember that the percentage of people under 30 in the audience collapsed between 1982 and 1997. If fewer of this new generation went to classical concerts when they were young, fewer will go when they’re older. Especially in our current age, when– far from turning to classical music — people over 45 now buy more pop records than younger people do, and the AARP, responding to this trend, now promotes pop music tours, as a way of attracting new members.

All of which ought to mean that the audience of the future will surely be smaller — and maybe a lot smaller — than the audience we have now. (Unless, of course, there’s some giant change in the way classical music relates to our culture.)

(I apologize for repeating things I’ve said before. But I’ve worked out this thesis in greater detail than I ever have before, and I need to get it all down in one place. For more detailed age data, including citations for some of my sources, see http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2006/11/important_data.html one of my previous posts.)

In future posts, I’ll give two more reasons why the classical music era looks like it’s ending:

Classical music institutions may not be able to sustain themselves (already some of them are acting as if the current funding model doesn’t work any more)

Our culture has decisively changed.


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  1. Gary Pegoda says

    In 1900, life expectancy at birth was relatively low at 47.3 years.

    The Shift to Chronic Disease Gives us Priorities

    Ken McLeroy, Ph.D.

    Professor of Social and Behavioral Health

    School of Rural Public Health,

    Texas A & M

    One way of understanding the current emphasis within public health on preventing chronic disease is to examine the changes in causes of death that have occurred during the 1990s. Prior to the 1930s, the leading causes of death in the United States were infectious diseases, for example pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrheal related diseases. The groups most affected were the very young and women of childbearing age. In 1900, life expectancy at birth was relatively low at 47.3 years.

    By 1940, the U.S. had witnessed a dramatic change in causes of death from infectious disease to chronic disease with the leading causes of death becoming heart disease, cancer, stroke and injury. Largely because of the decline in mortality among infants and children, life expectancy at birth increased dramatically to 75 years in 1987 and has risen to 77.6 years today.

    As I’ve noted elsewhere, the median age of the population hasn’t risen all that much since the 1950s. And if you remove the oldest part of the audience from consideration, you still see the audience aging. Finally, the authors of studies in the 1930s and 1960s commented that the audience was young — young, that is, against the background of the life everyone lived then. So it’s not just that people live longer now. It’s that younger people don’t go to classical concerts very much — that’s what makes the overall age of the audience older than it used to be.

  2. says


    In your age data, you use the term “median” for the earlier examples and “average” for later ones. It’s important to note that these are not at all the same. See for example Wikipedia:Median.

    Using an average/median also tells us nothing about absolute numbers attending classical music concerts, which you don’t cover, and could well be increasing.

    Furthermore the growth of availability of recordings has to be a factor in deciding the size of the “classical music audience” – especially with the advent of downloadable music, I think you’ll find the absolute audience size for classical music has substantially increased over the years. Consider for example the huge numbers downloading Beethoven from the BBC.

    One further important point I would raise on this subject: There is a very considerable number of people, mostly young people, who do not consider “classical” to be their first, second, or even third favourite “genre” of music. However, ask the question, “do you like classical music”, and you’d be surprised how often the answer is “yeah classical is cool man”, and you’d be surprised at the amount of basic knowledge of classical music this kind of person has. Simply look at the profiles of people on MySpace to see the evidence for this assertion. On MySpace, I regularly have people who don’t even list “classical” as a favourite adding me – a “classical” composer – as a friend, simply because (and I usually ask why) “classical’s cool, man, we like it”.



    I should have said median in all cases. Sorry for my sloppiness.

    Absolute numbers have been up in recent decades for the entire classical music enterprise, but down in the past decade or two for individual institutions. And also down in the aggregate for orchestras, based on ASOL figures on attendance and large orchestras’ private figures on their ticket sales.

    I’ve run into the things you encounter in younger people — many of them are reasonably interested in classical music. And of course the audience for radio and recordings is larger than the concert audience. The problem, though, is that it’s the concert audience that keeps classical music afloat financially, and if the concert world shrinks, classical musicians are going to have a hard time making a living.

  3. Robert Jordahl says

    Sad, but oh, so true. Why don’t the classical musicians themselves do something about it?

    Many are trying, especially the younger ones. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, there are many experiments with new concert formats — more, in fact, than anyone keeps track of.

  4. says

    I would suggest a demographic caveat to your argument. Yes, the audience is aging but so is the population, especially the all-important WWII baby-boomers who represented a bulge in the populalation that keeps moving along and is now about to boost the ranks of those over 65. We were weaned on early LPs and classical music stars like Bernstein and VonKarajan. Those born after late boomers, say in the 60s and 70s didn’t benefit from the media exposure and also lacked arts education in school. But the boomers had children and we took them to museums, theatre and the arts. Not to the same degree, but you do see theseyoung adults in the audience. Check out the audience in LA with Salonen or Atlanta with Spano; maybe even St. Louis with Robertson. Ticket sales are up over 10% this year at the Metropolitan Opera because of all the fanfare. So there is hope.

    The Metropolitan Opera is a notable ray of hope. Ticket sales in LA are still notably below what they were in the early 1990s, but yes, younger people are there. I’m not sure about St. Louis, where sales have lately been down, or so I’m told.

    Elsewhere I’ve addressed the aging of the population. It’s less of a factor in the aging of the concert audience than one might think. Note the figures I’ve cited elsewhere. The orchestra audience in the 1950s had a median age only about 9% higher than the median age of the entire population. The orchestra audience in 2002 had a median age 54% higher than the median age of the entire population.

  5. Steve Proser says

    I would like to clarify a comment I posted earlier today. You seem to use “median” and “average” interchangeably in your post. They have quite different meanings. Did you mean to use “average” for all of your references?

    That’s very careless of me. I meant median.

  6. Larry Fried says

    What is the breakdown of age for the entire US population today, i.e. what percentage of the population is 55+, 40-55, 30-40, etc.? I’m not going to dispute your figures, Mr. Sandow, but isn’t it also true that the entire population has shifted? We have, and will continue to have, a higher percentage of 55+ people than ever before? The good news for orchestras – and classical music, in general – is that these “senior citizens” (I’m 53!) are the best educated and wealthiest “seniors” in US history.

    Larry, I addressed some of this in my latest post. The median age of the population has gone up surprisingly little since the 1950s, from 30.2 in 1958 to 35.7 in 2002. The orchestra audience, which in 1958 would have been around 9% older than the median age, was 54% older in 2002. It’s also true that sa higher percentage of the population is over 55 than was in the ’50s, but I don’t know why that should make the orchestra audience so much older. Remember that the authors of the early 1960s study of the performing arts audience were struck by how young it was, and thought that older people simply stopped going!

    Here are the figures you wanted. In 1950, 16.9% of the population was over 55. In 2002, 21.5% were over 55. But the proportion of people over 55 in the classical music audience was 32.5%. I don’t have a comparable figure for the 1950s, but, again, if we compare the median age of the orchestra audience with the median age of the population, they were pretty close back then.

    In recent decades, the aging of the classical music audience — as compared to the population — may have gotten more intense. The National Endowment comments in one of their age studies that the classical music audience is aging faster than the population.

  7. Robert says

    “our culture, over a long span of time, has lost interest in classical music”

    It might be too grand a conclusion to say this based on changes in audience sizes of some orchestral concerts.

    Are you speaking only of the USA? Consider Europe and see what’s going on there.

    With the increase in the use of (and quality of) audio electronic equipment and media, more people listening to music at home, for various reasons.

    Has the number of people enrolled in music education–public and private–gone down over the period you are considering?

    You would have to look at many factors to come to the conclusion that classical music is no longer of interest.

    I agree that this is a complicated question. Enrollment in music schools is high, youth orchestras are thriving, more people currently are buying classical recordings.

    But these things measure the size of the classical music niche. I’d look elsewhere for measurements of the interest in classical music in society at large. I’d look, for instance, at the media. And there it’s easy to find a decline in classical music coverage. Time and Newsweek, for instance, both had full-time classical music writers in the 1980s. Now they hardly write about classical music at all.

    Many other things could be cited as well. Interest in classical music remains high in a small group, but it’s declining among those who aren’t in that group.

  8. Paul Slaton says

    Cost may be a factor. When the Minnesota Symphonia gives its free concerts, they are filled with younger people, sometimes whole families.

    I’m sure this is true. Many people in the classical music business think ticket prices are too high.

    But lowering them might be a financial catastrophe. Major classical music institutions depend on these ticket prices to make their budgets work, and in fact have raised ticket prices in the past couple of decades far more than the rate of inflation. As I show in my next post, one reason they’ve done this is that ticket sales for at least the past 70 years have mdae up a steadily declining proportion of orchestras’ income. This puts them in an ongoing financial crisis, and they have to keep raising prices just to try to stay afloat.

    That, of course, may help to kill them — but it’s not clear what the solution is.

  9. says

    I would suggest that the classical audience has moved. They are not going to concerts at Philharmonic Hall, but listening to concerts the next day on their iPods. They get to listen to the music (whenever they want, at a reasonable price) without having to endure the rigid social scene where you can’t applaud but the eighty-year-old next to you can snore.

    If this is true, it’s bad news for the classical music business, because these people are paying far less for their music than people who buy tickets do. Who’s going to keep musicians alive?

  10. Anne L. Tinkcombe says

    Your piece on the likelihood of the disappearance of classical music put me in mind of a comparable piece on the likelihood of the disappearance of movies, recently published by David Denby in the New Yorker. With one significant difference. While touching on the same interrelated factors—the combined power of money, technology, and youth culture—Denby’s piece is elegiac. Yours, like so many on the decline of classical music, at times seems to gloat, as if the end of classical music were well-deserved.

    Among other reasons, because the audience is older. As if an art form that attracted a primarily older audience were worthy of contempt because its audience, for reasons of age alone, is worthy of contempt. This is not about demographics, it’s about attitude. Of course pop culture, which is to say youth culture, is the dominant culture of our time. But what if, instead of buying into that dominant culture, the discussion started with the premise that the folks in the classical audience, whatever their age, are on to something that was worth sharing?

    Which includes music written 250 years ago, as well as music written last month. And which includes sitting quietly and listening to that music, another feature of classical concerts regularly thrashed as rigid, repressive, and (beyond redemption) middle-class. How about getting past the knee-jerk and considering the silence of a concert hall, like the huge black space of a movie theater, as a container for attention, for focused listening, for giving oneself up to all the experience can be? What could be more radical?

    I think Denby’s got it right: “Kids who get hooked on watching movies on a portable handheld device will be settling for a lesser experience, even if they don’t yet know it—even if they never know it. And their consumer choices could affect the rest of us, just as they have in the music business. If the future of movies as an art form is at stake, we are all in this together.” Amen, brother.

    Anne, I think you misread me. Certainly I haven’t said there’s anything wrong with an older audience (which would include me — I’m 63) or with old music. The only question is whether these things are sustainable into the future. Every indication is that they aren’t.

    I think you too quickly dismiss popular culture, as if it was nothing but cheap stuff, at some opposite pole to the rapt listening you so wonderfully evoke. I think things are far more complicated than that, though this is an old argument I’m getting a little tired of. The old culture and the new both have their strong and weak points, and one of the problems of the classical music world today is that it doesn’t make room for the strong points of the new culture. That’s something I’ll be getting to in later posts.

    It’s odd to be accused of gloating, I have to say. So much of my own musical culture is old-fashioned classical music culture. And, for God’s sake, I write the stuff! And I do it in a style.that’s in some ways fairly traditional. Where do you think I’m going to be, if this world I grew up in collapses? Who am I going to talk about Verdi or Webern with? I had a delightful e-mail exchange lately about a piano and flute arrangement of Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, which seems to leave out some of the notes in Schoenberg’s score — with his permission! — thus probably making nonsense of the 12-tone structure. Maybe more of this should find its way into my blog, but who am I going to talk about 12-tone structure with — or old opera singers — if the classical music world evaporates?

  11. Josh Kopp says

    Money is the problem. It’s

    already been noted that

    young people can’t afford

    concert tickets. Worse,

    schools have had to

    eliminate music education

    because of money constraints. In the 1930s

    in elementary school in

    Boston, we were taught to

    sight read. Later, in

    California in the 1940s,

    we had Music Appreciation and heard all the well-

    known classics. Where do

    kids ever get a chance to

    hear classical music


    It’s nice to see them discovering it for themselves, on iTunes and elsewhere. There’s a lot of curiosity these days about all kinds of music — more than there was when music education was still riding high. I’m old enough to remember those days.

  12. says

    I was one of the people in the audience at your NETMCDO talk last week. Thank you *very much* — it was literally thought provoking and indeed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

    The age distribution data are very highly suggestive of the notion that the audience are the *same* people, simply getting older … but of course the figures cannot *prove* this. Only a study specifically designed to test this theory could prove it. Maybe someone has tried doing such a survey?

    It’s great that you’ve unearthed the research all the way back to 1937. There must be all sorts of problems with comparability of the data in these various surveys. However the overall trend is so huge that it presumably buries any problems caused by the disparate sources and methodologies.

    Comparing and contrasting the U.S. experience with the rest of the world would be neat — a kind of “control” case to help narrow down the universal trends vs. the U.S.-specific issues. On the one hand, you have a lack of government funding for U.S. orchestras. On the other, you have an American culture of strong non-profit organizations, which (almost uniquely in a global context) makes endowment funding and “non-earned,” non-governmental funding a credible source of support for orchestras. As you point out, it is debatable whether most orchestras could rely on this non-earned income for *all* of their operating funds however. You could also argue that it would be highly undesirable for them to do so — for all sorts of reasons. But that’s another debate altogether.

    Thanks, Martin. I enjoyed that talk — which was given to a group of career development specialists from music schools.

    I agree that the data from the various surveys isn’t strictly comparable, and when I first found any of it — the first I found was the 1937 study — I treated it warily. But as I found more and more data, I found myself convinced, despite methodological problems, because everything I found was so consistent.

    And there are other signs that the data is very likely correct. There are anecdotal accounts of the audience in the past in which it’s quite clear that a large part of it was young. And then there’s the way some of the studies stress the youth of the audience, in their commentary. The 1939 study is the one I know least about, in regard to its methodology, but I’m also struck by how the authors of the study, in reporting the audience results, show no sign of surprise. Just imagine what would happen if an orchestra surveyed its audience this year, and found a median age of 28! They’d be jumping up and down with surprise. But the authors of the 1937 study show no surprise at all, making me think that they were reporting something they’d seen for themselves at concerts, and which everyone back then knew was the truth.

  13. says

    You often contend that certain forms of popular music have a serious value and I agree. The way non-classical music is written has a completely different set of esthetic principles and rules that govern form and content- for instance, counterpoint and polyphony has been given up for almost exclusive homophony in most new forms of music. I think that the new forms of music that arose in the twentieth century are just that: new. Although they arose from what we consider the “Western World”, these musics cannot be analyzed and contextualized from a classical standpoint. They aren’t really related to classical music in the sense that they utilize some sort of watered down simple version of classical theory. Rock musicians certainly use the triad, but the rules of resolution and voice leading are completely different. Any mainstream (and even most niche) popular music just doesn’t conform to classical standards.

    So what is my point? Well, I just think you might consider looking at how the current music in the popular realm is different from a fundamental level with classical music. The question isn’t whether people don’t value extremely well written, beautiful music- it’s that they value a different kind of music entirely. Perhaps young people do not attend for the same reason most Americans don’t attend classical Indian concerts.

    Hi, Jason. I agree completely, and have made the same point many times. I even stirred up controversy here by saying in some past post that rock (and all its derivatives/allied forms) is in many ways not western music.

    I’d cite three key differences, besides the ones you noted. One is the way rhythm is central (rather than pitch, or structure). Another is that sound is also central. So you can have a three-chord song that’s wildly innovative because of the way it sounds, and the way its rhythm is played. Finally, the musical text, in classical music, is the notated score, which is considered more basic than the performance. In pop, the performance is central, so how somebody sounds when they sing (or play) is far more important than what notes they sing.

  14. says

    I’m frankly scratching my head at the idea that [average age in the seats has risen] equals [potential audience has shrunk].

    If we’re talking about the long haul, the entire _country_ has gotten older because lifespans have steadily increased. If the average audience member was 33 years old in 1937 that was a GREATER fraction of the average American’s current age than was 49 in 2002. For this reason the average audience age was sharply lower in 1937 for sports, performing arts, dog shows, and anything else we might have statistics for.

    If we’re talking about music specifically, then it seems quite obvious that the characteristics of the people who currently showing up in symphony halls are today far less of a representative sample of everyone interested in the music than was true in 1967 (let alone 1937). There are far more ways to experience classical music now than was true then, and there is plenty of data showing that using those means correlates strongly with age. Older people who are interested in classical (or for that matter jazz, or bluegrass, or whatever) are obviously less likely to be comfortable with newer ways of hearing music. They are also obviously less likely to be interested in a lot of the other forms of entertainment now competing for their leisure time/money (some of which didn’t even exist in 1967 or 1937). Neither of those facts, though, bears any logical relationship to the idea that 30somethings today have less _interest_ in classical music than those of previous eras.

    So attendance at classical concerts can’t be used as a sign of interest? As you say, it’s only one way to indulge in classical music, but it’s a rather notable way. And if we’ve really seen a shift away from concertgoing to listening to radio or recordings, then the business (which makes its money through concerts) is in trouble.

    The increase in the average age of population is well known, and I might have said, in my posts, that I’ve studied it. The population may not have aged as much as everybody thinks. In 1950, the median age of the US population was a hair over 30. In 2002, it was just under 36. Taking a median audience age of 33 in 1950 (based on the Minnesota Orchestra study of its audience in 1955) and 55 in 2002 (using a widely quoted figure), here’s what we find. In 1950, the median age of the orchestra audience was only a little higher than the median age of the country at large — 109%. In 2002, the median age of the orchestra audience was much higher than the median age of tthe general population — 154%. So even adjusting for changes in the overall age of the population, the orchestra audience has notably aged. Remember, too, that the graph I put in the blog is adjusted for the changing age of the population.

    Returning to interest – -as opposed to attendance — the big problem classical music has, as an industry, is converting whatever interest is there into some kind of financial model that can keep classical musicians alive.

    And are 30-somethings as interested now in classical music as they were in previous decades? I just don’t believe it, and there’s certainly no evidence for it. I was a 30-something myself in a long-previous decade, and things were very different then.

  15. Connie says

    Isn’t it possible that the numbers of people are remaining the same, while their percentages of the increasing population are lower?

    Yes, it would be possible — if ticket sales hadn’t been falling for a number of years.

    This gets complicated. Often people in the industry talk about more classical music tickets being sold in recent decades then were ever sold in the past. Very possibly that’s true, because there are more organizations giving concerts. But most individual organizations are selling fewer tickets than they used to. (Or, to be precise, those that I and others have been able to track are in this situation.

  16. says

    I suspect that music education has also largely reduced, thus not creating an audience – in the UK cutbacks in education have always first hit music and the arts. Now they are beginning to find music interesting again, after a fly-on-the wall documentary about a school choir which started from scratch and participated in an international competition. Choirs for all now. (That’s how TV drives government policy…)

    In Eastern Europe – I live in Lithuania – the age structure is quite different. It depends very much on the programming how the ages of the audience are distributed. If the music is the old Beethoven or Tchaikovsky the audience is generally old, but throw in some contemporary music and loads of young people come to the concert. The Steve Reich concert in Vilnius was one of the most-sold-out concerts last year, and full of youngsters. Every October we have a festival of ‘ink-still-wet’ contemporary music, and it is full of young people. Similarly our festival of e-music in the spring.

    It’s the young people who have more spending power to buy tickets. Having said that, when Rostropovich comes to Vilnius with outrageous ticket prices the audience consists more of the well-to-do middle-aged (who want to be seen and often know nothing about music) – these concerts are not interesting to the young ones.

    Thanks for the interesting comments, and of course for the view from Lithuania. It’s very similar here — Steve Reich will draw a large, young crowd, and the traditional classical concerts will draw older people. It’s the traditional concerts I’m worried about. They may collapse or have to be reduced in the future, as they become more and more expensive to produce, and as their audience shrinks or disappears. Some people, I know, won’t miss those concerts, but I think the entire classical music industry depends on them. Including even Steve Reich. Essentially they generate the primary income for the entire classical music business.

  17. says

    I meant to add that the ticket price question is a bit of a red herring; I am sure classical concerts cost no more than football matches or pop concerts – but in those you have a real emotional experience in a crowd that you cannot have in a classical concert, unless you know your stuff. You have to sit still, cannot move, cannot talk, cannot applaud spontaneously after that brilliant cadenza….

    Though of course in past centuries people did move, did talk, and did applaud right in the middle of the music. They wouldn’t even wait for the cadenza.

    It’s tricky to compare ticket prices for these varied events. Most people go to only one or two pop concerts in a year, to see their favorite stars. (I’m talking about large-scale pop events, not shows in clubs, which are cheaper.) Sports events are wildly popular, and season tickets to them — which allow people to go repeatedly — are often bought by corporations.

    And also there’s no shrinking apparent in sports ticket sales, except in particular cities when a team is doing badly. So high prices aren’t a problem. They’re a problem in classical music, because they keep people away at a time when ticket sales have been shrinking. Also, at least in the US, many classical music institutions depend on people coming repeatedly — or in other words subscribing. And those multi-ticket sales (which are falling in any case, for all sorts of reasons) are especially hurt when prices are too high.

  18. says

    One point I will make as a young person who likes classical music is that I know almost no one who actually wants to go to classical concerts with me, even though I typically get free tickets. (People will go to hang out with me, which is nice, but it’s a little different from actually being interested in the music.)It’s hard for me to have something that’s so important to me that I must nonetheless pursue in monkish solitude.

    To draw a broader conclusion from this, I think at some point that the diminution of the younger audience from classical music halls will reach (or has reached?) a tipping point, where it’s hard to stay interested because it’s hard to make it a social activity. It’ll just be monkishly devoted people like myself. And I can tell you: We are a statistically insignificant population.

    That’s very sad to read, but I know you’re right. I hear similar things from my students, and from young orchestra musicians.

    It’s impressive to see how the Metropolitan Opera has managed to reverse all this, if only a little. They’ve gotten the whole town talking about them, and New York magazine memorably printed an interview with a model in her 20s (I had this earlier in the blog), who said she’d never gone to the Met before, because no one she knew talked about it. But now…

    A big faling of the classical music world has been that performances aren’t capital E events. There’s no clear reason to go, unless you happen to love the music being played, or just love the idea of classical music in the abstract.

  19. Martin Andersen says

    One facet of audience interest in classical music performance is the (over time) introduction and cultivation of new, worthy repertoire. As I opined in a post to Part 1 of your article, there currently is a real lack of genius composers to bring new fine pieces to the public. Of course, most audiences over the last 150 years have been resistant to new music–but within a generation the *worthy* new is embraced and becomes standard repertoire (think of Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, Prokofiev, etc.). Is there *any* classical music produced since 1950 which has now entered the standard repertoire of orchestra? Without new music (even if delayed in acceptance) the art form dies; and by extension the vehicle which performs it eventually dies.

    There are a surprising number of pieces that get performed a lot. The Joseph Schwantner percussion concerto would be one of them. But I think the most lively work in composition goes on outside the concert hall, by people like Steve Reich.

  20. Ju Dee says

    All I ever wanted to do was to be a “classical” musician, so what you have to say, of course, worries me deeply. All the same, in my experience the situation doesn’t seem to be as dire outside of the United States. I spent 6 months in London as a student, and compared to the average BSO or NYSO attendee, I would say that the average age was far lower. In fact, I recall that whenever I went to BSO concerts my group of friends and I would feel quite markedly out of place, but I never had that experience in London. The other big difference, of course, was in ticket prices. Top LSO/LPO/Philharmonia tickets are only 30+ pounds or so; this is nothing compared to the $100+ top prices at most major American orchestras, especially when you consider it relative to the local cost of living (a rather insubstantial sandwich in London would already set you back about 3 pounds). Perhaps this is a reflection also of the average musician’s life there; from what I hear, most of them are still paid per service and have nothing like the stable contracted-with-benefits existence of many American orchestra musicians.

    As you say, a complicated question with many variables, but perhaps the answer to more years of survival would also rely on those major institutions and their musicians being willing to restructure their terms in order to ensure the survival of those very institutions.

    I also see not much “wrong” with the current concert format where being quiet, etc is concerned. If anything, I think it is just that modern culture does not produce many people who are willing to put in time and effort into what they consume. Items of culture should preferably be instantly digestible and immediately effective in order to reach a mass audience. I do feel that a certain amount of concentration and study is necessary to understand and love this music, which most people do not have anymore, and which most educational systems these days do nothing to instill. I’m not sure what the solution is to this, really, except to continue to lobby for better and more extensive music education.

    Good points. London really does seem to have a younger audience than the US. (As well as younger orchestras, because musicians get paid a lot less than they do in the US, and so many don’t stay with that career as they get older).

    But on the other hand, I’ve seen age data from a Danish orchestra that’s even more drastic than what we see here.

    About the need to learn about classical music, in order to listen to it quiety…I wonder when that started to be true. Many people certainly accept it today. But in past generations, the music seemed to be much more a part of everyday culture, and so people accepted it without much special preparation.

  21. says

    I’m no statistician, so forgive me if this is a daft question (and I’m not disputing the validity of your stats) but how is the statistical information collected in the first place?

    Not a daft question at all, and in fact a very important one. The methodological problems with this data are really huge. Often we don’t know much about how the data was collected. In one case — the 1937 data — questionnaires were apparently passed out at concerts by two orchestras, and the data was derived from the responses. It’s easy to see the problems with this. The respondents are self-selected — not exactly a scientific sample! Nor do we know how many questionnaires were passed out, what percent of people responded, how many concerts this was done at, or what kind of concerts these were!

    But at the same time, I noticed something in the book that reported those findings. The authors didn’t seem a bit surprised. Certainly if somebody now wrote about a study of American orchestras, and found that tthe age of some surveyed audience was 28 (median age), they’d be shocked! And the data would be reported with great surprise.

    This didn’t happen in the 1940 book which recounts the 1937 study. So common sense might suggest that the authors weren’t surprised because they knew the audience was the age reported. They could see it themselves, at concerts they’d been to.

    Then, when I got more data, I started thinking of it differently. Yes, there were methodological quetsions. Always some kind of audinece survey was conducted, but how? But at the same time, the data was consistent. That is, nobody yet has fiound any studies — by whatever method — of the orchestra audience in the 1930s or 1950s or 1960s that report the audience to be as old as it is now. All the data available says both that it was younger, and that it’s been gradually aging.

    So that makes me think the data is acceptable. With caution, again — I wouldn’t swear, for instance, that the audience in 1937 was exactly the ages reported. But I’m willing to be convinced that it was far younger than the audience is now.

    Part of this is common sense. As I just wrote to someone in the orchestra business who’s skeptical of my findings, suppose we did an unscientific survey of the audience at a major orchestra today. We’d psas out questioinnaires, ask people their age, and tabulate the results from the people who bothered to respond. This wouldn’t be scientific. But would it show — by some weird mistake — that the people were 30 yaers old? I can’t imagine any of us would believe that .The survey might be unscientific, but the margin of error couldn’t be that great. I’m sure we’d see that the audience was old.

    Finally, there’s anecdotal data to back up what all this data shows. Descriptions of the audience in the past seems to show that it’s younger than the audience now. If you go back to the late 19th century (in a wonderful description of a night at the opera that opens Edith Wharton’s novel “The Age of Innocence”) or to the early 20th century (in the famous passage about Beethoven’s Fifth in Forster’s “Howard’s End”) you find descriptions of an audience that includes many people in their 20s. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the audience back then was much younger than we see how.

    And if that’s true, when did it get older? My data seems to explain that. In the 1950s, the audience wasn’t much older than the median age of the population at large. Since then, it’s been aging. But if people want to say this isn’t true, they have something to explain. If my 1937 data is wrong, and the audience then was really 50 years old, when did it get that old? When did it age? In the 1910s? The 1920s? There’s no record I’ve ever seen of such things happening.

    As for the stats about the perecentage of orchestra income that comes from ticket sales, that’s from the 1937 study, from private reports on orchestra finances made by McKinsey in 1969 and 1972, at the request of the Big Five orchestras (I got a copy from the NY Philharmonic archives), and from current orchestra tax returns, available on the Guidestar.com website.

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