Faithful readers know I’ve said a lot in this blog — here, here, and here, for instance — about the drastic problems that the mainstream classical music world is likely to face in the not so distant future.
But I’m always looking for a shorter way to say it. Especially when I’m speaking in public, or semi-public (to a conservatory class, for instance) — not many people want to hear complex statistics. It’s better to cut to the chase. And at last I’ve come up with something. Here it is:
The classical music audience is going to shrink, and most likely shrink a lot. I don’t mean that nobody will listen to classical music in the future, but that the audience as we know it today will shrink, and maybe even disappear. This audience goes to classical music performances, simply because they’re classical music. I don’t mean to say that the people in this audience don’t have their preferences. Of course they do. Some like opera best, some like orchestras, some like chamber music. And they’ll all have their favorite composers and favorite soloists.
But, that said, they’re relatively undemanding. If there’s classical music in their area, they’ll go. If they like chamber music, and there’s a chamber music series, they’ll go to it. Likewise for orchestras, and opera. And yes, if the performances are really bad, or if they consistently hate the music that’s being played, then they might stop going. But how often are performances bad enough to drive people away? How often do programmers plan entire concerts — or worse, entire seasons — full of music that the mainstream audience will hate?
So the mainstream audience keeps showing up, just because the concerts are there. That’s the key to what I’m saying — to attract these people, you don’t have to do anything special. If you’re a prominent classical music institution in any community, you just give concerts.
And this, I’m afraid, is what’s going to change. This audience is vanishing. It’s getting older, and the younger people who might like to hear classical music think in a very different way. They won’t go to classical concerts simply because the concerts are there. They want to know what they’re getting. Why this concert instead of that one? Why should I go tonight? Exactly what will happen? What will I feel? Will I be surprised? Will I have anything to think about? Will the evening be not just a concert, but an event? Will all my friends be talking about it? If I can’t go at 8 PM, is there something I can hear earlier, or later? Can I just drop in, if I’m passing by on the street? Who are the people who’ll be playing? What are they like? What do they want to say to me?
And so on, through an almost endless series of questions, which, if you think about it carefully, amount to a new audience that wants classical concerts to be freer, more flexible, more engrossing, and above all smarter. Don’t just tell me to sit there and listen.
Don’t try to educate me. Don’t tell me the music is beautiful — tell me what kind of beauty you’re talking about. Does it have an edge? Will it lull me, or wake me up? Will it shock me? Please stimulate me, surprise me, make me think, entertain me, give me something to talk about with everyone I know. Let me speak to the musicians. Give me music that sounds and feels like the world I live in.
If you can’t do that, you won’t have an audience. People, in the future, will not come just because you’re playing great classical masterworks.