The mainstream classical music world, I sometimes think, lives in denial. Tell it that its audience is aging, and some people simply don’t believe it. Others say it doesn’t matter, because the audience always has been old. (Not true.) Or else it doesn’t matter because younger people, as they age, will turn to classical music.
Whereas when model railroaders age — their median age was 30 in 1970, and it’s over 50 now — everybody in the model railroad world starts saying, “Yes, goodbye, it’s over.” Which is only common sense.
If you don’t see younger people taking part, why think you have a future? (The link takes you to a blog post of mine with complex stuff about the age of the classical audience. Scroll toward the end for the model railroad part.)
And now comes more common sense, this time from the beverage industry. The business section of today’s New York Times has a lengthy piece on the Coca-Cola Company. In it, we read that younger people aren’t drinking carbonated drinks the way they used to:
Taken as a whole [the story says], soda sales still handily outweigh all other beverage categories combined, but the trend lines are ominous for a “sparkling beverage”-dependent company like Coke. William Pecoriello, a Morgan Stanley analyst, found in a survey last year that teenagers, who used to be among the biggest consumers of soda, increasingly prefer other beverages.
“If you lost that generation, as they age they aren’t suddenly going to start drinking carbonated soft drinks,” says Mr. Pecoriello. “That’s the importance of Coke closing the non-carb gap.”
“As they age they aren’t suddenly going to start drinking carbonated soft drinks.” Common sense! So let’s get back to classical music. The National Endowment for the Arts, in one of its periodic reports on the age of the classical music audience, found that the number of younger people going to classical concerts basically collapsed in the 1980s, and hasn’t recovered since. (These links go to NEA publications, which you can download from the NEA’s website. Then you’ll have the same data I have.)
If younger people aren’t going to classical concerts nearly as much as they did in past generations, why assume that as they age they’ll suddenly start going? Follow William Pecoriello’s lead; read the writing on the wall.
There is one ray of hope. The number of younger people playing classical music — as opposed to sitting in the mainstream classical audience — has stayed the same. In this way, classical music is very much unlike model railroading. It has an active core of younger people. So, in principle at least, it ought to also have a younger audience — except that mainstream classical events turn off the great majority of younger people, including (as I hear all the time from my Juilliard and Eastman students) even friends of all the young classical music professionals.
So, like the beverage industry, classical music must diversify. A company like Pepsi (Coke lags behind) has fruit juice, energy drinks (Pepsi owns Gatorade), iced tea, and the largest-selling bottled water in America. Young classical musicians, all on their own, are giving concerts (in clubs, for instance) that attract younger people. But this is still a tiny slice of the classical music world. Will the mainstream classical music biz read the history of Coke and Pepsi, and start giving new kinds of concerts, too?
(In large quantities, I mean. The tiny toe-in -the-water experiments they’ve tried so far just aren’t going to cut it.)