The classical music audience has always been the age it is now. A lot of people still believe this. But — as regular readers here know — I’ve discovered that the myth isn’t true.
The audience used to be much younger. Source for this? Studies done in 1937, 1955, and the early 1960s, combined with statistics the National Endowment has been compiling since 1982. I’ve never seen any data — any at all — that supports the myth.
But now I’ve gotten something new. In the second of those posts, I quoted a book on marketing, which talked about the 1955 study I mentioned above. That study was done by the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), and found that their 1955 audience had a median age of 33, which was about the median age of the general population back then. Now, of course, the orchestra audience is much older, with a median age around 50% higher than the population at large.
And now — thanks to generous help from the Minnesota Orchestra’s director of public relations and their archivist — I have that study. It’s amazing to read, providing (as a friend of mine said) a window into another era, a time very different from ours. The median age number doesn’t appear anywhere. Instead, the study simply says that 54% of the orchestra’s audience in 1955 was younger than 35. Which of course is consistent with the number quoted for the median age.)
So who were these people? Students, professionals, housewives, and businessmen. (I think “businessmen” is the right expression, since people in business back then were predominantly men.) Students, believe it or not, made up 23% of the audience, though they were older than you might think: more than half lay in an age range between 21 and 35. But just in case anyone thought it was only the students that made the audience so young, the study points out that the largest occupational group in the audience were the professionals –doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, and the like — and that they, too, were young. 52% of them were under 35.
So it really was a young audience. It was so young, in fact, that the study — conducted by a professional polling firm in Minneapolis — offers one simple suggestion, in case the orchestra wants to sell more tickets. It should advertise in college newspapers! (Similarly, the authors of the http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2006/11/important_data.html early ’60s study I’ve read – in which the median age of the entire performing arts audience was found to be 38 — speculate about what they think is an important question:
Why people stop going to performing arts events as they grow older. Of course that’s exactly the opposite of what we see today.) The housewives and businessmen in the Minnesota audience were older than the students and professionals. A third of them, approximately, were over 50. But of course that means that two-thirds were under 50, which of course makes them younger than comparable groups in today’s audience. (And around a third of the housewives and businessmen were under 35.)
One other finding seems important. Where did people of different ages sit? The answer is exactly what you’d expect. The older people (who presumably had more money) by and large sat in the orchestra seats, while the younger people (or most of them, anyway) sat in the balcony. Why is this important? Because sometimes you’ll see a photo showing the orchestra audience in bygone years, sitting in its seats for a concert, and the people in it look old. So now we know why that is. These photos are taken from the stage, and the people they most clearly show — the ones sitting in the front of the downstairs seats — are, on the average, the oldest people in the audience. The younger ones are invisible upstairs.
Source: “In-Concert Survey of the Audience Attending the November 11th Symphony Concert at Northrup Auditorium, University of Minnesota.” Conducted for the Orchestral Association of Minneapolis by Mid-Continent Surveys, of Minneapolis, and dated December 12, 1955. The Friday concerts at Northrup Auditorium were the orchestra’s regular subscription events. 1900 members of the audience filled out the surveys, which were supplemented by a random poll of Minneapolis residents (conducted by the local newspaper) and in-person interviews.
I can’t resist quoting one thing more. How, the study asks, could the orchestra expand its reach (beyond advertising in college newspapers)? The study makes two recommendations:
Modify the audience image toward reality — portray the audience for what it really is: Young, a cross-section of middle-income, middle-education groups, informally dressed, the kind of people who might live next door to almost anybody! The unhappy stuffed-shirt stereotype of the audience is a negative motivation for many. Attending the Symphony just once, a shift in press treatment of the Symphony audience, or a portrayal of the true audience through advertising can transform the Image to proper dimensions.
Capitalize on the conductors’ favorable image as a conductor, and create a more vivid Image of him as a personality, not merely by getting so many lines of newspaper space, but striking home a dramatic IKDEA that focusses audience perspective on the conductor as a captivating personality. Probably a few lines in St. Louis newspapers on Mr. Golschmann as a poker player have successfully engendered a colorful personality for him.
[Vladimir Golschmann was the music director of the St. Louis Symphony. All emphasis, spelling, and capitalization, however quaint, is in the original.]
Here we might be talking about orchestras today! (Antal Dorati was the conductor, back then, of the Minneapolis orchestra, and one problem they had was that he wasn’t as popular as his predecessor Dmitri Mitropoulos had been.)