Niche markets

We hear a lot these days about niche markets, and often enough — as happened just a few days ago in a comment to one of my posts — someone talks about classical music as a niche market, and therefore likely to thrive in the emerging niche culture.

But I don’t think that’s right. Oh, it’s a hopeful idea, with (if it were true) an encouraging payoff. Classical music wouldn’t have to change, and it wouldn’t matter if we never reach a new audience. Our own niche audience would be all that we’d need.

Think about that, though. A niche market is, more or less by definition, a small market. And a move toward more niche markets mean that big markets get smaller. People magazine has fewer readers, fewer people watch network TV.

But isn’t classical music a small market? Maybe, but — in its glamorous mainstream form — it depends on big-market funding. It depends on donors and corporate sponsors and government agencies that think (for instance) that an orchestra is the crown jewel of a city, that the city needs the orchestra to attract corporations, that the arts are glorious and essential to civilization. These aren’t niche market notions. Instead, they place classical music right at the center of civic pride.

Case in point: the Cleveland Orchestra. Back in the last century, they were raising bankloads of money to finance the renovation of their concert hall. One of their board members told me he’d approached the Ohio state legislature. The legislature always gave the orchestra money, but now this board member asked for quite a lot more. And he got what he wanted. If the Cleveland Orchestra needed the money, the orchestra — or so the legislature thought — should get it. Too bad that now they’d have to give other arts groups less, but the orchestra came first.

But now suppose everyone thought of the Cleveland Orchestra as a niche market. What would the answer have been? Maybe something like, “Hey, cool, good luck with the concert hall. But we’ll pass. It’s all niche markets now, and we don’t see why you matter more than anyone else.”

Thinking like that would be a disaster for big-time classical music, at least as we know it today. If we really do move wholesale to niche markets, all the alternative classical stuff I love will do fine. But the big-ticket institutions — which depend on big-market money — surely would shrink.

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  1. Everycritic says

    Forgive me to start: I’m a dictionary geek. Since your premise seems to rely on “niche” being synonymous with “small” I decide to look “niche” up. defines it only as “a distinct segment of a market”. In subsequent entries, the only time “small” is applied is in reference to a physical recess. Also, in my decade of experience in fundraising for classical music organizations, I found that most funders do indeed consider classical music a niche market but that can actually work to an advantage. Exclusively, or more accurately the *perception* of exclusivity, can be very attractive to those who have the financial means to make very large gifts.

    I meant “niche market” in the current new-culture meaning of “niche,” which definitely means small. Or at least a lot smaller than the mass markets of the past. One of the premises of current niche market thinking is that there isn’t any mass culture anymore.

    And being exclusive isn’t at all the same thing as being a niche (again in the current way the word is used). Exclusive markets are elite, and I certainly agree — a lot of support for classical music is oiled by the delight in feeling privileged. But that’s not what the current sense of niche markets proposes. To borrow yet another buzzword (and, wow, I didn’t even type “long tail” yet), this time from Thomas Friedman, the culture world is flat, and niche markets (in the new-culture sense) are more or less equal. If classical music becomes a genuine niche market, and no longer plausibly looks like any kind of cultural or civic flagship, then fundraising for it is going to be quite a lot trickier.

  2. Bill says

    The fact that orchestras do (and have for a long time) relied on patronage does define them as niche. And not in a flattering way. If they can’t make the majority of revenue from tickets sales, CDs, or some related marketing, then it’s a sign that something’s wrong.

    To be niche and be proud of it (hurray, I have limited appeal!) is not the way to go.

  3. says

    If orchestras and the classical music “genre” wish to be more mainstream, they must act more mainstream. Their audience is dying. Their funding is dying, except in heavily endowed and creatively marketed circumstances.

    My own anecdotal experience perhaps applies: I have a doctorate in music. Our local orchestras play Mozart and Beethoven as a staple. Nothing wrong there, but I rarely go. I’ve heard Beethoven 5 at least two dozen times live, and I have six or seven great recordings on my shelf. I’d rather spend my money, subsidized or not, on something new and interesting. I go if they play Adams, Bolcom, a great soloist, or something new that captures the imagination somehow.

    But I’m not sure there is an answer that will make us classical geeks happy. As a composer, my own concerts do very well, but I’m known in my own community–a step in the right direction. And I have some small national reputation. But when my ensemble offers up the difficult esoteric music we tend to specialize in, and at a very high level I might add, marketing this stuff to a mainstream audience is a “serious” composer’s pipedream.

    Niche may be the way of the future, but it’s not sustainable. Times change, and so does art. For our dictionary friend, culture is defined not just by its artists but also by their place, time, and circumstances. Thomas Kuhn says the really interesting work is on the fringes. Now that’s something to keep in mind… That said, the potential audience for classical music is actually larger, niche or no, than at any previous time. The trick is to capture it.

    Something I learned in the pop music biz — the larger the market, the larger the interesting fringes are. So really weird, not at all popular pop bands sell more CDs than the most mainstream classical artists.

    So then the question is — how can we find and reach the fringes of the classical market? Which could be enlarged by people who wouldn’t define themselves as classical music fans…

  4. Michael Korman says

    I question the basic assumption that being a niche market is a bad thing. Sure, it means less money and exposure, but it certainly provides a greater deal of freedom.

    That is, why is the “glamorous mainstream form” of classical music such a great thing?

    I’m sorry if you’ve addressed this point in the past (please provide a link to a previous post if so!).

    I think “good” and “bad” are probably not the most hellpful words, and I’m sorry if I used them, or implied them. Good or bad for what, would be my question. I don’t think it’s helpful to be a niche market if you want to raise bank vaults full of cash, but just as you say, it’s very helpful if you want freedom.

    As for the glamorous classical music mainstream, i don’t care for it much. But I think other classical music activities depend on it, more than we sometimes realize. For instance, musicians who specialize in new music might make part or most of their income from mainstream work. So I wouldn’t want to see it vanish just yet. And in any case, I have to study what’s going on with it, because, like it or not, it’s the public face of classical music.

  5. says

    I do not think being a “niche” market is either bad or new for classical music. It has never appealed to more than a small segment of the population in any community. The state of Ohio’s support of the Cleveland Orchestra was not because it serves a majority of the people, but because having a great orchestra in Cleveland is an important civic asset, as is having the Cleveland Cavaliers (whether or not every citizen wheres LeBron James branded shoes).

    The problem for classical music organizations today is that some of them are using their historical “niche” status to rationalize not adapting to changes in the size, demographics and interests of the audiences for their music. To use the “we’ve always appealed to a niche audience” statement (however true) to avoid adapting the supply of concerts, or their content and format, to the demands of today’s audiences is a recipe for financial distress.

    Thanks for this, Joe. Always good to see you here.

    I think we’re making the same point about support for the Cleveland Orchestra, but with a different emphasis. Yes, the legislature supports the Cleveland Orchestra for the reason you say, but maybe we should ask whether that reason still has as much force as it used to. Does Cleveland — or any other city — need an orchestra, or at least as much as it might have needed an orchestra in the past? We hear a lot that orchestras are needed to attract corporations, or more generally that the arts function as a kind of civic bellweather, a sign that a city has a flourishing culture.

    But is this still true? Richard Florida took issue with it six years ago, in his influential book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” He said flat-out that the employees most valuable to forward-looking corporations — the employees most likely to bring economic growth to any city — don’t care about orchestras, opera, or ballet. They want diverse lifestyles in a city, and a vibrant local band scene. Something similar was said in a New York Times story a few years ago, about what cities were doing to attract younger people. There was no mention of orchestras or the arts, but a lot of talk about bike paths.

    If this is really true, then one big reason for supporting orchestras has disappeared, or at least started to fade. And orchestras look more like a niche activity than the local basketball team.

    The Cleveland Orchestra is an especially interesting example, in any case, because they’ve had to face the unpleasant fact that Cleveland isn’t any longer a big enough market to support them. By their own admission, they’re an orchestra with a Chicago or New York budget, in a city that’s shrunk (both in population and economic clout) from the top-city status it used to have. (And which allowed the orchestra to reach such world-class status in the past.) The orchestra now finds it has to establish bases outside Cleveland — that’s the big reason for the Florida residency — in order to survive. Which might give the legislature more reason to support it.

    Of course, maybe the legislature — and whatever remains of Cleveland’s economic leaders (one of the biggest companies in town, a great supporter of philanthropy, just shut down) — will now support the orchestra even more, because the city, as its former glory dims, wants to hang on to everything that still might make it great. That would be a special Cleveland situation, though, and wouldn’t apply to most other cities.

  6. says

    I don’t know if I’m the commenter you’re referring to who brought up niche markets, but in case I am I should clarify: I completely agree that for classical music to thrive as a niche market (or markets) or as a subculture (or subcultures) there will be big changes.

    Baumol’s cost disease will make paying for large classical music institutions harder and harder. Funding dollars will gradually be redistributed to other art forms–currently classical music rakes in a disproportionate share of philanthropic funding compared to other kinds of music due to continued classical music chauvinism, but that chauvinism is (appropriately) receding. Big institutions will shrink, and many will fold. But at the same time, fewer will fold than we fear, because in the quest to avoid bankruptcy those institutions will find new models of programing, marketing, and organization that work better in the new market.

    “Big-time classical music, at least as we know it today” is dying, and we can’t save it. But part of my argument is that it isn’t worth saving. It’s arrogant, presumptuous, elitist, stale, ossified, and it can be replaced by a much better version of big-time classical music.

    And certainly we need to add new people to the audience. But I think the key is that it will be easier to bring in new fans if the industry begins to function better in the niche/long tail model–which will include carving classical up into niches as well.

    Galen, you weren’t the commenter I meant. But if thinking you might have been led you to write all this, then I’m grateful. Very incisive, important thoughts, and so well expressed. Thanks!

  7. Fred Lomenzo says

    As a composer of serious music I am always interested in reading about the state of the classical music community. Many financial problems along with the present ecconomy exist. There is another problem that will affect the finances of orchestras and performers. This may already be a reality. It is no longer nesesary to use a live orchestra or soloist to record music.I am no longer involved in commercial music where this was common practice if sometimes marginal at best.Present equipment and technology in the right hands can now rival or surpass the sound of a major orchestra and solo performers.The days of this process being close are over.It is a reality now!

  8. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    Another very good question about the future of classical music. My worry is that there is a tension in your view with respect to what you would like to see happen in this future. Here you seem to want to hold on to “glamorous mainstream” classical music events, while elsewhere you push for a new, leaner, and more exciting concept (the Messiaen post, for example). Isn’t it precisely the mainstream concept, with its fixation on big orchestras, big concerts, and big money, that tends to block the development of a new culture where something like the Messiaen in a smart pop context would be closer to the norm ? Further, the “niche” and “long tail” analysis, if it is accurate, suggests that this is not a situation which one can simply opt out of. Rather, it is now the way the culture works. Very few indie rock bands, for example, have anything like the huge fan base of older acts like the Stones or Dylan. For every Radiohead or Wilco there are two hundred Deerhoofs and Calexicos, bands every bit as good as the former but with a small fraction of the audience. For jazz, the situation is much the same. Some of the very best players in the world perform nightly for audiences of fifty or less, especially in the U.S. These are cultural phenomena, and are in no way unique to a particular genre. As you often point out, this is not something we can afford to ignore in our thinking about the future of classical music.

    Thanks again for a stimulating read,


    Hi, Jay. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I was trying to warn people who think the “long tail” phenomenon will help mainstream classical music. I was saying that this isn’t so.

    My own views on the glamorous (sort of) mainstream would be another story. I’m no great fan of it, artistically or otherwise. I’ll be thrilled to see it morph into something else, as I imagine it will. A new version of itself, but smaller, leaner, and with more content.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, though, there are perils in this evolution. Right now, the Deerhoofs of the classical music world don’t make enough money, from Deerhoofing, to give their musicians any decent chance to make a living. The mainstream — widely defined, so it includes, for instance, university residencies and holiday concerts at big churches — still supports a lot of alternative classical musicians. So if it disappeared right now, some of the people I like would be up against a wall. And there could be some bumps of this kind on the way to the future.