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.