Continuing with my series of “let’s see where we are” posts…the others were here (an overview), and here (about a new spirit in the world about classical music). Plus supplements to the first post, and to the second.
This one is about statistics, but maybe more importantly — in the long run — about transparency. We don’t have enough numbers (and certainly not enough publicly available numbers) about how classical music institutions are doing. Opera America, I’m happy to say (they’re the association of North American opera companies), each year publishes an Annual Field Report, a thorough statistical roundup that includes ticket sales and detailed financial data. But the League of American Orchestras makes equivalent information (its Orchestra Statistical Report) available only to its member orchestras. (And Opera America, I fear, buries information about its field reports deep in its website. You have to go to their publications page and click the “General Information” tab.) Chamber Music America and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters don’t offer any information on their websites about how their members might be doing. So we can’t readily find out if chamber ensembles are selling more tickets or getting more performances than they used to, or if presenting organizations are selling more or fewer tickets to their classical
What this means: We don’t know how well the classical music field, taking as a whole, is doing. We don’t know how many tickets orchestras are selling this year, or how many they sold last year, or sold 20 years ago. We don’t know whether sales to recitals and chamber concerts are up or down.
Contrast other areas of life and the economy, and even the arts. The auto industry has a crisis, and we can read exactly how many cars each car company sold each year. So when we talk about the crisis, we know what we’re talking about. We know, just for instance, that Toyota sold more units of one of its models, the Camry, than Chrysler sold of its entire line. And if we want to know how museums are doing, in the economic downturn, we can find out. Someone surveyed around 40 of them, and published a summary of the what the survey found.
How can we not have similar data about classical music? We have it for movies (though, I’ll grant, not for pop records, since record companies don’t like to release sales figures, unless they have some great success to brag about. But for how many years — how many decades — have we been pondering the classical music crisis? How many articles, in newspapers and elsewhere, have been written about it?
And we’re doing all of that without proper data. I myself don’t have enough data. I’ve concluded — based on what I do know, or have heard about (from various public, private, and anecdotal sources) — that, most likely, sales are down over many years. The League of American Orchestras gave me some figures on attendance, some time ago, and they showed a decline starting in the 1997-98 season.
But as I’ve noted many times, attendance figures (as opposed to sales numbers) can be misleading. They count free concerts, kids bused to concert halls to hear performances, Fourth of July events in parks. They’re not as sensitive a measure as ticket sales to an orchestra’s core subscription concerts. The League hasn’t yet released any figures on those sales.
Now, I hope to remedy this problem. Watch this space for updates. But my thought, so far, is that it’s a sign of immaturity that the classical music field doesn’t have solid data on itself. And also, at least in some cases, a sign of too much secrecy. There’s a fear that donors won’t give money if they think things are really bad. But if donors are sweet-talked with notions that everything is more or less OK, and then find out later that this isn’t true, won’t they feel cheated? And won’t organizations that tell the public when they’re having trouble are better equipped to face their problems? They can’t hide, can’t go into denial. If they say they’re having trouble, they also have to say what they’re going to do about it.
And aren’t we moving, as a society, toward transparency? Transparency is a current buzzword. Cf. Obama’s insistence that everything his administration does, all planned spending, should be available in detail online for everyone to read. The classical music business isn’t yet transparent, which puts it out of step with developing trends in the country at large.
The classical music press bears some responsibility, too, for not asking tough enough questions, for not demanding that classical music institutions disclose solid information about funding and ticket sales. But in the end, it’s the institutions who ought to be more transparent. Classical music institutions get government funds, and also solicit money from the public. Shouldn’t they tell the public how they’re doing?