Here’s a supplement to my last post, while I prepare the next installment in the series. I wrote a “where we stand” last year, in considerable detail. Here it is, needing just a bit of revision and amplification to be up to date. Or you can download it as a PDF, I’ll revise it a bit very shortly, since I’m going to assign it this semester in my Juilliard and Eastman courses on the future of classical music.
And as I neglected to say in my last post — comments are very, very welcome. We’re all in this together.
Seems like the classical music mainstream, as we’ve known it all these years, is shrinking. By now, I’m sure everybody knows that there are fewer classical music radio stations than there used to be, less media coverage of classical music, and many fewer new releases — at least of serious classical music — by major classical record labels.
Hard data on other things can be hard to find — you have to ask around, assemble sketchy press reports, and nose out things that haven’t been publicized (or are quite literally secret) –but I hear from managers that there are fewer bookings for classical artists. And ticket sales have been falling, apparently for quite a while. (With a bump upward over the past couple of years; more on that later.)
More than a year ago, the League of American Orchestras (formerly the American Symphony Orchestra League) made public a steady drop in attendance at orchestra events, beginning in the mid-1990s. Here we run into statistical confusion, because “attendance” doesn’t mean paid ticket sales; the League’s numbers include free parks concerts, school concerts, and every other performance that orchestras give. Paid attendance at core classical events — an orchestra’s main subscription series — might be a more sensitive measure of how well or badly orchestras are doing, since these concerts are an orchestra’s main mission.
And here the decline seems to be greater than it is for total attendance at all orchestra events. Private statistics from our largest orchestras show a long-term fall in ticket sales beginning around 1990, a drop so large, cumulatively, that by itself it might account for recent orchestral deficits. It’s so large a drop that the uptick in the past two years only begins to reverse it..
For opera companies I don’t have comparable data. But Peter Gelb, who took over the Metropolitan Opera a year ago, publicly acknowledged a serious drop in ticket sales before he came on board. And the Chicago Lyric Opera, which used to sell more than 100% of its seats (subscribers would return tickets they couldn’t use, and the company would resell them), was down, last I heard, to around 92%. (The Met, which used to sell around 92% of its tickets, fell far below that before Peter Gelb took over.)
Nobody seems to gather overall numbers for chamber music, but in recent years I’ve heard anecdotal accounts — a couple of dozen by now, I’d guess — from chamber music presenters about their decline. Recently I got more precise numbers from one of these presenters, located in a large American city (not New York). Each year for a decade, I was told, this group has lost 10 to 20 subscribers. Which doesn’t sound like much until you do the math. The group now has around 700 subscribers, so if we assume an average drop each year of 15, that means that since 1997 the subscription sales have fallen 18%, from 850 to 700. That’s a big drop, which certainly leaves the group worrying about its future.
Why don’t people notice?
Why don’t more people notice what I’ve just recounted? Partly because the data is hard to uncover. Some of it is kept secret, because large institutions don’t want to frighten their donors. The press, meanwhile, doesn’t ask tough enough questions. If an institution reports a rise in ticket sales, classical music writers don’t normally ask which concerts the data is for, or how it compares with data for the past decade.
And it’s also true that classical music institutions vary, that some do better than others, and that some events are romping success stories, with cheering, sold-out houses. To understand the overall picture, you need comprehensive data from many institutions.
It’s also hard to measure a long-term decline simply by going to concerts and looking to see how many seats are empty. “I go to the X Symphony a lot,” a Juilliard student said to me last year, naming one of America’s foremost orchestras. “And the houses look full to me.”
But “full” is a relative term. If the X Symphony sold 95% of its tickets 15 years ago and sells 85% now, of course they’re feeling that decline on their bottom line. But someone looking around a concert hall that’s 85% full can honestly say that they don’t see many empty seats. Especially since empty seats might be concentrated in certain parts of the hall, and — of course –some concerts sell more than others (so sometimes you look around and see a completely sold-out house).
I don’t want to pass over good news, which many people think might counterbalance everything I’ve said so far. I’ve mentioned the small surge in ticket sales during the past few years. There are also many more new music performances than there used to be, which is good both artistically and as a growth trend for the future. Maybe new music can (at least to some extent) make up for any decline in the classical music mainstream. Though there’s one problem. These new-music performances don’t make much money (if they make any at all). So how can musicians make a living from them? How can classical music institutions use them to survive? The classical music business, as it’s presently organized, makes its money from the mainstream. That’ll have to change, before any surge in new kinds of concerts can establish any lasting change.
But younger people continue to come into the business, studying music, and becoming composers, performers, critics, managers, and administrators. This ought to be a sign of hope, in an age when the number of younger people in the mainstream audience has been falling (see below). If younger people want to play classical music, surely other younger people might want to listen to it. Maybe the younger people — who of course will take over the business in future years — will find a way to build a young audience (and to attract younger people to donate money).
I mentioned the ticket surge in the past two years, which I know is real at the Metropolitan Opera and at the largest orchestras. This, as far as I can see, is the result of organizations taking the long-term decline seriously, and trying to do something about it. If you start using sophisticated marketing techniques, and try to make your concerts more appealing, of course you sell more tickets. Or if, like the Met, you mount a wildly successful campaign to make your institution more visible in the city you’re in — much more visible, in the Met’s case –again you sell more tickets.
But, as I’ve said, the surge in ticket sales has only just begun (at least for orchestras) to reverse the long-term decline in ticket sales and attendance. How long can it go on? Nobody knows. And are the increased sales mainly to the orchestras’ core audience, or are new people buying tickets? These are crucial questions, especially since there are other long-term problems that might limit just how successful classical music can be in our present age, at least in its present form.
Finances are one of these problems. This can be a long discussion, and I won’t try to go into much detail here. But classical music institutions have — in recent years — often run deficits. Some of these are persistent. (They vary, of course, from institution to institution.) One reason for the deficits might be, as I’ve sai
d, the decline in ticket sales. But another is ongoing trouble raising funds. People simply aren’t as interested in classical music as they used to be. Foundations and private donors increasingly feel they should support social causes. (More on this later.) Foundations, in particular, from everything I’ve heard, are losing interest in classical music. One prominent person in the orchestra field said outright, in a conversation I was part of, that at a gathering of foundations hardly anyone would even attend a meeting on why orchestras should be funded.
And it costs money to reverse the fall in ticket sales. One problem I haven’t mentioned is the decline in subscriptions. Orchestras used to sell more than 90% of their tickets in subscription packages, with people buying many tickets at a time. Now subscription sales have fallen to something like 65%, which means that orchestras have to find ways to sell more single tickets, which means their marketing departments have to work harder and promote the orchestra more, which in turn costs money.
The Metropolitan Opera is the great success story these days among large classical music institutions, but all the innovations that contribute to its success — for instance the live streaming of its productions to movie theaters — cost a lot of money. The Met was running large deficits when Peter Gelb took over, and from several sources I’ve learned that the deficits continue. They pretty much have to — you can’t invest in the future without spending money. But this also means that the financial survival of the Met is not a settled matter. There isn’t yet a proven model for its operations that shows how it can pay for everything it does.
The aging audience
And there’s one more piece of bad news to report. The mainstream audience is aging. This is a cliché, of course, one of the things most frequently mentioned in discussions of classical music’s future. Though at the same time, it’s often denied. The conventional wisdom, at least in the orchestra world, has for many years been that the audience has always been the same age it is now (gray- or white-haired, over 50). If that were true, an older audience wouldn’t be a problem, because it would always be replaced by younger people, who, as they got older, would start going to classical music concerts, just as their parents did before them.
What’s been missing in these discussions, as a rule, is any reference to concrete data. A writer in the New York Times even said last year — in a large and prominent piece, alleging that things with classical music are just fine — that no concrete data even exists.
But that’s simply not true. The National Endowment for the Arts has been collecting data on the age of the classical music audience since 1982, and their figures show the median age of this audience rising from 40, when they began this research, to 49 in 2002. (You can download this data from the NEA’s website.) Most large classical music institutions, from everything I’ve heard, would say these figures are too low. The numbers based on self-reporting by people filling out census forms. Did they or anyone in their families go to a classical performance during the past year? But the forms don’t ask what kind of performances these were. They could have been pops concerts, Fourth of July concerts, or school concerts a family’s kid might have played in. Peter Gelb said publicly that the Met’s subscribers were 65 years old (I don’t know if he was talking about their average age or median age). Figures I’ve seen for major orchestras put their core audience high in its fifties.
And data from the past — which I’ve uncovered on my own — is astounding. A study of two orchestras in 1937 showed the median age of their audience to be around 30! The Minnesota Orchestra (then the Minneapolis Symphony) surveyed its audience in 1955, and found that half of it was younger than 35. The median age of this audience was about 33. In the early 1960s, a major study showed the audience for all the performing arts to have a median age of 38, with no difference reported between one art form and another.
So evidently the age of the classical music audience has been rising for decades — for 50 years or more! Some people say this is natural, because the age of the population of the whole has risen. But this can’t account for the trends in classical music. In 1955, if we assume that the Minnesota data would be valid for all orchestras, the orchestra audience had about the same median age as the population as a whole. But now that audience (if I take data I have from a couple of major orchestras to be typical) is about 50% older than the general population, which means that it’s aged faster than the general population has. A lot faster, in fact.
The NEA also reports something truly devastating — that the percentage of people under 30 in the classical music audience fell in half between 1982 and 1997, and has fallen further since then. How, then, can anyone be sure that younger people, as they grow older, will replace the present audience? Some of them might, but if fewer people — a lot fewer — are going to classical concerts when they’re young, shouldn’t we expect fewer people to go when they’re older?
Thus, as time goes on, the mainstream audience (at least for classical music in its present form) is likely to shrink. Its older members stop going. They won’t be replaced. A German scholar, using German data that seems very much like the data from the US, estimates that the audience for German orchestral concerts will shrink 36% over the next two decades.
I’d make a bolder prediction. I think we’re at the end of a long era. Classical music, as we know it, only started to come into existence around 1800. Before that time, almost all the music played was new. Musicians improvised, and audiences talked while music was performed. Music wasn’t considered a serious art, and in fact the entire concept of serious art, as we know it today, was barely known.
After 1800, things started to change. Music was taken very seriously. Composers were revered. Musicians were expected to play exactly what the composer wrote (though for a century more, opera singers still felt free to make changes on their own). Concerts began to be formal, and audiences were asked to sit in reverent silence. The classical repertoire began to be established, and the music performed began more and more to be from the past.
This is the era that I think is ending. More on that below.
Of course the classical music world doesn’t sit quietly, watching itself die. There’s activity, sometimes almost wild activity, as people try to make changes. These changes take two forms, which I’ll call conservative and radical, though I don’t mean to dismiss the conservative ones.
Conservative changes preserve the classical repertoire, as we’ve known it for so many years, and also at least the broad outlines of the performance styles we’re all familiar with. But musicians now might talk to the audience. The stage might be lit in more or less dramatic ways, to reinforce the mood of the music. Musicians might dress less formally. Musicians might be available before or after a concert to talk to members of the audience. The audience might be given chances to participate — to vote, for instance, on which of three new pieces they like best.
Radical changes go further. String quartets might play in clubs. A new music festival (I’m thinking of this year’s Bang on a Can marathon in New York ) might happen in a large public space, with free admission, and the audience welcome to come and go as it pleased. Composers (Steve Reich and Philip Glass started this in the 1970s) might form their own ensembles, and find their own audience, outside the classical music world. New music might start sounding like pop music, with electronic instruments and a beat. Classical musicians turn into entrepreneurs,
looking for any audience they can find, especially on the Internet. Classical music is combined on concerts with dance music and alternative rock. Performance styles, even for standard repertoire, become freer, more personal, and more informal.
The radical changes seem, at least to me, the most important. They make classical music look, feel, and even sound like what goes on in the rest of the world. The big problem, though — as I’ve already said about the surge in new music events — is that these new-style concerts don’t make much money. So they’re not ready, yet, to replace the classical music mainstream. How can we maintain classical music on the scale at which it currently operates, if concerts get smaller, and attract a younger audience which won’t have the money for large-scale donations that the current, older audience has? I’m not saying that a new financial model won’t evolve, but we haven’t seen it yet.
Here comes the real wild card in the present situation — the evolution of our wider culture, which doesn’t favor mainstream classical music at all.
Here’s one way to look at it. Find a photo of the crowd at a baseball game in the 1940s. You’ll see men in suits and ties, wearing hats. Now go to a game today. You’ll see men and women, people of all ages, dressed (to put it mildly) informally. I’m not going to say that classical concerts haven’t gotten more informal — certainly you see more people dressed casually in the audience — but orchestra musicians still wear formal dress, and the formal atmosphere of performances (the entrance of the concertmaster, followed a little later by the conductor) has barely changed. The rest of the world has evolved; classical music has only just started to. Younger people, for this reason, as time goes on, will find classical concerts less and less plausible. They just don’t look or feel like the rest of the world.
To some people, that’s of course a virtue — classical music can seem like a refuge to everything unpleasant about modern life. But in practical terms, it’s a disaster. And even artistically it’s questionable. If classical music is cut off from bad things in modern life, it’s also cut off from good things, and loses whatever roots it ever had in the vitality of our evolving culture. In past centuries, it was a contemporary art, reflecting whatever was going on in the world. It can’t pretend to be that now.
Another change, of course, is the rise of popular culture, and especially — at least to me — the rise of new forms of art, inside the pop music world. When I was growing up, in the 1950s, most people believed that classical music was the only legitimate art music. Even then, that idea was dubious. It left out jazz, which (with the rise of bebop, in the 1940s, with musicians like Charlie Parker) had moved far beyond mass entertainment (though even before bebop, musicians like Duke Ellington had every right to be ranked as serious artists).
But by the ’60s, with people like Bob Dylan emerging, pop music changed. New styles emerged that weren’t even popular. Classical music now had competition, and the competition was more lively, more vital, more about the present day, and more rooted in modern life than classical music knew how to be.
I’m not going to outline every major aspect of this change, whose effects — even though we take them very much for granted today — are profound. Suddenly classical music, along with all the other formal high arts (and in fact the very notion of “the arts”), starts to look old-fashioned. People today don’t want to sit passively while they’re fed art that they’re told is superior. They want to participate. They want to make their own art, and in the wide and increasingly serious world of popular culture, they can do exactly that. Classical music — with all its rules, and all its assumptions of superiority, plus all the traditional idea that people need special education to appreciate it — seems stuffy, out of date, and even pointless. People don’t mind the music (in fact, they’re downloading it quite a bit), but the structure and ambience of the classical concert world now seems a little pointless.
I’ll end with just one large consequence that might follow from all of this. And when I say large, I think I mean gigantic. It’s all about funding. Classical music costs a lot of money. Major orchestras, for instance, have budgets ranging from $30 million to $60 million a year, and even higher. They can’t earn that much money from ticket sales, so somebody has to give it to them. Up to now, that money has been available, from private donors, from corporations, from foundations, and from government agencies, even if the audience for these orchestras — the people who go regularly — make up only a tiny fraction of their cites’ population.
How long can this continue? Once we understand that classical music isn’t the only music that we can call art, how can we justify spending so much money to — just for instance — keep major orchestras functioning 52 weeks every year? Obviously, they ought to get some money; they keep alive a form of musical art that can’t earn its keep in the marketplace. But should they get as much as they’re getting? As time goes on, it might be harder and harder to argue that they should.
And I see signs that this is more than a theoretical discussion. A recent front-page story in the New York Times discussed a new consciousness in charitable giving. An economist has theorized that tax breaks for those who donate money may promote inequality. Why? Because studies show that only 10% of charitable donations go to causes that actually improve how people live. The other 90% goes to things that rich people enjoy, and which are part of rich peoples’ culture — new buildings for elite universities, and (sigh) the arts. This doesn’t mean that the benefits of these things don’t spread beyond the rich; obviously they do, at least to some extent. But donations go to them primarily because the rich enjoy them, not because they’re seen as any route to social betterment. And it turns out, according to the Times, that at least some wealthy donors are starting to see that this is true, and aim their giving away from classical music and other elite, expensive forms of art.
Second, and maybe most important, is an evolution in the social structure of New York. For years the richest zipcodes in New York were on the Upper East Side, where the old social, financial, and political elites were found. These were the people who, among many other things, supported the arts.
But now the money — along with political and social power — has moved. The richest, and most powerful zipcodes are now downtown, in Tribeca. Does Tribeca support the traditional arts? Apparently not. The people who live there have much more modern taste, and they certainly don’t appear to care about classical music. I asked around, and learned that at least one of New York’s big classical music institutions has hardly any ticket-buyers from Tribeca. Which zipcode buys the most tickets (for this, and, I’ve found, other classical music institutions)? You guessed it — the Upper East Side.
So here we have what seems to be a tangible — quantifiable — emergence of the cultural change I’ve been outlining. The new generation of wealthy, powerful people in New York (and I’m sure this is echoed in other cities) don’t support classical music the way the older generation did.
And if this is really true, where will classical music get its money, when the cultural transformation is complete?