A happy new year to everyone. Hope you all had revitalizing holidays, and that 2009 will be everything you want it to be. Or else something even better than you hoped.
I thought I’d start the year, blogwise, with an overview — in five posts — of where I think classical music stands right now. This opening entry will summarize some things you may have read here before, but later posts will have quite a lot that’s new.
So where are we, as we start 2009? Understanding, of course, that the economy is a wild card — maybe a ferocious wild card — that might strengthen (or maybe greatly strengthen) any downward trends.
Classical music is changing
That’s true, no matter what the economy does. The classical music mainstream will very likely shrink, at least in the long run, and new ways of doing things — new kinds of concerts, new venues, new styles of performance, new kinds of new music, and along with this a new audience — have been emerging. They’ll continue to emerge, and they’ll grow.
Not, of course, that there isn’t debate about all this, especially about the shrinking mainstream. Some people think there isn’t any problem, or even — if it’s really true (see below) that ticket sales have gone up in recent yeas — that the problems have largely been solved. But I think most of us think that classical music faces a “legitimation crisis” (to use a phrase from Julian Johnson’s otherwise not so useful book, Who Needs Classical Music?). Most of us worry that classical music’s place in the world isn’t secure. And we think it needs a new, larger, and surely younger audience.
But how can we measure this crisis?
We need numbers — reliable data, most crucially, about classical music ticket sales. What’s their trend, over the past 20 years? Have they gone down? Have they gone down enough to raise an alarm?
Here we have a major problem. We don’t have those numbers. They aren’t publicly available, and some of them, as far as I know, haven’t even been gathered privately. This cripples any discussion of classical music’s future. Regular readers will know that I’ve put together whatever public and private data I’ve been able to find, along with anecdotal reports, and that I’ve concluded there has in fact been a decline. I don’t know that I’ve ever done a single post on all of this, but I’ve mentioned it piecemeal. the data comes from private figures gathered by large orchestras, scattered reports (public and private) involving major opera companies, and voluminous anecdotal comments from people who run chamber music series.
But my conclusion has to be tentative, because the solid data just isn’t there. To me, this lack of data is itself a crisis, which I’ll discuss in this series of posts. And I’ll note that there’s apparently been an uptick in ticket sales during the past couple of years, largely (or so I think) because of better marketing.
But does this uptick mean that the long-term trend has turned around?
Some good news
This is something I haven’t said here before. I see a new and much more cheerful attitude toward classical music, both inside the field (well, in some places), and above all in how classical music is viewed in the outside world. No, we haven’t rejoined mainstream culture in any decisive way, but I do think they’re looking at us differently, with more enjoyment, and most crucially without the old-fashioned sense that we’re stuffy and elite. This — not to keep you all waiting — will be my next post.
What should we do?
How do we attract the new, larger, younger audience? People in our field take — broadly speaking — two views of that, as I’ll note later on in this series. Some of us think that we should educate the outside world, in schools and with education programs launched by classical music institutions. Others think that classical music itself has to change. I’m in the latter camp, as regular readers don’t have to be told. But I think that both camps have something to contribute, and that each should be open to the other’s ideas, not to mention the other’s acheivements.
Other points, redux
And here I’ll summarize some things I’ve talked about before, which won’t be in these update posts.
I said we don’t have data, but we do have one crucial statistic. There isn’t any doubt that our audience has aged — and in fact aged drastically. Fifty years ago the classical music audience was about the same age as the population at large, with a median age in its early thirties. It began, as far as I can learn, to get older in the 1960s, and its continued aging can be traced through the decades that followed.
This data comes from my own research, and of course I’ve talked about it here. For an extensive look at it — with links to primary sources, and also with some anecdotal data that supports the numbers — see my newly enlarged and updated entry on the age of the audience, in my “Resources” section, on the right of my blog page. (This section — if I have the time — will grow.)
So why did the audience get older? I think it’s because our culture changed. I think the aging of the audience paints a graphic picture, even a dramatic one, of classical music receding from our changing culture. Fifty years ago, classical music (even repeated performances of older repertoire) seemed somehow current, and so younger people took to it. Even the formal dress that musicians wore was part of current culture. In old movies, we see butlers wearing it, and we see people going out to nightclubs in tuxedos.
But starting in the 1960s, a new culture developed, and younger people began to feel that classical music didn’t speak to the world they lived in. As the decades passed, they felt more and more that way, and in the ’80s and the ’90s (according to data from the National Endowment for the Arts; see my “Resources” section, linked above) the percentage of people under 30 in the classical music audience just collapsed.
Which of course brings me to the disconnects we talked about here last month (and also, even better, here) — disconnects between classical music and the rest of our culture — which I’ll return to after I finish these new year’s posts. Classical music (as the aging of the audience helps demonstrate) stands apart from contemporary culture. And it does so, I think, in ways that no other art form does.
Which explains, I think, why the classical music mainstream will decline. How can it continue, if it doesn’t speak to current needs, and if the people most attached to it are those who formed that attachment in past generations? And if those people disappear, then how will mainstream classical institutions find the funding and the audience to support all the performances they currently present?
So we have to see some change. The mainstream has to change, or something will have to emerge outside it.
Both things, of course, are happening. And some of the new performances that have evolved — which I’ve called “alternative classical” events — have actually attracted large, young audiences. (Also here and here.)
That should give us hope. Though people with a lifelong love of mainstream classical events might unde
rstandably not be satisfied. And what we don’t know yet is how alternative classical performances can support themselves, and thus — if alternative events become any large part of our future — how classical musicians can make a living. If the mainstream shrinks, how can classical musicians make as much money as at least some of them do now?
That, to me, is the major problem that we have to solve. And anyone who solves it deserves a major prize.
(Attention, foundations — this is something you should study!)