Where we stand, 2009

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?

The future

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!)

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  1. Richard Mitnick says


    Glad to see you back in harness. Now I can at least keep up to date.


  2. says

    Hi Greg,

    In case you didn’t see it when it was originally published, I’d like to shamelessly refer you to my 2007 Take A Friend To The Orchestra essay: http://www.adaptistration.com/?p=1188

    I deal with underlying elements of audience expectations and approaches to music consumption in a way which I think fits well with your “alternative” events concept and helps explain their success.


  3. Richard Mitnick says

    So, O.K., taking the dimmest view possible, the audience for classical music in concert is at least in a downturn, and may not move back up.

    But, is the live concert paradigm all there is?

    I will state at the outset that I do not go to live concerts. So, anyone who wants to tune me out, here is the chance. First, I am claustrophobic. Second, I am lazy and cheap. The music I listen two is either on FM, a web stream, or in my own (massive but far from well balanced) collection.

    I believe that the most important thing we music lovers need to do is to financially support the creators of music, be they living composers or musicians.

    I started with my own collection which runs from Beethoven through Golijov. Much of my stimulation was from my father, and a lot was from several PubRadio people who are great teachers. Now, I find great stimulation from several web based music services from Public Radio and sources like Bang On a Can, Innova, etc. My choice of what segment of the industry to support is living composers. So, when my PubRadio station plays something like Michael Gordon’s “Decasia” and I love it, I buy it, in mp3. I bought this work right from Bang On a Can. Several days ago read about Wojciech Kilar’s “Orawa” at sequenza21. I listened to a chunk of it, I liked it, so I popped over to Amazon and bought “Requiem Father Kolbe”, of which it is one track. That’s how I do it.

    I am also using several critical surveys in book form.

    I know that people don’t get rich from mp3 sales. But, it is my financial contribution, and I buy a lot of music this way.

    One of my favorite on-air personalities specializes in very old and very new music. He just did his second 24 hour marathon of 21st century orchestral and symphonic music. I got the playlist, and bought some Kaija Saariaho. It is just an 18 minute piece; but it will have me looking for more of her work.

    In my view, the great hope for classical music in this country is Public Radio, especially with web streams. Now, people literally all over the world can take advantage of what can be learned from services like WNYC, WCPE, WCNY, and recently public WPRB (notice, I did not mention Classical 24 or the newly dead C.P.R.N.).

    Music education in schools is something about which we can wring our hands. It is not something upon which we can count. I was very fortunate to be given a love of serious music by my father. I am 67, I had music in school. It was dreadful. I got nothing from it.

    In the end, the audience for live concerts is severely limited by money, geography, and time. The audience for recorded music is essentially limitless. That is where I see the future.

    The above are just the facts of my musical life and my opinions, nothing more.


    Hi, RIchard. Nice to see you here.

    I hear music primarily on recordings myself, so I’m certainly not going to disagree with you. You did remind me, though, of so many things I might have said, but didn’t. One of them is that classical recording essentially tanked as a way to make money a decade or so ago. Much of it now is for practical purposes nonprofit, and the huge (or once-huge) major labels, where big money is spent recording major stars, do worse and worse as time goes on. I doubt they’d survive without crossover projects that really aren’t classical at all.

  4. Tristan Parker says

    The last question you bring up seems rather naive to me. After all, the generalized form of that question (how do musicians in general make a living?) has a rather well known and common-sense answer: get a job.

    I don’t want to be taken as hostile, I’m a musician myself and I do wish I could make a living off of my music, but I have accepted that this is a very unlikely scenario. It seems strange to me that this is not such an obvious answer for mainstream classical musicians.

    In the mainstream classical world, not every musician makes a living from music. But a lot do, by playing in orchestras, by playing a variety of freelance gigs, and by teaching. The students I teach at Juilliard and Eastman may not think they’re guaranteed a living wage from music, but they know it’s possible. If the mainstream keeps shrinking, it’ll be less possible. That’s a major change for classical musicians, and not one that many of them (as far as I know) are prepared for.

  5. Richard Mitnick says


    If you want a view of how currently active musicians and composers keep body and soul together, visit the following two sites which have been the project of Philip Blackburn at Innova.mu, the web site and recording label for the American Composers’ Forum, St Paul, MN.

    Philip does all of the interviews himself, and Innova produces many of the artists. There are interesting interviews of other people in the music “business”. Everything is available as a podcast. I put all of them on my mp3 player and took Philip and his guests for exercise walks.

    Warning: there are over seventy interviews, and none are brand new, but hey…

    “Alive and Composing” is at


    “Measure for Measure” is at:


    I am not a musician or in the music industry; but I am a passionate listener and collector. I found these interviews fascinating and I have purchased music composed by some of the people you will hear. Innova.mu has a number of streams at Live365, so one can listen and then, hark, hark, like something and buy it.


    Thanks for the welcome. I was fearful that I was maybe not in the right sandbox, so, I am relieved. I promise to not be too intrusive.


  6. Suzanne Derringer says

    Happy New Year, Greg –

    Here in Vienna we’re just beginning to think about 2009, it’s a long holiday period up to Epiphany (yesterday) and most people are just getting back to work today. Or not! I have attended many Masses and Vespers and Advent concerts in various churches here, and found that the ‘audience demographics’ are essentially the same as for ‘classical’ concerts: a preponderance of people who look like they could be our parents. True, the Austrian population, like that of much of Europe, is aging; it is also true that immigrants and the children of immigrants, who come from cultures not connected to the European ‘classical’ music tradition, are becoming a significant percentage of the population – which in itself creates a further cultural shift. (The first baby born in Vienna in 2009 was to a lovely young woman with a Turkish name. Very likely, she won’t be singing Brahms’ Lullaby to her child. My grandma had a music box which played it – possibly the first ‘classical’ music I heard at home.)

    What I am trying to say is what we have said before: we are moving farther in time from the era when ‘classical’ music was written – and the world for which it was written – and it is not only a gulf of time but, as we’ve noted before, the major dislocation of the two world wars and a clear break, especially in the US, with the older, more formal European culture. Consider the fate of Korngold after WWII – his lush romantic film scores didn’t fit into the world of James Dean and Marlon Brando. The Revolution of 1968 further distanced US culture from the older European forms. And large-scale migration in the years since, in both the US and Europe, are changing the host societies as much as the great late 19th 0 early 20th century immigration flood from central and southern Europe changed culture in the US.

    As for recording – I worked for RCA Red Seal for a while in the mid-80s: even then, they were recording less, and smaller projects. I remember being in the recording studio when Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax were doing the Beethoven cello sonatas. RCA was busy re-releasing, on the new CD format, treasures from their vaults – Rubinstein’s Chopin, etc. This was cheaper than signing new artists and spending money to promote them. Large-scale recordings? Not in the US: too expensive. They were doing some co-productions with Erato in Europe. The market for classical recordings was shrinking. But, as you said, in the past decade, the big companies have all but ceased to function.

    Recent technology makes it possible to do professional-quality sound recording almost anywhere, inexpensively, so there are now more recordings being made than ever before – but the distribution system doesn’t exist anymore. Anyone can make a CD – but how do you market it? The big companies used to sign a few ‘star’ conductors, soloists, singers – and used the tools of marketing to further their careers, both in terms of live performances and recordings. This necessarily left out most of the performing world. Now, anyone can make a CD – but how do you sell it?

    And to whom?

    Thanks as always, Suzanne.

    As for selling recorded music (CDs and downloads)…pop musicians find ways to do that. Of course, their market is larger. And they don’t sell as many recordings as they used to, if they’re on a major label. And major labels are signing fewer artists than they used to.

    Still, an enterprising pop musician who finds an audience can sell many more recordings than most people in classical music, including most of the biggest stars. So I’d say that classical musicians who make recordings should try to find an audience of their own. But that’s a larger story. The normal ways in which classical music is marketed and publicized don’t allow for that.

  7. says

    Excellent synopsis, Greg. I remember back in the 1980s, when Adele Marcus, teaching at The Juilliard School, told many of her pupils that there are many ways one can make a career in music. Her pupils, though, for the most part, were going for the big career, recordings, big concerto dates, recitals etc. It didn’t occur to many of us that writing music, teaching, arranging, editing etc was also part of a career, at least for a pianist. Personally, I saw the writing on the wall in the 1990s and decided to create commissioning projects and perform repertoire ‘outside of the box’. I do agree that it is up to orchestras and musicians performing classical (whatever that truly means since it covers over 300 years of music) to educate and entertain new audiences, and I still believe that by utilizing new technology in a fresh way is one way to go. I also believe that in the future, concert halls will be more internet ready and available for ‘vitual attending’ to allow others outside of the concert hall to ‘be there’. This will open more doors. The old days of ‘I have to get signed with a BIG record company’ is not as important, and there are many ways to carve a career as a musician and many ways to get new audiences into ‘classical’ music. I would like to see much more collaboration amongst the motion picture composers and the symphony orchestras, as well as joining these composers with classical composers who write strictly for the concert hall. Ditto with pop music writers. It worked for Gershwin! As a song writer, he went ‘outside of the box’ and wrote for the concert hall, as did Leonard Bernstein. They knew how to reach listeners from all circles.

  8. James Glicker says


    Good to see you writing again. Classical music certainly needs your help.

    I would like to jump into the eternal discussion about the ageing of the audience. While I lived in the US, and worked in the classical music ‘industry’, I was often told that the audience for classical music had always been old, and that this was nothing to worry about. Customers will come to us, I heard, and when the baby boomer generation gets old enough, we’ll be flooded with attendance.

    Well, needless to say, this hasn’t happened. But from my current vantage point in Britain, I see much younger and more diverse audiences. Both discussions with people in the industry and my observations have suggested that this is largely a function of (1)the price of tickets and (2) the quality and innovation of programs. I regularly attended the Proms last summer, and I went as a ‘prommer’, which means I stood up in the gallery or sat on the floor. My ‘season ticket’ for 76 concerts cost me £180 ($240); that comes out to $3 a ticket. Granted, I only schlepped over to the Albert Hall for about half the concerts, but still that meant I was paying $6 a ticket.

    For that I got to see the following: a complete semi-staged performance of ‘Poppea’ with the entire cast and orchestra brought intact from Glyndebourne; Mahler 6 by the Chicago under Haitink; the St John Passion conducted by John Eliot Gardiner; Colin Davis conducting a youth orchestra in Sibelius 2; the Arab-Israeli youth orchestra conducted by Barenboim; Berlin doing Turangalila with Rattle; Nigel Kennedy, Julia Fischer, Helene Grimaud, Bryn Teufel…..Most of these concerts filled a 6000 seat hall, with 1500 people standing (in the case of Poppea for over 4 hours!) on a weeknight.

    Now of course the Proms are subsidised (by the benevolent BBC no less). But I can virtually guarantee that if you brought these events to any major American city for an average ticket price of around $18 (or £11 which is what the Proms average is) you’d not only attract large crowds but diverse ones as well.

    Let me emphasize that, although the subsidy (and subsequently lower ticket prices) are critical, the bold programming is equally if not more important. What large organization in the States had both a Messaien and Stockhausen celebration last year? If I’m considering between seeing my local orchestra do a standard concert program (overture, concerto, symphony) with warhorses and the same old touring soloists for $50, or the Rachmaninov Vespers sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (at the Proms for an average price of £8 or $12……..it’s a no brainer.

    Hi, James. Good to see you here, and you make a terrific point. I’ve heard a lot about the proms, and the young audience they attract, and I’m glad to have more confirmation of it.

    But unfortunately, the subsidy — at least in the current thinking of the American classical music world — is the key. There have been some notable ticket price reductions in the US, including a big one at your former shop, the Baltimore Symphony. And always these reductions are covered by special donations, so the organizations involved don’t take any risk. I’d love to see them forge ahead in this way on a bold commercial basis, but I understand that this scares them, maybe with good reason. But then it’s hard to understand how any long-term low-price program, especially with innovative programming, could exist here if someone didn’t thoroughly underwrite it.

    And, of course, it’s hard to find any American classical music organization (except for the music department at WNYC, the public radio station in NY) with the imagination of the BBC.

    About low subscription prices. I’m fascinated by the $3 per ticket number. At a university I know of, subscription prices for a chamber music series haven’t been raised for decades. The price of a ticket there worked out to about $3. As a result, the (elderly) subscribers pick the concerts they want to attend, and simply don’t show up for the others. The cost, on a per-ticket basis, is so low that people don’t mind simply throwing their tickets away. As result, the hall is often fairly empty, and because the people who run the series can’t predict who’ll show and who won’t, they feel they can’t resell the tickets. I guess it’s different at the Proms!

  9. James Glicker says

    The Proms does a clever thing with the cheap subscriptions to get around the problem your university has. If a season holder doesn’t arrive more than 15 minutes before the start, they sell your space for £5. They manage this very cleverly; every person in the ‘cheap seats’ goes in via two doors, one for the Arena (the floor of the hall) and one for the Gallery (the upper level). They count the total number that go through each door (with a clicker) and fill it up after the 15 minute mark. Smart system–of course, they’ve been doing it for over 100 years.

    Thanks, James. It’s a very smart system.