I’m amazed, from time to time, to see debates still raging in the classical music world about declines in ticket sales and the aging of the audience. You’d think we’d have settled these questions by now. How many cars does the US auto industry sell? We know that. So why don’t we know how many people are buying tickets to classical concerts? I’ll grant that the classical data is harder to assemble, since we have to gather information from many sources.
But still, it’s strikingly — well, pick a word: immature? unworldly? unprofessional? — certainly something not at all good that we in the classical music business can’t collectively point to data about some of our most urgent and hotly debated issues that all of us can agree on. Especially since the aging of the audience (as I’ve pretty firmly shown) can be established beyond much doubt.
And so now comes the National Endowment for the Arts with the latest of its periodic studies of the arts audience. We’ve seen numbers from 1982, 1992, 1997, 2002, and now 2008. (Later I’ll explain why I haven’t given links for the first two studies.) And what does the 2008 data show? It’s not good, though none of it, I have to say, should surprise anyone who’s looked at the earlier studies. But among much else, the new figures, as I’ll show, pretty much blow up any hope that the classical audience is going to be renewed — or at least renewed at the size it is now — by younger people coming into it in future years.
Why do I think that? Let’s start with some quotes from the NEA’s press release on the new numbers. (The press release is what the link in the last paragraph goes to. Though you can also read the actual study, and see the detailed data. I’ll show how later.)
Here are the quotes:
“There are persistent patterns of decline in participation for most art forms.”
“Between 1982 and 2008, attendance at performing arts such as classical music, jazz, opera, ballet, musical theater, and dramatic plays has seen double-digit rates of decline.”
“Audiences for jazz and classical music are substantially older than before….Since 1982, young adult (18-24) attendance rates for jazz and classical music have declined the most, compared with other art forms.”
And then, as if all this weren’t bad enough, there’s one final, killer finding, the one that blows up the hopeful belief that younger people can renew the classical audience:
“Forty-five to 54-year-olds – historically dependable arts participants – showed the steepest declines in attendance for most art events, compared with other age groups.”
But wait, it gets worse! If you look at the statistical tables that accompany the report, you’ll see that people 55 to 64 also show a steep decline in classical music attendance. So now we have people from 45 to 64 going less often to classical performances. That’s the core of the classical music audience! And they’re showing a greater decline than any other age group. Younger age groups, the tables show, had their most striking declines earlier. Now the core of the audience, people 45 to 64 — whose rate of attendance was more or less constant between 1982 and 2002 — has started to go to classical concerts less often. Only those 65 and over still go to classical concerts at the same rate that they did in the past.
So why does this show that the classical music audience isn’t renewing itself? First, we should remember that these age groups are moving targets. As the years pass, people get older, and those who were 45 to 64 in 1982 aren’t the same people who are 45 to 64 now.
So let’s look at those people who were 45 to 64 in 1982, and whose attendance at classical music events hadn’t yet started to decline. They were born between 1918 and 1937, and grew up — which I’ll roughly define as spending their high school and college years, from age 14 to age 22 — between 1932 and 1959. During those years, classical music hadn’t yet become a problem, still functioned as part of the mainstream of our culture, still reigned unchallenged as serious musical art, and, most important, still had a younger audience. It was natural for younger people to go to classical concerts, and then to keep going as they grew older, and still to keep going now.
But what about people aged 45 to 64 now? They were born between 1945 and 1964, and grew up, roughly speaking, between 1959 and 1986. Those were years when interest in classical music started to decline, when popular culture rose up (starting in the ’60s) with a force and seriousness never seen before, and when the classical music audience was starting to age. Younger people, during those years, were increasingly less likely to go to classical concerts.
And so why should we be surprised that people in this age group are going to classical concerts less often now? What all this really means is that, as time goes on, people coming into what used to be seen as the prime classical concertgoing ages — 45 and older — increasingly grew up at a time when classical music had started to recede from the cultural mainstream. So naturally they’re less interested in classical music than the generations before them were. With each passing year, more people from 45 to 64 fit this description, and, no surprise, are less interested than those before them in going to classical concerts.
And thus we see the dire numbers that the new NEA study reveals. Unless we have reasons to believe that these trends will reverse — and what would those reasons be? — as time goes on, a smaller percentage of Americans in all age groups (even, eventually, those over 65) will go to classical performances, and the classical audience, rather than being renewed, will shrink.
1. In my next post, I’ll show why a declining percentage of people going to classical concerts might not yet mean a decline in absolute numbers, a decline in the actual count of people attending. But, even if we haven’t seen it yet, it’s surely coming in the future.
2. The NEA, for reasons best known to itself, treats classical music and opera as separate categories in these studies. The numbers I’m quoting all come from the classical music category. Many fewer people attend opera (maybe because there aren’t as many opera performances as there are orchestra and chamber concerts), and — very interesting, this — the percentage of people going to opera only declined after 2002. The idea, though, that there was any increase in younger people going to opera in recent decades looks like a myth, though what really did happen — that the percentage of younger people in the audience after 1982 didn’t decline until our current decade — is still pretty striking.
3. Links. The 2008 link I gave at the start, goes, as I said, to the NEA’s news release about the study. But for people who want more, they offer links to an NEA brochure about the study, to detailed statistical tables, and to a summary page with still more links. As for the 1982 and 1992 studies, they aren’t available online. But data from them is included in the statistical tables appended to the new study, and here’s a link to another NEA study that refers to those earlier years. You can also go here to find out how to order hard copies of the studies not available online.