Seems like a couple of points often — always? — come up when I talk about changes — aging, shrinkage — in the classical music audience.
Any stats about aging (and there are plenty, proving the aging of the audience, over many years, beyond much doubt) elicit a familiar response, that the population as a whole has aged, and so the aging of the classical music audience is simply something one would expect.
(Some of what follows might be a little dry, for those who don’t move easily in the world of numbers. Apologies for that, though of course there really isn’t any other way to delve into these issues.)
But there’s more to the aging of the audience than that. If the classical music audience had aged simply because the population had, then the relationship of ages — the relationship of the classical music audience’s age to the age of the population as a whole — would remain the same. If the classical audience was, let’s say, 10% older than the population at large in 1950, it’d be 10% older today.
But that’s not the case. In the 1950s, when the Minnesota Orchestra found that its audience had a median age of around 35, the median age of the population was just a hair over 30. In our present decade, when one major orchestra told me privately that the median age of their single-ticket buyers was late ’50s, and for subscribers over 60 — typical figures for an orchestra that size — the median age was only around 36. Clearly, if these figures are representative, in the 1950s orchestras had an audience about 16% older than the population as a whole, while in our time, the audience (figuring a median age of about 60) would be 67% older.
These are rough figures; many approximations went into my calculations. (For instance, I don’t have age data for 1955. The earliest figures I can find were for 1958, so I compared the audience age in 1955 to the population’s age in 1958.) But I don’t think the approximations make my calculations suspect. The trends are too large to be thrown off by small approximations.
For another look at the same phenomenon, consider NEA data that shows the median age of the classical music audience increasing from 40 in 1982 to 49 in 2008. That’s a 22% rise. The median age of the population, meanwhile, went up from 31 to 36, a 16% rise. So the classical audience is aging faster than the general population, a point, by the way, that the NEA has been making in various public statements for many yeras.
(The NEA’s age figures are lower than those reported by orchestras, for reasons I’ve discussed before. The NEA doesn’t focus on any part of the classical audience, and in fact defines “classical audience” as people 18 and over who say they’ve been to classical concerts. They aren’t asked which concerts they went to. The orchestra audience is a subset of that, clearly with its own characteristics, one of which is that it’s older.)
Not that my saying this will put the argument to rest. I’m sure I’ll get the same response next time I raise these issues. Not everyone reads all of my posts, and it’s hard to think about these issues — hard to separate speculation from fact, especially when the facts aren’t terribly well known, and can be hard to find.
One more argument I’ve run into. When I talk about the classical music audience being much younger very far in the past — for instance, when I cite the famous passage about teens and young adults hearing Beethoven’s Fifth at a concert, in E.M. Forster’s 1904 novel Howard’s End — I’ll be told that life expectancy was so much lower in those distant years that the youth of the classical music audience doesn’t mean what it would mean today. One person posting a comment here even said that in 1904 people 25 years old were middleaged!
This, with all respect, is just zany. Life expectancy was lower in those past years for many reasons. People died in childbirth more often than they do now, and also died more often in infancy, childhood, and young adulthood. Nor of course did people so readily live into their 80s and 90s as they currently do.
But that didn’t mean that the population you’d encounter as you went about your life in the 19th century, let’s say, skewed notably younger than what we see today, and certainly not that 25 was the middle of life for those who made it that far. Average life expectancy is a misleading statistic here, since it includes so many people who died very young. If you read literature from the past, you see an age distribution among the characters that doesn’t seem all that far off from what we see now. I’m reading Dickens’ Bleak House right now, for instance. There are young characters, middleaged characters, and old characters. Similarly with Balzac, whom I read over the past year, and for that matter Shakespeare.
And the young characters act young, while the old characters act older. If, in Balzac, you find Parisian aristocrats in their 20s going to the opera every night, that’s not because they’re behaving the way 55 year-olds behave today. They clearly don’t, and the contrast — in things other than opera attendance — between them and the older people they encounter is very much the contrast we’d see today, between people in their 20s and people in their 50s.
So if the people in their 20s went to the opera constantly, that shows a different relationship to opera and classical music than people in their 20s have today. It hardly matters — for my purposes here — that the people in their 20s might get married earlier than they would now, or that possibly they’d encounter fewer people in their 50s and 60s than people in their 20s encounter today. The relationships between people of all these ages remained very much the same, and so the presence of many 25 year-olds at the opera really does mean something.