Old debates

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.

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  1. says

    it’s been common knowledge for years (and certainly, i can acknowledge anecdotally, the greying of the classical music audience over the past few decades that i’ve been performing. hell, i have a pretty good view of audiences from the stage!) that the audience for classical music has been getting older. bless you for making the case factually. it disturbs me that people would dispute this instead of spending a bit more time digging their heads out of the sand and digging in to the process of reinvigorating new generations’ interest and passion for classical music. if one is dedicated and sincere in one’s mission, it’s not such an uphill battle, but it is, still, a battle.

    thanks, greg.

  2. Trevor O'Donnell says

    Excellent post. I can’t thank you enough for making an argument that is so well supported by objective data.

    And please don’t apologize for numbers. The arts have been coasting for decades (downhill, it appears) on anecdotes, observations and the expert opinions of dubious authorities. It is the absence of hard data that got us into this bind and only hard data will get us out.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could banish the phrase “I think…” from the strategic audience development discussion and replace it with “The data show…”?

  3. Heather Bentley says

    I’d like to see some data on the actual cost (adjusted for inflation) of attending the symphony back in the 50’s compared to now. Being a 40-something, I know how difficult it can be to attend a cultural event that my kids don’t want to attend, and I think the younger set the classical world is seeking to attract are not so much teenagers and 20-somethings, but adults in their child-raising years, with their higher earnings and potential to become donors. Perhaps in earlier times a ticket to the symphony did not cost as much? A babysitter for the evening was cheaper? Teenaged babysitters charge a minimum of $10/hour now, and two parent working families are loathe to spend even more time away from their children, regardless of cost. Back in the 50’s, did families go to the symphony together? Has the symphonic/opera world created an environment that states “adults only”? I hear my peers saying that they will go out more once the kids are grown up. At the same time, I am seeing that the concerts put on in smaller venues with less formality, though they don’t have the same audience capacity that a large symphony hall has (thousands) are drawing healthy crowds with a large range of ages. The quality of the music is just as high.

    Heather, these are excellent questions.
    I do know — it’s often discussed inside the orchestra world — that ticket prices have increased far more than the inflation rate. So from that point of view (which doesn’t yet take into account the cost of babysitters, getting to concerts, and so forth), it’s more expensive to attend now than it used to be.

    And from an overall perspective, the kind economists would use, it’s become more expensive to put on classical concerts, especially large ones, like opera and orchestra performances.This is a long-term process, and, if we believe the economc principles involved, is still continuing, and in fact will always continue. Economic activity that doesn’t manufacture products — orchestras and hospitals are two classic examples — grow more expensive over time, relative to the rest of the eocnomy, because they don’t show productivity gains. A manufacturing company can make many more products at lower cost and with fewer workers, as compared to decades ago, but orchestras still have the same number of musicians (and, in fact, much larger staffs).

    Finally (though it’s related to the last point), the percentage the budget that comes from ticket sales has steadily decreased, since at least the 1920s or the 1930s (I have 1930s data from orchestras, and data from the Metropolitan Opera in the ’20s, when, believe it or not, the company made a profit). So from that point of view, too, the whole enterprise has grown more expensive.

  4. says

    I would also love to see more young Parisian aristocrats in the concert hall. Heck, I’d love to see any young aristocrats in the hall today, but they’re kind of few and far between. Perhaps not surprisingly, they don’t show up in contemporary fiction all that often, either.

  5. Steve Soderberg says

    I tried to make the point before that we still don’t have any hard data (comparable to the recent NEA study & others Greg has mentioned) for trends OUTSIDE the U.S. At least not as far as I know. But if we are going to argue about a crisis in the arts and what to do about it – and keep it only within “our” borders with just a few excursions outside – then: Could we at least stop beating the graying horse stuff for just long enough to consider slicing the demographics a different way?

    Go back to the NEA brochure (http://www.nea.gov/research/NEA-SPPA-brochure.pdf) and take a look at the very first graph on page 3. There is a category there that is used by them for the first time based on data only begun to be gathered in 2008: “Latin, Spanish, or salsa music” performances. This category makes only one or two other appearances throughout the report because it can’t be compared to data from previous years. It’s a highly “unexpected” category in this context.

    My guess is that the people at NEA are looking at MULTI-dimensional demographics based on census figures. A recent press release from the Census Bureau (http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/



    “[T]he Hispanic population [in the U.S.] is projected to nearly triple, from 46.7 million to 132.8 million during the 2008-2050 period. Its share of the nation’s total population is projected to double, from 15 percent to 30 percent. Thus, nearly one in three U.S. residents would be Hispanic.”

    There are also gains for the African American and Asian populations, but not nearly as dramatic. One group, though, is in decline:

    “The non-Hispanic, single-race white population is projected to be only slightly larger in 2050 (203.3 million) than in 2008 (199.8 million). In fact, this group is projected to lose population in the 2030s and 2040s and comprise 46 percent of the total population in 2050, down from 66 percent in 2008.”

    Music-historically, is this latter group not the one that gave us the mostly European composers from the lately oft-maligned “common practice period”? And now – the big guess with no statistics to back it up: Does this group also not supply the majority and backbone of classical music’s audience in the U.S. in the past and today – the one that’s aging and shrinking?

    Without a doubt, music presentations & venues will be changing dramatically over the next fifty years. But this does not eo ipso imply that the repertoire must change dramatically as well. It will continue to expand, certainly, but not necessarily change to something unrecognizable.

    There are no answers here as yet. I am presenting this not as an alternative/replacement problem to the generational one we would all like to solve, but as a concomitant problem that we would be foolish to ignore. Maybe there’s a retired economist in Venezuela who could give us some advice.

    Steve, this is a terrific point. I’d amalgamate it with my thoughts about the aging audience more or less like this: the ultimate problem is that classical music has grown more distant from our culture. That, in the end, is why the audience has aged. It’s people who grew up before classical music grew so distant who are more likely to go to concerts.

    The growing distance could be informally measured by tracking changes in our culture, and seeing how classical music doesn’t reflect those changes. The large demographic changes you so importantly mention — the way the US is becoming a “majority minority” country — would be yet another development that classical music hasn’t kept up with.

  6. Christiana Thomas says

    Forgive me, Greg, for coming to this party late. Here’s my personal experience w/r/t arts attendance. It may or may not be the situation of the general young would-be audience member.

    I am 35 with 2 kids under 4, living 40 miles outside a major metro area. My husband teaches college, and I work at an arts non-profit. I simply cannot afford the time, money, and energy it would take for me to haul myself into a concert. In my 20’s I was poor, and only bought the occasional student rush ticket, or stubbed in. Now that I am somewhat more gainfully employed, I have childcare expenses to worry about, health costs, a house to buy, etc. Even seeing that my favorite soprano would be singing in my favorite opera wouldn’t get me to purchase a ticket. Art is beyond my reach right now.

    I hope that sometime in my late 40’s, I may be able to buy a few single tickets here and there. In my 50’s, after I’m done paying for their college expenses, I may be able to attend more. By the time I’m ready to retire, I’ll be able to afford to subscribe, and be one of the old patrons that everyone is so concerned about.

    Until then, if someone wants to make concert art more friendly for young families let me know!

    Thanks for this personal testimony, Christiana. It’s important, and not unfamiliar. I think marketing directors find that there are many people like you.

    In past generations, what you’re describing didn’t seem to happen. I’d love to know much more about why. In a 1937 study, the audience at two American orchestras was found to consist largely of housewives and studens. In a 1955 study, the audience at one big audience was about 25% housewives. Was this because women generally didn’t work outside the home, and that their housework left them free to attend concerts, apparently without their husbands? In the early days of the 20th century, the audience was, apparently, largely female. There also, in these past generations, were more people from high society attending. They, I’d assume, didn’t have to worry about childcare or the cost of a ticket.

    One group that’s addressed the childcare issue is the very successful River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston. They give their concerts at 5 PM, and offer childcare until (I think) 9. Couples come, drop off their kids, attend the concert, and then go out for the evening. If only more institutions could make this possible!

  7. Charlie B says

    Such data is pre-construed. The soureces of information about classical audiences is very partial and unreliable. It takes not account of relative numbers of performances or cost (let alone musical factors), The argument is mainly about marketing budgets. Real factors in musical demographics, in an era that has seen successive revolutions in recorded media and the rise of a huge recorded market in recorded popular music, cannot be reflected simply in ages of attendamnce (even if reliable data was available). Moreover, such comparative efforts require comparisons with ages of audiences in earlier periods too. God help us, we’ll be moving on to the “young people are put off my the stuffy clothes” nonsense next.

  8. says

    Thank you for posting this Greg! I remember taking your course at ESM a few years ago and it was very enlightening.

    My question would have to be: How do you fight this?

    The concept of an aging audience would imply the eventual extinction of an audience, correct?

    Should we list concert goers on the endangered species list?

    Hi, Max. Important questions!

    I do think the traditional concert audience is endangered, which would then mean that traditional classical concerts are endangered, too.

    How to fix that? I think a big part of the answer lies with classical musicians your age. You bridge the gap between classical music and the rest of our culture, because you live in both worlds at once. If you can find ways to bring in an audience your age, the future will be bright. And concerts will surely look very different, which might be hard for the present audience to accept. I sympathize with them, but change is surely coming.

  9. says

    If you’re convinced that throwing off the formality of the concert hall is the silver bullet, think again. According to the most recent NEA study, the audience for jazz music (which is typically presented in far more casual settings) is aging even faster than it is for classical music.

    Well, first I don’t think there’s any silver bullet.

    And the fact that jazz attendance is also dropping doesn’t prove anything about the effect of informality. Sure, jazz concerts are more informal than classical events, but there are many, many, many other factors involved that affect attendance. We’d have to control for all those factors before we could measure the effect of informality alone.

  10. Matthieu Csernel says

    Hi Greg,

    Really interesting article. When you speak of the audience at the beginning of the XXth century, I have the feeling that at that time, the hip musical events were classical ones. The big events everyone were thrilled about were the same one that have such a difficult time finding their audience.

    Also, at that time, leisure were in my mind less diversified. There is no more hip about attending a classical concert (with a few exceptions) and classical events must compete with smaller budgets, mainstream events, movies, gaming and so on.

    I think that Christiana Thomas also has a point regarding the modern way of life. My parents began subscribing to various concert programs after their kids were 20 and I will probably do the same.

  11. Craig Combs says

    Seems to me that it is an obvious and simple fact that the audience for traditional classical music has become much smaller. I attend concerts regularly in London and perform standard repertoire regularly in small communities and rural areas of the US. The audiences’ average age is very high. I’ve been to many workshops that try to explain why this is so and how we can reverse the trend. I have concluded that the trend is going to continue simply because it is a natural evolution.

    It isn’t just classical music. I have many friends that perform largely jazz, world music, and bluegrass. They all complain of declining audiences just as I do in classical music. The same complaints are mirrored by folk in the cabaret and theater world. I’ve even heard rock and country music folk complain about the direction of their music even with the large audiences they enjoy. It is a complete cultural change that we are experiencing. The world has shifted right in front of our ears!

    I used to spend lots of time wondering what was wrong with my programming, trying to draw in younger audiences with new dynamic art music, networking with teachers to create younger and new audiences, and implementing lots of other ideas I gathered from workshops and conventions from across the U. S. Implementing these ideas helped me understand that the society no longer supports art music as a requisite for civilization, but rather as an option, an elective. The comments above by Christina on family culture and Steve on demographics go right to the heart of the issue.

    A last point, as the Internet continues to level the playing field between individual musicians and the music industry, the audience will continue to have ever more musical options from which to choose thus further shrinking the audiences. Eventually this too will change and future musicologists will write about the shifting nature of our times just as we talk about the shifting nature of past centuries.