I’ve talked before here on the lack of solid information — statistical data — on the current state of classical music. This hits in two ways. First, about some things (ticket sales to orchestra and chamber music concerts) there either isn’t any data at all, or else the data hasn’t been made public. And second, the data that does exist (for instance the NEA’s periodic surveys of the classical music audience, or my own work on the age of the audience in the past) doesn’t seem to circulate enough.
As an example, look at an eager essay by Karin Brookes in the July-August 2005 issue of Symphony magazine (the publication of the League of American Orchestras), titled “Rally The Troops: Music Education Advocates Mobilize To Ensure That No Arts Are Left Behind.” This is a better than average version of the standard argument for music education, or rather for the need of classical music organizations to support music education: Without it, we won’t have a future audience.
Many people firmly believe this. But as she makes her case, Brookes flies off into what I’ll call magical thinking, the wholesale invention — though done honestly, with good intentions — of reality. Here’s the place where she does this:
Audience motivation research conducted by the American Symphony Orchestra League [the former name, of course, of the League of American Orchestras] in 2001 found that the average concertgoer had significant experience with music before age fourteen, and that 75 percent of the current audience had an opportunity to study an instrument — even if it was just a few months on the trombone in sixth grade. Unlike reading, playing soccer, or eating fine food, an interest in classical music seems to go into a long period of latency in early adulthood, before emerging once again after years of breadwinning and child-rearing. But this generally happens only if the spark was kindled during the school-age years.
And the payoffs aren’t immediate, either; the National Endowment for the Arts 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that the average age of classical concertgoers has held steady in the mid-50s for many years. The logical hypothesis that more music teachers in the schools will produce more people in the concert hall, unfortunately, would require decades of research to prove. Without decades to wait, orchestras have little choice but to advocate. orchestras have little choice but to advocate.
In passing, let’s note that this is fascinating logic. We can’t prove that music teachers in the school will generate our audience, but let’s use our precious resources of time, energy, and very likely money in a fight to get those teachers teaching. Suppose we’re wrong?
But let that go. What’s more fascinating — and really rather sad — is that, first, Brookes misstates the NEA’s data. I can’t imagine how she came to do this. Clearly she’d never seen the NEA document she mentions. Because what it says is very different, that the classical music audience (or, more strictly, people who reported in the 2000 census that they’d been to at least one classical performance) had a median age of 49, which was up from 45 in 1992 (and, as other NEA reports show, up from 40 in 1982).
So this is like a game of telephone (or, in Britain, chinese whispers). The NEA puts out not just one report, but a whole series, and what they say apparently gets distorted in transmission. People — and there are many of them — who believe that the classical music audience was always the same age it is now also, apparently, might believe that the NEA has data that supports their belief.
But what fascinates me most of all, in Brookes’s piece, is this:
Unlike reading, playing soccer, or eating fine food, an interest in
classical music seems to go into a long period of latency in early
adulthood, before emerging once again after years of breadwinning and
As far as I know, that’s 100% mythical. There’s no evidence for it. Yes, people might go to classical concerts more often as they get older, when they have more money and (because their kids are out of the house) more leisure. But the “latency period” never existed. Instead, as I’ve established here again and again (most recently in my post about the newest NEA data), the classical music audience used to be much younger. (See also my special page on evidence for this.) So the people in the age groups that now dominate the audience (middle-aged and over) started going when they were young, and kept on going as they aged.
There’s no evidence that they dropped out at any point. And one snapshot from the past makes the “latency” theory seem really silly. In 1966, the Twentieth Century Fund did a major study of the performing arts audience, and found it had a median age of 38, amazingly young compared to what we see now. That was true across all disciplines, including classical music. The authors of a book of the economics of the performing arts (also published by the Twentieth Century Fund) comment on this study, saying that the dominant fact of the audience is that it’s young — and then wondering why people stop going to performing arts events as they get older! Latency period? In 1966, at least, it clearly didn’t exist.
So why would someone smart and eager, like Karin Brookes, either make something like this up, or pass it on after finding the idea elsewhere? I can sympathize, actually. She doesn’t know that the classical music audience used to be young. As I’ve said, many people believe that.
So now, putting together everything she thinks is true, Brookes is faced with what seems like a contradiction. People who go to classical concerts were exposed to classical music when they were young. But they don’t go to concerts much until they’re older. How can we explain this? Maybe there’s a period of latency, a time (in youth and early middle age), when our interest in classical music lies dormant!
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Until, that is, you learn what the truth really is.
(I’ve made this post to demonstrate the harm that comes — in debates about the future of classical music — from not having accurate data.)