The National Endowment for the Arts has just released what — at least for the classical music world — looks like a bombshell: its 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (the latest in a series of surveys it’s been issuing since 1982).
Now, a summary of the report, along with some supporting statistics, was released months ago, before the summer, and I certainly treated it as a bombshell. I blogged about it here under the title “Dire data.” The classical music audience, the report clearly spelled out, was not just aging, but growing smaller as a percentage of the adult American population. Clearly the decline would continue, and so the audience for classical music — the base of support for all classical music organizations — would certainly shrink.
Well, now the NEA more or less officially says they’ve set off a bomb, because they underlined the release with a three-hour webcast discussing it, with participants that included Jesse Rosen, the president of the League of American Orchestras.
And the bomb cuts across all the arts, because the heart of the report is that attendance at events is declining everywhere you look. There’s a bigtime shift to doing things online, and…well, I think we know about that.
But let me cut to the heart of this. The League a couple of weeks ago privately released its response to the NEA data (which was leaked to me, but not, I have to stress, by any of my friends at the League; almost always, they scrupulously keep me in the dark, and I don’t blame them a bit). It was based not just on the NEA report, but on a study the League privately commissioned from McKinsey, which supported everything the NEA says.
This response — courageous, grounded, responsible, and remarkably frank — is now public, and I think it’s the biggest bombshell of all.
Why? Because in it, the League blows the whistle on a cherished belief in the classical music world, the belief that the classical music audience will always be renewed. According to this belief, people may not go to classical concerts when they’re young, in their 20s and 30s, or even in their 40s. But when they grow older, they’ll start to go.
No way, says the League. Or, to quote their language, “we cannot assume that people will attend more as they enter the 45+ age group.” Inside the classical music world, this is huge, coming from a central, mainstream organization like the League.
As, in only a barely less bombshelly way, is something else they say: “Classical musical audiences are graying, faster than the general public.” Faithful readers of this blog know that the audience has aged drastically in the past 50 years, but that information (along with the NEA’s steady accounts of increase in age, ever since they started measuring it in 1982) hasn’t circulated as much as it should have.
And so many people in classical music cling to the comforting belief that the audience has always been old, and that therefore its present age isn’t a problem.
I don’t think they can cling anymore.
So there you are. I could wax either proud or huffy, or both, and scream from my highest soapbox that I’ve been saying these things for years. And that I repeated them months ago when the NEA data first surfaced.
But never mind. This isn’t about me. A significant mainstream classical music institution — one that, let’s not forget, represents almost every orchestra in the US — is now saying what I’ve long said. The core classical audience has been shrinking, and is going to shrink more. And I can’t see how the classical music world can go on denying that truth.
Here’s one key part of the League’s response to the NEA data. Though if you’re seriously interested in all this, you should read the complete document, which also considers what the League thinks are hopeful signs, the “high level of interest” (to use their phrase) in classical music online, and a rise in the number of people who play classical music themselves.
Here’s the part that I’ve referred to (which, I should note, offers more detail — some of it important — than the analysis I presented back in June). The boldface type is from their document.
1. The percentage of the U.S. population that attends classical music events has been declining over 25 years, with the steepest drop between 2002 and 2008. Overall classical music participation rates declined by 29% between 1982 and 2008, and by 20% between 2002 and 2008.
2. All performing arts have seen similar declines over the past 25 years and the past six years. So have sports events, movie theaters, and outdoor activities. For example, opera has seen a 30% decline; active sports a 32% decline between 2002 and 2008.
3. Through 2002, declining participation rates were masked by growth in key segments of the population; so while unique audience (the number of people who reported attending at least once a year) was increasing, the percent of the total population was declining. Since 2002, however, the unique audience for live classical music has declined by 13%, because population growth is no longer enough to counter declining participation rates.
[“Unique audience” — the number of people who go to classical music performances, as opposed to the total attendance at those events. Total attendance will of course be higher than the number of individuals attending, because many people go more than once.]
4. Since 1982, participation rates have generally declined both between and within generations. So we cannot assume that people will attend more as they enter the 45+ age group. So, for example, Gen Xers participate less than did Late Boomers at the same age.
5. Boomers probably are attending more frequently. That is why we seem to see more of them, even though their participation rate is down. In 2002, 15.2% of adults aged 45-54 participated; by 2008 the percentage had dropped to 10.2%.
[That is, individual boomers are going to classical events more often, even though the number of boomer individuals who go has declined.]
6. Orchestra Statistical Report increases in attendance also can be explained by frequency.
[Translation: Orchestras have reported (mostly small) increases in attendance over the past couple of years, but that’s because some of the most loyal members of the audience have been going more frequently. This, as the League notes elsewhere, might be due to successful
marketing to the core audience, a point I’ve often made. But this marketing had one big limitation. It induced the most loyal ticket-buyers to go more often, but it didn’t bring many new people in.]
7. Classical musical audiences are graying, faster than the general public. The median age for classical music attendance has steadily risen, from 40 in 1982, to 49 in 2008. The median age for the U.S. adult population rose from 39 to 45 during the same period.
My readers know that I’d take this further. But forget that, for the moment. The League — to repeat what I said earlier — has risen to the occasion here, and presented a solid, clear, and courageous analysis. I trust people will take it seriously.