One last thought…

…about the dead-horse essay I’ve been beating. The writer of this airy document, Heather Mac Donald, offers this notion:

[Perceptions of a declining audience demand for classical music in our time], however valid, should be kept in historical perspective. Much of today’s standard repertoire was never intended for a mass audience–not even an 1820s Viennese “mass audience,” much less a 2010 American one.

I’ve seen many people make this point. The reasoning, I guess, would be something like this: Classical music has never had, and was never meant to have, a mass audience. So it can survive without one now.

The problems with this line of thought are staggering.

First, the reasoning, if it goes the way I suggested, is specious. Fine — classical music never had a mass audience. But it had enough support, given in whatever form, to survive. That doesn’t mean it can find support today. What’s missing here is data and analysis. How did classical music survive in the past? What supports it, or could support it, now? How secure is its current support?

Second, the argument is entirely a red herring. Nobody says — or certainly I don’t say — that classical music needs mass support. Maybe it’s a specialized, highly rarefied, highly artistic niche. The question, then, isn’t how large the audience in that niche might be, but whether the audience — of whatever size — is sustainable.

People these days who say classical music needs a new audience aren’t saying that it needs a mass audience. They’re saying that its niche audience might disappear, and needs — inside the niche — to be replaced.

Besides, Mac Donald has just quoted people — and cited statistics — suggesting that demand for classical music is diminishing. So how does it help us to insist that support was never all that strong in the past? We’re not living in the past. We’re facing that declining demand — if that’s an accurate picture of what’s going on — right now.

Finally, the notion of a mass market is meaningless historically. There wasn’t any such thing in the 18th century, or in much of the 19th. The largest part of the population — laborers and farmers — weren’t part of any organized music audience. Any kind of formal musical performance, anything staged for an audience in a theater or concert space, would have been for an audience of aristocrats, with more and more newly well-off, newly ambitious middle-class people showing up as the years progressed.

So why talk about a mass market? Let’s talk about the market that existed. In the 18th century and for much of the 19th, all formal musical performances — and all the informal ones, by amateurs — were of what we’d now call classical music, though that term didn’t come into use until the 19th century.

Which meant that classical music utterly dominated the musical market, however large it was, Or, more strongly, there wasn’t any other musical market.

True, a lot of the music in that market — showy piano pieces, written to describe and commemorate famous battles, sold for people to play in their homes — was trivial. But in its style it was what we’d now call classical.

In the 19th century, the rise of the term “classical music” signalled the emergence of the first formal musical distinctions ever made on any large scale within what we now would call classical music performance. People made critical distinctions in the past, as British musical connoisseurs did in the 18th century, when they worshiped Corelli and thought Vivaldi’s vulgar, theatrical verve meant the end of civilization. (See William Weber’s essential book, The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology.)

Early in the 19th century, when the term classical music emerged, it was used to label “serious” music by composers of the past, Haydn and Mozart, and music in that tradition written in the present, by Beethoven, and later Mendelssohn and Schumann. (Schubert wouldn’t have been well known enough to rate much mention, until after his death.) This “classical music” was a small niche in the musical world, while “popular music” — the term was actually used — was a hugely larger niche.

But what was this “popular music”? Performances by virtuosi, like Liszt and Paganini. Opera, above all operas by Rossini, by far the most popular performer in Europe.

So here we see the emergence of a mass market, as opposed to a smaller, more artistic “classical” one — except that the music in the mass market is still what we’d call classical! So some of the music in our present classical repertoire in fact did have the beginnings of a mass market in its time. And some composers, like Brahms, played both sides of the tracks. Brahms worried (see Jan Swafford’s biography) that his first symphony wouldn’t earn him enough money to pay for the time needed to write it, and made his large fortune writing what then were popular piano works.

Later in the 19th century, a true mass musical market emerged, as the working class grew prosperous enough to buy tickets for musical performances, and venues — along with new musical styles — like music halls in England rose up to serve them. (See Derek B. Scott’s fascinating book, Sounds of the Metropolis: The 19th Century Popular Music Revolution in London, New York, Paris and Vienna.) Now, for the first time, it was possible to talk of a mass musical market distinct from what we now accept as our classical music repertoire, though even then classical music dominated, culturally, in a way that it doesn’t today. You didn’t have critics taking British music halls seriously, as critics take rock and pop and jazz in our time.

This — and I apologize for its length — is a look at the notion that classical music never had a mass market, a notion that I think is just about wholly specious, especially if it’s used somehow to suggest that classical music isn’t losing support now. Whatever the musical market was in past centuries, what we now call classical music entirely ruled it, often with characteristics — sensation-seeking audiences, for instance — that in our time we’d associate with the mass market, and not with art.

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  1. Karstein D says

    What about the music we now call “folk music”? That would be the music of the laborers and farmers, distinct from the classical tradition since it was not notated, and a big part of the musical market.

    It wasn’t part of the musical market. It existed purely on a folk level — that is, among the laborers and farmers. And no one outside those classes paid much attention to it . Certainly there weren’t organized concerts of it. This, in spite of folk music quotes in various classical pieces. The history of European popular culture is worth studying. It wasn’t till the 19th century that even the concept of popular culture existed, at least as something to be studied, collected, and taken seriously in any systematic way.

  2. says

    I consider myself a friend and admirer of both Greg and Heather’s. Heather’s latest response to Greg can be found at the URL above. Greg has raising important concerns and has created a useful forum for their discussion. This discussion has the potential to shape how classical music is presented and funded (although, the invective doesn’t advance the ball any).

    As Greg knows, my thinking is similar to Heather’s. Greg’s analysis reflects the concerns among the managers of symphony orchestras and their service organization. Heather has taken a longer and broader view. I have been a close observer of the business of classical music for over 30 years. While certainly, the structure of the field has changed since the 70’s — that doesn’t mean it is worse.

    Andy, thanks for this. With all respect, I think you might read my current summary of where I stand on all this, which you can find by scrolling back, and reading my outline of my talk in Australia. My largest concern is the long-term divergence between classical music and the culture at large. I don’t see myself as close to the League’s position, or to the views of the people who run its member orchestras. In fact, I’d think I diverge from them quite a lot, though I find it interesting (who wouldn’t?) when their data (especially much of what they don’t share with the public) clearly shows a long-term decline in the sustainability of classical music in the US. But my views on the sustainability of classical music go very far beyond that.

  3. says

    Thank you for your contribution, both directly and as a comment editor, on the present state of the classical music industry. One thing that has gone unmentioned, however, is price. Every symphony of whatever quality in the several cities I have lived in have has set its ticket prices to levels that preclude single people and marrieds-with-children. When I have been able to go–perhaps once every two years–the majority of the audience is silver-haired or privileged. Why, I ask, are the arts so committed to what amounts to class discrimination against the 9-to-5 crowd?

  4. says

    I think, in short, generalized, that Mac Donald is arguing from the viewpoint of performances, whereas Sandow is arguing from the standpoint of audiences.

    Mac Donald argues that the product is experiencing a golden age, Sandow argues that the audience for the product is declining. These two are mutually exclusive if you take a snapshot in time: one is an observation in a specific moment in time; the other is a trend over time and a prediction for the future. So it’s only when you start looking into the future, you see that the two will affect each other.

    This qualitative and quantitative golden age of classical music cannot be sustained if the audience keeps declining.

    That’s the gist of a longer article I wrote on the debate:

  5. thibaud says

    A view from someone with no dog in this fight– neither a musical pro nor a musical snob, just someone who loves classical music and would like his town to have more and better offerings within reach of his family:

    I’m sorry if classical musicians find it tough to make a living, but really, it’s ridiculous for performers in any field to b!tch about pay scales when one considers the fact that such a profession is and always has been a luxury. Look at the average life of any pro athlete (and their injury rates) in any sport you like, from figure skating to football, and then ask yourself whether a unionized musician earning close to six figures over a multi-decade career has it rough.

    Anyone with a smattering of economics or finance training can glance at the fundamental operating equation here– a massive, professionally-compensated, unionized labor force generating a tiny amount of revenue from a small number of performances in venues with a fraction of the # of seats found in other entertainment venues– and see that it makes utterly no economic sense and never will.

    Which means that any analysis which bewails this or that EXTERNAL factor, cultural or social or economic or political, for the financial woes of a completely upside-down operating model is a waste of pixels.

    The operating logic is clear: if the operation is not to hemorrhage money, either

    a) the average ticket price has to go up significantly OR

    b) the number of seats sold per performance has to go up several-fold OR

    c) the labor cost per performance has to go down, by a nontrivial %.

    Given the realities of the union structure and US labor laws, c) isn’t going to happen, and a) is no longer possible given the long-term structural change away from an American economy based on millions of households buying stuff they don’t need with money they don’t have toward one where building up savings against a rainy (stormy) future trumps all leisure purchase decisions.

    So I’d be curious to hear from our assembled experts about the prospects for b), above. Naive or not-so-naive q’s for y’all:

    1. People still pack massive sports stadiums with dreadful visibility in order to cheer on their teams and/or partake of the collective frenzy/fun. What’s stopping orchestras from playing– many times, say, 16x per year, as US footballers do– 20,000+ fan venues, perhaps with lighter programs where the fans, oops, concertgoers can talk, drink beer, hoot and holler from the cheap seats etc?

    2. Cisco’s done a poor job of publicizing it, but the networking systems giant is currently in the early stages of using advanced collaboration technologies to revolutionize the stadium experience by connecting fans to each other inside and outside the stadium, as well as to centralized databases inside the stadium, to enable all kinds of sharing/social media experiences in real time. For example, fans at the new Cowboys Stadium will be able to create and share their videos of the action so that someone sitting in the endzone nosebleed seats will see, on his device, in real time, the view from the 45 yard line row 6 seats, etc etc etc.

    What is stopping orchestras from reaching out to the high tech device makers and network providers like Cisco (let alone the social media software vendors) to enable a networked, social media onsite experience like this?

    3. Why is the author of this blog so obtuse and snide about Heather M’s extremely acute perception about the supreme importance of music education? A thought: maybe the bellyaching musicians’ guild could offset the financial drain they create through some demand generating activity where the parents are, ie, by TEACHING music in the public schools for one day per week? The deal is simple: you have to teach, and in return you have the most effective marketing campaign imaginable for attracting new visitors to your performances.


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  6. Mark Clague says

    One interesting current initiative that attempts to connect new listeners with classical music is, a project of the Reno Philharmonic in Reno, Nevada. While the orchestra strives to make classical music engaging, the several concerts I’ve seen do not attempt to change the art: programs are ambitious and serious combining classics with recent works. What is different is the context and means of communication. The RPO is one of the few ensembles nationwide with an active TV/cable advertising campaign and this year’s 30-sec. spot positions the orchestra as an exciting and sexy night out on the town. Those pictured are young and hip and the video is supported by street team marketing (free t-shirts with printed on them) as well as a full bevy of social media tie-ins. Certainly I wish that my home town orchestra in Detroit could pull of this kind of audience and mystique.