What I said in Australia

I’ve said I gave a keynote speech at the Australian classical music summit, but I haven’t said much more about my presence there — here or here — because what they did, I thought, was more important than what I did.

But, for anyone curious, here’s what I said in my talk. I’m paraphrasing myself from notes, and giving just a summary. Often I record my talks on my iPhone, but I didn’t do it this time, and no other recording was made.

Added later: Forgot to say here that — in my talk — I stressed that my thoughts were only about what I’ve observed in the US, and sometimes elsewhere, in Europe and the UK. I have no authority to diagnose problems in Australia, or to prescribe solutions.


The biggest problem classical music has now is that it hasn’t kept up with our culture. Our culture has changed (has been changing for two generations). Classical music hasn’t changed nearly as much. Our culture has become more informal, creative, and participatory. Classical music is only starting to move in those directions. It’s still largely formal, handed down from above.

Two other cultural changes stand out.

First, popular culture has developed its own serious art. So we no longer can talk about classical music (and the other high arts) standing opposed to cheap mass entertainment. Classical music now coexists with subtle, complex new forms of musical art, which to a contemporary audience may seem more intelligent, and certainly are more deeply tied to contemporary life and thought.

Second, we’re seeing the end of white, European hegemony in the world. This is more than a grandly vague, suspiciously PC statement. White, European-based culture really is losing its dominance, and it’s natural that music that still largely reflects only white, European-based culture will lose its dominance, too.

And there’s something else. Even western culture has now been infused with music that’s largely non-European. That began when African slaves were brought to America. They fused their own music with the European music they heard in their new world, and the result was blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, rock — the whole array of contemporary nonclassical styles, whose partly African origin shows in the largely nonclassical way they use rhythm. So even white people now take for granted a musical culture that now has a largely non-European core.

(This is the larger meaning of a simple fact, that pop music has a beat.)

Results of the cultural shift

It’s because classical music hasn’t changed with our culture that we see all the familiar signs of trouble in the classical music world. Often these signs are discussed as if they themselves were the the problem, but to me, bad as they are, they’re really symptoms of something different.

It’s a familiar list. Because classical music hasn’t kept up with our culture, we now see:

  • the aging of the audience (which, as I’ve often said here, has been going on for 50 years; go here for the evidence)
  • declines in the number of classical radio stations, declines in media coverage, and in classical recording
  • a change in what cities look for, if they want to attract up to date people — they no longer need an orchestra or an opera company; now they want bike trails, cultural diversity, and a local band scene
  • a decline in classical music ticket sales
  • the sharp decline, reported by the National Endowment, and confirmed by the League of American Orchestras, in the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical performances
  • a decline in funding for classical music, which looks like it will be worse in the future, because (as has been widely reported, most recently on the Crain’s New York Business website) younger people with money don’t donate to the arts. 
I’ll finish this in my next post. (Which now is here.) Note the difference between my approach, and what I think is the more usual classical music point of view. The more usual view is that classical music is wonderful, and the rest of the culture has somehow lost sight of that. So what we need is classical music education in our schools, and lots of outreach. Once people get to know classical music, as they did in past generations, they’ll come to love it.

My view is that classical music is way out of touch, and has to get more like the rest of our culture — which (to allay a common fear) will make it smarter, not dumber.

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  1. Tamas says

    Hi Greg,

    I completely agree with your comment on serious art in popular music. But your second point feels a bit unfair from a white European point of view :)

    White European folk music definitely does have a beat. It might be different from the African one, but it is still a beat. The lack of beat in classical music is not due to its whiteness, but to the fact that traditionally it was played on occasions where spontaneous dancing was discouraged. To put it simply, it doesn’t have a beat because it doesn’t want to move your body.l

    Excellent point, Tamas. Thanks for correcting me. I was being lazy, without realizing it. Should at the very least have said something like, “That’s what we mean when we say pop music has the kind of beat it has.” Or something like that.

  2. Frank says

    I hear what you are saying but, as a resident of France, I do not see what you are seeing. I can agree that, in America in particular, what you say is true. I clicked on “Culture” on the “Atlantic Magazine” (the Atlantic!) and could not believe what I was seeing.

    In Europe classical music is still a healthy thing. I was forced to surf one evening a few weeks ago when the BBC was showing Domingo’s “Boccanegra” and Arte was showing the Bondy production of “Tosca” live from the Staatsoper in Munich. In short, there is more opera on TV than there was some years ago. The two operas at Orange are being shown on a major French public channel as well as events at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. And the larger audience is there… this is not government tossing money.

    All the major houses in France are doing just fine and reporting record audiences. All the major papers continue their coverage of the classical music scene as do most of the weekly and monthly general magazines. There are a few fewer monthly classical music magazines now than in past years. There are still two, however, rather than none, as in America.

    Frank, thanks for your view. I know less about classical music in Europe than I wish I did.

    But there are problems even there, from what I’ve seen. Opera attendance in Italy is way down, according to a recent news story. In the UK, all sorts of new approaches to classical music are being tried. Maybe they’re even ahead of the US there. American classical music marketers are hired as consultants in Europe, because European classical music institutions think they have to learn to sell more tickets. The Danish Radio Orchestra, whose stats I happen to have, shows an audience aging faster than American audiences. A German scholar has predicted a 36% decline in the German orchestra audience in the next two decades, based on current demographics.

    And, I should add, I’ve had many students from Europe over the past few years, and not one of them thinks classical music is in a strong position in the countries they come from. Their view has been that the same things are happening in Europe as are happening in the US, though maybe not as fast.