Back from my holiday. Refreshed. And, with any luck, focused. Hope you all had good holidays, and happy new year, everyone! Hope it’s a good year for you, for me, and for classical music.
This year I’ll shift my focus. And make things quicker.
For me, there are three killer signs — long-term signs — of trouble in classical music. First, the aging audience. It’s been aging for nearly 50 years, ever since the late ’60s. Go back to the 1930s, or the ’50s, or even 1966 (when a big study was done), and you’ll find a classical music with a median age in its thirties, not much older than the population at large. For details, see my “Age of the audience” blog sidebar. Now, of course, the audience is much older, with a median age of 49 (for all classical performances, as measured by the NEA), or much older (if you look at major orchestras). If our audience has aged this sharply, something about the position of classical music in our culture has drastically changed.
The second long-term sign of trouble is the decline in the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical performances — 28% since 1982 (as measured by the NEA). I blogged about this in 2009, here and here. Since the population of the US has increased, the classical audience, measured in absolute numbers, is only a little smaller than it was in 1982. But it’s a much smaller percentage of the population. Classical music is losing ground.
The third long-term sign follows from the other two, especially from the first. If classical music is losing ground, appealing to fewer people, and to a much more limited demographic, then of course it has less presence in our culture. And that’s easy to see. Just go back to the 1950s, when classical music was broadcast commercially on network TV. Or to the ’40s, when NBC created an orchestra for Toscanini, and broadcast his concerts (commercially) first on national radio, and later on national TV.
Or go back to the early 1960s, when Life, the most popular magazine in the US, commissioned a piano piece from Aaron Copland, and printed it, for readers to play. Or go back further, to 1920, when young girls screamed for diva Geraldine Farrar, when she sang at the Met. Or, moving now to Europe, go back to 1929, when Toscanini conducted his La Scala orchestra in Vienna, and crowds lined the railroad tracks to say goodbye when he left. (And those crowds can’t have had a median age of 55, like the orchestra audience today.)
None of these things would happen now. If you’re looking for mass participation in music, it’s garage bands and singing groups, not people playing classical pieces printed in magazines.
And what lies behind all this? In my view, it’s the failure of classical music to keep up with the rest of our culture. I’ll explore this in my next few posts.