Into the new year

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.

In in the past, I’ve begun new years with a post I’d often call “Where we stand,” in which I’d sum up the evidence for trouble in classical music. Here’s a revision of one of those posts, which I’ve used as an assignment in my spring semester Juilliard course on the future of our field. (More on the course when it begins, on January 12.) 

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. 

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  1. Alex says

    Hope you had a good holiday. I’ve thought over the past few weeks about your posts quite a bit.

    I still think you’re viewing classical music with way too much of a twentieth century perspective. This is not to say there aren’t radical changes going on to the classical music industry but, to use one of your examples, why is it that LIFE, that “most popular” magazine that published Copland in the 60s, hasn’t circulated as a weekly since 1972, and stopped being published completely more than a decade ago? There was no LIFE Magazine to publish photos of the Obama inauguration, but Copland’s legacy was front and center in the piece John Williams composed for the event, broadcast to more people in more ways than anyone could dream about in 1964.

    The bigger problem isn’t that classical music is no longer in the mainstream as you state, but that there is no equivalent “mainstream” today for classical music (or photojournalism magazines, or garage bands or singing groups) to move back into (that said, I think it’s analogous as well to point out that photojournalism, as opposed to photojournalism news weeklies, is as vibrant a field as it ever was.)

    Name any other cultural activity with the same specificity as “classical music” that 28% of Americans participate in. Jazz concerts? Hip-hop concerts? Bluegrass concerts? Glee? Lady Gaga (whose audiences still pale in comparison to the Beatles)? Possibly one of those things does better than classical music, but I doubt any reach 50%. It’s not only because of file sharing that only 2 of the top 10 bestselling albums of all time (across any genre) were released in the last 20 years (both over a decade ago); the other 8 date back mostly to the 1970s.

    Any solution to the classical music “crisis” is going to have to deal with the fact that the era of mass culture is over; that the ‘average’ concertgoer is a mythical figure that exists even less now than at any other time in the last 100 years; and that in this way classical music in the 21st century will resemble the 18th and 19th centuries more than the 20th.

    And this is probably a good thing.

    That means, primarily, more variety, fewer gatekeepers (or more ‘gates’) and smaller scale. Unless you are absolutely the best at what you do (defined very specifically, but in many different ways and not, as late 20th century classical music organizations defined it, focused myopically on virtuosity, precision, and mass marketing appeal), modern technology will make it very easy to identify and consume something better.

    But any organization with high fixed costs that depends on there being a strong consensus among the preferences of its target market, whether it’s GM or the Detroit Symphony or the Baltimore Sun or the Warner Music Group, is in very big trouble unless it is able to reduce its fixed costs, reduce its scale (related to costs), or make its content as varied as its audience (like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter…). There are no other solutions (except lobbying the government to enforce a monopoly of some kind).

    I guess what I’ve reacted to most strongly in your last few posts is

    1) the solutions you’ve mentioned so far (twitter scoreboards, programming alt-classical) do not recognize the importance of very specific and VARIED personal connections to musical performance. Maybe there is a place for a twitter-centric concert, but having an “expert” tell the entire audience of every concert what to listen for (which was the original idea) is as outdated an idea as any. And the interest in alt-classical as a genre seems more of the same misguided focus on marketing appeal and perceived ‘hipness’ rather than focusing on the distinct voices of the composers (some of whom are well worth listening to), especially since there is a much smaller market and a far more fickle fanbase for alt-classical even compared to ‘mainstream classical.’

    2) a seeming desperation and lack of confidence in the lasting appeal of the best of what we call ‘classical music.’ Who cares if 50% of 100 million people listened to classical music 60 years ago (I doubt it was ever that high, especially including all the people who ‘didn’t count’ back then) if, say, 5% of 7 billion people listen to it in 2050? That’s still seven times as many people, regardless of proportions. I have no doubt that 100 years from now Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach will still be more popular than Nico Muhly or Mason Bates (and this is no dismissal of their talent), as will the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Michael Jackson. What will win audiences over (and most definitely smaller audiences, as a proportion of the population, than those of the 1950s)is creativity, imagination, and artistic integrity.

    From this perspective, what will ‘save classical music’ is a very different set of things than the ones you’re examining. It is not about specific programming or marketing decisions. “Entrepreneurship education” is on the right track but needs to be defined more clearly: it seems mostly to be implemented as a way of navigating the existing systems, not providing the skills to create new ones.

    But most important to any success is ensuring that the infrastructure is there so that those who say something important–musically artistically, intellectually, politically–are able to be heard, and have the resources to reach their potential audiences. Things like net neutrality, less draconian intellectual property laws, and robust social safety nets are only a few of the things necessary to allow people to choose to make art without requiring incredible amounts of capital or taking unacceptable risks with respect to their livelihood and their families, and those are the more basic issues that actually put classical music, and all the arts, at risk.

  2. says

    I agree that demographics and audience/ticket sales can be a good metric of the “decline” of “classical music”, but I take issue with comparing the ubiquity of European composer culture in America before 1960 with its presence today as an indicator of the decline of concert music/composed music/classical music, etc.

    The presence of European composer culture was strong before the 60s and 70s, if you look at broadcast media produced and funded under institutional cultural hegemony. (With the same data, you could argue that the music of minorities was largely excluded from broadcast media in the same time period. Or at least, when it was broadcast, it was not presented as important, serious, worthy, or “classic”, but rather marketed as novelty or as “popular”.)

    I’m not saying this to sound like a conspiracy-theorist, but there were larger forces at work that kept the canon alive and well before the culture of the broadcast companies began to favor profit over preserving an institutional art culture they saw (with some foresight) as moribund, or at least not profitable.

    I think the question now, instead of “how do we save the institution”, should be “how do we abandon its pitfalls– orientalism, white privilege, class privilege, etc.– and move forward?”

    Also, what’s wrong with garage bands? There’s more than a few new music groups that have adopted that ethos…

  3. says

    Hi Greg:

    Long time since we connected.

    Just a comment about aging audiences. We have been talking about aging audiences since I began in the business. I have come to the conclusion that it’s because families – young families have other priorities. Once the kids are educated – there’s more time for classical music and opera in the concert hall. In San Francisco – where I live now – yes, the audience is primarily over 50 – but you could have said the same in the late ’60’s. So, that’s an argument I don’t by.

    Hi, Ann. Nice to hear from you. Actually, the audience has gotten quite a bit older since the late ’60s. In 1966, a survey of all the performing arts showed a median age of 38, for classical music as well as the other disciplines. Which means that, at classical concerts at that time, half the audience was under 38, which we won’t see today.

    I connected to your blog through ArtsJournal which comes across my desk each day.

    Happy New Year. Ann

  4. Saul Davis says

    The age of the audience doesn’t matter a bit as long as there are enough of them, and they are replaced by other people of the same age. I am certain that most people haven’t the time or money to attend classical concerts until they are retired. The challenge is to draw the baby boomers in, and deal with their deafness from years of rock and roll.

    But they aren’t being replaced! That’s clear from all the information gathered by the NEA and the League of American Orchestras. I’ve blogged about this a lot.

  5. says

    You bring up excellent points about the alarms going off around the state of classical music. (The Denver Post ran a great series about the future of classical music in December. The first article is:

    However, I think it’s interesting to note that Chorus America did a study that showed that the number of adults singing in choruses in the U.S. is growing. In 2003, 23.5 million adults sang in choruses, but by 2009, 32.5 million adults were singing in choruses. (Link to study is here:

    It’s intriguing that although attendance at classical concerts may be down, participation in choruses is growing. Perhaps classical music needs to shift in some way to allow a greater sense of participation in the process of making music…

  6. ray says

    I think its a big mistake to say classical music is in “decline” just because not as many people go to live concerts. What about classical radio stations? What about cds? Look at the period instrument movement – it became popular through records, not live performances. How many people have heard a period instrument performance live? Not that many. Maybe one of the problems concerts have is that the period instrument people have stolen a great deal of their repertoire – who wants to hear baroque music on modern instruments now? It sounds better on the old ones. Haydn, mozart, even beethoven – period instrument performances have a liveliness and excitement modern instruments can’t match. No, classical music isn’t going to die out – it’ll last – right now baroque and classical period is what appeals to listeners the most (telemann and vivaldi are big hits on classical radio stations)- there’s nothing wrong with that – its certainly an improvement over lame “crossover” efforts to debase classical music by combining it with pop.

    I have a recording of symphonies by joseph martin kraus (a contemporary of haydn) played on period instruments and its one of the best things I’ve heard.

    Classical radio stations have been dying out, one by one, for decades. And classical CDs sold many more copies 50 years ago than they do now. And the population was quite a bit smaller!