Arresting data

I’m a little bemused at the debates that still seem to rage about whether classical music — as an activity in our culture — has declined. Seems to me that the only way you can think it hasn’t is by bypassing some fairly clear data. 

So here’s more, from a piece in the Washington Post on Wolf Trap, by my wife, Anne Midgette. Wolf Trap, of course, is the national park outside Washington which has been presenting arts events for 40 years. And I should stress that Anne wasn’t looking for evidence, pro or con, for classical music’s decline. She was just writing the kind of piece that journalists write, when a leading local institution has an important anniversary. Wolf Trap is 40. How’s it doing?

And the answer is, it’s doing fine. But not, these days, by presenting many classical concerts. Wolf Trap has been criticized for stressing entertainment over art, but Anne suggests another way of looking at that choice. Wolf Trap has always presented what it and its audience thought was entertainment. But what “entertainment” means has changed. It used to mean classical music. Or, anyway, certain classical concerts, like all-Tchaikovsky programs. These used to sell out Wolf Trap’s 7000-seat Filene Center, in the 1980s, but don’t anymore:

“We used to sell out two nights of Tchaikovsky,” says [Wolf Trap president Terrence Jones], referring to the early days when the NSO often offered the same program at Wolf Trap over two or more evenings. “Now we’re not even selling one.” 
And, as Anne adds, “[t]he NSO’s all-Tchaikovsky program July 7 had banks of empty seats.” (See her review of that all-Tchaikovsky concert.)

So that’s one piece of unexpected data Anne’s reporting led to. Wolf Trap used to sell many more tickets to classical performances than it does now. And that seems to be true elsewhere, as well. Anne also talked to Welz Kauffman, president of the Ravinia Festival, outside Chicago. Same story there. I’m sure someone will blame the managements at both places, saying they’d sell more tickets if they marketed the concerts better, and maybe that’s true. 

But I’m sure they market more than they did in the ’80s, simply because everyone in the arts markets more these days. And what can’t be denied is that, in the ’80s, with (at the very least) no more marketing than these institutions do now, they sold many more classical tickets than they currently do. So the size of the classical audience has clearly declined.

The other piece of data? That in the ’80s there were 20 or more classical stars who could sell out a large house, and now there are hardly any. Ann McKee, Wolf Trap’s senior vice president for performing arts and education, names three: Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, and Itzhak Perlman. Welz Kauffman adds two more, Reneé Fleming and Lang Lang. “When I do presentations for my board,” Anne quotes him as saying, “I always show them that list of 1985 stars and then [the current] five, and people gasp.” 

It’s sad, really. The old ways, in classical music, appear to be fading away. But new things are coming! See my next post. It’s an exciting time. 

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  1. says

    Rather than lamenting the lack of audience demand for all but the super stars (a growing trend for at least 10 years), I would love to know what enables Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Lang Lang, Renee Fleming, etc. to still sell out the house. How much of it is attributable to their exposure on national TV (e.g. Letterman, as well as PBS)? Sports attendance at games has increased, since they were all made available (without local blackouts) on cable TV. Would the number of artists with the potential to sell out the house increase if classical music events were similarly broadcast locally?

  2. Robert Ponto says

    This also makes me wonder if we have oversold (to ourselves) the “timelessness” of at least some of what constitutes the classical music canon. Could it be that we, like teenagers sharing their latest playlists, have relied too much on our peer group to shape our tastes? I’m not sure I’ve ever asked myself that before….

  3. says

    I just put up a post on my blog responding to this one. I see it a little differently. I think that we have more a problem with the audiences than the music. Have a look:

    Hi, Bryan. Well, you take a hardline “our culture is decaying” view, as typified by quotes like this from the blog post you linked to:

    ?Audiences, steeped in the unrelenting toxicity of much popular music of today, are becoming deaf to subtler musical values, therefore, classical music isn’t in decline at all–audiences are.”

    In my view, this is just silly. Have you read any of the huge literature on pop music, by distinguished pop music critics? And in fact virtually no one believes such things, outside the tiny bubbles that classical music and the other high arts exist in. Where, I might add, it’s very self-interested to believe that popular culture is crap. Because then we have what we believe is a powerful argument for our own importance.

    If you go outside the bubble, you’ll find general agreement that popular culture is intelligent, and has gotten more so over time. You’ll find that reflected, for instance, in the ongoing discussion about the longterm rise in IQ scores. Popular culture, including pop music, is of course very mixed — good things and bad things. Which is hardly a surprise. That’s what life is like. But to say it’s all toxic is just silly. You can’t possibly know much about it! Otherwise you’d never say such a thing. I suggest reading Robert Coles’ book on Bruce Springsteen (Google it) for one quick corrective. Coles, as one of our most respected psychologists — respected, above all, for his humanity and social commitment — certainly doesn’t find pop music “unrelentingly toxic.”

    But thanks for this. You’ve given me food for a blog post!

  4. Richard says

    I can never understand all this angst over the decline and/or death of classical music.

    Beethoven will always be Beethoven, filled with originality, chaos, mystery–for those who care to know him.

    We live in superficial, self-indulgent times. Most people are…foolish. So suffer–when you’ve suffered enough of Lady GaGa, you’ll seek something deeper.

  5. says

    Classical music has always been and always will be a reflection of the importance of something that a cultured people has make some effort to appreciate, either as children, or as adults. It has never been easy music, and in the actual classical era, was the “providence” of culturally erudite nobility with an educational background far above the regular citizen .

    The beauty of classical music is that, being an advanced musical art, is it’s constant reflection of a contemporary society (and I say this as one being trained purely in jazz).

    Given the state of it’s present devaluation by our contemporary society, one can only come to the thought that maybe, just maybe, we are living in a time of high intelligence coupled with a dichotomous exceptional high level of musical ignorance. The current perception that there is something inherently dismissive in the elitism of the body of works we call “classical music”, can be our legacy to the future, if this lack of appreciation for this heritage continues in it’s de-evolutionary spiral .

    • says

      Or maybe intelligent people today are also smart about music, and your idea of classical music’s supremacy is wrong.

      Maybe you know a principle of scientific thinking called Occam’s Razor. According to this principle, when you’re trying to explain some new phenomenon, you should favor the explanations that don’t require large new assumptions.

      You’ve made quite a large new assumption, when you say ” just maybe, we are living in a time of high intelligence coupled with a dichotomous exceptional high level of musical ignorance.” Is there any precedent for that? Has anything like it been suggested before? Are there other eras, or other cultures, where anything like that has happened?

      By contrast, there’s lots of precedent for the idea I suggested, that intelligent people today are perfectly intelligent about music. I could cite, for instance, the huge critical and scholarly literature about pop music — anything by Greil Marcus or Simon Reynolds (to name just two preeminent pop music critics), or Rob Walser’s scholarly book on heavy metal. All of this shows tremendous intelligence, and would tend to suggest that the music should surely be worthy of all the intelligence being applied to it.

      Or I could cite twoo famous books by Christopher Small — Music, Society, Education, and Music of the Common Tongue — which question, in great, sensitive detail, the idea that classical music should be considered superior.

      And there’s also Steven Johnson’s well-known book on the intelligence of popular culture generally, the ironically titled Everything Bad is Good For You. Johnson doesn’t even discuss pop music in it, saying that pop music’s intelligence is too well known to need any defense.

      So anyone who wants to say that intelligent people today do, in fact, have smart taste in music is on good, solid, well-defended ground. While your view requires you to step out on a new limb of thought, to make an assumption for which there’s most likely no precedent. Not that brand-new ideas can’t be right! But you can’t just quickly assert yours. You’ll have to defend it, which among much else will mean refuting the vast body of writing I’ve cited, which takes the opposite view.

      • richard says

        What I’m wondering, though, is if we are seeing the death of purely instrumental music. When was the last a time purely instrumental “song” was in the top 40. TV shows like “Glee” and “The Voice” are all about singing.
        It’s not likely will see shows like “The Jazz Band” or “The Axe”( an old-school term fo instrument). As a composer, I’m always frustrated by the by the musical limitations of the human voice. I have grade school/middle school players in my school bands who can play things that no singer could ever hope to do. Even traditional rock instrumentalists are taking notice. Looking at the popular musical landscape these musicians are seeing that they are being replaced by “machines” (ie synths). I watched the Super Bowl half-time show last year and was stuck be the fact that Slash was a dinosaur. Whatever you think of his music, his does have serious technical chops. You know there was a lot of “seat time” spent developing this mastery.

        • ries says

          The “death of purely instrumental music”?
          Not hardly.
          What we have seen is an immense growth in the kinds of music, and the variety of music, that people around the world listen to.
          “Top 40” is a tiny shadow of what it once was, in terms of influence, earnings, and importance.

          I have two kids, 17 and 20- they NEVER listen to the radio, and have no idea what top 40 even is. They, like almost everyone I know these days, create their own world of music from the millions of choices available.
          Both independently sampled classical music, at about the age of 13. Both have a few classical tracks on their ipods or computers still.
          But both, like all their friends, dont bother much with categories, and both listen to lots of purely instrumental music.

          I am in my late 50’s, and I, too, listen to plenty of brand spanking new purely instrumental music. Much of which is “popular”, in the sense that the bands make a living playing it, tour, put out albums, and have followings worldwide.
          Almost none of it would fit in the category of “pop”, and its usually not classical or jazz, either.
          Bands like Mogwai or Tortoise, Acid Mothers or Wayne Horvitz, any of the myriad John Zorn combinations, Ratatat and God Speed You Black Emperor, Jackie O MF, Mocean Worker and Kinski, and dozens more.

          Kids today listen to plenty of music that is largely electronic. And plenty of music that is played on real instruments.

          As for Classical music being the only music that is “advanced” and takes effort to appreciate- I sure dont believe that. Classical music is actually very EASY to appreciate- hence its use for things like the soundtrack of children’s cartoons. What kid hasnt heard snatches of the William Tell Overture by the time they are 5?

          There are plenty of contemporary musicians who are smart, skilled players, who write intellectually challenging compositions that take MORE effort to decode and appreciate than many classical standards. John Zorn, for example, is definitely not Pop, or easily appreciated, but, in my opinion, is well worth the effort.

          I find that while I do sometimes enjoy music that is written by one lone genius, then performed by an entire orchestra of skilled musicians, I ALSO sometimes enjoy music that is collaborative or improvisational in nature. The two have different strengths and weaknesses. Both can be quite satisfying. Thats why they make both chocolate and vanilla, and loving one is no reason to disparage the other.

          • richard says

            I supplement my teaching income by playing (old school RB band) I also write alt-classical
            post-minimalist music. I’m also fairly familiar with Zorn’s work. So how many paying fans does Zorn have? 10,000? (maybe) 100,000? (not likely) This is vanishingly small when compared to the numbers for pop music.

            Greg here — Richard, plenty of influential pop groups might not sell more than 10,000 records. If you’ll accept that as a measure of how many paying fans they have. I once found myself liking Clark, a dance-music artist on Warp Records (British label, collaborated at one time with the London Sinfonietta). I asked someone from Warp how many records he sold, and was told it was no more than 5,000.

            I’d guess John Zorn sells less than that. But I’d also guess he could sell a lot more, if he or someone in his camp worked hard on nourishing his fan base.

  6. ries says

    Do you base your opinions on dollars? On numbers of listeners?
    It seems as if the entire rear guard arguments FOR classical music always tell us that QUALITY is what is important, not profit or popularity.

    While it is true that there still is such a thing as “popular” music, the number of albums a number one record sells today is a tiny fraction of what it used to be.

    Micheal Jackson sold 50 million copies of Thriller. The top selling record of last year was Eminem’s Recovery, which sold 3.42 million copies. The scale of what is required to become a popular hit is vastly reduced from what it used to be, and the 7 Billion people on this world would include quite a few who did NOT buy Recovery.

    I am not particularly interested in what sells the most records. Neither, I would hazard to guess, is pretty much any serious fan of classical, jazz, new music, post minimalist, contemporary composers, and the other categories being discussed here.

    My point is that there is an enormous amount of new music made every year that IS intellectually stimulating, that is challenging and exciting, and that has enough of an audience to ensure a living for the composers and performers. Zorn does not work at the espresso stand- he has made a living from his music for over 25 years, and has received a MacArthur Grant.

    The old days of a music industry dictated top 40, played on every station in America, purchased by every fan, is long gone. We have a new democratic era where all kinds of things can flourish, and, even if they are not Lady Gaga, survive just fine.

    I happen to think this is a good thing.

    Whoever the new Mozart or Stravinsky or Sibelius might be, or for that matter, the new Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman, I think they have a much better chance of getting their music out there, of being heard and remembered, today, than 20 years ago when record companies ruled.
    But we will have to be open to a wide range of types of music to find them.

    • richard says

      I checked out these groups, and they are a little too conventional/predictible for my taste, but they are likeable enough. I will listen to more Acid Mothers, they rimind me of Zappa. BTW, my kids musical tastes a probably like yours, in other words they aren’t hipsters. I Know that grew up hearing Ives, Crumb, Threadgill etc. way before the ever heard Tchaikovsk.