In my last post, I got up on a soapbox and orated, about classical music — in practice pretty much a lily-white art — claiming special privileges (lavish funding, school programs devoted to it) in an age of growing diversity. That seemed ugly to me, and, in the long run, not sustainable.
But there’s a simpler, less polemical way to look at this. Yesterday, perusing the business section of the New York Times (and in the print paper yet; how old-fashioned of me!), I came across a column that started this way: “Advertisers are increasingly looking for ways to appeal to consumers of color…” Then followed one of the lastest wrinkles in that effort, a website that provides data on African-American media consumption, demographics and purchasing power.
But then this is nothing new. Advertisers — not to mention TV and movie producers — have been paying at least token attention (and often quite a bit more than that) to minorities for more than a generation now. Allstate’s spokesman, in its TV ads, is black. Trial judges in the movies are so often black women that this in itself has become a stereotype. And of course films and TV shows (not to mention music) aimed at a black audience are common. Which isn’t to say there aren’t stereotypes involved, and much more progress to be made. But clearly there’s an awareness of diversity, which shows up front and center in the media, every day, so often that I feel silly even writing this. It flavors the air we breathe.
But not in classical music. It’d be rare (to put it mildly) to find a classical music institution targeting minorities in its marketing — and making them strong presences in advertisements and marketing materials, let alone onstage.
There are many reasons for this, the simplest being that the classical music audience is pretty close to all white, so that marketing more broadly might seem a waste of time. One basic principle of marketing is to target the people most likely to respond. Besides, TV networks, film producers, and pop record labels have minority artists featured in what they offer the public, along with shows, films, and songs about black and (increasingly) Hispanic life. Classical music institutions, on the whole, aren’t presenting black conductors or soloists. Orchestras have hardly any black musicians on stage.
Now you could say that in some ways this isn’t surprising. When I was a pop music critic, late in the ’80s in Los Angeles, and then in the early ’90s in New York, I’d take for granted that white and black artists, on the whole, had different audiences. I think I was the only white person at a Luther Vandross show I reviewed, and at a Bruce Springsteen show, the late Clarence Clemons, playing sax on stage might be the only black person (or pretty to close to that) in the hall. Only Prince and hiphop shows had a racially mixed audience.
But then everyone knows — and says out loud — that pop acts appeal to various demographics, and not just to broad racial and ethnic groups, but to small demographic and psychographic slices of the audience. And people in pop music doesn’t demand that pop music be taught in schools, don’t get lavish private funding, and aren’t supported by tax dollars.
And if you look at the pop music business as a whole, it’s as diverse as America, or at least where the largest racial and ethnic groups are concerned. (Except at the top. The top levels of record companies are largely white, though individual African-Americans have risen far higher, on the business side, than we normally see in classical music.)
So I might put it this way. I’m not saying that people in classical music are consciously racist. But the gravitational pull of the field is toward the white community (and, for the most part, the upper-income part of it). So that’s the line of least resistance. Do what comes naturally, and you’re a group of white musicians talking to a white audience.
To change that would take a major effort. I think of Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, who insisted that women and minorities had to be strongly — visibly — represented in everything the paper did. If you hired an editor, you had to have black candidates for the job. If you ran photos of three people you quoted in a story, you’d better have a woman and someone black. If the people working for Neuharth found this hard to do, if they said they couldn’t find a qualified woman or African-American for a prominent job, he’d tell them to try harder.
What the impact of that was on the paper’s coverage, or readership, I don’t know. But it’s pretty clear — just look at the stage at a classical concert, just look at the audience, just look at the programs, just look at the marketing — that people in classical music aren’t making this effort.
Which means that, in a diverse culture, classical music stands out (on the whole) as strikingly white. Which means that minorities may be actively turned off, may feel that they’re not welcome, no matter how much that might not be true. And even many white people, especially younger ones — at ease, in so many ways, in a world that’s culturally diverse, expecting that as the norm — look at classical music, and feel (whether they put it in words or not, or even if they don’t consciously know they think this) that something isn’t quite right, that this isn’t the country they live in.
In the end, this is one of many ways that classical music hasn’t kept up with cultural change. It’s nobody’s fault. No one in classical music — well, surely no one active today — set out to make classical music so largely white. But keeping it way is unfortunately the line of least resistance, for people in the #classical world, and in the future, my guess would be that someone’s got to make the effort to change — a lot of people will have to do that — or classical music will increasingly stand out as drastically out of touch with its time.
And then it really might die.
Footnote, though as a human issue this is more than a footnote. Of course there are African-Americans — to name just that minority — who play classical music, or want to. But they may feel blocked from entering the highest reaches of the classical world, especially on the business side. And (as I’ve from time to time heard from African-American students I’ve had) they may feel that people in their own community don’t want them playing classical music, because, as they might be told, even by people in their own families, “it’s not our music.”
Does it help that the classical music world — unlike film, TV, advertising, and, in many ways, the other arts — conveys exactly that feeling?
Michael Morgan, the music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony (who commented here on my last post), once said something very poignant to me. He’s African-American, and, speaking of his own community, said that in past generations, many African-Americans wanted to be classical musicians, but were blocked by overt racism. Now, the field is open to people of color, but few African-Americans want to go through the door.
Which of course makes it harder for classical music institutions to do what happens elsewhere in our culture, where it’s easier to demonstrate at least a surface commitment to diversity. But that only means that classical music needs to try harder.
Which then gives us a reason for outreach to minorities! But then we have to ask how effective this outreach is, how sustained, and what, in the end, it produces. And whether it’s likely to produce results, if the parent institutions still look, from the inside and outside, so white.