Why don’t we know?

If you look back on my post about David Gockley and the San Francisco Opera — quoting David’s very stark words about the company’s financial problems — you’ll see a lively debate in the comments, between Lisa Hirsch and myself.

The debate, essentially, is about whether the San Francisco Opera really is in as much trouble as David says. And that disagreement spreads toward other institutions. When the Philadelphia Orchestra announced it would declare bankruptcy, was it really in as much trouble as it said it was? Or, maybe more pointedly, did it have to be in that much trouble? Could better management have saved it?

And behind all of this — at least in my view — is a debate about the state of classical music itself. Is it (at least in its mainstream forms) declining, as I say it is? Have ticket sales been falling for many years, has funding become more and more difficult, is the audience aging, has classical music moved so far from the rest of our culture that support for it gets harder and harder to find?

That’s my position, but others disagree. And while there are things to be said on both sides of the debate, I want to ask another question here. Why don’t we know what state classical music is in? Why, after so many years, are we still debating this?

Seems to me that we’ve been talking about a classical music crisis for many years. How many? I was searching my memory, trying to think when the perception of crisis started to build. One thing I thought of was my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, which I was asked to teach because I’d lectured at Juilliard on the classical music crisis.

How long ago was that? Well — I realized with a shock — when I start teaching that course again tomorrow, this will mark my 16th year. Figure that I lectured at Juilliard the year before, and from that we can glean that talk of a classical music crisis has been going on for nearly two decades.

How is it, then, that we can’t agree on how urgent the crisis might be, about what its true parameters are, about how badly the San Francisco Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra might be in trouble, and about whether these troubles afflict the field as a whole, or just a few institutions with particular problems all their own?

Would we find disagreement like this in other areas? Look at the US auto industry. Everyone knew it was tanking. And that the car companies needed dramatic change if they were going to survive.

Or the airline industry. That’s in serious trouble, too, and everyone in the business world knows why.

I’ll grant that there are things, about which data can be found, that we still disagree about, sometimes violently. Healthcare, for instance. You find people saying that here in the US, we have the best healthcare system in the world. Others point out that — by objective measures of health (life expectancy, infant mortality, other things — we don’t rank so high.

But the reasons for that disagreement seem plain. They’re ideological. And the ideological disputes — about, for instance, the role that government should play — go very deep. And are strongly emotional.

Maybe something like that is in play in classical music. Maybe people care so much — on one side, wanting classical music to change, on the other not wanting it to — that they can’t think straight.

But I can’t quite believe that. Aren’t we still focused enough to be rational?

So then why can’t we decide what the numbers — the ones that would tell us whether classical music is sadly declining, or is still healthy — really are?

Whatever the reason, it’s a sad sign of immaturity in our field that — looking at the field as a whole — we act as though we don’t have the data, and can’t decide what’s really going on.

Strong voices, more of them each year, even highly-placed voices, have been saying that there’s trouble. But still the debate rages on.

What do you think? Why are we still debating these things?


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  1. says

    Two words–Hedgehogs or Foxes. Philip Tetlock has discussed the phenomenon of expert judgement and the ability to assess information and take stances in political psychology and behavioral economics.

    Foxes are cautious and tend to weigh all sides before making judgements or predictions, and hedgehogs were generally alarmists and took an entrenched side on the issues. The foxes, in general, more more often correct in judgements and predictions than hedgehogs. Foxes are also much more likely to change their mind due to increased knowledge or data while hedgehogs tend to discount any new data that challenges their position and explain it away. Hedgehogs, though, tend to get more of a public voice since they are inflammatory in nature. We see these phenomena in politics all the time, I think.

    Whether the view is that “Classical Music is dying” or “Classical Music is perfectly healthy”–both are entrenched viewpoints, and more than likely to be wrong in some fundamental way.

    I think that Douglas Dempster, had as cautionary or “Foxy” a statement to say about the issue over ten years ago (bolded part my emphasis):

    I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.

  2. says

    Great column, Greg, some REALLY important questions. I wrote a dissertation recently on audience development and cultural engagement for the non-profit performing arts and much of the data I found in my research is stunningly sobering. It seems to me there are two big reasons that classical music culture (and those involved in it) in the US cannot adequately reach a consensus view of its problems: denial and bias.

    Denial is obvious enough: in my estimation the problem is so bad–i.e., classical music is so very far removed from any real cultural impact or participation–that we don’t want to admit it. The metrics are there: for the past several decades (according to, for instance, the NEA SPPA of 2008: http://www.arts.gov/news/news09/SPPA-highlights.html), audiences for performing arts events have been declining and aging. Worse, the greatest declines in participation since 2002 have been in the 45-54 age demographic, typically when participation begins to increase. Even worse, participation in creative activities in general among Americans has increased hugely since 2000, the period of time when declines in performing arts participation specifically have been steepest…so our worst declines have come during what researchers are calling a “renaissance of participation” more generally.

    Second is bias: most classical musicians feel a deep fealty to preserving the traditions, performing practice, and core repertoire of classical music as all that has come to be defined. Unlike nearly all other creative fields, classical music is currently nearly impermeable to any fundamental musical change or new creative perspective. Complete dedication to that museum mission leaves no time or resources left afterward to figure out how to actually connect to listeners in the cities in which they live–nor, in so many instances, do they have a desire to do so! Connect with listeners? That’s secondary to playing the Great Works of the Orchestral Canon–it’s the listeners’ jobs to connect with the brilliant music orchestras present, not the musicians’ jobs to find music that connects with their listeners in a meaningful way, or a new concert presentation mode that is more effective and appealing, or etc. Classical music institutions vocally defend their role as exclusively performing special music that is so significant and better than all the other music that it takes all of their effort to do that well, and listeners need to come to them.

    But it just doesn’t work that way. When you’re not playing music people want to hear, that has no apparent connection to the world in which they live, in a mode of presentation they don’t really enjoy anymore, they will be reluctant to give you money for your concerts. This will not change.

    This was a very difficult admission for me to make to myself, actually. I’m a conductor and professor of music, and LOVE LOVE LOVE all of the brilliant musical art we classical musicians study and play. But to survive in the United States as musical artists going forward, these organizations cannot continue only to play the music they wish to play nor can they continue only to present that music in ways to which they are accustomed. This is, in my experience, the profoundest roadblock to real problem-solving: classical musicians became that kind of musician because of a deep, profound love for the music. And now, as professional musicians, we must contemplate acquiring whole new musical skill sets that we were not taught: finding out how to make music that connects with listeners as they actually are (as opposed to how we would like them to be), creating repertoire and performance experiences that resonate with listeners in the places we live, etc.

    I really believe the organizations that understand the kinds of tectonic cultural shifts we’re living through and are able to adapt to them will have to let go of some very sacred principles and do some pretty sacrilegious creative experimentation, but will find ways to thrive going forward. Those that don’t will continue to struggle. If you can’t even admit the full scope of your problems (and the true reasons for them), how can you hope to solve them? Until performing arts organizations in the US can do so, they will continue to flail blindly and struggle even to exist from one season to the next.

    As one final metric (please pardon the self-link), I offer this: the plunging rate of decline in performing arts jobs in the US since just last year: http://www.loosefilter.com/the_loose_filter_project_/2011/10/performing-arts-job-plunge-sobering-stats-reveal-rapidly-growing-fundamental-crisis.html

    • says

      One comment, Stuart, regarding your last link. Full time employment as a model for sustainable living is changing everywhere. I think this this piece in The Atlantic (The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time) describes the phenomenon well enough. Traditional employment as described as full or part time employment with an organization (e.g. Performing Arts Organization) is changing in every field. And I’m not so sure we’ve figured out how to measure the economic impact of this new paradigm of a workforce.

      This is related to the long tail phenomenon that Chris Anderson first made ‘popular’ where the idea is that the economic impact of a much more distributed, rather than concentrate, activity can generate a significant amount of money in ways that monopolistic companies and products can’t. Obviously, the Occupy movement is a response to the tension created by the monopolistic entities (the 1%) is somehow acquiring a larger proportion of money than they believe the 99% should be having.

      With the proliferation of non-prof orgs (which I suspect is one of the reasons laws regarding incorporation for that type of entity have changed recently) in the past decade, and the rise of non-Western performing arts organizations (Does a group like the New York Arabic Orchestra figure into statistics about performing arts employment, for example), as well as the rising demand of infrastructure related to the training of performers (as shown by the rising number of early childhood music programs as well as the conservatory structure which continues to spit out increasing numbers of music performing graduates), simply talking about employment offered by traditional performing arts organizations as the measure of the field as a whole isn’t particularly helpful, I think.

      There may certainly be far fewer employment opportunities in performing arts organizations now than in the past, but that doesn’t imply there are far fewer performances, or less money generated by the ‘long tail’ of performing arts, or that those decreasing employment opportunities somehow is a useful metric for anything except, well, traditional performing arts organizations. In the same way that Robert Flanagan’s recent book which uses data from the 50 biggest budget performing (orchestras) organizations says little about anything other than the economic problems of the 50 biggest budget performing organizations.

      I think Greg’s wife, Anne Midgette said it best in a past blog post about the NEA data regarding attendance versus Arts participation:

      “But it also proves that the old institutions are being left in the dust. Classical music has the highest participation of any art, and ticket sales are still tanking (as the same data demonstrates)? This is more evidence, say I, that orchestras in particular are going to have to continue to work to expand their role if they want to stay alive in an era that loves classical music more than ever but is happy to pursue it without them.”

      There are plenty of us making a comfortable (and sustainable) living in the performing arts. We’re just not doing the way it’s been done traditionally by the massive organizations which annoying become the measure for the overall health of a scene we all have been thriving in for decades.

  3. Kevin James says

    Jon – Love the Douglas Dempster quote.

    Greg – while not necessarily addressing the question at hand, it strikes me that the timeframe you put forth here is roughly similar to the progressive trend toward universal non-payment for musical products. It also strikes me that David G. talks about the need for Major Change. Although when he goes on to define what he means by major (questions of number of productions, summer seasons etc.), it becomes clear that he is still seated firmly inside the box. I think his/our thinking needs to lean a bit more to the radical. I think he/we need to go back to the source, so to speak – it makes David nervous that such a large portion of contributed income is in the control (and presumably, whims and egos) of so few. So why is he not considering alternate models for income? Obviously, other classical music institutions have begun such attempts (Met Opera HD simulcasts in movie theaters for example).

    However, while I believe these efforts are laudable and hold great potential, they simply don’t strike at the root of the issue. In the history of recorded music, there has never been a time that the massive profits of popular music haven’t subsidized the availability of classical music and other more rarified genres; and, I believe, no time that this subsidization has not been an influential contributor to audience sustenance.

    So here’s the thing (I am getting to the point, I promise). I’ve been trying to take note of two things as I wander NYC these days. First – how many brick and mortar retail outlets have I entered which do NOT have music playing for their clientele. Second – of those who DO have music playing, how many post their ASCAP and/or BMI stickers to show that they’re actually paying a licensing fee for it. The answer to the first – I have not yet found a retail outlet that does not play music in order to increase it’s sales or enhance its customer experience. That includes my hardware store, locksmith, laundromat, pharmacist, corner bodega – everything. As for the second, well, no I didn’t see a single ASCAP or BMI sticker anywhere except at an isolated bar or two.

    We’ve identified a variety of seemingly unrelated problems – classical institutions can’t be sustained simply by their constituency without extreme amounts of subsidization. Although music of all forms and genres has become publicly ubiquitous, nobody is actually paying for its creation, and its not a rational expectation that ASCAP and BMI should be able to collect royalties congruent with usage. One that goes without saying – public funding of the “higher” arts via government sources will never be anything more than embattled, let alone adequate.

    Here’s where I get to the radical solution – Since nearly every brick and mortar in America benefits from the use of music piped to it’s patrons, a standard licensing fee ought to be charged, based on square footage or patronage or usage of space, or whatever other fair criteria can be devised. The money would be collected by the IRS as part of standard tax collection, and would then be dispersed to the various advocacy institutions such as BMI and ASCAP (and perhaps others representing the fine arts and others as is fair and right). The ASCAP and BMI employees who currently attempt to cajole the fees out of businesses would instead investigate businesses claiming not to use music in a way which incurs royalties. (My feeling is that if there are speakers on the wall, the business ought to be paying out. Pretty simple, huh?). I believe that businesses who currently pay their licensing fees would end up paying significantly less and perhaps be in favor, at least based on the fairness quotient, me being the optimist here.

    I can’t even begin to do the math on the increased income the licensing organizations would realize. The NEA could be then transformed into a private agency funded solely from the licensing fees. Again, one must assume that the increase in their budget would be staggering. Then my mind goes to the corresponding increases in cash available to folks like the San Francisco Opera, regional theaters, arts-in-education programs in underserved areas, community mural programs, and on and on….

    • says

      Kevin, very quickly on one point — yes, there have been times when massive pop profits didn’t support classical recording. Before the late ’60s or early ’70s, for instance. There just weren’t massive profits from pop — on the level we see now — until pop albums replaced pop singles as the dominant pop format. Meaning the one that sold the most. See Fred Goodman’s book, The Mansion on the Hill, for the fascinating details. Classical recording back then, meanwhile, was profitable enough to sustain itself.

      And another time is now. Classical divisions of major record labels have been put on notice. Which, I believe, in fact happened at least a decade ago, if not earlier. They were told that (1) they had to earn their own way, and (2) that all of their releases had to earn their own way. I’m simplifying this. There are exceptions. For instance, I once heard Renee Fleming say on a public panel that she had to agree to make a recording of sacred songs, in exchange for her label releasing a recording of her singing Strauss’s Daphne. But earlier in time, those tradeoffs were an everyday thing. Leonard Bernstein, let’s say, would record Strauss waltzes, and that would pay for some of his less popular serious classical releases. The entire catalogue paid for the company’s operations, rather than asking for each release to make a profit. Naxos — surely the most profitable classical label now — operates this way still.

      The moral here — we don’t know enough about the history of classical recording. I’ve gleaned what I’ve passed on here from conversations with insiders, on and off the record, over many years, plus from random snippets I’ve picked up in reading. But I don’t know any single place to go for an accurate history. The notion that pop recordings have paid for classical releases is widespread, but I think it’s largely a myth.

      • Kevin James says

        Hi Greg – I wasn’t being clear enough. I don’t mean that popular music recording has always supported classical music recording. I mean that the money that flows to organizations such as ASCAP and BMI which results from popular recordings and the royalties they generate, has always been used in part to support less widely distributed genres and public service ventures. The same is true of more private interests – VH1 in the schools, Avery Fisher, the Rex Foundation (and a variety of others either funded by rock bands or by their fans), just to name a very few.

        • says

          Thanks for the clarification, Kevin. And of course you’re right. ASCAP and BMI use some part of their huge pop revenues to support classical composers. I’ve gotten those grants. And for years I served on the ASCAP panel that decided on them. Which leads me to say that the amounts involved are really very small. Hardly anyone gets even as much as $1000 each year. Grants of a few hundred dollars yearly are the norm.

          And, sure, pop revenues may show up as donations to the arts. But, again, it’s a trickle, compared to the size of the revenues.

    • says

      Kevin, great to see you here and yes, I really love that Dempster quote. And the piece from which it was quoted recognizes things are changing for the field on a massive scale, but he doesn’t interpret it as decline (or rise).

      Regarding the label subsidy idea, I recently read a piece which included an interview with one of the big five [former] CEOs or presidents who when asked if the label would considering releasing classical music on a large scale again said something to the effect of “We don’t want to get back into Classical Music subsidy business” –not the exact words, but close. I’ll have to find that piece.

      On the other hand, only the superstars in the pop world make money from recordings and recording contracts and that money generates the ‘subsidies’ for the mid-level artists or artists that never make it in the field-which always constitutes a significantly much higher proportion of musicians in the pop world (compared to the even higher proportion of pop musicians that never get signed) so anyone who thinks it’s easier to make a sustainable living in the pop world is looking at the field through rose colored glasses.

      The licensing issue is interesting and what you say about the proportion of licenses to ‘venues’ seems to be about correct even in less cosmopolitan cities. I know that one of my bands had become a group that drew attention to non-licensed venues we regularly performed in several cities in the Indianapolis area and have learned to adapt to the licensing status of venues to keep the gig.

      Rather than a venue-wide tax/license, I would prefer to allow the venue opt for hiring groups (or playing music) by artists that offer a wide variety of non-licensed music (whether that be public domain or originals). Granted, the ASCAP and BMI licensing scheme right now doesn’t necessarily generate much money to individual artists for various reasons, but for those artists who aren’t signed, or who primarily gig live (like the group I mentioned) it gives a competitive advantage to the artists that can accommodate non-licensed venues.

      I’ve been curious to see if licensing businesses like Magnatune will begin to flourish as an alternative to the traditional licensing organizations, but I do know that a number of performing communities, like the bellydancers I often work with, are wholeheartedly adopting the Mangatune licensing schemes since it wouldn’t be cost effective for them to pay for the flat ASCAP/BMI licenses for their Dance studios. And in the end, Magnatune brings in more money to the artist since it eliminates so much of the overhead that organizations like ASCAP and BMI will need to stay in operation.

      BTW–how did the opera performance go?

  4. ken nielsen says

    It is strange that there isn’t agreement on the facts.
    The data – on audiences, income, costs and all – are available and there isn’t much room for interpretation.
    I come down on the side of the worriers. But I think that’s a good starting point because it prompts us to act. To do something to make things better.
    I respect Lisa’s view but her comments are light on facts and analysis.

    I have known many here in Australia who say “they have always been saying that” or “the audience has always been old” or “it’s just a lull” (due to the economy, the weather, the Olympics…).
    Trouble is, over twenty or so years excuses wear out.

    • says

      Good news. But it’s a classic fallacy to think that someone’s doleful projections were wrong, just because things worked out better. When the Cleveland Orchestra said in 2004 (privately) that it would go out of business in 2010, they meant it. When they didn’t go out of business, it was because their projection spurred them to take serious steps to fix things. I’m sure the same happened in San Francisco.

      • says

        “But it’s a classic fallacy to think that someone’s doleful projections were wrong, just because things worked out better.”

        What? Huh? Then by what criteria should we find someone’s doleful projection wrong? When things worked out the for the worse? If that’s not the case then you have a classic example of an unfalsifiable statement, which is a classic fallacy–one that relies on circular reasoning. Come on, Greg–you can do better than this. Don’t be a hedgehog!

        • says

          Jon, if we’re going to teach each other logic, let me put the reasoning I complained about in schematic form. It goes like this:

          The XYZ organization says it’s in serious trouble.

          But now it’s doing better.

          Therefore it never WAS in serious trouble.

          It ought to be clear that this — if not an outright fallacy — certainly is faulty reasoning. Because there might be many reasons why XYZ is doing better now. It might have fixed the problems that caused it to have trouble. Someone might have given it $50 million. A bad economy, which just about 100% of economic analysts expected to continue to several years, unexpectedly got better.

          Etc. Here’s an example of this faulty reasoning. From time to time, I’ve heard or read people saying that classical music is never in as bad a state as people think it is. To support their view, they talk about something that happened in the late 1960s. Major American orchestras said they were financially stricken, and might go out of business. But they didn’t go out of business! Aha, the people I’m talking about say. You see? The trouble was never as bad as they said it was!

          But that leaves out the core of the story. It’s true that major American orchestras thought they might go out of business, in the last years of the ’60s. And so they called in McKinsey to consult on the problem. McKinsey gave them two reports, one at the end of the ’60s, prepared for the Big Five, and one early in the ’70s, prepared for a consortium of more than 20 orchestras.

          I’ve gotten those reports from the New York Philharmonic archives (thanks, everybody there), and they couldn’t be clearer, or more devastating. Orchestras really were badly stricken, financially. They really could have gone out of business, if nothing changed.

          The fix McKinsey recommended was that the federal government fund 25% of orchestras’ budgets, a suggestion that seemed reasonable, since (as McKinsey noted) European governments paid 90% of their orchestras’ costs.

          But of course it never happened. What did happen was something not foreseen in the reports, or mentioned in any way: Orchestras developed the funding structure they have now. When this financial crisis hit, orchestras didn’t (or mostly didn’t) have development departments, meaning that they didn’t have a dedicated group of fundraisers on their staffs. Yes, they got donated income, but they didn’t have to work very hard for it. Or at least not compared to how hard they work now. Now, the largest single department of any major orchestra will be the development department. Or, to put it more plainly, the fundraising staff is larger than the staff for any other activity.

          So it’s wrong to think they were never in as bad trouble as they said they were. The trouble was exactly as they described it. But they faced their problems, and found ways to overcome them.

          The schematic, then, should really read something like this:

          The XYZ organization says it’s in bad financial trouble.

          But now it’s better off.

          Therefore, something must have happened. We don’t know, as we start thinking the situation through, exactly what that something might have been. Maybe XYZ found the trouble wasn’t as bad as it thought it was. Maybe they were lying about it. Or maybe the trouble really was as bad as they said, but they fixed it.

          It’s our job, faced with an improving organization that formerly said it was in desperate shape, to find out where the improvement came from. But to say they could never have been in trouble isn’t very good reasoning, because it excludes some fairly basic possibilities.

          As for the proposition being falsifiable — the proposition that XYZ is in bad financial trouble — of course it is. That would be a job for an accountant, a financial consultant, a journalist, or a well-connected insider. An accountant or financial consultant can look at XYZ’s balance sheet, or the data that the balance sheet comes from, and conclude that the finances aren’t really so bad. A journalist or insider can root around, talk to people (very much off the record), and find out things that XYZ might not be telling us.

          So we falsify XYZ’s statement by finding better data than XYZ is giving us, or than they might have themselves. But their statement isn’t falsified simply because, as time goes on, things look better. As I’ve tried to show, there can be all kinds of reasons why things get better, even if at one point they really did look very bad.

          • says

            Thanks, Greg–and that is pretty much the line of reasoning I thought you were getting at. But I think that the possibilities for generating revenue (whether through increased ticket sales, or through donations, or even through new technologies such livecasting) should be implicit in any projections.

            All I’m saying is that with regards to this particular type of argument, the first premise (or premises implied in the project that “The XYZ organization says it’s in serious trouble.”) is false, or at least misleading.

            This isn’t to say that long-term (and increasing) structural deficits due to the Baumol effect isn’t true, but that effect also relies on the fact that, all things being equal and with no way of increasing productivity, there will be increasing structural deficits. But all things aren’t exactly equal anymore, and the structural deficits that Flanagan finds in the 50 largest budget organizations may, or may not, be manageable given the new technologies (and changing strategies) of those organizations, which doesn’t say much about organizations that do operate in a different budget bracket. For all we know, even with the Baumol effect, those structural deficits may be even more manageable in mid-level or smaller organizations especially given the increased level and interest in generating revenue at more local levels.

            And despite your belief that institutions don’t use forecasts of doom and gloom during labor negotionations there are some industry experts who believe otherwise. In other words, it can all be a part of the structure of how these organizations generate revenue.

            Whether that’s a healthy thing (I’m inclined to think not) is a different matter altogether.

            And as far as the Baumol effect is concered, it’s something the pop music field is also prone to. It’s just taking a little longer fo the effect to ‘catch up’ since most pop performing entities involve smaller performing forces (c.f. big bands in the era preceeding the rise of rock-n-roll); is a much younger industry; and started off with the benefit of mass media technology.

            Which I guess is one of the reasons I often wonder just what you are trying to get at in the big picture of things. Are you looking at sustainable living for musicians in the classical field? Or just at the changing face of the classical music field in general? Because the former seems less likely to happen no matter how much vitality and relevance the field as a whole may have in the future, and really, I think that’s the case for musicians in almost any field.

          • says

            You talk of “some industry experts” but cite just one. Whose reasoning boils down to this:

            Orchestras exaggerate their financial troubles.

            Therefore they do it as a weapon against their unions.

            Bad reasoning. And Drew’s instances of orchestras exaggerating is pretty slim, if you follow his links. And look for hard evidence. He makes many assertions, but — looking now at specific instances — can only cite:

            * accounting errors by the Columbus Symphony

            * the Philadelphia Orchestra’s withdrawal from a multiorchestra fund, which was attacked by Deborah Borda.

            The problem here, though, is that Deborah, in everything Drew quotes, never says that the Philadelphia Orchestra exaggerated its condition. Instead, she says that it was “an abrogation of responsibility” to withdraw from the fund, which could have many meanings.

            And the Columbus Symphony’s errors could have been genuine errors. Not, in other words, part of any intent to deceive. Drew never presents any information that says Columbus was deceptive.

            So where’s Drew’s evidence? He doesn’t cite any, not any at all. Nor does he mention that the Columbus musicians haven’t opposed the Columbus management on any of this. Or that musicians at the Pittsburgh Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra worked cooperatively with management, after management said there were financial problems.

            If Drew is an insider, he’s an insider with orchestral musicians. His wife is or was one. I’ve never heard of him having any inside connections with orchestra managements. As for me, I don’t want to exaggerate my insider status, but I’ve spent more than 30 years in this business, and during that time have had a lot of professional and private, friendly contact with managers of big and medium and small classical music institutions. I’ve heard them speak privately about many things. I’ve heard the No. 2 official of one of our biggest orchestras make fun, in very specific terms, of the boards of directors of every other big orchestra. I’ve heard these managers complain about unions. I’ve heard them detail their successes and failures, in many areas.

            But I’ve never, not once, heard anyone say they were going to fight their unions by exaggerating their financial trouble. That’s true even for managers who might have been annoyed at some particular time about the unions they had to deal with.

            In fact, what I’ve heard is more or less the opposite — managers saying that financial troubles should never been revealed. If anything, on this question, is the standard practice in the industry, it’s to pretend things are better than they are, not worse. At least in my experience. If Drew or anyone else wants to cite contrary evidence, let’s see it. But it has to be actual evidence! What Drew cites, Jon — in the things you linked — isn’t anything close to that.

            As for Baumol, you need to read Flanagan’s book, which is not at all the same document as the report he made some years ago, which has circulated widely. If you think that new technologies can offset the cost disease, I’d love to see the financial projections that show that. That is, how much extra revenue can the new technologies bring in? As compared to the steady 4 percent erosion each year that Flanagan calculates the cost disease creates. Remember, too, that these technologies cost something to implement, and that manufacturing companies are in a better position, financially, to put into play every new technology available. The cost disease makes it hard to keep up with the for-profit world in anything that costs money to implement. Which, for instance, is one reason that profit-making corporations normally do surveys and focus groups to study the effectiveness of their advertising and marketing campaigns, while orchestras rarely do.

            And, Jon, please forgive the following, but think about it for a moment. Do I love being the middleman between a credentialed economist, and people speculating about economics? I don’t think I do.

          • says

            Looks like comment depth doesn’t let me respond directly to your reply–Greg, Economies of scale. Baumol even noted this in his seminal work with respects to real cost of producing concerts versus the number of concerts given. It was variable for each of the 11 US orchestras he studied. Some orchestras reached the minimum cost level at 90 concerts per year, while others enjoyed economies of scale up to 150 concerts per year. In other words, producing fewer or more concerts per year will increase cost level per concert. One way to lower costs in any economy of scale is with new technology. Livecasts of concerts is one way to do this. With the imminent collapse of the recording industry (which was considered the technology thought to be a way to chance the economy of scale for performing artists), this is one the current technologies that might favor increasing production.

            Sure, for an organization such at the Met Opera which has a budget in excess of $300 million, the $11 million made from HD casts last year is a pittance. But for an organization with a budget [lower than or] relatively close to that $11 million mark, then being able to generate earned income like this could easily push the organization into a very profitable enterprise.

            I’m not saying that just any organization would be able to fully implement the technology with the same level of earned income–having the reputation that the Met Opera has is surely one reason that draws audiences to the HD casts in ways that, say, a smaller regional organization just couldn’t hope to do. And obviously the high start up-cost can be a big barrier for implementing the technology (see Waldfogel’s works regarding barriers for products for preference minorities).

            Sure, right now, the infrastructure of the new technologies might not be enough for any particular organization, but as more and more cinemas add live streaming capabilities (I believe there are currently 1700 worldwide–roughly 200 more than last year due to the Met Opera’s influence) and if any arts organization starts to use some of the technologies already in place (e.g. pay per view sports events), I can easily see how some (but certainly not all) performing arts organizations could start to piggyback on the what’s happening with the Met (and LA Phil and Berlin).

            The livecast and pay per view aveneus are hardly the only possible ways to use new media. I remember several years ago, with the rise of the online virtual world, Second Life, there was an interesting piece about a guy who had actually spent some several thousands of dollars to purchase real estate in the game. He also had a “virtual venue” in his property which was beginning to show concerts by ‘virtual DJs’ (i.e. DJs who had a midi interface which allowed them to interact directly with the virtual venue in real time). One of my groups was following closely that possibility of performance and though it was slow to take off there are already some artists capitalizing on this completely different scene.

            I’m not disagreeing with you that traditional performing organizations are generally large and unwieldy (and thus slow to change) bureaucratic entities. Generally, they are,and given the general diminishing returns for earned revenue for live performances (which I’ve said, applies just as easily to any type of performing group, whether pop, folk, traditional or “high arts”) in comparison to inflation, I think one of the biggest barriers for them is the slow adoption of new technologies, which other types of organizations have been using for years (or decades), or some have been recently capitalizing on much more quickly.

            And, Jon, please forgive the following, but think about it for a moment. Do I love being the middleman between a credentialed economist, and people speculating about economics? I don’t think I do.

            Greg, “comments encouraged?” 😉 If it helps, one of the benefits of being married to an MBA is that I get to talk shop about economics on a regular basis. And we are actually working on our own research regarding economic issues in the world of performing arts (as well as using many of my personal insights in operating the performing arts groups I’ve been working with). I’m not just pulling things out of my arse–hard data is mana to my work.

          • says

            Oh, sorry–regarding Drew’s post. There have been numerous commenters in the industry who have also (especially in the past year) brought up the issue of management/boards using ‘gloom and doom’ talk as leverage for negotiation. I just pointed out his latest post specifically commenting on that but if you search through the archives for those organizations (as well as some others, see esp. the Louisville Orchestra and some discussions about the Detroit Symphony) you’ll see that quite a few others take it for granted that this is a normal negotiation tactic.

  5. says

    I think the trouble here is that something as vague as “the decline of classical music” is pretty hard to get consensus on, unlike your other examples. With the auto industry you can look at the balance sheets of a handful of companies that represent the American share of the market for cars and make a pretty clear-cut argument about whether they are or are not going to continue to make money selling cars. For healthcare, there is indeed an ideological debate about whether the government should subsidize health care, but the dispute you describe over the quality of US healthcare is not ideological, it’s about fact selection and priorities–one side holds up international metrics of health care quality for the entire population, the other side holds up the very high quality of care in the U.S. available to those who can afford it and various horror story anecdotes about care in other countries.

    Compared to those examples, it’s hard to tell what the “decline of classical music” even means. Are there a certain number of orchestra failures that would signify a tipping point for the end? Can we pinpoint a rough timeframe for how long classical music has left? What’s the horizon over which we need to be sure of the integrity of the classical music enterprise to stop talking about decline? 50 years? 75? Social Security projections get pretty arbitrary after about 25 years and predicting labor productivity seems a lot more reliable than society’s taste for Beethoven.

    Moreover, the data that we do have about classical music seems anything but straightforward. You’ve certainly identified a lot of disturbing trends worthy of debate here, but disentangling the complex effects of national and local economic conditions on support for classical music is the kind of thorny problem that couldn’t be resolved to a simplistic statement like “its dying” even if it was a priority for academics–which it is not.

    Which is all to say: challenging people to agree to such blanket statements seems like empty provocation. Let’s talk about the specific issues of orchestra finances or audience trends, be honest about what they represent, and talk about the opportunities and dead-ends they imply–so many examples of which you do a good job of highlighting here. But let’s not get hung up on this need to have folks prove their “seriousness” about confronting the situation. A lot of people are clear-eyed about the troubles classical music faces and working their butts off to innovate around them, but they survey a field rife with examples of healthy, thriving evolution occurring alongside those troubles, and don’t see much utility in acting like they’re experiencing the waning years of the horse and buggy trade.

  6. says

    How about this question: what about Classical music HAS changed in 16 years?

    I guess there are a few things to cite: the arrival of a handful of headliner performers like Florez and Dudamel; the green shoots of meaningful, personal approaches to improvisation and genre-cross-pollination; the institutional support for classical artists becoming broader ambassadors of their work, inclusive of education and marketing.

    But, that’s really all I’ve got, and I would have to say that overwhelmingly, the field of classical music has more or less seemed on tape loop since I left conservatory 12+ years ago. My shock at the level of stasis faded a long time ago.

    Here’s a perhaps meaningful comparison: I’m currently getting a PhD in a branch of science that was INVENTED in 1995. The pace of development in it is so fast that I could easily write a daily blog and never keep up. Among other things, the field has developed the best-ever way to diagnose soft-tissue cancers, and that is not even my focus — I’m working with the way it can identify the “brain in the muscle” as a new way to study all the alternative therapies that I’m into (musical ones among them of course). This is a typical pace for a lot of science, social science very much included. And it is certainly much more the pace for me. (My field is called Magnetic Resonance Elastography.)

    But one could make cultural comparisons as well. Didn’t the golden age of Hollywood musicals, which our house rings with many nights (and Rafa will probably inspire you to do the same), pretty much come and go within 16 years? How long was it from “Rapper’s Delight” to Yo Gabba Gabba? etc. etc. etc.

    Somehow this happens even though classical music attracts all sorts of creative, dynamic people.

  7. TomV says

    I believe that the phenomenon of “declining audiences” for classical music is rooted in a surprisingly overlooked issue: The distancing of “art music” composers from the popular music of their day.

    Discussing this matter all the way back to the renaissance and the medieval period would be too complex for a comment. However, let us look at it from the start of the baroque, when “art music” by what we consider classical composers started to become accessible to individuals outside the nobility. One of the first instances of this, of course, was the opening of the first opera house in Venice and the adaptation of opera music to ecclesiastical themes due to various papal bans and prohibitions.

    The music of, e.g., Monteverdi, Cavall, Lully and Purcell were to a great extent based on popular dances of the day. Thus, if a well-off tradesman went to an opera, or a poorer laborer went to a mass, they would likely not be taken aback by what they heard in these venues, for they would recognize the jig, gavotte, menuet, passepied, corrente etc. from their social life (whether a rustic wedding or a party in the salon, where La Folia, Jacaras or the Canarie, too, were dances of the day).

    This trend only grew stronger in the 18th century, as composers incorporated “rustic” themes into their works (probably as part of the arcadian pastoral fad reigning in Paris at the time). Telemann used quite a few raunchy melodies he had picked up during his stint in Silesa (where the Hanak musical culture was quite strong) in his suites and other pieces. Bach, of course, ever the eclectic, would do so as well in the Peasant Cantata, though his duties as chuch musician prevented him from incorporating a folk-element into his music as much as Telemann did. Vivaldi had his “in stile rustico” pieces, as did Handel (listen to the first chorus in Belshazzar). At the same time, of course these late-baroque composers still wrote most of their music using derived dance forms. People, even in church, surely often came across choruses and arias which would make their toes tap.

    When we move to the classical style, we again find a strengthening of the tie between “art music” and popular music. in Mozart and Haydn, the existing craze of the menuet is pervasive in most of their works, and they all wrote Deutsche tänze, whose derivations found their way into their more serious works (viz. the ball scene in Don Giovanni). So while the other movements of the symphony or string quartet may have become somewhat more abstract, each composition was sure to have at least one piece that would set the audience swaying. The onset of the more abstract sonata form and extended slow movements was also offset by the development of the piano. By the 1770’s Mozart, Haydn and J.C. Bach were writing sonatas and easy chamber music pieces for home consumption by a rapidly expanding middle class which considered musical literacy a essential social skill and playing the piano or another instrument as their main source of music.

    Taking the romanitc period broadly, the trend of “a piano in every drawing room” had intensified, and “art composers” were churning out pieces which were being published at relatively low prices for the enjoyment of domestic audiences. Schubert didn’t hesitate to include elements of gassenhauer, schrammelmusik and the ländler in his music, and the alla polacca was in high vogue in the early part of the 19th century. Of course, the menuet was supplanted by the rage of romanticism, the waltz. Pretty much everyone but the most abject poor had access to listening or playing these dance forms in outdoor summer garden settings like the Prater in Vienna, Tivoli in Copenhagen and various spa towns across Europe. This did not go unnoticed by “art music” composers like Beethoven, who wrote quite a few alla Polaccas, Tchaikovsky, who can safely be considered as one of the best waltz composers in the romantic era, or Brahms, who wrote his own waltzes and admired J. Strauss the younger greatly. Another element played a huge role in inconnecting “art music” with popular taste: National romanticism. This led to the spreading of indigenous dances like the tarantella, czardas, mazurka and Czech polka, can-can, etc. etc. to all corners of Europe in the works of Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, Grieg, Offenbach and many others.

    We can thus trace a line of ever increasing congruence between “art music” and popular music between ca. 1600 and 1900. Even the massive symphonies of Mahler include strong traces of the above mentioned Austrian pop music combined with kletzmer music elements. However, here the rift appears.

    In the everlasting search for originality and “an own voice” – helped, admittedly, by the terrors and deprivations of WW I as well as the progress of massive industrialization – composers came to a crossroads between tonality and “systems.” Admittedly, tonality and “an own voice” were becoming ever more complex to achieve as Mahler, Zemlinsky, Korngold and others were pushing chromaticism to a breaking point. After WW I, too, the old orders of the concept of beauty and order in Europe helped break down the old concepts of tonality. In the US, which had not suffered nearly the grievous losses of most European countries in the war, tonality happily existed well into the 50s and 60s. Indeed, it was in the US after WW I where the synthesis between “art music” and popular music survived, as Gershwin, Antheil, Copland, Gould and Bernstein adopted jazz and big band music elements into their concert hall music. European musicians briefly flirted with the jazz idiom between ca 1910 and into the 30s (Debussy, Martinu and Shostakovich to name a few), yet these European attempts at continued stylistic integration between art and pop collapsed due to the fact that jazz – as appealing as it was – did not represent indigenous European popular music, the rise of the atonalists/serialists and finally national socialism and WW II.

    If the Second Viennese School had been one temporary break-out style among many, we might not have an audience problem today. However, the enshrinement of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern along with their disciples by the divine prophet Boulez, who declared harmony was dead, made a centuries-old tradition break down. When you went to the concert hall in the 1920s (in the case of Stravinsky already back in 1909) you might be assailed by atonal and/or serial music, which resembled nothing you had heard before, or which formed a part of your daily social life. 12 tone serialism and atonality suddenly tore “art music” back to the feudal ages, insofar as it represented the tastes and interests of a rarified intelligentsia of the social elite. And you certainly couldn’t tap your toes to Berg’s Kammerkonzert, even though the composer, likely with a great deal of irony in mind, called the last movement a rondo (indicentally or even more ironically the oldest dance form found in “art music”). After WW II ended, western academia with Boulez as torch-bearer declared serialsim, atonality and the therefrom derived forms as the only viable compositional styles. Anyone who wrote tonal pieces was an enemy of cultural progress and the people had to be forcibly be re-educated to embrace this style, and “passe” composers had to be ostracized from academia (and let’s face it, that’s where most composers in the last 150 years have made their living).

    Ironically, the USSR, and after WW II its satellites, took exactly the opposite view. If you wrote atonal and serial music in the USSR under Stalin, you were declared a bourgeois intellectual and likely at best to get deported to Siberia, at worst summarily shot. Thus a musical cold war started to mirror the realpolitik of the rest of the globe. Equally ironically, it would seem that the USSR won the musical cold war. It was in Russia, where Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Miaskovsky et al. could safely compose waltzes and music rooted in the daily experiences of their listeners that most of our popular “modern art music” reperoire comes from. Stravinsky is an enigmatic case, because he reverted to “clacissism” even though nobody forced him to – probably becuse years before the rest of us, he realized where the audiences’ money lay. But it is Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian etc. which we hear most often as established and popular repertoire in our concert halls and not the Second Viennese School composers and their contemporary composer derivatives. A Shostakovich symphony will draw an audience, while playing a late work by Berg outside a major metropolis will kill off your subscription base. On our side of the Iron Curtain, Korngold, Zemlinsky, Schreker and other tonal composers who either fled to the US during WW II or laid low in Europe were never admitted to concert halls after WW II, which had been taken over by a new generation of east coast composers and their conductor friends, who sneered at their “Hollywood music”. Perhaps the refugees would have fared better artistically under communism.

    The rise of music reproduction has played a role in the decline of audiences too, of course, but this was not a factor until quality stereo recordings and good sound systems became widely available in the late 60s. One of your earlier blogs about the age of audiences confirms that the aging of audiences primarily started after 1950. It is also true, that the aging trend has been driven by a general decline in musical literacy. The choice of entertainment in the home up until 1950 was either the radio or, as in previous centuries, the piano. As technology has become more complex, requiring ever greater specialization and entertainment in the home has become incredibly diversified to TV, video,, video game, radio and computers, musical literacy has dropped correspondingly. Children today spend hours on video games, where 100 years ago, they would spend time on playing the piano, which was the most expensive or complex piece of technology in most homes. Nonetheless, no numbers indicate that people today enjoy listening to music less than people 300 years ago.

    Hence the divide I see, which constitutes the greatest barrier to developing younger audiences, is one of stultified academic compositions championed by conductors, who have a monetary or career interest in promoting music which has no relation whatsoever with peoples’ daily sonic experiences, and the inability of composers to incorporate contemporary popular musical trends in their “art music” compositions. It amazes me that we have had decades of music compositions (or adaptations to contemporary trends of the classics) by Yanni, Jenkins and the Trans Siberian Orchestra, which draw audiences of hundreds of thousands, young and old. (whether one can call these three examples “art music” or not is a discussion I will not get into here). Yet composers, whether in academia or elsewhere seem to have learned nothing from music history or from examples of “cross-over” success, and in most cases still keep writing music which distances the performers from the sphere of audience listening experiences outside the concert hall.

    I do not buy the argument that “art music” should “educate” and “broaden horizons”, thus placing the onus of declining audiences squarely on supposedly dumb audiences, which can’t grasp the lofty enlightenment of contemporary composers like Carter, Stockhausen or Takemitsu. The broader audiences when “art music” was performed in public settings 100-200 years ago didn’t get program notes and not all of them were musically literate or perhaps even particularly musically interested (going to church and listening to music was better than abstaining and getting run out of town). In fact, people – potential audiences – today are smarter and able to make intelligent choices far better than at any time in history. When composers once again realize that their music has to make their audiences want to tap their toes or sway in rhythm to the piece even if they’re sitting in a concert hall or a church aisle, is when the debate about the demise of “art music” will have an epiphany. Why not write symphonies and chamber pieces which incorporate elements of rock, country & western, heavy metal, rap, contemporary jazz and all the different styles of music with which younger people today associate? Most younger people today who could be filling seats in concert halls do not listen to gamelan music from Bali, Buddhist meditative music, tone clusters without a rhythm or some “system” which you have to study the score carefully to comprehend.

    • says

      This is a truly excellent history on the relationship of classical music and popular culture over time. And the point is basically the same as what I was trying to make in a comment several days earlier- http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2012/01/another-sign-of-trouble-and-a-solution.html#comment-21583

      But Tom has managed to build a much stronger case than I did. Not only do I completely agree, but you’ve just taught me several new things that about blew my mind. Tom, if you are a composer, where can I hear your music??

      As a composer myself this is the path I have found myself stumbling along. After reading this I’ll be much more sure footed. Thank you.

  8. Sparky Magee says

    This debate reminds me of my favorite quotation (by Laurence J. Peter, as in “Peter Principle”): “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed to be undecided about them.”

  9. says

    Although I am repeating myself I think it is easy to explain, composers are not writing, and ensembles are not playing, music audiences want to hear. If a car manufacturer loses trade they find out what people will buy and build that, the same with any other business.
    In England a few years ago the fashion was beige and stone coloured clothes for women. Women did not buy these colours because they said with the dull English weather and the typical English skin colour, these clothes made them look ill and pasty. The big clothes stores then introduced different colours because they were losing trade. No doubt if the clothes shops had been managed by classical music administrators, or classical composers, they would have said “these clothes are innovative and if you can’t take cutting edge fashion the just go away”.

    In the calssical music world business seems a dirty word, I have even heard the idea of playing or writing music that people want to hear called prostitution. Therefore here is the situation. If writing music people want to hear is an anathema, the only alternative is state or private funding. When this funding dries up the only alternative then is to get an ordinary job and compose and play music in you spare time. I personally know free jazz musicians who do this. They don’t want to starve but also, they don’t want to play commercial music because it does not interest them, so they are content to keep free jazz as a hobby.

    America and Europe are democracies, musicians and composers are free to do what they want – but so are the audiences. The two choices seem to be, look to your potential audience and write or play what they want to hear, or do something else and keep music as a hobby. In the U.K. there are many composers who enjoy their lecturing and teaching careers and find time to compose in their spare time.

    However I have a different view. The standard of commercial music now is low therefore I am convinced classical composers could, at least, be almost as successful. Who knows, after many years of writing music people want to hear, the audience may even enjoy your more way-out works. This was certainly true in rock music with groups such as the Beatles.

    • Raro says

      Actually composers are writing, and new musicians are making music THAT many people want to hear — much more than these listeners want to hear symphonies by Beethoven, for example.

      Times really have changed, already now. It’s 2012 by the way.

  10. says

    Another way of looking at this is, whether or not classical music is in an economic crisis currently, it has certainly been in an aesthetic crisis for a hundred years. Why do I say this? The basic structures of classical music, ones that had been slowly developing for several centuries, were suddenly overthrown in just a couple of decades. Rebarbative rhythms, atonal melodies and the complete banishment of harmony became an aesthetic ideology. Audiences found this unappealing. I see signs that this situation is changing, but as long as some composers still think their job is to epater les bourgeoisie, we still have a ways to go.

  11. Herb Levy says

    Going back to the ASCAP/BMI discussion above. The vast majority of stores restaurants and other business open to the public that play music are playing recordings via Muzak or some other such service. One of the main reasons these services are attractive to business owners is that they handle all of the licensing of performance rights.

    As to “classical” music’s lack of connection to “popular” music. There are many, many serious composers of contemporary music whose work is rooted equally in classical and popular music. However, many of these composers are not creating works for orchestras or even, in many cases, smaller classical ensembles. Instead they are making works for ensembles of musicians who want to play their music.

    • TomV says

      That’s great Herb. But how, then, do you get the music of such composers out to a broader audience who will fill symphonic concert halls?

  12. Alex LaFollett says

    I don’t think that the “emancipation of dissonance” is really the problem here. If you look back at the popular music of the ’70s, there was a lot of really crazy stuff, influenced by 20th-century classical music, that was selling extremely well. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP), for instance, springs to mind. They were doing cover versions of Bartok and Ginastera, and original songs often laced with polytonality and asymmetrical meters, and selling millions of albums–“Tarkus” hit #1 in the UK and #9 in the US in 1971. You can say the same thing about Yes–their “Relayer” album is as dissonant and outre as all get out, yet it hit #5 in the US in 1974. There’s more recent examples as well–Radiohead’s “Kid A” instantly comes to mind, though it’s a little bit different phenomenon, as Radiohead had built up a following with somewhat less challenging music beforehand (much like The Beatles), whereas Yes and ELP started out doing crazy stuff from the beginning. It’s also worth noting that they were contemporanous with the likes of the American “you must right serial music or else” age in academia.

    As much as many pro-accessible types would lead one to believe otherwise, dissonance can sell.