The great change

In my last post, I said that classical music needs a huge change. And the change will have to be radical. Classical music needs to lose its sense of entitlement, the belief many of us in the classical music world have that classical music is supremely important, necessary for any civilized society, and therefore has to be supported — financially, by our schools, and in many other ways.

To see why I think this, go back a generation or two or three, let’s say to the 1940s and ’50s. Classical music, back then, had a working ecosystem. It was regarded, pretty much universally, as unrivaled serious art. Unrivaled, at the very least, by anything else in music. It was thought to be lofty, profound, something that lifted us above everyday life.

And yet at the same time it was popular, in ways we can hardly conceive of now. Classical stars — Jorge Bolet, the pianist, and Leopold Stokowski — became Hollywood figures. The classical audience was young, no older than the population at large. New operas ran commercially on Broadway. A survey of college students, conducted in 1954 to find out their musical taste, asked them who their favorite composers were. And they had favorite composers — Beethoven and Debussy.

NBC created an orchestra for Toscanini (the conductor hyped as the greatest musician who ever lived), and broadcast his concerts, with commercial sponsorship. As late as 1962, Life  — one of the most popular magazines in the US — commissioned a piano piece from Copland, and printed it for readers to play.

There’s much more of this, for anyone who wants to look up the history. And what’s crucial to understand — I can’t stress this enough — is that the belief in classical music’s transcendent value and its popularity went hand in hand. They supported each other. It was easy to claim transcendent value for classical music, because so many people agreed that it had that value.

And the belief in its transcendent value made people want to hear it. Thus the music appreciation movement of the 1940s, which wasn’t created by classical music institutions looking for converts. Instead it responded to a widespread social need — people, all on their own, thought they ought to like classical music, and wanted to learn about it.

So nobody, in those days, had to argue — as people do now — for classical music’s value. Orchestras didn’t have marketing or development departments.  (The development department — for those new to these discussions — does fundraising, and, in the US today, is typically the largest department in any large classical music institution.) Selling tickets and raising funds for the most part came easily. Sometimes all you had to do, to sell tickets, was send your subscribers a letter, saying that now it was time to resubscribe.

But then our culture changed. The Sixties dawned. (Though you can argue that the process of change had started much earlier, maybe just after World War I.) Our world grew informal, and also spontaneous, in ways that classical music didn’t adapt to.

Popular culture — starting with films and music — began to be serious art. Again classical music didn’t adapt, and as time went on, grew more and more distant from the culture at large. Its audience started to age, a process that may have begun in the ’60s (a 1966 study of the performing arts shows an older classical music audience than studies done in 1937 and 1955), but certainly sped up in the ’70s.

By the end of the ’80s, the percentage of the classical audience 30 and under had fallen in half. Year by year, decade by decade, the situation we see now began to emerge. The classical music audience is old. The people in it, those in their 60s and older, came to classical music in the days before all this happened, when classical music still was popular, and its audience still was young.

This audience is going away. It won’t be replaced, or to be more specific, it won’t be replaced by any large number of people eager to hear classical music as it’s mostly performed now — in silence, with musicians in formal dress, and a focus on masterworks from the distant past.

But still the habits of the old ecosystem persist. We still insist that classical music has transcendent value. In fact, we insist on that more than we ever did. Many of us cry out in dismay when someone suggests that the classical audience could be more lively, as if listening in absolute, immobile silence (something unknown in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time) were not just a custom, but a God-decreed mandate.

We go out in the world, seeking support, both for our transcendent value, and also for the benefits classical music allegedly brings — higher test scores, income for downtown businesses. But, no matter what argument we might use, what we’re really saying is that classical music has to exist, has to be funded, has to be taught in our schools. And often along with that we say that popular culture is toxic.

We have to stop doing that. All of it. It never will work. It makes us look, at the same time, elitist and weak. Out of touch. Not very smart.

Advocacy, as we practice it now, has to stop. Or at least be curtailed. And be replaced by a drive to find a new audience. Which I know we’re concerned about! I know that classical music is changing, that cracks have appeared appeared in its habits and structures, that new ways of doing classical music — adapted to today’s culture — have sprung up (mostly outside the classical mainstream).

I know also that at least some of the old ways need to still be maintained, because the old audience still exists, and classical music institutions still depend on it for ticket sales, and funding.

But times have changed. The old ecosystem no longer works. The existing audience will vanish. We have to adapt — and the only adaptation that’s going to work is putting the search for a new audience right at the heart of everything we do.

Coming: why advocacy doesn’t work. Proof that we’re not yet adapting. And many, many signs of our times — new trends in our culture, which classical music needs to embrace, and changes that show how some of us are (and bravo for them) are doing that. 


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  1. says

    I went to the Ojai Festival performance of the John Luther Adams piece ‘Inuksuit’ and it may offer a ray of optimism. Now granted admission to ‘Inuksuit’ was free, and it is a unique percussion piece performed outdoors in a park, but there was a large crowd of all ages and most were actively engaged in the piece, walking from station to station to look at the drummers and listen. There was some chatting and talking but most folks seemed to be there to hear the music. Some sat on chairs, others on blankets – no dress up – all very informal.

    Even though the piece is completely displaced from the traditional concert hall, it worked – the artistic component came through as intended by the composer and the audience, for the most part, ‘got it’. Like an hour’s stroll in a sunny park – yet at the same time a real aesthetic experience – this may be the sort of thing that brings people into the classical orbit.

    • says

      Terrific story, Paul. Thanks for sharing it. I think this is one piece of the puzzle. Classical music institutions should all be doing out-of-the box performances (which in fact aren’t so out of the box as all that — they’ve been going on for a generation). They need to broaden their reach, and participate in contemporary culture.

  2. says

    If you’re looking for proof that we’re not adapting, Greg, look no further than the marketing materials classical music institutions use to promote themselves. In most cases, they’re the same promotional materials they’ve been using for the last fifty years.

    You describe a profound cultural shift in the marketplace that you’d think would be reflected in the way we talk to the world around us, but it’s not. As an industry, the arts are nearly obsessed with talking about new audiences and almost universally incapable of talking to them.

    • says

      So very true, Trevor. I’ve blogged in the past about the hapless marketing materials people use. And this is a reason I’ve started to teach branding — because we MUST learn to tell the world why it should care about us.

      The shift in the marketplace is well understood by profit-making businesses. I ran into a quote recently in a business book: “Almost every successful company has to radically alter course at some point.” Radically! That’s not something we see classical music institutions doing.

  3. Alexis Del Palazzo says

    Never before have I felt the level of frustration as I come up against the classical mainstream as I seek to find new ways of doing things. You are so brilliant at laying these arguments down and making sense of our tumultuous times.

    Bravo. I’m very interested in what’s to come. I’ve never been more excited about what’s coming.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Alexis! I’ve felt a lot of frustration, too. But I’m with you — I think this is a fabulous time of change. The future looks bright. Change is going to come faster than many of us realize.

  4. Carlo says

    What were prices for classical music concerts in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s (in inflation adjusted dollars), compared to today?

    How much did conductors get paid ( in inflation adjusted dollars)?

    I remember going to classical music concerts in Washington, DC in 1965 and paying about the same amount as I would have paid for a first run movie.

    Prices are too high now to attract young people.

    • says

      Orchestra ticket prices increased in recent decades far above the rate of inflation in the economy generally. Orchestra managements found that their core audience would pay higher prices, and so higher prices were charged. Now it’s universally understood that we need to lower prices to attract a new, younger audience, but that creates problems, because the orchestra’s budget depends on selling tickets at the higher price.

      One interesting detail: In the 1950s and ’60s, classical records sold many more copies than they do now, even though the population was quite a lot smaller, and record prices (adjusted for inflation) were higher. One more sign of how much ground classical music has lost.

    • says

      It might help to keep in mind that in the pop-music realm, young kids (even those in middle to middle-lower income brackets) will gladly pay 50-100 bucks for a ticket to a concert of an artist that they happen to love. From the concert-goers point of view, there’s a confusion right now as to what the classical music medium is trying to sell itself as — on one hand, it’s constantly telling everyone that it needs to be put on a pedestal — on the other hand, by selling tickets at a discount it’s sending the implication that the experience of it really isn’t worth your hard earned money.

      Is classical music for everyone or just the few? The medium as a whole doesn’t need to pick sides but individual artists and organizations have to define their audience in such a way that it makes sense from the ground up from their branding, advertising, organizational philosophies, all the way into the music itself. This is a very difficult thing to accomplish, but if they don’t start hiring people who can do this change is not going to be possible.

      Incidentally, the reason why the music industry is fledging right now is because they’ve lost their ability to orchestrate this kind of synchronicity in their own business practices after the internet started to disrupt their distribution channels. So classical music isn’t the only one that’s suffering here…but if they don’t learn to adapt soon there’s a chance that it could be pushed into the realm of “just another obscure genre” due to the immense amount of competition that’s out there.

  5. says

    Terrific overview, Greg. Perhaps one important part to this puzzle might be repertoire and how it is presented to the public today. I also believe the subject matter which new composers are currently writing about can have a strong impact on the future of contemporary classical music. [Has anyone determined the term classical music and that it applies, primarily, to a specific period of history? Using the word ‘classical’ symbolizes something of classic, of older significance that has endured the test of time]. But you are on the right path here.

  6. says

    While I understand your points, I disagree that the audience is dying off and won’t be replaced. There are many people that appreciate it, and perhaps you’re right in saying the numbers won’t be like they once were, but what about all of the musicians and composers today that are working within the contemporary scene? That’s an incredible amount of people, larger than any community of people I’ve ever known, to the point that it’s overwhelming remembering everybody’s names, but all of these people support one another, and many of them are supportive of classical music as well.
    What about all those people that turn up at Bang On a Can’s marathon each year? Is it just because it’s a free concert that those people show up? They must really want to be there.

    I know this is a totally wrong point for me to make, but doesn’t Andre Rieu make some kind of difference with his audiences. I hate the guy’s watered-down version of classical, but wouldn’t you have to count that as part of the picture you’re describing?

    I definitely would love to see a turnaround for the reception of classical music in today’s world. I agree that it’s not where it needs to be, but I have not lost hope for it altogether.

    • says

      Quick answer: the NEA has statistics, which I’ve blogged about here, which show the audience shrinking. This is the overall audience for classical music, concentrated in the classical music mainstream. And I don’t think most classical music institutions see as many people joining their audience as are leaving it.

      The Bang on a Can audience gives hope for the future, but that’s my point. Classical music has to change its spots, to attract aa very different kind of person, to a very different kind of performance.

      • Paul Lindemeyer says

        But how much of BOAC depends on New York? How many new things are OK to do there that would never even start a trend in the rest of the country?

        It’s difficult to say because one cannot really be a cultural critic at all, in many of the arts, unless you are firmly anchored in New York, and in turn, more or less blinded to the rest of the country.

        • says

          Good question, Paul, and one that comes up a lot. As it happens, the BOAC marathon hasn’t done as well elsewhere as in NYC, but there are many reasons for that. In NY, it’s part of a major ongoing festival, which has been going on for many years. And BOAC, too, is well established in NY. Finally, the venue can’t be beat — central, delightful, on the river, surrounded by shops and restaurants. People would be there whether BOAC was or not. Compare the marathon when it came to the Washington area. It was at the U of Maryland, in College Park, far enough from DC (and far enough from the nearest Metro stop) to make getting there a hassle.

          Besides, DC hasn’t yet grown the kind of new music audience New York has. There’s no reason it couldn’t. It has a major alternative theater scene, and a big indie rock fanbase. Alternative arts and indie rock fans were the bedrock from which the new music audience in NYC grew. But nobody’s yet tried to build an equivalent DC audience in any serious way. (Though some are starting to try.) Compare, though, Lincoln Center’s fabulous programming — with things like the White Light festival — with the conservative Kennedy Center, and you can see where at least one part of the problem comes.

          The San Francisco Symphony drew a huge audience a couple of decades ago for a new music series that John Adams ran. And has a large audience now for the Mavericks series, made up in some large part of exactly the people who are going to these new music events in NY. Because of its large indie rock and alternative arts audience, I’d expect there could be a big new music scene, with a new audience, in the Twin Cities. And in Seattle (though maybe there the indie rock audience would be the larger part of the bedrock).

          In fact, it’s hard to see why there wouldn’t be this scene in any major city. It just has to be created. It’s in that department that NYC leads, I think. And, for evidence of it happening in a much smaller place, there is (or at least used to be) a choral group in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan that sang new classical music, and had a bigger audience than the local chamber music series. They did that by stressing meditative and spiritual music, but even so it was by major classical figures like Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros.

          I’d expect smaller cities could do this just as well as NY. Though on a smaller scale, of course. Again, it’s the will to make it happen that counts.

  7. says

    GREAT ARTICLE and I look forward to te followups.
    Advocacy like consultancy, most often don’t work. No doubt exceptions exist, but as a rule, I agree wit you.

  8. Carlos Fischer says

    To find new audience ,to engage younger people to classical music in a sustainable way will be possible , i think , if leading young performers and composers are also engaged and involved in this purpose. Young composers and performers like Auerbach, Higdon, Lindberg , MacMillan ; Lisa Batiashvilli , Vadim Gluzman, Jenny Lin, Joshua Bell, Gustavo Dudamel and many others should have something to say and to do about this audience crisis . Despite the fact that these musicians succeeded, they made their names during a wild time for CM and they still have a long way to go through an even wilder time for CM. But, i wonder now whether these successful musicians are already sucked by the traditional CM ideology and don’t care for a change and we’d need to look for even younger and “lesser known” composers/performers or perhaps see and learn what Hahn-Bin- ‘ the viagra for CM’- is doing in order to The great change happens.

  9. says

    My two cents is that classical music IS adapting for better or worse depending on your perspective. New ensembles are starting from the ground up that refresh the value of classical with youthful energy and context. Perhaps the question should be, can the established institutions be saved. Perhaps they need to split into “repertory” and “new music” ensembles (or concerts) to attract those who want to chose between rather than get some of both.
    Myself, I believe in resetting the context for the old stuff. Do we ever get tired of hearing our favorite songs? Or do we seek and usually find new reasons to like them each time? When I play Beethoven, there is inherently more “meat” to chew on than say Xenakis. To keep it fresh, I imagine my performance is either for the 1st or LAST time. What could be more meaningful than that?

  10. Ted Spickler says

    I am one of the classic old fogies. When growing up I was bathed in recorded classical music every day by parents who loved it. My mother would turn out the lights, set out lit candles, then we would lie on the living room carpet and luxuriate in Rachmaninoff. Listening to music was always a nearly religious event. The great masterpieces are still great today but the modern audiences never had what I had. Never learned to recognize the melodies and the orchestrations and the feeling that went along with all of that. The youngsters of today are deprived and don’t know it! I do not believe the music appreciation classes I received in school could have even begun to match the impact of the rich environment experienced at home. The danger we face today is throwing away what is so wonderful and special in order to attract a new crowd who are missing the point. The best exposure the young generation have to classical music is currently in the movie theater where some (few) scores are also rich and luxuriant and are played by a full orchestra. Hollywood is turning away from asking composers for complete, coherent scores and instead are relying on safe, recognizable bits of sound to go along with exciting scenes on the big screen. We are loosing the battle on every front. One tiny step is to relax the atmosphere. If Steve Jobs could talk to the shareholders of Apple in jeans then so could musicians show up in casual clothes instead of looking like penguins! If a few neophytes clap between movements lets clap with them instead of making them feel foolish. But the real problem is this cohort will not get enough exposure to the masterpieces to learn to like them. That will create a serious financial problem for the classical music world. By the way, orchestral concert tickets are not so bad, have you ever priced the tickets for those huge, popular rock concerts held at the civic centers? Note also that as one of the die-hard true appreciators of great music I rarely go to live concerts anymore (driving into the city is increasingly a big deal) and enjoy either concerts broadcast over classical stations or the use of my huge CD collection. Orchestras need to get out of town (even if the venues are not ideal) and also need to build up big endowments instead of fancy and expensive new concert halls. What would it be like if all the musicians were paid out of endowment funds? We need the “1 percent” to step up and rebuild endowments that can hold against the next big market crash! Then tickets could be significantly reduced. All music lovers need to take on an assignment to bring their friends and family, unexposed to great music, into the halls which unfortunately is a drop in the bucket of what really needs to be done.

    • says

      Good thoughts. One difference between orchestra and rock-concert tickets — people who go to pop shows normally go just once or twice a year, to see their favorite bands. While the orchestra ticket model currently depends on people going over and over again.

      I love what you said: “If Steve Jobs could talk to the shareholders of Apple in jeans then so could musicians show up in casual clothes instead of looking like penguins!” This is a perfect soundbite for the discussion of what contemporary culture is, and how it differs from the classical music culture that has to change in order to keep classical music alive.

  11. says

    Hi Greg,
    Though I agree with some of your points, it’s also easy to simply write such things. So I would ask you: what are YOU doing about changing the audience and what are YOU recommending that those of us in the presenting and producing field do about it? I’ve been listening to this same rhetoric for at least ten years from a variety of writers and/or consultants, few of whom ever come up with any “new” solutions that I’ve seen work.
    As the director of a $3 million music festival in Savannah (of which about 30% is “classical music”) that has achieved record ticket sales for ten successive years, I’m not buying into all of your comments. We also present jazz, blues, bluegrass, traditional and contemporary international musics, and even the occasional pop/rock group such as Wilco. All of it is marketed together under the heading of “music” inside one musical arts festival that is also a not-for-profit organization.
    With the exception of more popular groups, it’s difficult to get really young people to come hear much of anything in our community, but in ten years I’ve watched many of these 20-somethings become 30-somethings (and 40-somethings become 50-somethings) and theirs tastes have evolved. These folks aren’t dead yet and they’re paying to come out and hear live music. We also offered 21,000 school kids this year free musical concerts in schools and theaters, and I now meet 23-year old’s on the street who tell me they started coming to those concerts when they were 13, just like I did when I was a kid growing up in the public school system.
    I think an equally big problem with audiences is a mainstream media that continues to ignore quality musical arts in favor of the glut of more popular bands that play festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, alongside the raving coverage (and thus endorsements) that these festival receive from papers like The New York Times. And we’ve all observed the NYT continue to fall all over itself covering hip-hop for nearly 30 years, while almost nothing of musical value has come from this genre. But I guess it helps sell papers.
    We’re all searching for new audiences — even and especially the NYT — and those of us in the arts trying to do it will take all the advice we can get. But we need some tried and proven methods, and not just some words and opinions about the old ecosystem.

    • says

      Rob, thanks for reading my blog, and for commenting. You may be new to my writing, and don’t know what I’ve written and done in the past. Of course what matters is to make something happen, not to pontificate. So to that end I’ve been collecting data on what works, and also working as an activist and consultant and teacher, to change things for real. One of my proudest successes was at the University of Maryland, where I was artist in residence for two years, with a mission to help students at the school of music find an audience their own age. Because of things I set in motion, seeds I planted, ideas I’ve spread, people I worked with have this year doubled the audience for concerts by the school symphony orchestra, moving from half-full houses (mostly older people) to vibrant full houses, full of excited younger people. They did that by putting into action viral marketing ideas the students and I had come up with during my residency, organizing in 11 on-campus dorms, in addition to mounting a viral email campaign. If you’d like help doing something similar where you are, I’d be happy to talk to you.

      Then there are things I’ve had nothing to do with. The White Light festival at Lincoln Center is a gorgeous example of getting a new audience to go to classical concerts. The point is that the festival is of spiritual performances (the term used very broadly). So these might be world music, theater, dance, whatever. Mixed with both new and old classical music. The audience likes the festival, and goes to all the events.

      Then there’s Wordless Music in New York, which in its early days sold out first 400-seat, then 800-seat, then 1000-seat venues by combining NY indie bands with classical music. When I went I heard wild applause and whoops for Shostakovich, new music/noise improv, and Bach. Not to mention the orchestra concert where the only pop-related attraction was a Jonny Greenwood orchestra piece, which was much more like Penderecki than anything Greenwood does as lead guitarist with Radiohead.

      I could go on and on. There’s tremendous change going on, both with me and without me. In what I’m write, I’m in some large part generalizing from what I’ve seen work. If you’re interested in learning more, or of drawing on what I’ve learned to help what you’re doing, please contact me, and I’ll be happy to talk.

  12. Phillip says

    I should add that the reason I say that is because what you generalize as classical music’s “sense of entitlement” (not that some in that world DON’T have that attitude) is at least in some part simply the belief that cultural alternatives to market-driven tastes are worth maintaining, in an increasingly commodified society. Your arguments are very interesting and you may well be right, that we essentially have to “blow up” the classical music world in some sense in order to save it, or rather to rebuild it, at a much leaner and more self-sustaining level. But you should be well aware that your argument (taken to its logical conclusion) is one that ultimately takes direct aim at any public funding (federal, state, or local) for ANY arts, and that might include dance, jazz, museums, and so forth. In other words, you are making the intellectual argument for a conservative/libertarian view that there should be little or no role for the government in arts funding, and that if any particular art form or venture cannot “swim” on its own in the free market, it should be allowed to sink. After all, the argument for ANY art form to receive public funding could be construed as that art’s advocates having a “sense of entitlement.”

    Look, maybe you’re right. The alternative has certainly not been without problems, though of course you can hardly say that the United States has made a cultural investment at the level of many liberal democracies in the world. Nevertheless, perhaps in our society, your path forward is the best bet. Still, be not surprised if Nikki Haley in South Carolina, or Mitt Romney at the national level vis-a-vis NEA funding, take up your words as reasoning why they’re actually doing the arts (including classical music) a favor in their opposition to public funding.

    • says

      This is ridiculous, too, Philip, though certainly now you’re explaining what you mean. But beware, everyone, of people who warn about arguments “taken to their logical conclusion.” It’s that kind of thinking that — just for instance — led Rick Santorum to ask gay marriage supporters if they’d support marriage among three people, or five people. I don’t know how much rock criticism you’ve read, but support for non-popular music is a bedrock principle there. To say that we need to attract an audience isn’t remotely the same thing as saying we need to attract an audience on any terms at all — that is, that attracting an audience suddenly becomes our only goal, and that we should do it by any means necessary, completely betraying our artistic principles in order to get the community to support us. I guess the old phrase “cutting off your nose to spite your face” applies here, though it’s not remotely strong enough. I’d favor something more like “shooting yourself dead because you think you have a cold.” My premise, in everything I advocate, is that we can attract an audience doing our very best artistry. And also that what we offer currently isn’t even remotely our very best.

      One thing fascinating here is the fear of an audience that many people who worry about what I say seem to have. Fear that if we emphasize attracting an audience, we’ll cheapen ourselves. And play into Nikki Haley’s hands. Ridiculous. Actually, what I’m advocating is the best way to do an end run around Nikki Haley (assuming she cares about any of this at all), because if we have a new, big, lively, vocal audience for classical music at its best, then she has very little argument against cutting off its funding.

      Though, Philip — I don’t know if you’re aware of the NEA’s new funding direction, which is to support digital initiatives and other ways of making and circulating art that seem truly contemporary, at the expense of funding for older ways of doing things. You might want to worry about that — if you want to keep funding for classical music as it is now — more than you worry about anything I say. Of course, I’d say that what I’m advocating (whose full form you haven’t seen yet) is the best response to the NEA we could possibly make.

  13. Orchestra Manager in Early Retirement says

    Oh dear Mr. Sandow – not open to freedeom of speech on this blog? You should have your own program on the FOX news network.

    • Orchestra Manager in Early Retirement says

      Oops – I did you a grave injustice. My deepest apologies – I am embarrassed!

  14. says

    One thing about today’s young people…they will become tomorrow’s old people.

    Older people have the maturity to see beyond out mindless, horrid pop culture (yes, say it LOUD, it is Madonna pants-down horrible), and support things of enduring quality.

    All Beethoven needs is to exist, and be explained. (Like Bernstein lecturing on the 3rd symphony, SONY CD). Younger people with brains will get it. The others need to just go about living in their caves…until their souls cry out for something more substantial than Madonna’s butt crack.

    • says

      Richard, you are dead wrong — absolutely dead wrong — about popular culture. And also factually wrong about the taste of older people. It must be 20 years now that sociological studies have shown that even older people are, in the sociologists’ terms, “omnivores,” absorbing culture of all kinds, high and popular.

      The wonderful thing about you and others, who take this anti-popular culture stand, is that you make your pronouncements as if you were stating absolute truth, and not simply your opinion. I’d love to know how much you know about popular culture? Would you tell us, please, who in pop music you listen to, and which serious rock critics you’ve read?

    • Ries says

      I would agree, as someone who was once young, and is now old, that old people support things of enduring quality. For instance, I have been listening to, and appreciating, the decidedly unpopular music of Captain Beefheart for 40 years now.
      Similarly, I have been loving Brian Eno and John Cale’s re-invisioning of classical music for almost that long.
      I first started listening to Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Terry Reilly, Charlemagne Palestine, Meredith Monk, and others who perform music that is descended from historic classical music in the early 70’s as well.

      Kids today have many more choices of “classics” than ever before, and I find most kids are incredibly wide ranging in their tastes- my kids both picked up classical recordings in their teens, about the same time they discovered the Clash, which was, to them, equally historic, having been a counterculture band 15 years before they were born. They know what classical music is, and yet, curiously enough, they both still prefer rap.

      Every kid on earth, for the last 25 years, can probably hum the first few bars of what is perhaps the most known piece of music today- and it’s “classical”- that would be, of course, the opening of the John Williams soundtrack to the first Star Wars movie, which came out in 1977, well before more than half of the planet’s population was born.
      To someone born in 1990, is there really that much difference between a piece of classical music written in 1977 and one written in 1777?

      I think that one reason that is seldom touched upon in the incredible rise in diversity of other forms of music today, is the democratization of music making. Classical music was, historically, the music of the aristocrats and the establishment, approved and funded by the monied.
      Improvised and group composed music was considered crude, simple, and lower class.
      With the rise of Jazz as a serious art form in the early 20th century, real, serious musicians and listeners began to consider that great music could be improvised, everchanging, and the result of collaboration. This appeals to musicians immensely, and it enables composers who dont have the ear of the powerful to create their own music as well.
      Hence, we have had a huge increase in the quality and diversity of what is available beyond “classical” classical music.
      Sure, we still have “pop” music, music which companies pay composers, studio musicians, and hired singers to perform, with the explicit goal of becoming hits.

      But we have a gigantic range of other types of music, much of which appeals to the same types of listeners, who, 80 years ago, would have been listening exclusively to classical music.
      Much of this music is technically challenging to play and listen to, highly rewarding, intellectually exciting, and not particularly popular.
      It is a long, long way from Madonna.
      Music like Burial, the Books, Cornelius, Flying Lotus, Aphex Twin, GodSpeed You Black Emperor, JOMF, Sun City Girls, Grassy Knoll, Tortoise, Kinski, Pantha Du Prince, and dozens more are bridging the gaps between rock, jazz, ambient, and bits of classical.
      John Cale, and his pre-Velvet Underground work with John Cage and LaMonte Young has spawned an entire genre of of drone instrumental music that mutates and grows to this day.
      There are dozens of other oddball subgenres that manage to survive, if not flourish, on line and in person.
      Many of these are obscure, with relatively small fan bases, but many of them draw on what would be and could be, and in fact, IS, the contemporary version of the old “classical” listener.

      Things change. You cant stop em.
      But thru it all, people make music, and other people listen to it.

      Very little of it occurs in concert halls with tuxedo bedecked string sections these days, but Lori Goldston keeps playing Cello for young kids every day (she played cello with Nirvana, 20 years ago, and now plays with Earth, a band that plays what is sometimes called “doom metal”. Its great.)

      • says

        Beautifully put, Ries. And so true. Better than I could have written it! Thanks so much for taking the time to write and post this. I may be quoting it, often.

  15. says

    Hi Greg! Happy Father’s Day, BTW!

    One point for why people cannot seem to connect is the severing of the public school band and orchestra programs. Nothing can replace the remembered tactile experience of holding an instrument and really breathing with it. Even if a person never went very far in performance, the appreciation of what it actually feels like and how hard it really is to play an instrument is a big piece of the puzzle.

    As you and i have discussed, as well, any orchestra has to fit its community, be created for and by its community. I am not saying an amateur group (community), but a community orchestra in the best sense, filled with smiling, joyful, virtuosic professionals. In its exact form, Riiver Oaks Chamber Orchestra ROCO wouldn’t fly in another town. However, the concept of weaving the music through the fabric of a community is something that can work well. I guess, too, that it is okay to me that ROCO as a chamber orchestra is on a smaller scale. I personally perform best when I see the “whites of their eyes!” We know the names of people in our audience. We have a relationship with our performance venues that goes beyond the concert.

    You also know I have a great love for popular culture (yes my ring tones are Journey and Mister Mister — don’t try to guess my age). I am also a Star Wars geek. I love the variety we have in music and think that Classical is a wonderful, vital, important choice that we all have. Our competition is not each other, nor even other arts forms. Our competition (‘our’ being all entertainment choices) is a glass of wine and Netfilx!

    Best, A

    • says

      Beautifully put, Alecia. And thanks for the Father’s Day shout! A great joy, my first Father’s Day.

      For those who don’t know, Alecia’s group is the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) in Houston, one of the great entrepreneurial triumphs in classical music. Very much worthwhile knowing about them. A great story, and a great lesson in how things can be done.

  16. says

    I have no data, but I would be willing to bet that part of the dwindling audience can be laid at the feet of Bands, Big Band Orchestras and the invention of the modern rock concert. Before the early 20th century you had limited options for live music: home performance and ‘parlor’ playing, small dance bands and chamber music, church and full scale concert music: large scale musical concerts in the classical genres: orchestral, choral and opera. Now, we have access to a large range of concerts in a huge variety of styles and settings.

    Another part can be laid at the feet of recorded and portable music. Before the mid 20th century you were pretty limited in the scope of what you could find recorded as most recording was done on a regional basis, and only the lucky few broke into the top 100 and wide area play. Now young children have 1Pods with 1000’s of songs on them. Spotify and Last FM create on-demand radio stations. In short today we are used to the fact that we can hear the music we want when we want.

    Most people under the age of 50 choose to attend concerts for reasons above and beyond the music. We attend for that ‘extra’ something. Fans talk and share news on which bands give great live concerts and which are rubbish. The Festival circuit is rife with ‘hot’ acts that are known to deliver astounding ‘one-of-a-kind’ performances at festivals like SXSW. I can read in history of moments like that (Rite of Spring anyone?) but I cannot recall a single mention of it happening live with my local orchestra.

    I think the marketing and outreach of CM is floundering because nobody really knows what that ‘extra’ something should be when it comes to classical music.

    I am a country girl who saw my first live orchestral performance at the local high school (it was pretty bad) and did not see a professional live orchestra until I was in my 20s. I like Stravinsky, Debussy, Bernstein, Adams, Meyers and Glass (and of course, my husband, Chip Michael). Beethoven bores the pants off of me. I can take or leave Strauss. Mozart is wonderful, but I’ve rarely heard him done with the fire I like. The thing is, I rarely feel compelled to go to the concert hall because I ALWAYS feel stifled.

    I grew up with bluegrass, country, gospel and the blues. I am used to cheering and clapping astounding solos. I am used to a feeling of collaboration between artist and audience – they perform, I demonstrate appreciation throughout the performance. The more I cheer, the better they play – AND the longer they play. They talk to me. The artists on stage work to make the performance an experience we share. I leave the concert with a feeling of ‘ownership’ of the music and the experience.

    In the ‘traditional’ concert hall this level of interaction is not only frowned upon, it is actively squelched. I must sit quietly and ‘absorb’ until the end when evidently I must clap and clap and clap while the conductor takes bows – and leaves – comes back and bows – and leaves – comes back and chooses which instrumentalists HE wishes to highlight – and I clap and clap in general with very little feeling of personal connection.

    By the end I am almost always drained and anxious to leave the hall. Not at all the feeling of being energized by the music I am used to from ‘popular’ concerts.

    In a CM concert I find myself thinking about esoteric things like why are the women always dressed two to three or more levels beneath the men’s formality? Are women lesser players? Or, why is clapping between movements considered disruptive, but all the coughing, feet shuffling and cough drop unwrapping is not? If I laugh during the scherzo will I get ejected from the concert hall? In other words, my mind wanders because I feel no more connected to the musicians than I am to a CD at home – and at home nobody gives me the stink eye if The Rite of Spring brings on a booty shake.

    I believe we need to allow for a modern audience that wants to interact with performers and find that extra something that makes a visit to the concert hall worth investing in. I think this would have two effects: 1) The orchestra would be invigorated by the level of enthusiasm people like me would bring to the hall and 2) People like me could feel, at last, that classical music played live is for us too.

    If we were lucky, it would have one final effect which is to prove that the music can survive and even thrive in atmospheres outwith the ‘traditions’ of the past 100 years.

    • says

      Beautiful, Eddie Louise! I couldn’t have written this half as well as you did. I’ll be quoting you often. Thanks so much. I’ll probably be quoting you very soon, in fact, because I’m about to blog on exactly the subjects you wrote about. Oh, but you said it so beautifully, and so much from the heart. I’m grateful to you. Thanks again!

      • Paul Lindemeyer says

        I don’t think we can blame big band music for the current classical crisis. If anything, the big band demographic is even older than the classical one, and not just fading from the scene but fully irrelevant. A shame really, given all the great music that genre gave rise to (much of which is now tied up in copyright limbo).

  17. says

    Hi Greg,

    Thank you for furthering the voice for change. I am seeing a great deal of discussion on this topic of late, and I agree that change is in the wings. I also agree that we need to actively pursue a new mentality and take action to make it a reality. Discussing the topic will only get us so far. Wishing for change is not the same thing as actually doing something to create it.

    To your readers that are stating that you keep commenting, but are not actually giving advice as to how to create this change, I will point out that the pursuit of new audiences is very good advice. I want to go one step further though. We need to start building relationships with all of our audiences, existing and potential. If we leave any audience group out of the equation, we may lose.

    Bravo to Trevor’s and Ryan’s comments as well! Listening to our audiences and finding ways to communicate and work with them (branding, philosophies, programs, etc) is definitely a good idea. These are the first steps to take for building a better audience.

    Thanks again, Greg.

    • says

      And thanks back to you, Shoshana. Your advice to keep communicating with all audiences is exactly right, and i should stress that more. I feel that the classical music world takes its existing audience very much for granted. Yes, we work hard to market to them, and to raise money for them. But how often do we include them in planning and other discussions they’d love to take part in? I think we expect them to be passive — little birds with their mouths open, ready to be fed whatever masterworks we choose to offer. They want so much more than that!

  18. E.M. Wynter says

    Very well said, Greg. I love the way you have summarized the progression so well here. So, I was in the classical music industry for a little over two years as a newcomer… What struck me is exactly what you alluded to: stifling and “unfun” concerts. Stuck in my seat, scared to make a peep, much less clap at the wrong time and cut off from the musicians on stage is not my idea of a great time (I’m a Gen Xer). Others recognized it was an issue but were too afraid to upset the orchestra or established patrons with a “noisier” environment. Ours was a much older, traditional audience, not as cosmopolitan as the crowds NYC, LA or Chicago.

    But the final blow came when I learned a few things about the musicians: that they disliked playing the classical blockbusters because they had to play them every season, that they distained their own pops concerts (our concertmaster’s contract exempted pops performances), many dismissed the validity of pop/rock/rap as valid and powerful music and that they regarded mainstream artists like Andre Rieu as straight-up buffoons (well, he is a little goofy – albeit goof that is selling out!).

    Then I learned that many of the established audiences felt the same…

    That’s when I realized this community that would never accept me or my tastes. Just as much as the music (which was designed to fit the tastes of the aforementioned), it’s these things that really drove me away and made me feel like I just couldn’t relax, be myself or enjoy this music in a welcoming environment.

    • says

      Thanks for this. I find so many comments that I want to keep, and maybe post in the blog, as posts in their own right. This is one of them. I think you’re speaking for many people. Not everyone thinks through the experience you described, the way you have, but many people have it. Including, I think, many younger people on the staffs of classical music institutions, people who work for the institution, but don’t go to its performances. They may feel loyal and committed, but they may also feel a disconnect.

      A story I’ve told before: Once, with the executive director of an important orchestra, I conducted a discussion among orchestra musicians about why they didn’t smile or otherwise look interested while they played. The immediate answer was along the lines you describe, though maybe even worse. They didn’t like playing, because the conductors (they said) were bad. So why should they smile?

      The good news is that they changed their minds, and came around to thinking that they really should show some interest to the audience, and to the world at large. But it took a while to get there.

      One hope for the future: Younger people coming into orchestras. They’re not as jaded, and not as willing (I think) to accept the industry as it is now. They may be making changes in years to come.

      • E.M. Wynter says

        Thanks for your kindness and openness here, Greg. I share your hopefulness and can attest there are many young people entering the field, energized and excited for the future – both on staff and orchestra :)

        Maybe current challenges will create the urgency needed for orchestras to recognize that they can’t survive without rabid fans – similar to the way pop musicians do. I know… shoot me right? My job, dealing with myriad projects that weren’t my idea and demanding customers, isn’t always fun. I can only imagine it would be really tough to play an old saw with gusto but… they’ve got to find a way to get into it, paste on that smile and really reeeeeach for that audience. They are right there after all, begging to be noticed, dying for even a playful wave in their direction. Yes, I know that gaucherie is only for kids concerts… but, for me, I could probably smile through Phillip Glass, if I felt like we were all in the music together. What do you think? Too far?

        • says

          Oh, not too far at all, E.M. Pop music (and many other genres) really do show the way. I was a pop critic for a number of years, and for some of those years I went to club shows, night after night. I saw many artists and bands who weren’t great, and some that were really bad. But I don’t think I ever saw anyone who wasn’t visibly engaged.

          You mention Philip Glass. In the early days, when Philip and Steve Reich were starting out, playing concerts with their own ensembles, one of the marvelous things was seeing how vitally excited their musicians were. They didn’t need to smile at the audience (and, obviously, there are many ways that involvement can register). Nor, really, could they take time for that. The music is intricate, and required their full concentration. But that concentration was so joyous and powerful that there was no way it didn’t spread to the audience.

          And thanks for your kind words!