Before the crisis

Yes, the classical music crisis, which some don’t believe in, and others think has been going on forever.

This is the third post in a series. In the first, I asked, innocently enough, how long the classical music crisis (which is so widely talked about) has been going on. Answers poured in, here and on Facebook and Twitter. The answers — as I said in the second post — suggested that we don’t know how to talk about our crisis, because we don’t have enough information. Compared, as I’ve said before, with data that’s widely available about other industries in crisis, like newspapers. 

In future posts, I’ll show why non-crisis beliefs — that we don’t really have a crisis and that the crisis has always been with us —  don’t hold water. I’ve worked in classical music, as a student and professional, since the early 1960s, and I guarantee that there wasn’t widespread talk about a crisis, about classical music being endangered, until perhaps the 1990s. Though hints of it had surfaced earlier.

I’ll also offer data — from my own experience, and from what others report — that can teach us when and how our crisis showed itself.

But first, a crisis overview, a verbal diagram of what the crisis is. Starting with this: What was classical music like before the crisis?

A popular art

Yes, classical music was popular. Not as popular as popular music, not as popular as radio (going back before the age of TV) or the movies, but popular enough to be made fun of, in movies like the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. 

toscanini tour blogClassical music filled the airwaves. Dozens of orchestras, mostly American but some from abroad,  had at least some of their concerts broadcast on commercial radio. Classical broadcasting was profitable. So was classical recording. In the 1930s, the leading American record company, RCA, made half its money from classical music. NBC, the parent company of RCA, created an orchestra for Arturo Toscanini to conduct — hyping him as the greatest musician who ever lived — and aired its concerts first on radio and later on TV, with commercial sponsors.

Orchestras survived the Great Depression virtually unhurt. The big orchestras made cutbacks, but not drastic ones. New orchestras were created. Half of all orchestras that existed in the US in 1940 were founded during the depression, despite 25% unemployment and a huge drop in industrial production. Which could hardly have happened if classical music had been in crisis.

The Metropolitan Opera, in the 1920s, made a profit from its operations.

Classical music was widely covered in the media, written about in newspapers and in the most popular magazines. Classical artists were often on the cover of Time, a magazine whose covers were for generations accepted as a measure of what mattered to Americans. (Does anyone remember one of the Landshark episodes from Saturday Night Live, when the landshark tries to get into an actor’s dressing room, by saying it can get the actor on the cover of Time?)

tebaldi time blogRenata Tebaldi was on the cover of Time when she opened the Met Opera season as Tosca in 1958. Crowds poured into the street to parade with her after the performance, and the New York Times called her “America’s sweetheart.” 

Operas ran commercially on Broadway. Not just Porgy and Bess, but also Menotti’s The Consul (which ran for eight months), The Medium, and The Saint of Bleecker Street (which ran for 92 performances, which I’d guess would be about four months). Britten’s Rape of Lucretia — which might not seem like a commercial piece at all — had a Broadway run. 

Classical music showed up in the movies. Not just in films that were about classical music and classical musicians, but in casual references, which more vividly show us how large a part of life classical music used to be. letter to three blogTo give just one example: in an Oscar-winning 1949 film, A Letter to Three Wives, Kirk Douglas gives a party, and entertains his guests by playing, on his spiffy new hifi, a recording of the second Brahms piano concerto. All of it. Which his guests accept as perfectly normal.

And people of all ages were in the audience. College students went to symphony concerts on dates. Teenage fans mobbed the Met for Geraldine Farrar’s farewell performance, and hung banners that stretched from one side of the balcony to the other.

MIT students snakedanced through the streets when it was MIT night at the Boston Pops. Harvard students came to the Pops and made trouble, loudly demanding the Brahms Academic Festival Overture, which features college songs (one of which, “Gaudeamus igitur,” I myself sang in my high school glee club in the 1950s).

None of this meant that classical music institutions didn’t have problems. The Met Opera considered canceling a season in the 1970s, as its general manager at the time, Schuyler Chapin, once told me. (They didn’t do it because, when they ran the numbers, they found they’d lose more money shutting down the house than they would be keeping it open.)

Major orchestras faced financial disaster after their expansion to 52-week seasons during the 1960s cost more, and generated less revenue, than they’d projected. In the first half of the 20th century, deficit financing was new and seemed perilous, leading to scary talk about orchestras in peril, though the truth was that they rarely had troubled raising any money that they needed, and in fact raised money far more easily than orchestras do now.

These situations have been paraded by crisis skeptics, as if they showed that the crisis is perpetual, but when that happens, they’re taken out of context. The larger picture shows classical music as a healthy, vibrant, central part of our society at least through the 1960s.

And then…

Stay tuned for the next post in this series.

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  1. says

    Why do you spend so much time arguing with crisis deniers, Greg? You’re like Nate Silver before the election and they’re like Karl Rove. History will prove that numbers trump wishful thinking so there’s no sense in trying to appeal to people who don’t count.

    • says

      Very good point, Trevor. I spend time with them because they have a surprising amount of influence inside the classical music business. If I were arguing these points simply from a scholar’s or a journalist’s point of view, I agree — it would be like working on global warming, and spending half my time with climate change deniers.

      But I’m working inside the classical music field in a more practical way, and if people in a position to change things are going to deny that the crisis exists, then they have to be refuted.

      Thanks for the Nate Silver reference. He’s one of my heroes. And I happened to be watching Fox News election night (just about the only time I’ve ever watched) when Karl Rove threw his incredible hissy fit, rejecting the work of Fox’s own researchers. Who came on camera to say that they had 99% confidence in their projections. (Which of course turned out to be correct.) A moment I’m not likely to forget!

      • says

        It’s so important to keep this particular conversation happening for precisely the reasons you’ve outlined, dear Greg! Like it’s important to keep talking about climate change here in Australia at a time when our ruling conservative party has abolished our Climate Change Commission, the body who used to inform the parliament about the latest scientific data in regards to global warming. Sceptics have power and we need to keep fighting the proverbial good fight.

  2. says

    New orchestras were created. Half of all orchestras that existed in the US in 1940 were founded during the depression, despite 25% unemployment and a huge drop in industrial production. Which could hardly have happened if classical music had been in crisis.

    It happened due to the WPA and Federal Music project funding. Nearly all the WPA orchestra formed during the depression era no longer exist. It’s actually a similar to the economic bubble that happened during the Rockefeller/Ford funding years (and to a lesser extent the 90s boom). In both periods there was rapid expansion, and after the funding ceased the industry was forced to adapt for funding. Few enough of us would recognize popular music from that era. With the exception of niche groups like Pink Martini we have no more Sinatras, Dean Martins, Edith Piafs singing to full scale backing orchestras and the era of the big band is effectively over too. The cost disease will eventually negatively affect any kind of industry where the product (e.g. live performance) requires significant human labor. With the funding that came from the dying broadcast media and big labels drying up as those industries hemorrhage, sports and popular music will follow course too as they are already showing signs of doing.

    • says

      Jon, you and I should get our facts aligned. When I said the number of American orchestras doubled during the depression, I was paraphrasing something in Grant and Hettinger’s 1940 book, America’s Symphony Orchestras and How They Are Supported. Which, as I think you know, is the main source (and in fact, as far as I know, the only thorough source) for information on American orchestras in that period. Grant and Hettinger say that, of all the orchestras in the US in 1940, half had been founded since 1929. Which meant they were founded during the depression.

      Were they WPA orchestras? For the most part, they couldn’t have been. Grant and Hettinger say there were about 300 orchestras in the US in 1939. (This means professional or semiprofessional orchestras, and excludes orchestras in schools, of which there were an astounding number.) 36 of the 300 were WPA orchestras. (Or, more specifically, Federal Music Project orchestras, since it was the Federal Music Project, not the WPA, that created the orchestras.) So if half the 300 orchestras were founded since 1929, that’s 150 orchestras. Federal Music Project orchestras were only 24% of them.

      Chapter two of Grant and Hettinger’s book is titled “Forces Underlying Recent Expansion,” a logical subject to explore, since the great expansion in the number of orchestras was one of the most striking facts about orchestral life at the time the book was written. This chapter doesn’t mention the Federal Music Project (or the WPA) at all. Many reasons were suggested for the increase in the number of orchestras. Music education in schools, which increased the number of musicians available. Movie theater orchestras, in the days of silent films, which got large audiences used to hearing symphonic music. And then, when sound films came in and the movie orchestras disbanded, made large numbers of musicians available for symphonic work.

      Another factor was the rise in recorded music, which again helped to increase demand for live orchestral concerts. Many people heard orchestral music — in school courses, for instance — who’d never heard it before. Radio was a big factor. As I said in my post, many orchestral concerts were broadcast commercially. Again that created demand. (In a survey Grant and Hettinger quote later in the book, when people were asked what had gotten them interested in going to hear orchestras live, radio broadcasts were the most common reason given.)

      And then finally economic factors — the great rise in prosperity in the ten years before 1929 created a hunger for finer things like orchestras, which persisted even during the depression.

      So, Jon, if I believe this authoritative book, it would seem that WPA (or Federal Music Project) orchestras didn’t loom at all large in the big orchestral expansion of the 1930s. If you have other data from other sources, I’d love to see it.

      • says

        Yes, Greg–I know that’s the source you were paraphrasing and I said as much when I responded to your posting of this blog on your facebook page. Yes, only 36 of the FMP/WPA (really just two stages of the same program when the former transitioned into the latter) constituted the 150 (or half) of the founded orchestras from 1930-1940. However, as I said in my facebook reply that number “implies the fully funded (36) WPA Orchestras as well as the joint efforts of the FMP/WPA and communities initiatives.” The Hettinger/Grant books doesn’t give the numbers of the jointly formed FMP/Communitive funded orchestras.

        I also find it odd that there is no mention in chapter two of the FMP/WPA since the program was also responsible for education initiatives and recordings which they also distributed to radio stations.

        From the mid-1930s to early 1940s, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) distributed thousands of transcription discs to hundreds of radio stations around the United States

        To say that the FMP/WPA had no hand in building the infrastructure which led to the growth of classical music in the US is disingenuous at best, and just plain wrong otherwise.

        Yes, I’m well aware of the transition from silents to talkies and the disruptions that caused–Matthew Campbell and I were discussing that very issue in one of your blogposts a couple weeks ago. And as I mentioned there many of those 26,000 musicians transitioned into recording centers (like Hollywood) or to the live broadcast media orchestras that nearly all radios and television studios had. Certainly there were a fair number that moved into the orchestral field as well which was also a contributing factor for the growth.

        So I disagree that the FMP/WPA had no big part to play in that expansion since it was these programs which helped with the stimulus of the expansion of the infrastructure which created a favorable environment for the growth–as well as directly contributing to the 36 WPA orchestras as well as who knows how many co-funded orchestras with local communities.

        • says

          Jon, I think we should talk about one subject at a time. You made a very broad statement about the expansion in the number of US orchestras in the 1930s — that the new orchestras were Federal Music Project orchestras, that most didn’t survive the end of the FMP, and that this was a bubble, leading to a kind of collapse.

          The figures I quoted show that what you said couldn’t be true. If you now want to talk with me about the overall role of the FMP in the classical music world of that time, I can’t help you, because it’s not a subject I know much about.

          Though if you wonder why you and Grant and Hettinger might have different views on the FMP’s role, I’d offer one thought. They (very thorough observers) were there, and you weren’t.

          • says

            Actually, Greg, the FMP role in the expansion and growth of music, mjusic education, the recording industry, and radio during that period is a matter of public record–it was a Federally funded project after all. Which is why I found it odd that the Hettinger and Grant book don’t really mention it.

            I understand there my have been a conflict of interest given that Nikolai Sokoloff (director of the FMP) was one of the National Orchestra Survey directors and that Harry L. Hewes (project supervisor of the FMP) was one of the main sources for information about the state of orchestras via the 1936-1939 interviews–especially given their not so congenial relationship (see the chapter Contradictions of Creation in the book, All of This Music Belongs to the Nation: The Wpa’s Federal Music Project and American Society).

            I never said the bubble collapsed. Speculative bubbles refer to the phenomenon of artificially inflating economic environments, hence why I quoted the Russell Taylor quote as that was the Ford Foundation report was also stating.

            Ironically, the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Symphony magazine had a piece discussing the old 1969 Time Magazine article about the McKinsey report that many people [erroneously, of course] seem to think is the first reference to an orchestra crisis–but in the piece Jesse Rosen interviews William Foster, Russell Willis Taylor, and Peter Pastreich about why that prediction of doom failed. One of the things Russel (pg. 14) said was:

            “When I started my job…at what was the National Arts Stabilization Fund…, I dug out of the archive a box of documents from the Ford Foundation that had been protected sort of like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of the documents I read was the internal, candid, confidential report about why they had closed the symphony program. Stripping it down to its most basic, what they felt they had done was to increase and institutionalize the size of the problem…They had more money in the bank, but their operating deficits were getting bigger. This had not achieved what the Ford Foundation wished to do, which was not just to have more orchestras, but to have more of them that were sustainable.”

            I’m not even claiming the crisis was perpetual so much as it ebbed and flowed depending on the circumstances.

          • says

            Jon, be a historian, please. A real one. Or at least think like one, while we’re having these discussions. Look at the larger picture, not just individual facts, no matter how many of them you might accumulate. You need to put those facts in a context. The classical music crisis isn’t about immediate financial problems that anyone might report, for any institution or group of institutions, at any time. And least of all is it about the orchestra financial problems of the late ’60s, which were (as everyone in the field knows, and as has been said many times) entirely due to overexpansion earlier in the decade. This has nothing at all to do with a larger classical music crisis. A larger crisis would affect the whole field, all (or almost all aspects of it). So if the ’60s orchestra problems had been an overall classical music crisis, it would have hit opera companies. Chamber music groups. Presenting organizations would (as they did in the early ’90s) start cutting back on classical concerts because the audience for them wasn’t there. None of that happened. Record companies would have cut back on their releases, and sold notably fewer copies of their records than they did in past decades.

            Etc., etc., etc. I’m going to set forth the dimensions of the present crisis in a future post, and anyone will be able to see that — if they believe that what I describe has really happened — that what we’re seeing now is like nothing we ever saw before.

            One detail from the McKinsey report (or rather one of them, because there were two). The Big Five orchestras, at the end of the ’60s, were selling 100% of their tickets. Or so the consultants said. Not likely, then, that there could be a crisis in classical music, as an art form with a social position in US culture of the time. A financial crisis, yes. But not a crisis of the art form in any larger sense. As someone said here in response to you (I’m chagrined at not remembering his name) the perpetual financial crises of the airline industry don’t mean that air travel hasn’t been popular. They have causes of their own. What we see in classical music, though, is much bigger than that. It’s a crisis of long-term sustainability. To give just one example of how that’s true: You can find any cause you like for the present financial problems of orchestras, but when you learn that corporations, foundations, and individuals are less likely to give money to orchestras than they used to be, then you see a larger crisis very likely looming. There simply is less interest — by a lot — in classical music in our culture, less than there used to be, to a degree that calls into question whether classical music institutions can be sustained at the level they’re at now. A question, I might add, that for years has been asked privately inside those institutions.

            As for the bubble, you originally said — very definitively — that you were talking about a bubble in the growth of orchestras in the 1930s. That this had been unsustainable, because it was funded by the federal government, and that the orchestras created this way quickly disappeared. As I showed, using a source we both respect, this couldn’t have been true. If you now want to change the subject and talk about the really, really well-known bubble in orchestra expansion in the 1960s, God bless you, may you thrive and prosper. But you’re shifting the discussion from a place where your position is unsustainable, without saying that you’re doing it.

            And Grant and Hechinger vs. your impressions of the FMP. Yes, what the FMP did is a matter of public record, but its impact on the larger orchestra community is a matter of interpretation. G&H were on the scene, and so possibly have some authority to interpret what they saw differently from the way you interpret what you read about.

          • says

            I’ll agree with you that there is a difference between an Orchestra crisis and an overall Classical Music crisis, and I’ll grant you that a financial crisis is different than a legitimacy (popularity?) crisis for Classical music. But I think your talk about the growing (and relatively popular) new music (or alt-classical) culture simply shows there’s a crisis of the traditional ensembles, not of the field as a whole. You can’t expect me to make those distinctions in what I might mean by a “crisis” without understanding how your definition is also selective.

            You can find any cause you like for the present financial problems of orchestras, but when you learn that corporations, foundations, and individuals are less likely to give money to orchestras than they used to be, then you see a larger crisis very likely looming.

            We might take note that charitable giving has been increasing since the recession and that giving to arts organizations have increased faster than the average. While it’s yet to be seen how much of that will filter into the SOBs, I’m not sure how much we can rely on giving studies done during the recession years.

            As for the bubble, you originally said — very definitively — that you were talking about a bubble in the growth of orchestras in the 1930s. That this had been unsustainable, because it was funded by the federal government, and that the orchestras created this way quickly disappeared.

            Yes, and I referenced the the Rockefeller/Ford years and the 90s boom: “It’s actually a similar to the economic bubble that happened during the Rockefeller/Ford funding years (and to a lesser extent the 90s boom). In both periods there was rapid expansion” Point was, there was expansion in all three periods, and none of it was sustainable.

            There simply is less interest — by a lot — in classical music in our culture, less than there used to be, to a degree that calls into question whether classical music institutions can be sustained at the level they’re at now.

            See, I actually agree with that, but for different reasons–or rather, I think the cause is less directly related to any inherent lack of interest in classical music so much as with a changing ethnic demographic, non-European-Americans have been building orchestras (e.g. New York Arabic Orchestra, Michigan Arab Orchestra, Seattle Chinese Orchestra) that have more to do with their own cultural histories. The explosion of non-Western Orchestras in the past 20 years is simply a reflection of growing ethnic communities and the increasing aggregate economic power they are starting to have due to that growth.

            Given that the White demographic is aging much faster than the population of the US as a whole, we have a younger demographic that’s inherently not Euro-American and have much less interest in Euro-American art forms.

            I see many problems with the Grant and Hettinger source, to be frank, and as I’ve recently acquired a copy of the Pierre Key Music Year Book from where the authors got their numbers for the orchestras my thoughts were largely on the mark.

            There is no consistency in the list of orchestras provided in the volume–there are a number of WPA orchestras included in the “private orchestras” list despite the fact that they editor has given us a list of WPA Orchestras in its own section. The editor also includes organizations which are not active as well as subsets of other organizations which are already on the list elsewhere. There is even one University Orchestra on the list though the editor also has a separate section for University Orchestras The smallest ensemble listed is a 15 player string group (as I recall) which brings into question why would Grant and Hettinger choose to leave out of the count the 36 (which is erroneous–there were 48 at the time) much less the 110 concert orchestras of the WPA.

            Had the total [adjusted] number of 158 WPA orchestras been added to the 84 private orchestras formed during the 1930-1937 period, we’d have a far larger percentage of orchestras formed. As it stands, I think we’ll have to question the accuracy of the list in the Music Year Book (not to mention the Grant and Hettinger book).

            The impact that the FMP had is up for debate as most anything is, but when we don’t even know what orchestras existed when, and how and when and why they failed, but it’s interesting to note that another observer from the same period (as well as the editor of the Music Year Book Grant & Hettinger gather their orchestras in existence data from) said this in that very same work:

            The public has shown its willingness, as well as its desire, to respond to good music when interpreted by chamber groups, symphony orchestras of various sizes and qualities, choral performances, concerts of miscellaneous character, recitals, and dance performances. The radio has assumed a role of leading importance in the disseminating of fine music by eminent artists and organizations and has been a factor in stimulating a desire to hear good music. Music teaching has recovered. The Federal Music Project has accomplished considerable. (Key 1938, pg. 41)

            What’s ironic is that most of the entrepreneurial initiatives that you advocate here, were being done by the FMP orchestras (but not the private orchestras). And many of the things that you criticize in current orchestra culture were the very things the private orchestras were doing back then and that Sokoloff was intent on changing with the FMP groups.

  3. Duane says

    Like you, I attended school and was part of the Classical music scene in the 60’s. Lots of TV shows had classical music.

  4. Jim Fogle says

    Thanks for continuing to articulate so well the issues surrounding classical music’s place in American life. I am old enough to remember when a classical music segment was a regular feature on such TV shows as CBS Sunday Morning. I am always so heartened when classical musicians take the time to go into schools to connect with students through performance and conversation. Such events make a difference. Sadly, I don’t think this is as easy to do as it used to be. Thank you for noting many ways classical music can be promoted and also for highlighting musicians who consider outreach as important as performance.

  5. Hassab says

    I wonder how you define “crisis”. The industry has been in hardship from the 90’s, true, but that doesn’t equal “crisis” to me – there was still means of survival for most orchestras, albeit a struggle. People were giving and orchestras were playing. The “crisis” – which to me means orchestras started folding, began believing they could no longer survive, labor disputes ensued, etc – is relatively recent.