Crisis skeptics (1)

Continuing my posts about the classical music crisis.

Iskeptic blogn the last one, I showed what classical music in the US — as an enterprise in our society — was like before the crisis hit. When, later, I show the full dimensions of the crisis we’re now having, I think it’ll be clear that the crisis is real. The footprint classical music leaves on our world — as measured by tangible things, like the presence classical music has in the media, on the airwaves (or digital transmissions), on how often it’s mentioned in conversation, on how many tickets are sold to classical music events, and how many organizations and individuals are interested in giving money to classical music — this footprint is shrinking. And if the shrinkage continues, it’ll be hard for classical music institutions to survive in their present form.

Or, to give an example:

In the late 1960s, big orchestras had a crisis. Small ones didn’t, opera companies didn’t, chamber music didn’t. But the big orchestras did, because they’d expanded too quickly in the early part of the decade, and now found that the income the expansion generated didn’t come close to paying the increased costs they’d incurred. They honestly worried if they’d survive.

They solved that crisis, by evolving the kind of year-round, remorseless fundraising they now do. Which hadn’t existed before.

But what was the context of this? According to a consultant’s report the big orchestras commissioned, they — or at least the biggest of them — were selling 100% of their tickets. So there was no crisis in audience interest. And they had no trouble raising money. Their only problem was that suddenly they needed far more than they’d ever raised before.

So that’s not a larger crisis. A larger crisis is what we have now — when audience interest is in fact diminishing, as shown by lower ticket sales. And when funding at any level is harder to come by, because donors of all kinds are less interested in orchestras than they were before.

Which means that even if orchestras simply try to stay where they are, without trying to grow, well, they’ve had trouble doing that, and if present trends continue, will have even more trouble in the future. You can see the same or similar things happening in almost all of the classical music business, as (to cherrypick two facts) the audience grows older, the percentage of people in the US who ever go to classical performances shrinks, and presenting organizations ever since the 1990s (if not before) present less and less classical music, because the audience for it — as they find, not in theory, but in practice — is increasingly not there.

But what about people who still don’t believe the crisis is real? What’s up with them? Are they our global warming skeptics? Or is their position more reasonable? As you’ll see, when I resume this discussion, I have a lot of sympathy for how they feel, and the lack of grounded information in our field makes it hard to blame them for seeing only what’s on the surface, and not the underlying reality.

I’ve linked here to two of the past posts in this series, but not to the third. It’s the first one, in which I asked an innocent question. How long has the crisis been with us? The answers I’ve gotten made me think that we don’t, as a field, understand our crisis at all well, no matter how often we talk about it. 

In the original version of this post, the line about global warming skeptics read this way: “Are they our Holocaust deniers, our global warming skeptics?” Since I was rejecting the idea that crisis deniers were like these other people, I didn’t find the Holocaust line offensive. I was not making such a comparison. But someone on Twitter objected very strongly, and so, since I know the Holocaust is a sensitive subject, I’ve changed what I wrote.

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  1. Dan R. Rouser says

    Instead of (cheapening, coarsening, insulting) classical music with pop slop
    and cartoons, perhaps management could actually (advertise, market,
    brand) it as something important, beautiful, satisfying, intelligent,
    humane and even enlightening.

    In a simple minded world, it is something complex.
    In a noisy world, it has silence and beauty.
    In an attavistic world, it is evolutionary.
    In a distracted world, it is focused.
    In a backwards world, it is forward.
    In a stupid world, it is smart.
    In a chaotic world searching for meaning, it is meaningful.
    In a destructive world, it is the epitome of people creating something larger than themselves.
    With all of these “managers” running the “business”, perhaps they should try something very basic.

  2. Michael J. Stewart says

    I believe you have to look at two things outside the world of classical music to find root cause of the crisis.

    1) The ever growing greed of the 1% the global population who are systematically milking the remaining 99%.


    2) The biggest technological innovation that the world has experienced since the invention of the wheel – The Internet.

    I’m not saying that it is to blame for its demise, but it has changed the way that people engage with EVERYTHING, not just classical music.

    There are isolated examples that prove quite conclusively that there is still an audience with a desire to engage with classical music, but you have to evolve with it if you wanted to survive it.

  3. says

    The age of television and the number of hours spent watching exploded in the 60s, providing a comfortable entertainment experience in the home, in place of the previous tradition of singing, playing the piano or other instruments, etc. In addition, the movie industry expanded dramatically, and continues to attract huge audiences. This is the current live entertainment, and in fact, “culture”. (We have willingly given movies the label of “art form”.)

    The availability of hundreds of channels of on-demand entertainment for giant screen home entertainment centers is staggering. , The public is seduced with an endless amount of diversion. Add to this the addiction to sports, live and televised, one can easily see that for all our high-minded hang-wringing, the public is less and less interested. We can construct a case for blaming the lack of “serious” music in the schools, etc., but symphony orchestras playing dense, complex, long, challenging music, with little action other than the machinations of the conductor does not compete with any of the alternatives.

    Television has bred a generation of short attention spans, a society of tweets and limited-size text messages. The internet has taken on a further, seemingly more powerful influence.

    This is not simply about the use of time and choices, but actual cognitive function. An international revolution has taken place while we watched, and a new, very different set of values, cultures and ideals has emerged around us.

    Those who have a context and appreciation, love and respect for, and further-need-for the beauty and timeless, universal messages therein will show up. However society is moving in a direction of its own, away from the need to seek deep, meaningful values through immersion in the arts and further into the clutches of the popular media, sports and entertainment worlds.

    Reviving is less realistic than preserving.

    I speak from a 50-year career in music, performing in symphonic, opera, early music, chamber music, new music, solo recordings, working in movie music, composing, performing as a participant in a major music festival for 30 years, serving as the managing director of that festival for 5 years, and as a tenured university music professor for 40 years in three universities in 3 countries.( as the Chairman of the department for 11 years, during which time I spent much time and
    energy struggling with this issue. The struggle continues)