I’m back, with a question

I’m back from vacation. Many good things happened, among them a growth spurt in our little boy’s thinking. He’ll be two next month, and in our three weeks away, he began acting and communicating like a member of the family. And no longer like a baby who can’t always grasp what’s going on.

I’ve got many good things coming up, too, including a major consultancy with a classical music institution that wants to make truly major change. Can’t say more than this just now, because they haven’t announced any plans, but my work with them is under way.

But on to our main business here, the future of classical music. In past Septembers, I’ve come back from vacation with an overview of where classical music is, what its problems are, how they can be fixed. If you’d like to see my recent thoughts on that, here’s a document I prepared for my Juilliard course on classical music’s future, which told my students where I think our field is. Because this year I’d like to do something different. The document talks about specific problems, like falling ticket sales. What I want to do now, though, is talk about how we think about our troubles, a much larger subject that I think is crucial. Because if we’re not focused in our thinking, if we’re not seeing what’s really going on, we’re going to have a hard time fixing anything that’s wrong.

crisisSo here’s one way to start. We all know there’s a classical music crisis, or at least — thinking now of some of us who don’t think classical music faces any serious problem — we know that people talk about a crisis. But how long has this been going on? How long has the crisis lasted (or at least how long has it been talked about)?

This isn’t something we discuss very much, which I have to say seems just a little strange. If we have a crisis, shouldn’t we be interested in how long it’s been with us? But as far as I know, we have no data. No one, to my knowledge, has gone searching through old newspaper articles, trying to find the first reference to a crisis.

I have some thoughts on when the crisis (or the talk about it started), but before I give you my opinion, I’d love to have yours. How long has our crisis (or our crisis talk) been going on? Since the recession, since 9/11, since the ‘90s, since the ‘80s? Or has a sense of crisis always been with us? Have people always talked as if classical music was endangered.

Tell me what you think, in comments here, or if you’re a Facebook friend or follow me on Twitter, by responding to my upcoming tweet and Facebook post, in which I’m going to ask this question.

I think we’ll learn something from this inquiry. Though I’m not going to say what, until I have your thoughts. So give me your answer — how long have people been saying that classical music is in crisis?

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  1. says

    I always saw a difference between “endangered”, which I feel like has been the state of classical music since I’ve been in the industry (90’s), and “crisis”, which I think started after the recession. Coming from an arts administration standpoint, I learned early on that being in the non-profit arts industry was always going to have some odd sense of financial difficulty (if it didn’t we wouldn’t need to depend on donations). But there have always been periods of relative (!) ease and difficult belt-tightening. I think though that where we are now though is beyond difficult belt-tightening. That being said, I’m not a doomsday-er. Entire countries go through depressions and survive and I do think classical music will make it through this and resume its struggle at its more normal pace.

  2. says

    Back in March I started An Annotated Bibliographic Timeline of “Orchestra Crisis”. I was curious as to how far back the “crisis” went and used proquest to search old newspapers. Seems like the earliest reference to a general crisis (as opposed to specific crisis relative to a specific Orchestra) dates to the early 1900s.

    The first one i have listed, “‘Permanent Orchestra’ Season A Bad One” from the NY Times dates to 1903. I quoted the relevant section at the link, but here it is for your readers’ convenience:

    “The permanent orchestra season has, as usual, been financially a bad one all over the country. With the end of April comes the end of the seasons of orchestras of this kind, that have in recent years grown up in the chief American cities ourside of New York: and also come the bills for those who pay the piper. In these columns have already appeared reports of some of these bills; for there is always a deficit, which public-spirited guarantors are called upon to pay year after year. A permanent orchestra, it seems to be pretty well established by American experience, is not at present a paying institution, and is not likely immediately to become so.”

    The list is by no means exhaustive–I haven’t even listed all the newspaper pieces I’ve downloaded much less search every year.

    Two interesting things came up as I was doing this–most references to crisis, as I mentioned above, were for papers talking about their local orchestras with no reference to the field as a whole unlike the pieces I’ve listed. Some of those articles go back as far as the 1880s.

    Second thing, apparently Opera’s have been in a “crisis” for longer than Orchestras in the sense that the crises references were to the field as a whole. Understandable given the cost of putting on an Opera production being significantly higher than the cost of putting on a symphony concert. I did not look at Ballet, so can’t say anything about that field.

    I had originally linked to the pieces themselves but realized a few days later that it only linked to the proquest account link, which you have to be logged into to see–and even then it didn’t always work. Sadly, practically none of these pieces will show up in a general web search since they aren’t archived outside of the proquest database so you won’t find references to a crisis which seems to be the general running theme in the print media at least to the beginning of the 20th century.

    I should get back to work on this, but it’s been a particularly busy gigging summer season for me–I hope to have it properly annotated with relevant quotes soon.

  3. says

    I’ve also posted some general remarks about the timeline here with a handful of other relevant quotes such as this from the St. Louis Post in 1904:

    Few people know how heavy the individual contributions have been. I have no figures at hand, but I think that more than $150,000 has been contributed during 35 years to pay the shortages in annual income. In this regard, however, St. Louis’ experience is not different from that of other cities where symphony orchestras have been created: if ordinary prices are charged for the seats a heavy deficit must result and must be paid by some one surely during the early years of the orchestra’s existence, and, perhaps, continuously.

  4. says

    That’s a good question. We need a dependable set of metrics to measure change and find discernible symptoms (record sales? concert sales? young attendees? university music majors?). Like a lot of social phenomena, things begin by seeming to change slowly, manageably, but they turn out to be exponential and we usually don’t really notice them until we hit “the knee in the curve” and change “seems” irreversible. Then we respond. With that in mind…

    I was a college student and worked at Tower Records in Westwood, LA, in the mid ’70s. The store had 3 levels, and the third floor was all classical music, manned by 4 or 5 of us. We had regular customers and strong sales. All big labels had regular major releases, the pace of major studio opera recordings and releases was strong, etc., intent on capturing repertoire for posterity. Lots of college students went to LA Philharmonic concerts (and they were offered special ticket prices). Concerts were very well attended. An article in the LA Times said that Solti and Karajan commanded well over $50k per concert. Bernstein was an international star in huge demand. Music appreciation is taught in public schools and as part of basic college curricula. I had friends who were music majors and we would get together socially to actually listen to music and loved to discuss and argue about classical music regularly.

    I think I began to notice something was changing when the stores with decent classical music sections were closing up (or closing their sections) – late 1980s or ’91/’92. I was a LA Phil subscriber and concerts were still well attended and they offered 4 concert series, Thrs – Sun; audiences still had a good proportion of youngish attendees. Music appreciation is no longer part of public school curricula. Decca/DGG/Philips merged. The major opera recordings were in conjunction with live performances to reduce costs and promote current popular artists, not long-range, coordinated efforts to comprehensively cover repertoire. CD sales decline and are discussed in the media. Classical music radio stations shrink in numbers, even in large markets. I knew fewer people who looked forward to new releases of classical music or who listened with friends. No one could point to future superstar conductors a la Solti/Karajan/Bernstein, although there were a few pretenders to the throne.

    Some regional orchestras began to founder. Many labels merged and major classical productions were unheard of. There are no conductors like Solti/Karajan/Bernstein who “did it all” as major opera/symphony repertoire exponents. Conductors were filling niches, and must hold down several positions. Young concert attendees were few. 3-4 years ago, major orchestras began struggling, restructuring, some notable regional orchestras failed. Concert series shrink in number and scope. A few organizations began to look to live theater broadcasts of concerts/opera to build new audiences for add’l revenue (but compete against local organizations). Conductors change orchestras (or vice versa) with the same frequency as football players. The glory days of maestros and legends are fondly remembered and imitated. Orchestras regularly court young audiences with special programs featuring pop/experimental content.

    Major indicators of the knee in the curve are the responses elicited: online libraries/services of classical music pop up and some, particularly NAXOS, enjoy healthy sales via download and constitute a significant listenership. All American orchestras appear to have caught on to the internet and social media. Orchestra boards court younger members and draft new strategic plans rather than stay the course.

    Inertial forces, technology trends, an aging listener population, and new listening habits, will evolve a whole new animal, if and when things emerge out of the curve.

  5. Matthew Campbell says

    Thanks for the post—and the sleuthing challenge. Re: “How long”: At least as far back as August 18, 1929, per a cursory query on the NY Times site—result here: http://goo.gl/Nymdk9 (subscription or fee required to view the article). The issue at the time was whether “the movietone and the radio” had done irrevocable damage to concert music, with one side declaring, “Concert music as such is dead, buried, and forgotten,” and the other side “[denying] that concert music is in a stage of crisis…. ‘There is certainly no crisis when Furtwängler or Toscanini conducts.'” Interesting that at least part of the rap was being pinned on technology, even back then.

    • says

      Matthew, good points. Technological and cultural changes have historically caused cries of alarm. Since we’re not often taught the economic histories of industries we don’t really learn about these different periods of crises. The advent of sound in cinema was a particularly devastating technological development. For years and even decades one of the largest, if not the largest, employer of classical musicians were movie theaters. Practically ever cinema, from the largest capacity to the small home town venues had musicians to accompany the silent movies. In many of the larger cities the ensembles were full scale symphonies.

      The quality of some of the latter were sometimes considered to rival the best Symphony Orchestras of the time. These were also usually full time positions since films would play year around. By some estimates there were some 26,000 musicians employed by movie theaters around the US. Then the talkies came and within a few years some 26,000 musicians were unemployed. Of course the unions fought that tooth and nail but there was no turning back the clock to the age of silent films. Sure, the musicians and unions made a little headway since amplification technology was in its infancy so many of the talking points were that live music rivaled the sound of the best movie theaters equipped with sound, but in the end technology won and thousands of musicians had to find work elsewhere. Many joined orchestras, a disproportionate number of them migrated to LA and other centers of recording for the emerging soundtrack recording industry for film. Many went to radio and television…

      And it was a similar situation with broadcast media–nearly all radio and television stations had a live orchestra. We can’t appreciate how much recording technology changed the live music situation in broadcast media. When cheaper recording technology and better sound amplification emerged that live music environment was also eventually replaced. The Late Night show band is one of the last remnants of that bygone age.

      I think technology was one of the single biggest disruptor of music industries throughout most of the 20th century, and that isn’t likely to change as we’ve entered the digital content era.

      • Matthew Campbell says

        Well put, Jon. And there’s hope residing in your historical synopsis, given your reminder of how music and musicians transitioned successfully—though not without significant pain and suffering—from one technology to the next. Although there are those who’d disagree, I’d say that, on balance, the culture was enriched by the technological disruptions of the past century—especially when measured against other disruptions such as the widespread elimination of music education in public schools (in the U.S., anyway). As to whether our collective luck with technology will continue to hold out, I couldn’t say. But I AM optimistic: both the creators and the producers/presenters of music, classical and otherwise, are hard at work on embracing the opportunities of the new technologies and on coming to terms with their challenges. Cold comfort, admittedly, to today’s equivalent of the small-town cinema-orchestra musician, with the monthly rent due and the “talkies” having come to town…. But in the end, would we really want to watch, say, “The Godfather” as a silent with title cards?

        • says

          Right, Matthew–I think what lesson we can learn from history is that the musicians transitioned. It might be a hard pill for many of to swallow but whatever changes we see happening in the field today, we only have to look back to see that some of those in the past were probably more disruptive–especially given that the two I mentioned bookended the Great Depression which also present big challenges musicians–how many orchestras would have been lost then had the Works Progress Administration and Federal Music Projects hadn’t artificially subsidized orchestras and formed new ones?

          And with the public music education issue I think we’ve covered the other two significant cultural changes that can affect the arts. Legislation and the Government can significantly shape how the arts function by creating funding structures, tax laws, and education.

          And economic upheavals like the Great Depression (and our the recent “Great Recession”) can significantly impact musical fields as well as funding structures.

          There’s no doubt that classical music institutions had a difficult time weathering the Great Recession, but by all accounts the Bureau of Labor Statistics has given us a possibly bleaker feature over a longer period of time (2002-2011) where there seems to be a 45% loss of full time musicians. As we haven’t seen a 45% reduction of SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) this labor loss would seem to be coming primarily from the freelance world and the pop music industry. As the trend started happening before the Great Recession (though that certainly exacerbated it) there must be some cultural change creating this labor shift away from full time musicians and folks in the pop music field have been pointing at Digital Technology and the Piracy that’s been running rampant in it.

          It’s probably too early to tell what the real culprit (or more likely, culprits) is (are), but with the changes happening across the board in all popular entertainment and traditional broadcast and recording media, technological changes seem to be the backdrop and everyone is starting to question their fields!

  6. says

    “…the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition,” wrote Charles Rosen in a 1998 Harper’s article, “Classical Music in Twilight.” There’s a long, long history of complaint that somebody was killing music: Stravinsky and Verdi are among the supposed perpetrators, but this tradition of murder goes back farther.

    Nowadays it’s not so much about murderers as about people not giving the music the respect (i.e. money) it deserves. Nobody’s killing the music; it just finds itself abandoned in the desert without food or water. That’s probably an old story, too.

    I would date the start of the current trouble not from the first published concern, but from the end of public complaint about murderes. Nobody was seen to threaten the primacy of the undying masterworks, because nobody was seen to be renewing the tradition. Without public discussion of renewal or murderers, classical music started losing the attention of nonspecialists. I’d guess this began before World War II and accelerated afterward.

  7. David Snead says

    Hi Greg,

    I entered the orchestra biz in 1979, and at that time I didn’t hear many people talking about a crisis. But by the early ’90s there was growing concern about the subscription season model, which is fundamental to how most orchestras organize and manage themselves. In the mid-90’s I left the orchestra world for the first time in my career; it was then, when I first saw that world from the outside, that I realized how much trouble it was in.

    Some may get their dander up over the word “crisis,” but I think it’s true that the fundamentals of the orchestra business model have been out of whack for the last 20 years or so. Orchestras are resilient, though, and most have, so far, found a way to stay afloat despite the odds.

  8. Martin Haub says

    The crisis began in the late 1950’s with the rise of AM radio and rock-n-roll. Commercial value and making money became the most important thing. In Morton Gould’s biography, he laments that good music on the radio was being pushed out by disk jockeys playing records. Stations no longer wanted an in-house orchestra and they were dismantled. You saw it in the movies, too. Look at some of the classics: in Laura, the detective played by Dana Andrews figures out someone was lying because the concert didn’t feature Sibelius, it was changed at the last moment. Can you see that happening today? Or Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. The London Symphony and Bernard Herrmann are given 10 minutes of time to play Storm Clouds. This would never happen nowadays. It would have to be a rock concert as today’s younger audiences have no comprehension of orchestral music. They live on musical junk food and are the poorer for it.

  9. Charles says

    I’ve been in the orchestra business for 30 years or so, first as a player, then as an administrator. A few years ago, as the orchestra I was with was working on a strategic plan, we went back through as many years of ticket sales/attendance numbers as we could to see audience trends over the long term. It was clear that in 1991 things began to change for the worse. The audience peaked that year, and the decline never stopped, save for a conductor search year. There was also a closing of the gap between subscription and single-ticket sales. Not that single tickets ever approached the subscription total, but it was definitely a trend.

  10. says

    Peter Gelb and I were doing promotion for the Boston Symphony in the late 70’s when the Friday afternoon concerts began to have unsold seats. Women had entered the job market and Friday’s were still fine for the monied older subscribers, but when they died, their seats were no longer the most sought after item in their wills. Daughter was now often working. Subscriber numbers were also slipping, but trustees of the Orchestra were reluctant to make any real effort to pull in the younger music lovers. Michael Tilson Thomas was brought in to do some outreach but any variations on the ironclad traditional produced wrinkled noses from the older set which wrote checks. So they sorta fired him, and lots of us young people were really angry at the ignorance of the Board and Management. They eve stripped the chrome off the BSO’s guest artist car because it was too ostentatious. The problems only grew in the following decade as the old line decision makers talked about the problems of changing audiences and did little concrete to address it with creativity. There are new managers there now, and some contemporaneous board thinking, but old institutions abhor change.

    • says

      Our company (then called Wolf Organization) did a study for the American Symphony Orchestra League in 1991 looking at 25 years of audience and financial trends. Our report was called “The Financial Condition of Symphony Orchestras” (nicknames the “Wolf Report”). It was clear even then that a crisis was imminent but we weren’t very popular for saying so. The boom years of the 90s masked the extent of the crisis because endowments were growing so fast that orchestras looked healthy — even though the first generation of European immigrants that had swelled audience ranks in the previous half century were dying off. Once the boom was over, the extent of the crisis was clear to anyone who was unwilling to bury their heads in the sand.
      Somewhat later the Packard Foundation gave us a grant to study the bankruptcy of the San Jose Symphony. The book we wrote “And the Band Stopped Playing” was a case history of much that had been predicted in the “Financial Condition” study. I would date the beginning of the crisis that we know today to the early 1980s.

  11. S. Phillips says

    The piano industry has long been able to tell you when the crisis started. 1979 was an eye opening year when it was apparent that the baby boomers piano lessons were at an end and the TV/ radio/ recorded music business was eclipsing the piano business. No longer were Horowitz and Rubinstein household names and the audiences for classical concerts started looking older.

    By the 1990’s orchestras were easily seeing that subscriptions were purchased by an older demographic and the Friday morning performances mostly populated by women (who had almost always had piano lessons as children or had played in band or orchestra as high school students) were dwindling not because of disinterest but because they were too old to get to the performances.

    In Asia where music education is thriving, audiences pack concerts and here in the US where there is a high Asian population the audiences reflect that culture. Music education is the key to reviving interest in orchestral repertoire.

    • says

      I could not agree with you more. My opinion is that classical music’s fate was sealed during the mid-20th century – with both the emergence of Rock & Roll/Popular Music radio and the birth of the baby boomer generation. Like you said, once “the baby boomers piano lessons were at an end,” classical music concerts DID appear older.

      Now that baby boomers are in positions of authority in our public school systems, it is no wonder why music education is dwindling. Not to say that baby boomers dislike classical music (not at all), but they weren’t fully raised to appreciate it and see it’s holistic worth to our society. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise why the arts are the first things to go when faced with budget cuts.