Portrait of a crisis

classical crisis blogIn my last crisis post, I said I’d talk more about crisis skeptics — those who don’t believe there’s a classical music crisis, or who think it’s perpetual — and then lay out what I think the crisis is.

But no. Better to describe the crisis now. For one thing, people are waiting for me to do it. And it’ll be easier to engage crisis skeptics once the shape of the crisis is clear.

The aging audience

So what is the classical music crisis? As I see it, the crisis is systemic. It hits almost every aspect of classical music. So maybe, in the past, orchestras had financial problems (though as we’ll see in future posts, claims of that are greatly exaggerated). But opera companies didn’t, chamber concerts continued to be held even in very small cities and towns, and, above all, classical music remained visible, popular, and central to our culture.

That’s not the case now. For me, at the heart of the crisis is something much talked about, and very simple: the aging of the audience. Of, course, some people don’t believe this is happening. A big piece in the New York Times a few years ago even said, with complete assurance, that studies of the audience age were never done in past generations, but that’s not true. I know three studies of the age of the classical music audience in the US, one from 1937, one from 1955, and one published in 1966. And, from 1982 to the present, the National Endowment for the Arts has surveyed the American classical music audience, and shown it to be steadily aging.

So the aging has been going on for quite some time. I date it from the late 1960s or the early 1970s, which means it’s been with us for more than 50 years.

And it’s quite dramatic. The three studies I’ve mentioned show — at the different times and places in which they were done — an audience with a median age as low as 27 (in Michigan, in 1937), but no older than 38 (for all the performing arts, including classical music, in 1966). The 1955 study is the most detailed. In Minneapolis, half the people going to symphony concerts were under 35, and nearly a quarter of them were students.

And the aging audience is also a shrinking one. The NEA, ever since 1982, has reported a smaller and smaller percentage of American adults going to classical music performances. And, as time goes on, those who do go are increasingly concentrated in the older age groups (so that by now, the only group going as often as it did in the past are those over 65).

Which means that the audience is most definitely shrinking. Younger people aren’t coming into it. In the 1980s, the NEA reported, the percentage of people under 30 in the classical music audience fell in half. And older people also aren’t coming into the classical audience. If they were, we’d see a steady percentage of people in their 40s and 50s going to classical events, but we don’t. That percentage is falling.

Of course, the population as a whole is growing, so the effects of this shrinkage aren’t as strongly felt as they might be. With a growing population, the absolute numbers of people going to classical performances — even if their percentage is shrinking — isn’t dropping so fast. So concert halls and opera houses, even if they’re not as full as they used to be, aren’t emptying out.

The population is also growing older, as a whole, and that gives some people hope. Could the aging of the classical audience simply reflect the aging of all of us? No. The classical audience — as the NEA has repeatedly said — is aging faster than the general population. Back in the ’50s, the median age of the classical audience was much closer to the median age of the whole population than the age of the classical audience is now. Met Opera subscribers, Peter Gelb said a few years ago, are on the average 65 years old. That’s way older than the population at large.

Why is it aging?

So what does this aging mean? Let’s look at something else where the people involved are aging, something without the complexity of classical music, and that people don’t get emotional about: model railroading. I once read that the age of model railroad hobbyists has been going up 10 years with each passing decade. That would mean, first, that just about no younger people — virtually none at all — are building model railroads. And that, therefore, the hobby will disappear as those who enjoy it now pass beyond active life.

And it’s not hard to see why that’s happening. Railroads were huge in the US during the 1940s. They were the dominant form of transportation, with all kinds of romance attached to them. When I was a kid in the ’50s, every boy had electric trains. But as time passed, trains became less important, and less romantic. So people weren’t as wild about them, and boys growing up in the decades after me didn’t have electric trains, and hardly any of them, when they were older, built huge layouts, with detailed scale models of trains and stations from the Milwaukee Road (or some other favorite line).

That seems undeniable. So why shouldn’t the same thing be happening in classical music? I’ll agree that the picture is more complex. Younger people do learn classical instruments, and enough of them want to be professionals to keep our music schools open.

But these young people are outliers. Within their age group, they’re exceptional. As I know, from teaching at Juilliard (and visiting other schools) for 17 years, young classical musicians will tell you that they may love classical music, but their friends don’t. So the presence of young classical musicians in our world doesn’t grow the classical audience. Your friends might go to your concerts, but they don’t start going to the opera.

The aging of the classical audience, then, means — broadly speaking,  though less drastically — the same thing that the aging of model railroaders does: the retreat of this interest from the center of our culture. And a steady fall in the number of people who share it.


crisis 3 blogYou can talk all you want about problems classical music might have had in the past. But we’ve never seen anything like what we’ve seen for the past 50 years, what the aging of the audience so clearly implies: Classical music (once more) becoming far less important in our culture —  — far less honored, far less popular, far less listened to — than it once was.

And now we see what a systemic crisis means.  Because from the aging and shrinking of the audience follows every other problem that we’re having. Declining ticket sales. Declining funding. Performing arts centers (as the New York Times reported back at the start of the 1990s) booking fewer classical music events, because the audience for them was starting to fall.

Classical radio stations changing their formats to something more popular. Or, as we’ve seen in recent years, giving up commercial operation (because the profits are no longer there), and becoming public stations, seeking support from their listeners.

Classical record companies releasing fewer recordings. And  those they do release may not be, in any strict sense, commercial releases. They’re privately funded, by donors, just like nonprofit enterprises. The Met Opera’s 1980s Ring recording, for instance, depended at least in part on private funding, even though it was released on Deutsche Grammophon, perhaps the leading commercial classical label.

Classical record labels also release nonclassical records, alongside their classical ones. Some of these are crossover projects, collaborations between pop and classical musicians, or classical pieces by pop stars. But then Nonesuch Records evolved more notably, becoming, in effect, an art music label, in which only some of the art music they release is classical.

Two big classical distribution companies — companies that distribute classical records recorded by others — told me years ago that they’d started distributing world music alongside classical, as a hedge against classical record sales falling still more. The days of a financially sustainable classical record industry are largely over.

Some people would dissent from what I’ve said, saying that small classical labels have multiplied, offering many recordings, and that this shows that classical recording is healthy. But these small releases are almost all nonprofit. They depend on exactly the kind of classical music funding that’s now endangered. So they don’t change the conclusion I stated above — that the days of financially healthy classical recordings, finding commercial success because there was a large market for classical music — are over.

More signs of a crisis

There’s less media coverage of classical music then there used to be. At the start of the ’80s, when I began my career as a classical critic, just about all major magazines that covered the arts had classical music critics. Time and Newsweek did; they were titans inside the magazine world. I myself was classical music critic for Vanity Fair, when it first launched in the ’80s. Does it have a classical music critic now? I once went through every copy of Time published in the ’80s, and counted a reversal in the percentages of pieces about pop and classical music — around 2/3 classical in 1980, and by 1990 about 2/3 pop.

In the past few years, many newspapers have given up having fulltime classical critics.

So this is a sea change. And, looking back to past generations, a giant one. No more opera productions on Broadway. No more Amahl and the Night Visitors (and, later, Stravinsky’s The Flood) commissioned and premiered on network TV. No more do we have 20 to 40 classical soloists who reliably could sell out a hall, as we did in the ’80s. Now there are only five. (Or so people who present the soloists’ concerts told my wife, Anne Midgette, for a piece she wrote for the Washington Post.)

No more does every city  want an orchestra and an opera company, to attract people who’ll in turn be an attractive workforce for corporations, a reason for companies to relocate to the city. Now the cities want bikepaths, Whole Foods, diversity, a strong local band scene. No more do we have what Virgil Thomson called the “intellectual audience,” when, in 1950, he described what it looked like in New York: up to date, hip (as we’d say; the word wasn’t used back then), arts-oriented, but not interested in most classical performances, even though (and this is what we don’t have right now) it would turn out in great numbers for something classical that struck it as brainy and new.

Nor do we have, as we used to, before perhaps 1970, orchestras without marketing or fundraising departments. They didn’t need these departments, because they could sell tickets and raise money without — at least as compared to today — much organized effort.

(For more on what classical music was like before the crisis came, see my post on that.)

Where is this going?

So this, once more, is what a systemic crisis looks like. A general retreat of classical music, slamming into (once more) its visibility, its popularity, its importance to our culture, its ticket sales, and its financing.

The question we then have to ask is how long — if nothing changes — this can go on. How long it can go on, before classical music as we’ve known it for so many decades starts to be unsustainable. Before big classical music institutions can’t pay for their operations, or at least not on the scale at which they presently function.

Maybe the current orchestra crisis shows us this danger starting to be real, meaning that it’s hitting now, and isn’t just something we project into the future. So many managements arguing with their musicians, over dividing a shrinking financial pie, the result (no matter how it plays out in each situation) of an overall drop in demand, and drop in funding (which of course is tied to the drop in demand), while expenses continue to rise.

This — everything I’ve described — is the crisis. Have we seen anything like it classical music before? I don’t think so.

I began this discussion — in my first post on the crisis — by asking how long the crisis has been going on. What I’ve just written gives us one way to answer that. We could look at each part of the crisis that I’ve set forth, and ask when it began to be noticed.

I won’t try to do this in any systematic way, just now. I’d need to do more research. But in my next crisis post, I’ll offer some signposts — some memories, from myself and others, about when an assortment of crisis components first showed themselves. After that post, i’ll say more about crisis skeptics.

The crisis series so far:

How long has the crisis been going on?

Why that question — how long the crisis has been with us — is hard for most of us to answer

Before the crisis — what classical music in the US was like before the crisis hit

Some thoughts on crisis skeptics


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  1. says


    I think you’ve demonstrated pretty convincingly, over a series of posts, that the “classical music audience” is getting older and “classical music” no longer has the position in American culture that it had in the mid-20th century. But you’ve also pointed out that there are numerous new developments in styles and modes of presenting the music to audiences which are attracting young audiences, styles and modes which are revolutionary compared with the classical music world 50 or 60 years ago, which is why I put “classical music audience” and “classical music” in quotes above.

    What is quite likely dying, or at least rapidly losing steam, is what the term “classical music” meant in those long-ago days. The bankruptcy of the New York City Opera is a perfect illustration: Mayor LaGuardia launched it and it survived for a long time in that environment, but (as in the natural world) the environment changes over time and organisms must evolve to adapt to the changes or go extinct. I think the question is whether the intriguing and revolutionary “mutations” in the classical music world you have been publicizing will produce an evolved organism that can survive in today’s environment, or whether they are too weak, too unappealing to younger people, to avoid extinction.

    Time, as always, will tell. But I think the days of Walt Disney cartoons about the Ring and Lenny Bernstein concerts for young people on national television are indeed over. We should mourn their passing and turn to nurturing the new mutations.

    • says

      Those new mutations I tend to call “New Classical”. It frees us from being shackled to the old paradigm. If you look up classicism and neo-classical at Wikipedia, you’ll find the the classical tradition in music is defined (in part) as restrained, formal and refined. That can maintain its place WHILE we build a complementary tradition of New Classical that is adaptable, emotive, even raw. This is already modeled outside the concert hall. It just takes applying it to classical to realize the future is in being where we were not before. Bringing that into the concert hall and getting people to plop down money for it is a matter of managing a balance.while we cross the gap. It is easily possible not to fall… with experience and a safety pole. And focus on the far end… not down!

  2. Karla Fisk says

    Greg, did you just research the U.S.? Did you look at the situation in Europe, Russia, Asia?

    • says

      I have much better access to US data, and, interestingly, US data seems to be better than the data from other places. But there’s no doubt that the situation is essentially the same in Europe, Britain, Canada, Australia. I’ve talked to too many classical music students and professionals from those places, and seen a few studies, and also been asked to speak outside the US — from all these things it’s clear that the crisis is worldwide. Asia might be a special situation, especially in China, where there’s an aspirational aspect to classical music. Newly wealthy parents want their children to have it as a mark of cultural distinction. But from everything I’ve picked up, the much talked about classical music explosion in China doesn’t run as deep as people think it does, and the passion for western pop music is a far larger phenomenon.

  3. Dave Meckler says

    A faithful reader of this blog over the years, I have gone from being a crisis-denier to a gloomy doomster. The crisis of relevance & cultural significance perhaps begins in 1967, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Once pop music launched its own art-music wing, it became capable of doing serious cultural work. The problem is not that Pop is Bad, as a few commenters here declare, but that popular music is good enough, good enough to mediate the issues of the day. An art music rooted in the vernacular has an overwhelming advantage over an art music that merely samples vernacular music. (And vernacular marketing. We can try branding ourselves but that is but a tinny imitation of the brassy cult of personality that the pop music industry manufactures.)

  4. Phillip Bush says

    The key to the future lies in your observation that “these young people [who pursue study/careers in classical music] are outliers. Within their age group, they’re exceptional.” What that reflects is something I’ve said for a long time, that young people who choose to be classical musicians are, by and large, rebels and nonconformists within our culture. It takes at least as much courage and guts and going-against-the-grain spirit to go for it as a classical musician today as it does to pursue a life as a musician in any alternative band, hip-hop, you name it.

    As large institutions associated (rightly or wrongly) with the “elitist” image of classical music (orchestras, large opera companies) get winnowed down in the years ahead, more classical music careers are going to look like what Sarah Robinson described in her posts here…you’ll do a little free-lancing, you’ll teach some students, you’ll play some clubs and hope you get a good take from the door. There’ll be fewer opportunities for classical musicians to make big solid salaries with benefits (fewer orchestras, and eventually fewer professorships as music departments will shrink, to be sure). The tradeoff is that classical musicians will be increasingly seen as part of that “strong local band scene” you mention as a desirable feature of “hip” towns, and classical music itself (new and old), presented in a different context and as a true alternative to our mass-market corporatist-consumerist culture for listeners of all ages who seek to have their minds and souls intrigued and moved, will renew itself for a new audience that will skew considerably younger than the past. But—the overall numbers will be much smaller than the past and the days of a privileged spot in our national cultural discourse will be gone for good (no more Time magazine covers for composers like the 1950s or early 60s, no guest spots on late-night TV, etc., and less major support from major philanthropic sources).

  5. Andyc says

    But now – so what? This isn’t new news and it’s not limited to classical music. It’s the arts in general. There are any numbers of issues that coincide with declining audiences – the economy, the focus on creative space making rather than arts institutions, the cutting of arts education, lack of field trips to the arts experiences, cut backs in funding to support and encourage new works, etc, etc, etc.

    What I am looking for are solutions (and more specifically, people writing about them). Arts and entrepreneurship is great to see and encouraged. But what about talking about audience development at all levels? Where are the united fronts of arts advocacy in the communities from all the artists living in them to speak loudly about getting the arts back in the lives of our children, in addition to encouraging them to play violin. 90% of the audiences I see from the arts center I run are not arts makers, but arts lovers, as well as students who are “forced” to experience something they may never have had a chance to experience before (or never knew they might like.)

    Can we all start talking solutions now, rather than reliving the same story? We’re wasting time, and the audiences are only getting smaller.

    • says

      Greg, I think that the main thing is the lack of arts education. I attended a Catholic elementary school in the 1960’s, and because of a dedicated and talented teacher, I and many, many children were able to experience the joy of singing great choral music even an a young age, I believe to this day that being exposed to great art whether it be music, painting, literature, etc. truly changes a person. We loved the music so much and were willing to spend many days after school hours learning high-quality choral music, including three-voice Palestrina motets! There was no government support here, only a great teacher. I am aware, however, that this is a different world!

    • says

      I’ve featured solution after solution here in this blog. But the problems also need to be stressed, because too many classical music institutions aren’t facing them, which means they aren’t looking hard enough for solutions.

  6. gowan says

    There is another aspect that hasn’t been mentioned. I think that the size of the audience for “classical” music is still large but the modality of presentation is changing. Remember the old analogy of symphony concerts as being like going to a museum? The internet has made it possible to hear music in ways never dreamed of 50 years ago. My sense is that people are more interested in music as a creative endeavor than in listening to recreations of antique pieces, the same pieces over and over again. In pop music, of course, popular performers routinely “cover” old hits, but I think the pop audience is more oriented to new material. As for the record business, 50 years ago the classical recordings were supported by pop music sales; they probably never fully paid their own way. Does anybody track the distribution of classical music in mp3 form over the internet? It seems that most young people want their music to be more than worshipping at the temple, they want entertainment too. There seem to be successful groups like the quartet Brooklyn Rider and the chamber orchestra The Knights, who play traditional “classical” pieces as well as contemporary eclectic music and this appeals to younger audiences. And then there is the venue Le Poisson Rouge in NYC. Another interesting development is the presence of classical music channels on digital cable TV and on satellite radio. I don’t deny the existence of a crisis but I wonder whether the crisis is not so much about the existence of classical music but rather the continuation of a traditional model?

  7. says

    This makes me so sad. I recently attended a performance by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and the audience was true in age to what this article states. Here’s where I see the problem. When I was a kid (back in the early 60s) I attended elementary school in Tempe, AZ. They had a program call Music Memory, a classical music appreciation program that was piped in through the intercom system. We heard and memorized different pieces, the composers and years they were written. We took a big test in the cafeteria and all who passed were treated to a concert by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra who performed some of the pieces we’d learned. It was a wonderful program! I was most fortunate in that my parents listened to classical music (their own collection) every evening, to relax the kids before bedtime. But we often listened to it during the day because we had favorites. My brother and I particularly liked to use these classics as the background music for our imaginative play, usually where I played the Queen and he was the knight or whatever LOL! In other words, this decline has been going on for many years. I did not have a classical music collection that I played for my children and I so regret that I didn’t build one back then. As a grandparent, I have a second chance to help my grandchildren learn an appreciation. We need to nurture music appreciation, take our children to live performances as much as we possibly can, and support children who want to learn to play a musical instrument. I think I will contact the VSO and find out what it would take to begin a Music Memory program in Vermont. I’m going to do it today.

  8. hassab says

    I agree with all that you say in ths post in that I do think it illustrates decline but the idea of a “systemic crisis” is a misnomer to me. A crisis is a turning point – something that is reached at the end of a decline, where it is an emergency and something must be done. I would say that it’s been declining since at least the 80’s (when every city did still want an orchestra) but reached crisis stage, in which it began to be an extreme situation, last decade at the earliest. This might sound like splitting hairs but there’s something about the term “crisis” that seems alarmist. The situation is alarming, yes, we are in crisis now, yes, but crisis for 50 years? I’m not sure a true crisis could be withstood for that long.

    • says

      Trouble has been brewing for classical music for quite a long time. As I’ll show in future posts, it grew bit by bit. Parts of it were noticed when they happened, other parts took longer to sink in. I don’t want to get bogged down on definitions of “crisis.” If we just look at facts, we can see, as I said, the trouble brewing over time. The question then becomes when it hits in devastating ways. When, for instance, the decline of ticket sales and funding gets so serious that major classical music institutions need to cut back the number of performances they give. That might be the next step.

  9. JC says

    I read recently that the New York Philharmonic played an outdoor all-Gershwin concert in a stadium, where Gershwin himself was at the helm and Cuban Overture (then titled Rumba) was premiered. 17,845 people attended and 5,000 people were turned away due to lack of seating. Wrap your brain around that for a second. That’s almost 23,000 people who came for an orchestra concert. Today, most orchestras consider a 60% full house a successful night, with maybe 1000 people in attendance. Cultures shift, so we’ve got to figure out how to bridge the gap.

    • says

      That would have been in Lewisohn Stadium, on the City College campus, where the NY Philharmonic played in the summer in generations past. I went to some of those concerts myself as a teenager. It really was another world.

  10. richard says

    As I’ve mentioned before, the exact same thing is happening to Jazz. And we’ve always played in “alternative” venues. The only thing that keeps us going is that we’re essentially chamber music, without so many mouths to feed. I’ve been watching some of the talent shows recently, and I found myself wondering if the music could be any more insipid. But I realized it wasn’t really about music at all. It’s about showmanship. Everything in the most commercial music is about
    the “celebrity” singer. Are there any financially successful pop acoustic/electro-acoustic instrumental groups?

  11. Ken J. says

    At the local used CD shop, the selection of classical and opera CDs has exploded in recent months — more classical and opera CDs than have been offered for sale in this town since Tower Records closed. The shop owner tells me these discs are coming from estate sales. The leading edge of those who bought lots of classical CDs 1985-2005 are now passing away, leaving their collections to be picked over at dirt-cheap prices.

    I think Peter Gelb’s observation that the average Met Opera subscriber is 65 years old misses the even older part of the audience which has become too frail to get out to the Met’s live performance. I see this older and frailer audience at the “HD Live” shows: canes, walkers, hobbling on the stairs, white hair everywhere. (Heck, I’m really a part of it: in my late 50s I am the trailing younger edge of the audience.)

    • says

      Excellent point, Ken. The Met’s HD audience is remarkably old, at least outside classical music centers like Manhattan. I talked once to a telemarketer for a big orchestra, who said that when he called subscribers asking for them to renew, he was increasingly being told that renewal was impossible, because the people he was talking to were too old to keep going. I’ve informally confirmed that this is happening at other orchestras. Of course this makes the classical music audience smaller still.

  12. BobG says

    I accept that the audience for classical music is aging, but I wonder why those older concertgoers didn’t bring in their own children and grandchildren to become the new audience. Surely regular concertgoers would have set an example for their children to follow. I think we do usually expect that an interest in culture by parents will evoke a similar interest in children. What happened?

    • says

      Hi, Bob. Reasonable question. Among other things, the ’60s happened. Culture changed. So it didn’t matter whether parents went to classical concerts. Their children grew up in a changed culture, and wanted different things. For personal accounts of this, you could read Dave Marsh’s book The Second Beatles Album, and John Seabrook’s rather famous book Nobrow. Seabrook’s family went to the Met and the NY Philharmonic, and when he was young, he thought he’d grow up to do the same thing. But he didn’t, as he vividly explains.

  13. says

    I do quite a bit of change management work for a major corporation. You cannot jump right over to solutions if the problem hasn’t been defined. This is what Greg is doing here. This is fantastic work.

  14. Marty Thompson says

    Children seem to take to the arts immediately when exposed however, without any education in the arts, we are doomed to a future of popular junk – the dumbing of America has been going on a long time and is just getting worse. I had music education and it lasted my entire life – in my old age now, it continues to give me joy daily; opera, classical music, ballet and painting. I find almost all popular music impossible to listen to. The Metropolitan Opera at the Movies continues to be a great source of pure joy for us who can’t afford the opera houses any more. PBS also continues to provide opera, ballet and classical music as well as pop. I contribute. The arts cannot survive when exposure and education in them is nonexistant. I fell in love with classical music through ballet at the age of 5; I began voice lessons at 9 and was singing opera at 13; listened to the Met on the radio and had a set of indulgent if not sophisticated parents who loved the good American Standards and learned to love classical music and opera as well. Also, reading was more important in our lives than television. What is the answer to our aging audiences – exposure and education for the young and hopefully a few who don’t want to follow the mindless herd.

  15. thad says

    The question is, is the audience graying because the music is not cool enough to attract the young, or do the young avoid the music because the audience is full of deeply uncool old people?

    As you well know, Greg, I tend toward the latter view. The music is fine; it’s the audience you have to change.

    I think back to your friend Jed and his experience with the Pastoral Symphony. He already loved the music. If it was a professional orchestra he went to hear, we can safely assume the performance was more than vivid enough for a first-time concert-goer. (Do you remember the first time you heard a professional orchestra live? I do. Vividly.)

    It was the experience that left him nonplussed. Music, for the young, is tribal. My favorite band attracts my kind of people to its performances. That – almost as much as their music – is why they’re my favorite band.

    When young people do happen to wander into symphony hall, they encounter an alien tribe. No wonder few return.

    Allow me to interject my own recent experience here. Until about a year ago, I was a bartender and server working for the catering company at our local symphony hall. Our company also serviced a number of other venues in town, including one of the premier live music clubs (rock, alternative, hip-hop, country, you name it).

    At Symphony Hall, whenever an under-30 would approach the bar they would inevitably ask “Can I take my drink into the hall?” The answer, of course, was “No.” You shall enter the hall when the bell rings. If late, you shall remain outside until there is a break. You shall not take your beverage with you. You shall remain in your seat until the music is over.

    At the live music club, people arrive all through the performance. Get a drink, take it up front, right next to the band, meet a girl there, move to the back for a little conversation, fetch both of you another drink, head up front again, then outside for a smoke, then back inside for more of everything.

    At Symphony Hall, the “Development Team” consists of former bankers and stockbrokers, inviting older folks in for dinner at the restaurant before the concert to talk about making a “planned gift” to the orchestra after their death. At the live music venue, the “development” team is the bartenders – all smokin’ hot young gals – each of whom is required to fill their comp list quota every night with 10 smokin’ hot friends like themselves so that patrons entering the club see 40 – 50 hotties out on the floor even before the concert starts.

    Keep in mind that the live music club puts this kind of effort into “grooming” their audience even though they are presenting musical acts that already have a following among the young.

    I know you’re a happily married father, Greg, but think back to when you were 25 and on the make. Musical considerations aside, which audience would you rather be a part of, the one where the cute bartenders recruit their cute friends, or the one where the suits invite the old folks in to talk about their will?

    If I were the executive director of a major symphony orchestra, my first hire would be a new audience development director. I would look for such a person well outside the performing arts circle. I’d look for them in the nightclubs of cities – Vegas, LA, New York, London – where the clubs are state-of-the-art. They would have absolutely nothing to say about the music or programming; that is the prerogative of the music director. Everything else – ticketing, advertising, the bars, the food, the programs, the ushers, the overall vibe of the event out in the lobby – would be theirs.

    I’d have them recruit a dozen model/actor types: gregarious, sociable, magnetic, men and women. Give them a stipend, an expense account, and a stack of business cards and have them hit the town every day. Coffee houses, yoga studios, gyms, hair salons, boutiques, brewpubs, bars, restaurants, nightclubs. “What do you do?” “I work for the symphony, in development.” “The symphony? You know, I love classical music!” “Really? Here’s my card. Call me. I’ll hook you up.”

    Twelve recruiters. Ten prospects a day each. Every day. Comp 200 young, good looking, well-dressed, fashionable people for every single performance. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. All season long.

    Your existing clientele won’t mind. Old people LOVE seeing young people around. What if word leaked out? Scandal! Lookism! Headline: Symphony Luring Beautiful Young People To Concerts With Free Tickets! Watch the box office phones light up for days afterward.

    The temptation to fiddle with the music is powerful, especially for musicians/composers/critics. When your toolkit consists of a hammer, every problem is a nail. The fact is that the modern symphony orchestra, amazing and flexible as it is, is not infinitely flexible. It evolved to perform music from a given span of human history. Sure, a symphony orchestra can play Go-Go or Mos Def if it wants to, but the result is unlikely to be satisfying to true fans of Go-Go, Mos Def, or of symphony orchestras for that matter.

    Have faith in the music. It’s amazing. It’s your institution that needs work. Its funding, its cost structure, the marketing, the atmosphere, the audience. Take care of those things and all will be well.

    • thad says

      One thing I meant to add, but forgot:

      I smiled when I read your mention of the 1955 Minneapolis audience survey. My grandmother grew up in Minneapolis, albeit well before 1955. When -in my early 20s – I first started going to classical concerts, she told me that, when she was a young woman, she used to go to hear the symphony all the time.

      “Why did you stop?”, I asked.

      “Well, I got married”, she answered.

      “Why should that stop you?”

      “Because I went to the concerts to meet boys!”

      For her generation, there were only a handful of places where a young woman could have a drink and talk to eligible young men and not be thought a slut: Junior League dances, the country club, or the symphony. That was it.

      Young people have a LOT more choices for that sort of thing today. If we’re going to attract them to concerts, we have to keep that in mind.

    • says

      I love this Thad, thanks for sharing info on how the club scene primes the pump! While it is not so practical to turn a large concert hall for 2,000 into a night club without taking out a lot of seats, it is a compelling argument to take the symphony TO the night club on a regular basis, esp. now that smoking laws are in place. This is what many of us are doing.
      I’d like to dialog with you for more ideas.

  16. says

    I teach college. Some of the classes I teach are “gen ed” classes and I have noticed that young people often “think that they don’t like classical music”…until they are dragged kicking and screaming to a concert. However, here’s the shocker–they prefer the newer music to the older music. I took a poll a few years ago in a music appreciation class at the end of term and asked what were their favorites pieces and was expecting answers like “Moldau” and “Dvorak New World Symphony”. Imagine my surprise then when instead I received a flood of responses for “Ionization”–certain they’d confused the piece with something else, I asked them to describe it and they did, vividly. Last week I took a class of 30 Freshmen in a commons course (most with very little musical background) to a concert that featured Shostakovich Festive Overture, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, and Rite of Spring. Many students were bored or confused by the Tchaikovsky but loved the Stravinsky. We make a grave error patronizing our young people by trying to sell them on romantic program music first–they want to hear music of their own time, and this is something that gives me hope–after all, composers like Dvorak and Smetana were composing for the people of their own time, too and new music was just as important in the lives of 19th century concert-goers as a new movie is to our young people now. That means we’ve turned the corner on the new music debacle of mid-20th century late modernism and young people might once again be willing to hear music by Higdon, Torke, Adams, et al, even though they might find Dvorak and Smetana and Tchaikovsky stuffy and old fashioned sounding. That music was, after-all, conceived to entertain 19th century Bourgeois tastes, particularly that of the upper middle-class with its female patrons, wives of successful businessmen whose fortunes had given them the leisure and tastes to enjoy an almost aristocratic lifestyle. The age of the great patronesses has passed as well. Now most women that would have belonged to that class are working professionals with little leisure time or energy to devote to patronizing the arts, but when they do, they are more likely to want to be aligned with something progressive. The big dilemma is do we continue to program for the wealthy blue-haired matrons of the arts, which means “war-horses” like Tchaikovsky, Smetana and Dvorak (whose music I too love, btw), or do we cultivate a young audience by bringing them the music of their time? The latter is difficult, because few young people have the resources to be patrons of the arts, yet we need to cultivate them so that when they have the means at their disposal to be patrons, they will also have the desire.

  17. Arel says

    It is all “Chicken Little ” nonsense – there is no crisis , never was try “Evolution “

  18. Rob says

    I think the decline in classical audiences has something to do with a decline in classical composition. In the 1940s and the 1950s, people like Bernstein, Britten, Copland, Prokofiev,, and Shostakovich were writing great new music that was regularly performed. Going to a classical concert meant being part of a tradition that was still alive and growing.

    Who are the big names in classical composition of the past thirty years? Who has written pieces that didn’t just have well-received premieres, but entered the repertoire? The names that come to mind for me first are minimalists (Glass, Reich, Adams). Some people really like minimalism, but others really don’t. There are some choral composers, like Whitacre and Lauridsen, whose music is excellent and regularly performed. But I don’t think any recent orchestral composers have the stature of the mid-20th century greats. Whether that’s because no one is writing music of that quality or because it’s being written and not entering the repertoire, I can’t say. (If I’m wrong about this, I’d love to be corrected.)

    The list of pieces on a typical symphony orchestra’s program hasn’t changed much in the past thirty to forty years. That’s a problem if you want to attract young people. Most young people aren’t interested in preserving a great, dead art form from the 19th century. We want to be a part of something that’s still growing.

  19. says

    This was a very good essay and think this is also true for theatre and the audience problem is a very good point.

    I used to be a theatre director but left the industry for economic reasons. I’m 33 and still enjoy going to the theatre. I also enjoy Classical music (along with a great indie-rock band scene) and opera or the arts in general.

    Theatre is also dying and I think the big issue is the audience problem. The same thing is true as in classical musicians. It seems like every generation can produce enough people who want to be theatre artists. What we have a much harder time producing is people who want to go to theatre as part of their entertainment options. Not because their friends wrote the play or are acting or directing or designed something but “this play looks interesting” I want to see it. I saw a play last Thursday and before the performance it seemed like a good chunk of the audience was talking about their productions. This is too insular a world. Theatre artists being the only people who see theatre.

    I’m not sure what can be done. I think expensive tickets is just an excuse/ruse because many people in their 20s or 30s will spend good money on things that they like. Restaurants are one example, tickets for indie rock festivals like Outside Lands or Cochella are another. These are not cheap weekends or events.

    I think part of the issue is that we no longer live in economically eaglitarian times. Now everything is hyper-focused on practicality. In previous decades it was possible to study the arts and humanities and end up okay by becoming a theatre or classical music critic at a regional newspaper or by going to law school. Now the newspapers are folding left and right and the law crisis is still going strong.

    • says

      When I write of “patronage” I am not simply referring to paying for a ticket or subscription, though that is patronage at one level certainly, the patronage to which I refer is that of the Alice Waltons, the Andrew Carnegies, the Winthrop Rockefellers, the Bill and Melinda Gateses, et al–those that give thousands each year to finance the operation. Ticket prices fund only a fraction of the cost of producing a concert. Concert series are heavily reliant on the sponsorship of three entities: government grants (NEA, etc.), Corporate subsidies (American Airlines underwrites many concert series), and private donors of major funds, often in the form of trusts and endowed monies. This last group is the one to which I referred and these private patrons are frequently connected to the corporate underwriters so to successfully court one, you often end up bringing the other alongside. But these sources are precarious as a major donor, foundation, endowment, or trust may fall on hard times or desert the cause for another taking with the private funding the corporate funding to which the patron is connected. The era which saw the birth of our great orchestras and opera companies was the era of the tycoons of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries–those that made their millions in rubber, steel, railroads, and cars. Now, our tycoons are in the software and trade and service industries, but the spouses of these modern tycoons are often busy professional people themselves who have no time or energy to cultivate an interest in the arts.

  20. says

    Okay. I’ve been reading the comments in the other articles in this series and I need to say something.

    The snob factor and constant attacks against popular music (indie rock, hip-hop, country, pop, electronica, dance, r&b, blues, etc.) is a major turn off and part of the problem.

    My parents were prime boomers and born in 1946 and 1947. When I was a kid, they took me to Young People concerts at Lincoln Center. My mom loves opera. She also loves Janis Joplin, Yes, The Moody Blues, and the Beatles. My parents exposed me to a wide-range of music from folk to rock to classical to jazz.

    The result? I love a wide-range of music.

    Decrying the rise of rock and other forms of popular music is wrongheaded. Rock and Hip-Hop are here to stay and there is nothing you can do about that. There is nothing wrong with both enjoying The Magnetic Fields and the Decembrists along with Gershwin, Mozart, and Shostakovich. Snobby attacks against band scenes are going to just turn people off.

    I don’t like that video game and movie music night does not translate into people wanting to go see a piano concert featuring Ravel. I wish there was an easy solution to getting more people interested in jazz, and classical, and opera, and theatre (read: not musicals but just people performing a play) but there is not. However, telling people that rock music is evil and crass makes the classical music scene seem out of it and bitter.

  21. says

    I feel that some of the causes are really effects. There is less media coverage of classical music because editors are not interested, and feel their readers aren’t either. The elevation of pop music to art status in the media (with NPR giving serious reviews to the latest hip-hop release) means that people feel they are in touch with the arts already. There is no stigma to not being able to comprehend or enjoy classical music.

  22. RobG says

    This is really an American problem: in Western Europe, Russia, and Asia nothing like this is going on. In fact, classical music is booming there and audiences include plenty of young people (who are nevertheless just as involved in pop music as they are here). So one need not fear for the survival of classical music, although expensive travel may be required in the future to hear the good stuff.

    I think this is part of a larger set of problems. For example, my friends on university faculties tell me that the graduate schools in math and science are now heavily populated by foreign, especially Asian, students — often these are in the majority. American students have been gradually abandoning science.

    Some kind of collapse has been going on in education in the US, and it’s been going on and getting progressively worse for a long time — 50 or 60 years. This is much discussed, of course, but none of the proposed remedies — more freedom of choice (e.g. charter schools), less freedom of choice (e.g. standardized testing) — seem to make any difference. Vicious circles are involved, in which the worse things get, the worse they get. I have no idea what should be done, but this could really wreck our country if it doesn’t change.

    • says

      Classical music is booming in Europe? Not according to my Juilliard students who come from there. They say the same things are happening in Europe as happen in US. And not according to European classical music professionals I’ve met while traveling there, or emailed with, or messaged with on Facebook. They tell the same story Americans in classical music tell.

      And finally there are studies. Thomas Hamann, a German scholar, predicts a major drop in the German orchestral audience, based on its current demographics. An email correspondent sent me information about a dramatic decline in the German opera audience. On Facebook I learned more about something I’ve heard about elsewhere, that younger German politicians aren’t interested in continuing government support of classical music to the extent that it’s been supported before. Which of course would be a big blow to classical music institutions there.

      A Finnish scholar, Timo Cantel. studied the attitudes of young Finns toward classical music performances, and found exactly what you’d find in the US — not much interest.

      These examples could be multiplied. I wonder why this myth of classical music having no problems in Europe continues to flourish in the US?

      • says

        We need to listen to music differently and we need to study the demographic differently AND we need to understand patronage better. We need to study and understand social, political and economic contexts historically in order to learn lessons from music and discover what makes it relevant (or not) to listeners. The course I am currently teaching at a Liberal Arts College in Arkansas is attempting to do just that. We are studying how and what music communicates to whom in different historical, political, religious, and economic contexts, how it communicates, what are the consequences of what it has communicated to different constituents in the audience. By doing that, music can become relevant to even the most anti-classical music person, I believe. Then, we as composers, performers, and patrons might be able to adjust our expectations, our presentations, etc. so that they become relevant to the audience we wish to address. Music of past centuries was composed for very particular audiences who found it relevant. For example, in the 19th century, a composer writing “nationalist music” might be found relevant by audiences that sympathize with the nationalist/separatist movements against the Austro-Hungarian Empire; composers who wrote macabre or “gothic” inspired music in France in the fist half of the 19th c. might have been addressing an audience experiencing PTSD in the aftermath of the Reign of Terror. We are drawn to that music now and associate it with Halloween, but that was not its intent in the 1830s. Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was a lampoon of middle class pretentions that threatened the aristocracy: satire and mockery can be effective weapons if ou want to undermine the credibility of your opponent, after all, and Moliere and Lully were writing to entertain Louis XIV. On the other hand, the Messiah is a populist piece–it was designed for a public performance, the chorus is the main character, and it replaced lavish expensive operas seria and created an affordable alternative for its patrons. It was also on a religious subject, set in the vernacular (like the Lutheran cantatas and chorales of Handel’s native Germany) that played to the tastes of the English protestants and their Protestant German monarch. Classical music of days bygone is beautiful, and like the myths of antiquity that were familiar to the educated elite of the patrician class, that familiarity strokes our egos, flatters our intellectual self and sets us apart, but it is not relevant to those not educated in it any more than the average Viennese citizen of the 18th century cared about “Hercules” as much as he cared about his barber’s gossip (Amadeus). Yes, education is the key to building appreciative audiences, but we must educate ourselves in a different way and stop merely repeating learned cliches. The women’s movement substantially changed patronage from a 19th century Industrial Revolution model to one where a bourgeoius household now relies on two incomes and when both partners (or in some cases, single heads of households) work, they have little liesure or expendable income. The leisure is, in particular a key, because in the past, the wives of wealthy business moguls had leisure to not only attend concerts and the wealth to patronize them, but the means to cultivate their interest in such undertakings and educate themselves “improve” themselves at finishing schools where developing refined tastes were the curricula. Our education system is largely vocational these days as it was in the days when universities were being developed from merchant guilds as a way of guaranteeing quality and governing trade. Liberal Arts colleges are the province of the elite patrician class, but they are caving to business models. And, alas, I must go teach one of my classes…but that’s enough to ponder for now, I think!

  23. Peter M. says

    I think that many people do not listen to music anymore, there is no time, too many other activities, among others the web.

  24. Shiyu Su says

    1. Do you encourage young classical performers to perform and teach classical music for people in China? Because classical music in China nowadays is so popular than you though and I think that a bunch of kids and adults want to appreciate the Western Classical Music. China need so much wonderful Instrument teachers and performances. So the situation in China is totally different from America.

    2.Do you know what is the best solution to solve the financial problems in each orchestra in America?

    3. Do you have some good idea to attract more audiences in America?