Timeline of the crisis (2)

The first of my timeline posts offered two snapshots of classical music coverage in Time magazine — which declined (a lot) in recent decades. That shows us classical music receding from mainstream culture. Or mainstream culture moving away from classical music.

wrestle crisis blogNow, in my second timeline post, I’ll quote an overview of the crisis from Ron Nadel, who posted it as a comment to the first of the posts I’ve been doing on the classical music crisis, the one where I asked how long the crisis has been going on. Note that it’s based on his own experience. Thanks so much for this, Ron. It’s accurate, in my view, and very helpful:


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.

I can remember when New York had five major record stores with large classical music departments: two branches of Tower Records, two of HMV, and J&R Music World. Plus, a little later, the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. All except J&R are now gone, and J&R’s classical music department shrunk drastically. (Or maybe my information is out of date, and the classical music department isn’t there at all, or is barely there. I haven’t been to the store in a while.)

New York also had, not all that long ago, two major stores that sold printed classical music, G. Schirmer and of course Patelson’s, where musicians shopped. (And where I must have spent thousands of dollars over the years.) There was also Carl Fischer, with a smaller selection. None of these stores still exists.

My third timeline post — a very detailed timeline.— will be here tomorrow.

A footnote to yesterday:

One of the snapshots in yesterday’s post — showing classical music receding from mainstream culture — tracked the word “orchestra” in articles and reviews in Time magazine. In 1969 use of the word declined dramatically.

So as Peter Goodman, commenting on Facebook asked, why 1969? Michael Di Mauro, who put the data together and graphed it, asked the same question in an email to me. Woodstock happened in 1969. Was Woodstock a watershed in the growth of a new kind of culture, one in which orchestras were less important than they used to be? Or (as Peter wondered) was there some change in Time’s outlook or management?

My own answer — a speculation, until we have more data — would be “both.” Though the speculation seems to make a lot of sense. Here’s how I answered Peter on Facebook:

I can’t explain how sudden the dropoff was, but that it happened at the end of the ’60s makes perfect sense. It reflects, pretty clearly, the growth of ’60s culture, which got the world, including the media, thinking about things differently. A good book to read about this is Pictures at a Revolution, by my former Entertainment Weekly colleague Mark Harris.
’60s culture hit Hollywood very hard; that’s the story the book tells. And where film is concerned, it hit the media very hard, too. The turning point came in 1967. Bonnie and Clyde came out, a film we now consider a classic, but which back then was edgy and radical, playing in just a few theaters to a young audience. The New York Times gave it a bad review, and so did Time and the other leading US weekly newsmagazine, Newsweek.
And then something happened. The cultural tide turned. The Times fired its film critic, because he couldn’t keep up with the new culture. Newsweek‘s critic publicly recanted his view of Bonnie and Clyde, and wrote a second review saying how wrong he’d been the first time. Time published a cover story on Bonnie and Clyde, hailing it not just as a great movie, but as a key moment in the growth of a new culture.
So there we see Time, as well as other key publications, changing in response not specifically to Woodstock, but to everything that was happening in the ’60s. I can imagine that change percolating through the magazine, influencing many decisions about what to publish. So that by 1969, orchestras didn’t seem as important as they used to.

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

Portrait of the crisis — hitting all parts of the classical music business

Timeline of the crisis (1) — two snapshots

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  1. says

    Hi Greg, I’m a longtime reader of your blog and always learn so much from it. I mostly listen to period instrument, historically-informed music. Could you share your thoughts on if/how this crisis has affected that market and those artists?

  2. says

    What is really shocking is the lack of any discussion of classical music on NPR (which sort of defines “cultural elite”). When they discuss music, it’s always something regional, or popular (one of the many micro distinctions in style so dear to aficionados), or from some remote corner of the world. All these are legitimate, but they never discuss classical musicians, works, composers, or organizations (except when they go broke).

  3. Jerry Yoshitomi says

    Ron Nadel is correct. Circumstances are different now than they were in the 1970’s.

    Most people are not going to Tower Records. There were never enough Tower Records stores for everyone in the country to go there. More music is being listened to today than every before, as now everyone can download music online wherever they live. And much of that music is ‘classical music’.

    It’s still not clear to me than classical music is in crisis. However I do agree that orchestras are in crisis. Mr. Sandow’s work at the University of Maryland has demonstrated the vibrancy that classical music retains. More orchestras should listen to his advice.

    • says

      Hi Jerry. In a conversation with Klaus Heymann, founder of Naxos, I asked if he thought classical music is alive and well. His reply was similar to yours – more music is being listened to now than ever due to ease of access. I don’t doubt that. What I don’t know (but maybe someone else does) is how many listeners are new listeners – is the consumer base growing? Classical music sales began to decline going in to the 80’s, but with the advent of digital technology and CD’s, sales experienced a resurgence lasting nearly a decade. But, from what I have read, this was due primarily to the base of classical music consumers essentially replacing their LP collections – the resurgence did not reflect a growing consumer base. CD sales then declined going into the 90’s, and the new streaming/downloading technology occasions a tangible resurgence in consumption. I want to believe that Internet music services will generate new/growing interest in classical music, but I find myself wondering why this latest bump in consumption is not reflected in a subsequent bump in concert attendance; even a slight one. Likewise, although classical music radio offered ubiquitous access to the masses, the commercial classical stations witnessed substantial drops in listenership well before the Internet introduced new competition. So, it remains to be seen to what extent the new streaming and downloading habits translate to growing interest, and how healthy is the classical gene pool if all the listeners go to a handful of online music providers for all their classical music listening.

    • says

      Interestingly economist, Joel Waldfogel has done extensive studies (summarized in his “Tyranny of the Market: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want“) of public versus private (commercial) entities and markets and has shown that in areas with populations that have minority preferences and that the commercial markets can appeal to tend to use public organizations (libraries vs bookstores; public radio vs commercial radio) more.

      He’s also shown that minority preference groups, since most big media cater to majority populations, will often hit niche offerings more often. Some of the poorest minority populations tended to be the earliest and quickest adopters of cable television and satellite tv since the commercial media tends to cater to the white majority. I think what we’re seeing with the internet is also a similar phenomenon–preference minorities don’t have as many commercial options so they are flooding the internet to get their preferences. The recent NEA Surveys of Public Participation of the Arts showing classical music participation being the highest of all the arts seems to indicate this. The growing niche markets for early music ensembles, new music ensembles, and ethnic orchestras is simply demonstrating the changing demographics.

  4. John Porter says

    The point of shift roughly coincides with the decline and death of Bernstein. And when reflecting upon this it is notable that with him went not only a great conductor, but a great composer who surfed the waves of pop and classical music, was first and foremost and educator, and was fearless about taking a public position on important issues of his time. We lost not only him but what he represented as point of convergence and voice that transcended classical music while connecting it to a larger world. Chew on that.

  5. ariel says

    Mr. Brooks should know that PBS never discusses the” classical” music world for the simple
    reason that one doubts they have the basic knowledge to discuss the music with
    any insight outside of gossip level and secondly they dare not to any great degree if they want to keep whatever audience they now have .PBS knows their audience and acts accordingly.