Timeline of the crisis (3)

Here — to end my posts on the dates of the classical music crisis  — is a detailed crisis timeline. The information in it comes from many sources, including published reports, blog comments by people who saw the crisis develop in their professional work, and my own experience.

storm clouds blogNobody should think this timeline is anything but tentative. It’s just a beginning of the timeline we could eventually construct, with more data and more reports from people in the middle of it all.

And this timeline, tentative as it is, has some obvious weaknesses. It’s only for the US, and stresses events in New York, where I lived during most of the years the timeline covers. And where the New York Times reports on classical music perhaps more than any other newspaper.

I also haven’t given links to sources, for instance to the 1992 Times report about prese nting organizations booking fewer classical music performances. I remembered reading this story when it was published, and found it a couple of weeks ago in the Times online archive.

If I’d included links to it, and to other published sources available online (like NEA reports), it would have taken more time than I had available. Preparing the timeline even without the links was a major, time-consuming task. I may add the links later, and put them separately in a later blog post. 

Note, too, that we could make another timeline, of changes in classical music that respond to the crisis. This would be wonderful to see, but I, at least, don’t remotely have enough data to make it. I’d be grateful if someone else did.

Here’s the crisis timeline. Many, many, many thanks to those — including leading classical music professionals — who posted their thoughts in the blog comments I’ve used here.


Huge decline in Time magazine coverage of orchestras, in articles and reviews.

Late 1970s

Unsold seats for Friday afternoon Boston Symphony concerts

from Larry Murray, in a blog comment:

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 Fridays 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 even 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.

Decline in the number of people taking piano lessons

from S Phillips, in a blog comment:

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.

Early 1980s

Beginning of the orchestra crisis

blog comment from Tom Wolf (of WolfBrown, a leading arts consulting firm; Tom has been working as a consultant to orchestras and to the League of American Orchestras for many years, and did seminal work on orchestra financing)

Our company (then called Wolf Organization) did a study for the American Symphony Orchestra League [now the League of American Orchestras] in 1991 looking at 25 years of audience and financial trends. Our report was called “The Financial Condition of Symphony Orchestras” (nicknamed 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.

Late 1980s

Time pop reviews outnumber classical reviews. (I counted these reviews, looking at every issue of Time from 1980 to 1990. In 1980, there were about two classical reviews for every pop review. By 1990, the proportions had reversed.)

blog comment from Nancy Barry (she’s a veteran artist manager)

I think [the crisis] began in the late 80s or early 90’s. All I know is that it was not nearly as difficult to present and promote classical music then as it is now. One of my colleagues from that period it called it the high point of her experience.


last Time magazine classical music cover (Vladimir Horowitz)

Early 1990s

Time no longer has an active classical music critic. (I’m not sure of the exact date. Newsweek, too, stopped having a classical music critic, though I’m not sure of the exact date.)

blog comment from David Snead (Vice President, Marketing and Communications at the New York Philharmonic):

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.

Orchestras give more concerts, but start seeing a notable decline in the average number of people attending each one.

Classical record labels worry about selling records. Many attempts to repackage old recordings in ways that will appeal to people who don’t normally buy classical records. A marketing executive at one of the big classical labels tells me that — in his belief — it’s crucial never to mention the word “art.”


Ticket sales to big orchestras’ core subscription concerts start to drop. (I’ve seen private figures showing this. It’s possible, though, that the decline began earlier, because the numbers I saw didn’t go back further than 1990.)

Wolf Report reveals financial problems of orchestras (see Tom Wolf’s blog comment, above, under “Early 1980s”)


The New York Times reports that presenting organizations are booking fewer classical performances.


American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) releases a report called Americanizing the American Orchestra. It calls for changes that seemed radical then, but are commonplace now: orchestras should become more accessible, should relate more closely to their communities.

An NPR study shows that NPR’s core audience doesn’t like to listen to shows featuring classical music and opera. (Also jazz.)


Orchestra attendance (not just to core subscription concerts, but to all orchestra events) starts to decline, according to figures released to me by Julia Kirkhhausen, former VP for Communications at the League


The National Endowment for the Arts publishes a report that documents the aging of the classical music audience from 1982 to 1997. The report shows a dramatic drop during those years in the number of people under 30 in our audience, and a sharp rise in those over 60. The report also notes that the classical music audience is aging faster than the general population.


An NPR study shows that NPR’s music listeners give less money, on the average, than people who listen to news and talk programs. News and talk programs generate far more money per broadcast hour than music programs do. The study also showed that listeners to NPR’s classical music and opera programs were a full generation older than public radio’s core audience.


Attendance at big US opera companies starts to decline. (Many thanks for this information to Kate Place, research manager at Opera America, and to my assistant, Caroline Firman, who worked with Kate to get it. Kate reports that Opera America’s surveys of attendance at smaller companies’ performances aren’t reliable enough to quote, because not enough companies respond.)


WNYC — New York’s public radio station — drastically cuts its classical music programming.

NEA data continues to show that the classical music audience is aging. In 1992, the largest age group in the classical audience was people 35 to 44. Now it’s people 45 to 54.


Opera News magazine reports what it calls a “blackout” of opera on public TV. There’s far less of it than there used to be. In the article is a memorable quote from John Goberman, executive producer of Live from Lincoln Center, who says that some opera telecasts had a dramatically small audience:

There have been some broadcasts over the years where we’d have been better served to have made videocassettes and just sent them to the people who actually wound up watching.


HMV records closes its stores in New York. Some had large classical music departments.

Mid 2000s

I don’t remember the exact year, but I was asked by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters to facilitate a full-day discussion involving more than a dozen chamber music presenters in New England. All but one of them said they were having trouble selling tickets.


Tower Records goes out of business. Its stores in New York had large classical music departments. The Tower store near Lincoln Center was almost a classical music landmark.


The National Endowment publishes a report showing that the percentage of American adults who go to classical music performances has dropped 29% since 1982.


The Virgin Megastore in New York closes. It was the last major record chain in New York with a large classical music department. The remaining classical record stores in New York are those at Juilliard and the Met Opera, which of course are small. And also J&R Music World, a large independent store, which shrunk its classical music department early in this decade, expanded it in 2007 in an attempt to pick up some of Tower’s business, but since has shrunk it again.

Patelson’s closes. It was a classical music legend — the main place where classical musicians in New York went to buy printed classical music. I myself must have spent thousands of dollars there over many decades.


The New York Times reports that freelance work for classical musicians in NY is drying up.


Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, gives a dramatic speech at the League’s annual conference, outlining a crisis for orchestras in very plain language. He cites the 2008 NEA report, and also says:

    • Orchestras report decreasing income and rising costs.
    • In 2008 50% of orchestras had deficits, and in 2009 70% did.
    • The average size of orchestra deficits more than tripled between 2005 and 2009.
    • Corporate giving to orchestras has declined by 50%.
    • Local and national donors are doubtful about continued donations to orchestras.
    • Many foundations have stopped funding orchestras, and many others express serious doubt.


Serious orchestra crisis. Financial problems lead to labor disputes. Several orchestras, including big ones, delay starting their seasons. The crisis continues in 2013. 

The crisis series so far:


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  1. says

    I am a journeyman jazz musician who’s made his living playing music all his life, from the concert hall to the sleaziest bar. The timeline of the downward spiral you describe in regards to classical music mirrors exactly that of of my professional career. If I was 27 instead of 67 I’d be looking for a day job!
    So I think it has to do with the general decline in musical appreciation. The young have cloth ears! They never hear ‘real’ music in their early childhood and they certainly never have sung it! How can we expect a person to love melody when they’ve never experienced it.

    Mike Greensill

    • says

      I think the big difference/disconnect is that jazz and classical are mainly instrumental forms and the audience is discouraged from trying to sing along. Our society is dominated by song forms or music with words which set a context in real-time. That’s the center of gravity. When kids want to derive meaning from music, they don’t know how to apply imagination to instrumental. For us it’s like floating away from that center of gravity. We sing (and dance) through our instruments.

    • Dave Meckler says

      I generally agree but would use different terminology. Kids These Days have a different set of music listening skills. An example of a skill that I, at 53, lack: I lead a songwriting workshop at a community college and I am amazed at how well the participants hear rap. Someone will demonstrate a new piece and after only one hearing, the group is discussing meanings and highlighting clever rhymes and rhythmic details, a lot of which escapes me. Even students who are not pursuing rap can freestyle. So some music skills are being learned – just not ones that relate to melody.

      Leaving the songwriting workshop and drawing anecdotes from my general student population, I find that students are better than they used to be at clapping out rhythms (for example in my world music class) but get them to sing? Forget it! Watch Sesame Street – there is a lot more rap than melodic singing. Rap music is real music, but music with way different priorities, and those priorities are the ones children are learning.

      Another listening skill encouraged by popular music today is attention to timbre. Daniel Levitan mentions research that shows that listeners can identify their favorite bands from one-second samples. One second! Not enough time for melody or harmony or groove to develop, but enough time for a timbral fingerprint to form. While we all know the spectralist truth that harmony is timbre and timbre harmony, on a less exalted plane I think timbre competes with harmony for mindshare. Debussy does marvelous things with orchestration, but most of those instruments he uses evolved to give a clear central pitch. Electric guitar today? Not so much pitch, thus power “chords” of open fifths – a lot less pitch information than a lovely jazz chord, but lots of timbral complexity. I was listening yesterday to a marvelously produced snare drum hit in a recording by The Pretenders. Mysteries of microphone placement, microphone type, mixture of dry and processed signal – it’s beyond me to specify what creates that sound, but I recognize its sophistication. What classical composer comes close to that timbral specificity? We can at least argue that popular music today is as sophisticated as classical music in terms of timbre.

      With timbre and rhythm prioritized over mere pitch information like melody and harmony, today’s young listener comes to classical music with the wrong set of skills, and so is not as adept at finding meanings this language of tones. I don’t this will be solved by multi-media shows and even more gel in the spiky haircuts of pianists.

  2. Dr. Ken Hoppmann says

    Greg–I appreciate your writing, and often include it in courses I teach. Thank you so much for presenting this history. It’s so informative, but depressing, as well. I’m curious if you have any comparison numbers for admissions to and graduations from conservatories during the same years. Have music schools felt the same declines as professional music organizations? Do they tend to follow roughly the same trends?

  3. Steflo says

    Every year, I turn out 10 to 20 High School graduates that have moved from “what’s that stuff?!” to “I love Debussy/Schostakovich/Bach/Puccini (fill in others…)!” The turn-around takes me about two years of diligent aural musicianship education and passionate “selling” of the power of classical music. It is my aim to have my class understand that Art affects how people feel, which affects how they act, which affects how they treat each other and the world, which can change the world….and further, that commercial ‘Art’ is very often NOT designed to produce this challenge but simply to make money. Teens HATE commercialism but get excited by the possibilities of affecting the world for the better using their art (performance and composition) to make people think, feel, and act. They learn how to do this by understanding how the great composers wrote revolutionary music. Come on fellow musicians, let’s teach with passion and excellence! My graduates are a drop in the ocean, but many droplets can make a flowing river!

  4. richard says

    I have a foot in both the jazz and classical worlds and I’ve been saying this forever! Though Greg doesn’t seem to “get it”. When I was a kid it was bands rather than individuals that were more popular in the pop/rock field. Groups like Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Tower of Power etc., always had a strong instrumental component, and even star driven music (James Brown) had backing players who were monsters. What we have now are pretty celebrities who make sound with their vocal chord. Players are relegated to being anonymous servants.

  5. Jeanette O'Connor says

    Please do not overlook “The quiet crisis in the arts” by Nello McDaniel and George Thorn, published 1991 by FEDAPT in New York. The Arts & Business Council of New York organized a special meeting in NYC shortly after publication in an effort to address issues contained in this special report.

    Another major shift occurred earlier in the mid-1980s (I believe), when the Federal government began chopping away significantly at the NEA budget. Over time, NEA programs changed focus, and this in some respects encouraged foundations to begin cultural engineering, whereby rather than providing general, building or endowment support, organizations were heavily incented to go off mission and create new programs: education (to backfill for the reduction in school music programs), community outreach, ethnic diversity programs, and so forth. All well meaning, but which took a toll on many smaller organizations by taking support away from primary programs and forcing organizations (if they wanted any support at all) to expand staffing and support functions to create new activities that oftentimes proved unsustainable — a double financial whammy, usually undertaken by overly optimist boards without benefit of proper managerial planning, in many instances.

  6. says

    Thanks for sharing this timeline. Let’s add another factoid into the timeline, at the beginning: Governmental subsidy of ‘fine art’ kicked in in earnest during the Great Society years of the 1960’s, and I fear a quiet assumption of taxpayer support may have created complacency about audience development, and also inadvertently spawned a lot of programming that no one outside the academic elites could muster any interest in. Thus the disconnect between artist and audience was accelerated.

    Obviously this is not the only cause, but may have contributed to the downward spiral. A government now $17 trillion in debt, overseeing an economy that still struggles to create true long-term wealth, will not be on hand to infuse cash into orchestra sum operas, and chamber music series.

  7. ariel says

    Mr. Sandow has done yoemans work in his “timeline ” research and to add more would be to gild the lily. It is the word “crisis ” that lessons its authority. Crisis implies a sudden crucial point of
    change either way , but Mr. Sandow has shown in his research this to be on going for at least
    30 years if not more which puts the present state of affairs more as a process of “evolution ”
    Monteverdi , baroque , high baroque , classical , romantic periods have come and gone
    all having”morphed ” into each other and I am positive not without cries of “crisis ” and worse.
    Each spoke to their own time and pushed their own music while we of the 21st . century
    worship music of the past (something unthinkable to the composers of those times ,yes they quoted and admired some of their predecessors but they were still of their time when writing ).
    The present state of affairs shows the so called classic music body on life support systems .
    The state of events become more public because it has now made inroads to the “major ” music establishments ,Boston , New york Minnesota , name a city and you have a sad story .Over the years when a small towns lost their symphony who cared- the big cities were going
    fairly well – but now its not so – and becomes a” crisis ” because of the stature of the organizations – this evolution has been going on more than Mr. Sandows’ 30 years crisis.
    The classical musical body is on life support – but to avoid truths the body is rouged, dressed up,or dressed down , depending on the entrepreneur
    paraded around and diagnosed as needing a” new way to present it “not realizing that
    when it is off life support no matter how presented it .
    is not the same old once healthy body . The “crisis ” exists only for people who live in the
    past .

  8. Emery Rudolph says

    As a musician and huge fan of classical music in my youth, I can attest to the timeline as I have personally gone through it with my own habits. In my youth I loved listening to classical music.I simply could not get enough and I cut school a few times to sneak in to see the Phila orchestra practice. Over time, as computers arrived, extended television programming, 24-hour sports, children and other distractions came into my life, I found myself rarely listening to classical.

    My interest in rock swelled, leaving all other genre of music on the sidelines. Today I found this article after arriving at work and looking for some music to listen to that would still allow me to focus on my work. I first tried rock music, but I cannot concentrate with those words, so I found my recording of Tchaikovskys 4th symphony. This was the first symphonic work I fell in love with so many years ago when I learned to play the flute.

    As I thought about the fact that I have not listened to or attended a classical concert in a couple of years, I wondered how pervasive this feeling was (while internally knowing the answer), which led me to this article.

    I am very happy that we have a well recorded history of all classical works, but I also understand that there is a natural progression that occurs in society where each generation develops a love for the things that are unique to their time. Classical will always be important to select groups in societies throughout the world, but the interest in it is going to change over time, just as it does with everything. Many of the things that were fond to my parents generation are not to mine and this pattern will continue throughout time. Our job is to at least try to introduce our children, family and friends to those things we found valuable and instill in them a sense of importance and priority of what things are variable and what must be preserved.

    Take your children to classical concerts and expose them to the sensuality, raw beauty, clarity, sharpness, power and elegance and let that juxtapose against the music they are used to listening to. Hopefully that will stick with them to the point where they seek out opportunities to attend concerts.

    Emery Rudolph