Red herring

I blogged a month ago about an outburst of crisis denial — two highly emotional attacks on the idea that classical music faces a serious crisis. I commented only on the emotion, thinking that later I might rebut the arguments.

But I lost interest in that. Seems like a distraction from what I think ought to be our main job, which is finding ways out of the crisis, a collaborative job that’s spontaneously being taken up by people all over the western world. (Maybe Asia, too, though I know less about that.)  As someone who runs an iconic classical music organization in the US said to me recently, “There’s no need to discuss the problems anymore. We all know what they are.” 

So if the crisis deniers don’t know, maybe that’s just their affair. As time goes on, I might sometimes reply to a point or two, but I’d rather do more constructive work. The people actively running and changing classical music have pretty much settled the debate. 

But there’s one trope in crisis denial that I think is worth looking at in detail:

And that’s the idea that there’s always been talk of a classical music crisis. Which supposedly means that talk of it now is just more of the same. And can be discounted with an amused smile, since despite constant crisis talk — going on for centuries, some people say — classical music survived.

Here’s one much-cited example: A list of crisis-talk examples, drawn up by Andy Doe, and published in Will Robin’s New Yorker blog post about how there isn’t any crisis. The first example comes from 1324, when (or so we’re asked to believe) classical music was threatened by popular music. And why? Because a pope denounced music that “rocks to and fro.”

But of course nothing like our concepts of classical and popular music existed back then, not even remotely. So what we have here is a misuse of history, a linkage — or an alleged one — across many centuries that blows right away when you look at it.  As it turns out, this pope (strong language apart) was only stating a preference for simpler church music, as opposed to a more complex kind, one with what he thought were too-strong secular overtones.

So this isn’t classical vs. popular music. It’s one kind of church music versus another, or in other words a dispute within the classical music tradition. And it’s an aesthetic dispute, not at all related to the survival of music of any kind, no matter how labeled. 

More powerful proof

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The simplest, most basic reason why we can’t say there’s always been talk of a classical music crisis is that there hasn’t been any such talk. I’ve been active in this field since the 1960s, when I was a fulltime voice student. In the ’70s I was a fulltime composition student, then a fulltime freelance composer and conductor, and then a fulltime member of the music staff of the New York State Council on the Arts. 

In the ’80s I became a music critic, served on funding  panels (including some for the National Endowment for the Arts), spoke often in public, often on panels with other people. And in other ways moved widely through the classical music field.

And at no time during all of this did I hear any talk of classical music being threatened by anything. You’d think — to cite just one stretch of my professional life — that during my three years at the New York State Council on the Arts, from 1976 to 1979, when I conferred daily with colleagues in the office, traveled around the state to meet with orchestras, opera companies and other classical music organizations, and took part in monthly meetings of the Council’s music panel, made up of leading classical music people — you’d think that sometime, in all of that, if there was constant talk of a crisis, I would have heard some of it. And done some of the talking myself.

But no. Not a word. The subject never came up. At one point I organized a quite a large conference of New York State opera companies, and nobody — not during the preparation, not during the conference — said even a word about problems facing classical music. Instead, the mood was celebratory, because new opera companies kept springing up. This was when regional opera started grow, not just in New York, but all over the US.

In the ’80s, when I was a critic, there began to be talk of classical music being in a rut, of it losing its energy, and losing touch both with current culture and with its own past. I was active in that. Here’s something I wrote at the time. But this wasn’t a widespread discussion inside the field. Those most active in it involved were musicologists who were creating what came to be called “the new musicology,” in which the kind of cultural theory used elsewhere in the humanities began to be used with music. (Susan McClary might be the most famous of them.)

So you didn’t find, back then, CEOs of orchestras pondering these things, as they ponder the crisis today. And, most important, neither I nor the new musicologists had any idea that classical music — however much stuck in a rut — was threatened. We hadn’t heard about falling ticket sales, financial crises, or the aging audience. For all we knew, classical music could spin in its rut forever, which (come to think of it) might be one reason why I made my critiques so insistent. 

As you’ll see from the timeline of the crisis I put in a blog post, it wasn’t till the 1990s that talk about threats to classical music — and the need for classical music to change — began to be talked about. With, for example, a New York Times report about presenting organizations offering fewer classical concerts, because they couldn’t sell tickets. Or a major consultant publishing a report on long-term trouble for orchestras. Or the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) publishing a report saying orchestras needed to get more in touch with America.

It was in that decade, too, that I began hearing from people at classical record labels about their problems selling classical records. And how, according to the head of marketing at one of these companies, it was best never to talk about classical music as art, because that might scare people away.

That’s how the crisis, as we now know it, began to take public shape.

Or just look at history

You can also go back and read classical music criticism from past eras. Read a selection of Virgil Thomson’s reviews, written in New York during the 1940s and ’50s. Or read through George Bernard Shaw’s weekly columns, written in the 1890s, in which he reviewed classical concerts and discussed big issues in the field. Neither Thomson nor Shaw talks about any crisis facing classical music, anything threatening its health or survival.

Or you can read Philip Hart’s Orpheus in the New World, a history of American orchestras published in 1973, and find not a word of ongoing crisis talk. Yes, there was an orchestra crisis when the book was published, a financial meltdown due to overexpansion late in the ’60s. But this was a crisis very different from what we’re seeing today.

First, it was just an orchestra crisis, not a crisis for classical music generally. Nobody talked about an aging audience, or of opera or chamber music being in danger.

And the only trouble that orchestras had back then was finance. Their concert halls were full. I’ve read the two reports that the big orchestras commissioned at the time from McKinsey, the big consulting firm. One of them shows the big orchestras selling 100% of their tickets.

So there was no danger, as people then saw it, of classical music losing popularity. The only trouble, once more, was finance. And the deficits, as the consultants discussed them, weren’t even structural, as they’re said to be today, at least in the US. (See, for instance, Robert Flanagan’s book, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras. Or, if you can, talk privately with people in high-ranking US orchestra jobs.)

A structural deficit is a pattern of spending more money than you take in, going on for decades. The 1960s crisis, lasting into the ’70s, only hit in the ’60s. When the big US orchestras expanded to 52-week seasons, and found that the increased income from giving more concerts didn’t come close to paying the increased costs. That was a one-time problem, solved by evolving the kind of year-round fundraising, conducted by in-house professionals, that we take for granted now, but which had never existed before.

You can also read histories of individual orchestras: Howard Shanet’s Philharmonic (about the New York Phil), Herbert Kupferberg’s Those Fabulous PhiladelphiansDon Rosenberg’s book about the Cleveland Orchestra. and others, and find no mention of any ongoing talk about any crisis affecting those orchestras, let alone all of classical music.

Or, to look at past centuries, read composers’ biographies. You might think, for instance, that if there’s always been talk of threats to classical music, some of it would surface in books about Verdi, who made his living in the highly commercial business of Italian opera. If there’d been constant talk of that business declining, Verdi would surely have been concerned, since a crisis in opera would have meant that he couldn’t make a living. But in books about him you won’t find any reference to anything like that. 

red herring blogSo it simply isn’t true that classical music has always been in crisis, or that people have always been saying it is. So to assert those things is, I’m afraid, a classic red herring, defined in Wikipedia as “something that misleads or distracts from the relevant or important issue.” Something which “could be inadvertently used during argumentation as a result of poor logic.” Or, in this case, a very poor knowledge of history. 

I’ll have to go on with this, and look at the errors of logic and history that underly those claims of constant crisis talk. And then at specific examples that people offer, which — like the story of the 1324 pope — are taken way out of context.

For instance: a  worry that opera wouldn’t survive, reported in 1930 by the New York Times. That, as it turns out, was about something very specific, whether new operas of any worth were still being composed. Which has nothing to do with any talk of an opera crisis today. Today’s talk is all about audience, ticket sales, financing. And audience and ticket sales — as the then-head of the Met Opera, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, made a point of saying, in the midst of the 1930s discussion — were healthy back then. As for finance, he’d actually made a profit during the 1920s. 

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  1. James Nightingale says

    Hi John, Thanks for another great post. The discussion that Andy Doe’s diagram came out of was aimed at the trope of ‘new music being bad and unpopular’, which had reared its ugly head in the form of ‘serialist composers have killed classical music’ which was one part of Mark Vanhoenacker’s Slate article and a couple of other posts around that time. ‘Blaming the music’ always comes down to an aesthetic argument underlined by personal taste and has no place in a discussion about organisational sustainability, viability of artistic careers, and visibility of the art form in the media. These topics are cannot be placed in a silo along with classical music, they are faced by all arts organisations, artistic personnel and art forms. This is why many posts in your blog are about or written by musicians with diverse and multi-disciplinary influences upon their work, and why your blog is so important to many people. Personally I think that the perspective of a crisis can be unhelpful. There are undoubtedly lots of people still interested in classical music and there are clearly many structural problems faced by organisations and musicians in this field. Sharing arguments and strategies for getting the music out there and tackling the real problems faced is so important. Thank you for continuing with your blog and letting us all know about the many musicians who share a passion for composed music.

  2. says

    Excellent article, one I will need to read again. I’m curious to get your opinion: do you feel that the supposed threat to classical music comes not from orchestras and opera companies closing or a general downturn there, but the shift of interest in the past 50 (100?) years toward more “contemporary” music (Jazz in the early 20th century, on to rock and roll, etc.)? If it’s not moribund, is classical music at least stagnant?

  3. says

    As you probably know, you are being conservative in your estimate when you say orchestras sold 100% of their tickets. When I grew up in Chicago in late 70s to 80s, the CSO and Chicago Lyric routinely reported higher numbers than that. CSO posted numbers like 107% and I seem to recall a Lyric report that they had sold 113% one year! This was because every ticket was sold out via subscription, and then tickets were donated as turnbacks for additional sales. You either subscribed, got a ticket through a corporate connection, or waited three hours to try your luck in a turnback line, or you didn’t get in. Those institutions seemed invulnerable. Lyric even kicked out Pavarotti for cancelling too much.

  4. Ariel says

    Mr. Sandow it seems is forever a prisoner
    to the word “crisis ” . How much more he would accomplish if he but viewed the
    current state of affairs in a different context .

  5. says

    Greg, your old article, at least the beginning where you deconstruct the ritual of the concert hall, reminded me of “Musicking” (1998). The book by Small opened my mind when I read it. I guess many of these ideas were already being discussed in the eighties.

    • says

      Are you thinking of Small’s chapter about classical concert halls? Brilliant. i’ve assigned it sometimes in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. Don’t know if I’d read it when I wrote that old piece, but if I made you think of Small, I’m very flattered. A seminal thinker, who still isn’t appreciated enough.