ArtsJournal blogger Greg Sandow has been writing a very important series of posts on the future of classical music. Three have appeared so far. (They are here, here, and here.) He’s been taking a hard look at demographic trends and attendance numbers for major classical-music institutions in the U.S., and has arrived at the following conclusions:
– “The classical music audience is now, on the average, more than 50 years old. There’s a common belief that it’s always been this old, but I’ve uncovered data that shows this isn’t true….If the audience has been getting older for 50 years, then clearly younger people aren’t coming into it.”
– “A trend that’s been established for that long has to reflect some kind of deep-rooted cultural change–and the change it represents, I’d guess, is that our culture, over a long span of time, has lost interest in classical music.”
– “In the 1960s, the biggest orchestras were selling all their tickets. Now they’re suffering from a long-term decline in ticket sales. On top of that, classical music is far less central in our society than it was in the ’60s, which makes it harder to attract both audience and funding.”
– “This makes me think that the era of classical music is going to end. Not this year, not next year, maybe not in 10 years (though surely by then we’ll see decisive signs of where we’re going). But sometime reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over….organized classical concerts, as we know them now, won’t be very numerous, or at least won’t be as numerous as they are now. Though they may well be replaced by other kinds of concerts–more informal, or also offering other kinds of music–in which classical music might be played. To be as precise as I can, I might say that the apparatus of classical music, as we know it now, will very likely fade away.”
I agree. In fact, I’ve been saying much the same thing for a very long time now, and I’ve also been thinking about what the post-classical era might look like. In “Life Without Records,” a 2002 essay on the collapse of the classical recording industry reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader, I speculated about the likely effects of the end of the international “superstar system” that was made possible by recording:
What would classical music look like without superstars? A possible answer can be found by looking at classical ballet. Few ballet companies tour regularly, and some of the most important, like New York City Ballet, are rarely seen outside their home towns; videocassettes are a notoriously inadequate substitute for live performances, and thus sell poorly. For these reasons, the major media devote little space to ballet, meaning that there are never more than one or two international superstars at any given moment. Most balletgoers spend the bulk of their time attending performances by the resident companies of the cities in which they live, and the dances, not the dancers, are the draw. (It is The Nutcracker that fills seats, not the Sugar Plum Fairy.)
In the United States, regional opera works in much the same way. Only a half-dozen major American companies can afford to import superstars; everyone else hires solid second-tier singers with little or no name recognition, often using local artists to fill out their casts. Audiences are attracted not by the stars, but by the show–that is, by dramatically compelling productions of musically interesting operas. If the larger culture of classical music were to be reorganized along similar lines, then concert presenters, instead of presenting a small roster of international celebrity virtuosos, might be forced to engage a wider range of lower-priced soloists, possibly including local artists and ensembles with a carefully cultivated base of loyal fans. Similarly, regional symphony orchestras would have to adopt more imaginative programming strategies in order to attract listeners who now buy tickets mainly to hear superstar soloists play popular concertos in person. It is possible, too, that with the breakup of the single worldwide market created by the superstar system, we might see a similar disintegration of the blandly eclectic “international” style of performance that came to dominate classical music in the Seventies. Performers who play for the moment, rather than for the microphones of an international record company primarily interested in its bottom line, are less likely to play it safe–and more likely to play interesting music.
In the midst of these seemingly endless uncertainties, one aspect of life without records is not only possible but probable: henceforth, nobody in his right mind will look to classical music as a means of making very large sums of money. Of all the ways in which the invention of the phonograph changed the culture of classical music, perhaps the most fateful was that it turned a local craft into an international trade, thereby attracting the attention of entrepreneurs who were more interested in money than art. Needless to say, there can be no art without money, but the recording industry, by creating a mass market for music, sucked unprecedentedly large amounts of money into the classical-music culture, thereby insidiously and inexorably altering its artistic priorities….
But enough about me. Go read Greg’s posts, and start following his blog. Nobody is writing more intelligently–or convincingly–about the grim prospects facing classical musicians and classical-music institutions in the coming century.