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Love the One You’re With, A Reflection

Colin Holter posed a question in his post this morning on NewMusicBox that I’d like to consider here as well:

We can agree that it is thought that the patrons of classical music in the United States are old and getting older. That’s the conventional wisdom. So let me ask you this: Have you ever read a piece of serious writing on the attitudes of the elderly toward classical music? If, as is often assumed, the over-70 crowd exerts a powerful influence over the institutions that deliver classical music to us, shouldn’t a concerned musicologist work some tightly focused ethnography on them?

Considering all the marketing hours and conference panels that performing arts organizations seem to devote to stalking the younger non/rare/sometimes-attender, the lack of any session or article or study in my memory focused on this exact topic left my mouth hanging open. Has anyone actually investigated this or looked into how to attract more people in the 65+ demographic? We know they’re out there and living longer lives. What do they value about the experience and what would encourage more of them to participate in it?

These are not perfect questions, I realize, but the fact that no one seems to be asking them much at all makes me curious. In what other market would we try and sell an experience to a rarely interested buyer while simultaneously overlooking those demographics that have demonstrated a high affinity for it? Good lord, if the concert halls became known as the hot spot in town for the in-bed-by-ten set, we probably couldn’t keep the ironically attending youngsters out of the lobby anyway. Two birds!

When I brought this up to my friend and colleague Jim Holt, he pointed me towards this video and suggested (using his best David Letterman impression) that “a version of that video, but with 80+ year olds, would be like a license to print money.”

I think he just might be on to something there.


  1. RE: Clark Retirement Community LipDub



  2. The National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts provides some concrete numbers for audience demographics that might be a good starting point.

    The median age of classical music attendees rose from age 40 to 49 between 1982 and 2008. And yet the percentage of adults aged 45 to 54 attending classical concerts dropped 33 percent.

    During that same period, the percentage of adults ages 18 to 24 attending classical music concerts dropped 37 percent.

    The study found that arts participation increase with education level, but that overall less Americans are participating in the arts. From 1982 to 2008 the ratio of college educated people attending classical concerts dropped from 33% to 20%.

    Audiences are declining and their age rising.


    As usual, people will trouble themselves with questions like age demographics and ignore that ticket prices for classical music concerts in the USA are 4-5 times higher than in Europe. And they will ignore that we have relatively few cultural offerings.

    We only have, for example, a handful of real opera houses, and they have only partial seasons. In terms of opera performances per year Chicago is in only the 66th position, San Francisco 96th, Houston 109th, Washington 128th, and Santa Fe 163rd. Los Angeles has the third large Municipal Gross Product in the world (behind only Tokyo and NYC) but is in the 158th position. The few other companies that exist in America have even shorter seasons. They usually do not have houses and perform in poorly-suited rental facilities with pickup orchestras and singers. This applies even to cities with metropolitan populations in the millions like Atlanta in the 272nd position, Kansas City at 275th, Baltimore at 322nd, and Phoenix at 338th. They are far outranked by even cities like Pforzheim, Germany which only has 119,000 citizens but occupies the 68th position and thus outranks even our nation’s capital, Washington D.C, by 60 positions. We only have two houses even in the top 100. (These and many more valuable statistics are available at Operabase.)

    Our low numbers exist because we are the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding. Maybe you should be asking yourself why there is so much silence about THAT topic on NewMusicBox and elsewhere. It says a lot about who we are and who’s pulling the strings.

  3. I’m an American living in istanbul, Turkey, where I’m a music journalist. I have observed over four and a half years of living here that Istanbul’s classical music scene more resembles Europe, in terms of ensembles (three full-time symphony orchestras) one opera company (the Istanbul State Opera) although there’s a State Opera in every major city, numerous chamber music series, and performance venues of all sizes. During the summer, there is a multiplicity of music festivals all over the country which are attended by larger numbers of tourists every year.

    This year marks the second Istanbul International Opera Festival. Last night, July 13, the mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca performed with orchestra as the centerpiece event of the 3-week Festival. It was a sold-out affair, and the audience screamed for more as if she were a rock star. I thought, looking around at the adoring audience, this is the way it should be.

    The audience makeup for the thousands of concerts presented all year round is all ages, across the board, from children to retirees. And concerts, operas, recitals by local artists and touring artists all enjoy full houses. Why and how is it a more successful formula here, than in America?

    Firstly,Turkey wants to be Western. This country, 60% of whose population is under the age of 35, is looking to the West through the internet, television, and films. Whatever the West produces sells well here. Through this communication system of quick learning who’s who and who does it best, discernment is merely an overnight learning curve.

    Secondly, a major factor in making things work here is the nature of sponsorship. Most cultural organizations are funded by banks or large holding companies. These mega corporations want the publicity and the prestige that goes with it. For a country whose past still has long tentacles into the Ottoman Empire, it’s a mark of social responsibility and class distinction to become a cultural sponsor.

    Maybe the U.S. should sweet-talk banks into getting out of their cushy Wall Street confines and start racking up a lot more non-profit points by funding orchestras and opera productions.

  4. Thank you Alexandra. That is one of the most interesting posts I’ve read in ages. It is telling that even Turkey has a comprehensive public funding system that allows for state operas in every major city, while the USA cannot manage something like that. We might note that when corporations in Turkey fund the arts, it is exactly because state funding has already created a permanent, well-funded cultural infrastructure to which business people can add their donations. I will definitely be following your blog. Thanks again.

    P.S. I remember well your Ave Maria in “Prizzi’s Honor.” Beautiful, and wonderfully contextualized in the film.

  5. Worked at a mid-sized orchestra in Marketing (now at a mid-sized theater in Communications). Always got asked for senior discounts at the orchestra. Was never allowed to give them because 60+ made up the super majority of the audience (esp. those with primo expensive seats and long donation histories who were necessary to pump for as much cash as possible to keep the group bouyed as close to the surface as possible). The general thought at the orchestra where I worked was that discounted tickets hurt the bottom line and devalue the tickets, but we also had plenty of inventory to sell (or even give away). ALWAYS. So we had patrons (of the same age demographic) saying, I’ll pay out the ear for this experience and others saying this is just too much. An age demographic that made up the super majority of our audience and we really could have used more of.

    It also seems universally agreed upon that the main barrier to U-30 (or even U-40) attendance to the arts is ticket price as it is for many seniors.

    So here’s the conundrum: What is the value of a classical music (dance, theater, etc.) ticket when we have a large percentage of available inventory and a price that some number of patrons seem to believe is too high (how the question is often framed)? What is the value of that ticket when seats are selling out and patrons will pay any price to get one (if only, we dream)? And what is the value of the ticket when the audience is dramatically split between those who have more and can pay (and will pay) and those who have less and are not sure they want to pay (and often won’t pay unless ticket price is discounted) (the reality)?

    Could we learn from other entertainment pricing? Like sporting events, which has wide income diversity… and ticket pricing diversity?

  6. In Turkey, there’s only regular admission (priced by location in the house) and student admission (which is often dramatically lower, and the seats are in the back). This way no one complains about the age issue and students have fun filling up the back rows with each other.

    William Osborne, warm thanks for your remembrance! In my next review, I have quoted you, from your post here. Best wishes, Alexandra

  7. Too Dumb for Stoppard says

    “In what other market would we try and sell an experience to a rarely interested buyer while simultaneously overlooking those demographics that have demonstrated a high affinity for it? ANSWER: Television. Marketers are constantly chasing the elusive younger demographic that doesn’t watch TV while ignoring the older (and wealthier) folks who do.

  8. First off – Both videos are hysterical but for different reasons. Secondly, it’s an interesting spot for classical music organizations. I suppose the pops orchestra is supposed to be that bridge between the younger and older generations. For the organizations I’ve been a part of (military bands), we have different ensembles that cover different genres and (if we’re doing things right) different demographics. Depending on which group is performing and where, we’ll market it in different ways…but there’s no doubt that (like everyone else) our audiences are generally 50 and older.

    Although we definitely try to expand our audience into the younger age brackets, I would say that, at least at the places I’ve been, we try and maximize our main audience (50+) while focusing on families in the hope that, in the long run, the younger family members will continue to come as they grow older.

  9. You asked a critical question: “In what other market would we try and sell an experience to a rarely interested buyer while simultaneously overlooking those demographics that have demonstrated a high affinity for it?”

    A similar question can be posed about music education – it’s a profession that continually begs for its very existence in schools because “it’s important for kids to have music” and then completely abandons any efforts to reach or market to the demographic that can actually afford to participate and benefit from its services! (HS grads and beyond). IT’S CONFOUNDING!

    Music and all of its factions (publishing, performing, teaching, etc.) has got to be one of the most disorganized disciplines in history.

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