Maybe we need to do “classical music” differently?

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I’m concerned. 

This world of popular “classical music” performance is dying.

Despite the awesomeness of performance, of MSUIC, that I wrote about last week — I don’t think it matters how many scholarships we give to kids to hear the symphony play, or how many piano performance students graduate from the local liberal arts college, the market for classical music performances is aging.

I’d say ⅔ or more of the audience at my chorale’s performance last Friday were grey-headed retirees. Sure, they brought some grandchildren with them. Some middle-aged business owners showed up to enjoy the fruits of their sponsorship or watch their spouses sing or play.

But I’ve learned something about marketing (in the general sense) in the past couple years, and if classical music walked up and asked to be one of my clients, I’d whistle low under my breath.

I think the classical music “scene” — the civic chorale or orchestra along with its revenue model based on individual and corporate sponsors and government money — is evaporating.

Does it matter that the market for classical music is greying?

One could argue that this situation is not as bad as it looks. In fact, perhaps the audience demographic on Friday was exactly what we should expect: as people get older, they recognize the value of the cultural arts and buy in, usually through attendance at theater and concerts, and perhaps patronage or sponsorships. Maybe so. Maybe classical music is now primarily the music of old people.

But the world has changed. Music is so much more accessible now. If someone is lucky enough to get music education in school (all but destroyed by the testing culture now), he or she might crave the raw experience of seeing “masterworks” played before a live studio audience instead of satisfying that urge via the sterile perfection of a CD recording or high-fidelity .mp3.


But I’m afraid that classical music as an industry is in trouble.

What’s wrong with the current model?

Where do we start? With the greying audience? or financial challenges of supporting an expensive performance culture (where all 50-100 orchestra members plus the conductor plus the soloists are getting paid for every performance)? and how that drives up the price of tickets so that a classical music performance costs more than live theater? and how that keeps working class people out of concert halls?

And I’m not the only one to notice. Just this past weekend, the New York Times ran a piece on the challenges facing the New York Philharmonic, including renovations to their building and shrinking capital resources, shifts in audience preferences and habits, and the pressure of a digital music industry.

As it grapples with its transformation, the Philharmonic is facing many of the same financial stresses and changing audience behavior that have challenged other American performing arts organizations — from the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, to the Metropolitan Opera, which is cutting costs after running a $22 million deficit last year. The Philharmonic has had deficits every year for more than a decade; its shortfall dropped to $2.1 million last year from $6.1 million the year before partly because it spent more of its endowment. And, like other institutions, it must learn to adapt as younger generations shun the multiconcert subscriptions that were long the bedrock of sales.

from New York Philharmonic’s Challenges Go Beyond the Music

And I’m no expert, but I think we’ve got another problem: classical concerts just aren’t much fun for the audience members. 

Wait, am I saying classical music is boring?

Well, no.

While the culture of popular music has undergone seismic shifts in the past 100 years, classical music culture – the “liturgy” of experiencing what we collectively label the “masterworks” of “serious music – hasn’t.

What’s it like to attend the delightful performance of Bernstein, Brahms, and Beethoven that GAMAC provided last weekend? First, you had to buy a ticket, so this demands at least a little fore planning (a lost art in the age of cellphones and Facebook event “maybe’s”).  Second, you had to dress up, because even if there isn’t a dress code, everyone who’s attending is going to dress like there is.

Next, you can expect to sit perfectly still and perfectly silent for 90 minutes (save 15 minutes to rush to the bathroom or stretch your legs). That’s still and silent.

And there are rules. In addition to being silent (so don’t even think about pointing out that lovely alto line to your neighbor), you have to know when to clap. And especially when NOT to clap — not between movements of the same piece, not between pieces that are part of the same song cycle, and not before the conductor drops his hands unless the music is just rip-roaring good. (The crowd on Friday were on their feet before the last notes of Beethoven stopped ringing. It was a good second half.)

Contrast this with, say, a rock concert.  Is the virtuosity any less? I’d say no. A great violin solo or a great guitar riff – I enjoy both just as much.  Is there less enthusiasm among aficionados? Again, I’d suggest not. I think the old man bobbing his head along to the choral fugue in the Beethoven’s 9th was having a ball, just like the big kid who stood next to me at the most recent prog-metal concert I attended and danced (badly) with reckless joy and abandon. But wait….

See the difference? 

My fellow metal heads (or fans of John Fogerty or Mumford and Sons or Rhianna or whoever gets you in line at the ticket booth) know what it’s like to move to the music, to dance with all four limbs, to let the energy explode into kinesthetic appreciation.

I think we’re losing our next generation of classical music fans because we’re too caught up in the idea that Classical Music Is Serious Business. So stop wiggling, stop tapping, stop engaging. Just listen.

I don’t think Gen Z or whatever we’re going to call them are going to stick with classical music for the 50 years necessary to get old enough that sitting still for 90 minutes sounds like a blast.

A few suggestions (since all whining and no solutions makes for a bad blog post):

  • Commit to subsidizing art / music / theater / dance / etc both as a public good (i.e.: with public money) and as a significant private investment (i.e.: something businesses, foundations, and individuals should be incentivized to support). We need to invest in what would be individually very expensive (those ticket prices!) so that collectively more of us can afford it.
  • Extend that commitment into free public art events for kids as much as possible. Give kids tickets to symphony performances and theater and dance and everything else. Get them hungry for the beauty and power of the Masterworks.
  • Bring classical music into the streets. Get musicians out on street corners and at festivals to play and sing. Let the public hear more and more music live so it gets into their ears. This means some musicians should volunteer their talent for free, or at least be willing to consider it.
  • Break the traditions on purpose. Do concerts in radically different spaces. Let people listen and [*gasp*] even talk quietly or move around. Not all performances should be dead quiet. It’s ok to win people over with the power of the music, even though it irritates us musicians when we aren’t the center of people’s attention.
  • Bring back the Lyceums. In 1800s America, educated people in the cities recognized that most Americans were pretty culturally ignorant. So they hosted learning experiences for people in their community. They taught folks to sing, taught them about famous classical works, read literature aloud, discussed art. They made a concerted effort to educate the general public for the general good.  This “school for culture” in each town was called a Lyceum.
  • For the love of all that’s holy, threaten to burn things down if our state government cuts any more funding from the arts in schools. The kids need truth, goodness, and beauty or their souls will shrivel into little hard lumps. We can do this. America has the resources.

I want classical music to thrive. I really do. I want Bach to resound through a concert hall followed by something by Pink Floyd and capped off with Mahler.

We can do this, people.

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