Is there a really a crisis in classical music?
“We’ve had gray-haired audiences for fifty years!” said a thirty-something musician who’s done a lot community outreach work and teaches a summer course on career skills at a music camp. We met at a reception after last night’s Dallas Symphony concert.
A very famous, and very elderly, pianist told me the same thing at a party back in February. “In 1960 everyone said the audience was dying out,” he told me, “but people are still coming.”
Well, how gray were those audiences 50 years ago? Greg Sandow has gathered all sorts of evidence to show that the median age of concert goers was much younger back then. He and others who have analyzed the data say it shows that with every generation since the 1960s, an increasingly smaller percentage of people have become involved with classical music.
Obviously there are empty-nesters and retirees whose concert attendance vastly increases when there’s time and money to do it. But what if they liked and were interested in classical music all along? What if classical music is something you get into as a young person, regardless of your amount of concert attendance, and it’s not a sudden-onset, mid-life passion? What if right now there isn’t a large mass of under-40 secret classical music lovers who are just too busy to go to concerts? And what if those who do like classical music don’t like concerts (the way most of them are done)?
As this older generation gets too old and sick to go to concerts, and dies off, will there be an audience to replace them?
We wring our hands over orchestras (along with opera companies, the most expensive of classical-music institutions) going out of business, filing for bankruptcy, etc. But some orchestras are doing very well. Drew “relax, it’s not a crisis” McManus points out Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Nashville, to which I’d add Dallas (who I heard last night), are flourishing. As far as I know, the New York Philharmonic isn’t teetering, either. But if the audience-for-traditional-concerts-is-dying-off hypothesis is correct, those institutions might face problems in the not-so-distant future, unless they are doing a terrific job of audience building now.
It’s that audience-building thing that I’m particularly interested in. It’s not just that it’s a critical component of the future of performing music organizations. A lot of young people are missing out on some potentially extraordinary, life-enriching, and life-changing experiences. Maybe because I’m a teacher, I want to share it with them. After a year off from teaching, I’m surprised that an evangelical zeal for promoting classical music has returned to me. (It’s not a bad feeling.)
One last thought for this point. Sometimes we miss the obvious. For example, there are a lot more families where both spouses work and come home exhausted at the end of the day–hard to muster the energy to go out. What do we do about that? (Well, make sure the concerts are really worth going out for.)
Another thing is the babysitter factor. It’s expensive, it’s sometimes hard to get one, and, well, teenage babysitters are not always dependable.
So the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra does something brilliant, I found out last night, from the same young woman who asserted the perennial nature of the gray-haired audience. For many of their concerts, River Oaks has a simultaneous program for children–they take care of the kids for you! So not only is the babysitting problem solved, there’s an actual incentive to go to the concert–there will be an enriching activity for the kids. They won’t be watching TV while the babysitter texts friends.
What a fantastic idea. Maybe it’s not a classical-music crisis, after all.