Orchestra Audiences: Aging and Dying Out, or Just Shrinking?

OK, last post of my morning blogathon.

My friend, colleague, and former student Jon Silpaymanant has a number of posts questioning the interpretation of data widely used to document the aging of symphony orchestra audiences.  What many of us believe to be the case is that absent innovative programming, presentation, and (usually) a fantastic new performance space, orchestra audiences are shrinking because new generations are not becoming regular attenders, ticket purchasers, and, most importantly, donors.

The audience, we overgeneralize, is aging, graying, and dying out.  “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” wrote Mark Twain, attributing Benjamin Disraeli.  “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so,” most widely attributed to Will Rogers (but also to Twain), has a lot of truth to it, and it’s what Jon is getting at, it seems.

The audience hasn’t aged as much as we think, Jon says, not very much at all.

If so, that’s some good news.  Because it means that a continued attendance (and donor) decline is even less inevitable and inescapable than many fatalistically assume.  Obviously many orchestras–my local Indianapolis Symphony is a an example–have low attendance and huge financial issues.  Can they thrive with bold, innovative leadership that makes the concerts and the entire enterprise genuinely valuable to the community? Yes.

Whatever the hard-to-truly-measure demographic realities may be, there’s a lot of work to be done–and fantastic opportunities.



Filed under future of classical music, Jon Silpayamanant

28 responses to “Orchestra Audiences: Aging and Dying Out, or Just Shrinking?

  1. Definitely a lot of work to be done regardless of the age of the audiences. I think the apparent declining audience numbers is really the important issue here (though I’m a little suspicious of how much that number is declining–will probably look at that issue after I’m done with the age issue).

    I think the Classical Music Industry is just catching up to other media and entertainment industries, and it seems like the latter aren’t worrying overmuch about their rapidly aging audiences and have already started to capitalize on the aging boomers (which as a whole have more buying power than the younger demographics anyway). Classical Music is still one step behind with its worry about the age issue and I fear simply sorting out a strategy to “fix” that will still put it behind the curve.

    Granted, catering to the older demographic might still mean catering to an audience that may prefer the old warhorses to new music, which doesn’t help those of us really interested in the evolution and support of developing the genre(s)–and for me, that’s really the bigger travesty.

    • There’s a great chapter in Alex Ross’s “Listen to This” (“The Anti-Maestro,” which was probably a New Yorker piece first–don’t have time to look it up now) on how the LA Phil revitalized itself with plenty of new music–and that fantastic new Disney hall, which *inspired* everyone to live up to it. I agree, audience development is the key, regardless of why the audience for *certain types of performances* has been shrinking. The biggest challenge for big institutions like symphony orchestras is how to make their big halls attractive and engaging for contemporary audiences. The parallel with churches is striking, as I commented on in another post this morning.

      The truth, of course, is that the vast majority of people who are panicked about the financial viability of the 52-week, full-time orchestras are those who work in them. During the ISO crisis, I have yet to meet a local freelancer whose reaction seemed to be anything other than, “welcome to our world.” The main problem for them is the ISO people who were moving into the freelance market. The personal tragedies of downsizing are very real, of course.

      • What’s ironic is the new music was what revitalized the Louisville Orchestra (as well as giving it an international reputation) during the 50s. And one of the few WPA Orchestras formed during the Federal Music Project days in the 30s, the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, was one of very few orchestras actually making a “profit” during the depression years–and that orchestra premiered over 150 new compositions during its short run.

        The Halls are a double edged sword, I think–while having a new one is nice, I suspect the operation expenses (much like Sports Stadiums) may make such infrastructure a difficult proposition for most orchestras to maintain (if the orchestra owns or is closely associated with the operations). Otherwise, who pays for it? In the case of most new stadiums, it’s public money Which is ironic since we’re all told how profitable the sports industry is (though I’ve blogged tons about how that’s very misleading as well).

        I’ll have to read the NYTimes article later tonight, but I skimmed your blogpost–and yeah, I think many non-profs are having similar issues w/r/t actual properties/buildings. And I think most of us would be surprised to know that it’s not all that different with for-prof service/entertainment sector industries either (e.g. the Sports Stadium example, again)–though why we don’t really see that is how the unprofitability of many Sports clubs is masked due to revenue sharing in that industry.

        I think, in a way, the problem of orchestras parallels what we’ve seen in the Sports Industry (and the Pop Music Industry for that matter)–there was far too much growth and far it happened far too quickly. All three industries expanded rapidly after the WWII period. Most people don’t realize that until the Sports Broadcasting Act in the 60s, practically all “professional” athletes were part-timers who usually got summer jobs in the off-season to make ends meet. And without major label backing and media licensing, there would likely be far fewer pop superstars (if any) because musicians just couldn’t afford to tour and build their own audiences–in other words, those superstars and big name pop acts would be much more like the rest of us eking out a living (if the music was a full-time occupation) or using music as a hobby on the side to supplement the income from a real day job (or use the day job to subsidize the hobby).

        Not really that much different than having foundations (Rockefeller and Ford) or the Government (the aforementioned WPA–Works Progress Administration Federal Music Project) backing or subsidizing Orchestras enough for them to feel as if they have the room to expand in ways that couldn’t have happened without the backing. But it’s happening with the for-prof industries too. It’s just taking a little longer since those have a little bigger piece of the pie. I’m not saying these things couldn’t be turned around–but if Classical Music is going to start following the economic and marketing initiatives that the for-prof industries have developed and are using, well that just puts them two steps behind the industries as they are now trying to sort out how to survive since they are starting to recognize their own tactics are no longer going to work.

        We had the same problem down here while the Louisville Orchestra was out. And we had a year and a half of the LO musicians taking up many of the freelance positions on an intermittent or even semi-permanent basis. A lot of the local freelancers complained, some of them moved more into other industries or jobs; some went back to school to build more job skills. Most of them just played less. And I had so many of them come up to me to ask me what my “secret” was since I wasn’t seeing any less work–and in fact, I was being much more selective about quality of the gigs and pay I was being offered for them. Downsizing does lead to tragedies, sadly (and I’ve heard a fair amount of those down here too)–at the same time, I still find it ironic that for me (and yes this is just an anecdote) I felt none of the same market pressures that many musicians seem to have felt during the recession nor during the local events here with the LO.

      • “I felt none of the same market pressures that many musicians seem to have felt during the recession nor during the local events here with the LO.”

        Why do you think that is? I’m curious. You seem to have a couple of VERY specific communities that you perform for that I think many pro musicians might not even know exist …

      • Why do you think that is? I’m curious. You seem to have a couple of VERY specific communities that you perform for that I think many pro musicians might not even know exist …

        Haha–well, there’s that, sure. But how many would do it if they knew it existed? How many would know how to do it if they knew it existed? It’s not a matter of basic skill set–Most classically trained professionals could play just about anything if they put their mind to it, and a fair number of pop musicians can get around on their instruments well enough to easily pick up a new style of music if they wanted to do so.

        But I just don’t think it works that way. I’m not going to play a Lebanese wedding with my baroque cello and with baroque tuning and style anymore than I’m going to play with an orchestra with Irish or Country Western fiddle style. Music, is just like language, in this respect–speak English when you need to, or communicate in the appropriate language for the appropriate occasion or event.

        Most musicians are monolingual and that, more than anything else will limit opportunities. It’s nothing about classical music being relevant to today’s culture, or the ease at which venues will book anyone and their brother or sister who plays a guitar if only they don’t have to pay the hard-working bands. As John Cage said, “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”

      • Your “monolingual” point is a great one, Jon. Clearly your career is flourishing due in large part to your musical multilinguality (if that’s not a word, it should be). I’m interested to hear more of what I’ll call your opposite-of-Greg stance.

        Sent from my iPad

      • “multilinguality” — I don’t think it’s a word, but I love it!

        It’s not so much that I’m taking an opposite-of-Greg stance so much as I think the either/or (in rhetoric they call it “bifurcation fallacy”–eeks!) stance is far less helpful as a starting point for change. And this would apply to the other side–things certainly aren’t going well.

        The obsession with youth and youthful audiences could likely be one of the most damaging, from an economics viewpoint, marketing directions any industry has taken and I think it’s only been recently that popular entertainment and broadcast media industries have started to figure this out. I think fireandair summed it up in a comment about my post about the “Savior Demographic” (my facetious name for the younger audience focus):

        I’ve often wondered just why the younger audience was supposed to have such mystical powers, and whether it was a good idea for classical music — one of the few entertainment arenas where women over 40 aren’t put into dematerialization chambers and grey hair isn’t the kiss of death — to ape the youth-uber-alles attitude of popular culture. Like you said, older folks have more buying power.

        Folks like Greg keep telling us to ape the marketing and economic strategies that popular culture has been using the past few decades without really understanding how those industries aren’t already starting to follow (or catch up) with the demographic that has far more buying power. The Arts and Aging Toolkit website has this (amongst many other things) to say about the aging demographic:

        *Households maintained by people over 65 have a higher net worth ($108,885 in 2000) than all other households, except for those maintained by people in the 55-to-64 age group.

        *People age 50 and older control more than 50 percent of the total U.S. discretionary income.

        *The estimated annual spending power of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) is more than $2 trillion. Each household spends about $45,000 a year.

        As well as a number of things to say about the racial/ethnic demographics and how that is radically changing as well. That’s where the multilinguality really becomes important.

        I remember playing a Persian Naw Ruz (Persian New Year) celebration and having a conversation with the Santoor maker/musician who was complaining about how the youthful Persians just want to listen to that Persian Pop music and never want to hear the great Classical Persian pieces anymore. Who would have thought it could be so easy to have a conversation about music that doesn’t reference either American Pop or Western Classical in the middle of Indiana? In reference to the Lebanese wedding above, the bride told me that members of her family–many of whom came to the states from Syria and Lebanon–kept telling her, “I didn’t know they played Arabic Music in Indiana!”

        Well, the monolingual musicians don’t, obviously–which just means more work for me! 😉

    • ” … catering to the older demographic might still mean catering to an audience that may prefer the old warhorses to new music, which doesn’t help those of us really interested in the evolution and support of developing the genre(s).”

      Well, it means you won’t find help there. It’s just one more dialect, and it’s up to the musicians to find out what that music’s natural habitat is, and then play it there instead of trying to plant a tree outside its proper zone, and then wondering why it keeps dying on them.

      There’s so many things that have been — or it seems to me — left completely unacknowledged in the discussion of marketing music. No one seems to say, “Okay, let’s look at all these various genres and study the types of soil that they seem to come up in … and then instead of broadcasting, we plant each type of music in the soil in which it seems to do best.”

      I have seen very little (well okay, NO) agenda-free soil examinations done in the world of classical music. Either people insist on clinging to the belief that their pet favorite music is the secret to saving the symphony, and if only they were allowed to force it into the soil, it would come up like gangbusters. Or people attach pointless value judgments and say, “Well, of course we’ll always have to grow that uncool, unadventurous kind of music in that tacky, low-class soil over there … ” instead of just observing that music A seems to grow well in soil B.

      We need more soil studies.

      • Right–we’re not likely to find help in that demographic for the new music. I wish there was demographic information about the audiences for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra when the new music was such a prominent portion of their seasons but we just don’t have it.

        And that’s what you’re saying–we need more soil studies–I don’t think we’re in a particularly good position to know much of anything and have to extrapolate from other fields or unrelated data to make the best educated guesses we can.

        We’re told ticket prices are too high, and yet the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is now doing terribly after several years of their lowered ticket price initiative which was, at first lauded. We’re told the median age of Orchestras is rapidly outpacing the median age of the population, but that’s happening in nearly every live and broadcast entertainment form. We’re told the audiences are shrinking, but it’s shrinking for all art and entertainment forms–and some of the most profitable (such as the NFL) has the smallest percentage of ticket/gate revenue to total revenue (roughly 20%) which make Orchestra audience revenue proportions look prodigious. We’re told the old warhorses and concentration on old dead white guy music is killing classical music, but it’s not likely that most new music groups/musicians are doing much better than your average rock/pop band musicians who are making livable wages either.

        Too many irrelevant claims based on spotty data!

      • “We’re told the old warhorses and concentration on old dead white guy music is killing classical music … ”

        That’s one of the reasons why I zapped you that Cracked link that talked about how all the top money live pop/rock acts are bands that haven’t cracked the top ten in a decade. It’s a strong indicator that the pop and rock worlds are finding out that … many people want to hear the classics. At least when “many people” means “audiences above a certain large-ish number in big venues.” Journey and Zeppelin don’t seem to be killing live music. There’s money in the classics, a lot of it. Even if classical music is “dying out” faster than other forms of art, playing Beethoven for large-ish audiences is NOT the reason.

        I’m just pulling that phrase out of your comment because I think it deserves to be singled out and disagreed with with particular vehemence. 🙂

        At a rough guess, I’d say the following:

        Western Warhorses: large-ish audiences in big halls, probably always will be a moneymaker.
        Experimental or niche stuff of ANY origin: small trendier performance venues, may unearth new pieces that could transition to the large-ish hall, but this may be a rare or long-timescale process in some places.
        Non-western warhorses: both smaller targeted performance venues AND large-ish halls depending on the surrounding community, also with a slightly stronger possibility of transitioning into large-ish halls on the assumption that if a billion people really like it anyplace on Earth, a billion more will probably find something to enjoy as well.

        I’m just saying this on the assumption that there are other arenas that seem to indicate, in a very broad-stroke sort of way, that things fall apart into the following categories:

        1) Familiar and loved by very large numbers of people.
        2) Experimental or early-adopter stuff.
        3) Unfamiliar and loved by very large numbers of people.

        I think this is not only something that the performing arts has experienced but is also the same with things like food and technology. There is that which has been road-tested and adopted in large numbers, that which is niche or experimental, and that which has been adopted in large numbers elsewhere.

        And I think a lot of honesty is needed to tell 2 and 3 apart. “Me and all my friends like X” is just not equivalent to “a billion people on another continent have liked Y for the last 400 years.”

      • That cracked.com piece nailed it right on the head. And as I mentioned it was something I often brought up on Gregs blog especially as it pertained to cover and tribute bands which, on the whole, just make more money than original bands. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a local original band or local original band musician complain about how the people only want to hear the cover bands and that they were the ones getting paid I’d be, well, rich!

        People want to hear the “classics” in pop so much that it is possible to make a comfortable living just playing covers. I remember reading a piece about one of the big cover bands in Indy in the Indianapolis Monthly. It was a six piece and the year the piece was written they had racked in 200 grand as that band. It wasn’t even a full time working band from what I understand. Some fellow classmates from DePauw were in a cover band called “Push Down and Turn” which they formed as we were all freshmen in school (at least one of the members was in the Music School) but one of the members said while they were the most active they would regularly play some of the big clubs in Indy and pull in 5 or 7 grand per show.

        Most original bands can only dream of that unless they happened to be one of the very slight few that did happen to make it big.

        I think most of the “classical music is dead” group tend to overestimate and misunderstand how the pop music world works–since the media generally only focuses on big name superstars there’s this sense that pop musicians are far more popular and “relevant” than what is actually the case. My advice for any classical musician would be to get into a working band and learn the culture if only to get rid of the overinflated views the lifestyles of those musicians and really appreciate how little revenue (as well as audience) most of them have.

      • We should cook Eric dinner or something for taking over his comments. 🙂

        It’s interesting that you talk about the tension between original bands and cover bands. I’m wondering why Band X can’t buy some different stage clothes, come up with another name for themselves (Band Y?), and then make some money as Band Y, a Styx cover band. Then, when they want to play their own stuff, they change back into their typical clothes, show up at a different bar on a different night, and they’re Band X playing their own stuff for a smaller crowd.

        And I don’t see why orchestras can’t take this approach, either. Hell, they’ve got 100+ people in some of the big ones. They can splinter off a dozen smaller groups, each performing as a different “Band Y, affiliate band of the Philadelphia Orchestra.” And then the next weekend, they’re in the hall with penguin suits and gowns. Especially for orchestras, which already platy a couple centuries of vastly different styles and can pretty much handle whatever you toss at them, this shouldn’t be a huge challenge. (Anyone who can play both Scarlatti and Stravinski has no right to turn around and go, “I can’t play that,” whatever “that” may be.)

        What has been your experience as a jobbing musician in terms of playing covers versus original or niche stuff? You seem perfectly adjusted to being a musical polyglot who is happy to be in Bands X, Y, and Z. What is keeping other bands, musicians, and orchestras from taking a similar attitude? I can see logistic, union, branding problems … but I can also see personal identity problems for musicians who doesn’t want to say that they play in a cover band.

      • I’m sure I owe Eric plenty of dinners for everything he’s done for me over the years! 😀

        I’m wondering why Band X can’t buy some different stage clothes, come up with another name for themselves (Band Y?), and then make some money as Band Y, a Styx cover band. Then, when they want to play their own stuff, they change back into their typical clothes, show up at a different bar on a different night, and they’re Band X playing their own stuff for a smaller crowd.

        that happens occasionally–and it might be happening more now that the pop/rock band musicians are finding it more difficult to get good paying work. I think there are two main reasons why this isn’t something that normally happens. The first is the time commitment, and the second–ironic given that the original blog is about Age demographics–is the age (or maybe stage of musical life?) of the musicians.

        Most bands and the musicians in them who follow that dream of becoming the next big rock star tend to be the youngest, least experienced, or just starting out. More often than not they will throw themselves into the band with that light of superstardom at the end of the tunnel to drive them. They are far more willing to make certain sacrifices and endure certain hardships (if you haven’t seen it–look up the video of Zoe Keating “Should you quit your tech job and join a rock band?” as she states the trials of touring as an indie musician). Most importantly, they tend to be more idealistic and will rant on about the purity of their art and how they would absolutely not sacrifice that (i.e. “Sell-Out”)–basically the starving artist/bohemian ideal I’ve blogged about.

        As these musicians mature, gain more experience, get tired of the touring circuit, or whatever–you’ll eventually finding more and more of them taking other gigs. A fill in guitarist here, or maybe someone needs a regular drummer for a cover band, or studio session that needs and extra instrument for the release, but not for live shows–whatever. Those who still identify themselves as a working musician will slowly take on more of those jobs and transition into the freelance market; if they’re lucky, they will find some other permanent or semi-permanent band to work with. And for the most idealistic holdouts–that permanent thing may be another original band that has already made something of a name for itself but needed a replacement for a member–or it’s a group of otherwise more experienced musicians who decided they want to morph out of the freelance market and focus more on their own music.

        Basically, the older and very active band musicians are much more likely to be doing heavy freelancing, or gigging fairly regularly with a cover band (of some combination). Part of this evolution has as much to do with how the music industry favors the youth as a new band–when was the last time you saw an original act of 40 somethings become the next pop superstar, right?

        I think many orchestras already do something like this with their outreach programs–they don’t usually send the full ensemble out to play these–usually it’s comprised a members in a chamber orchestra or even smaller chamber ensemble.

        In some cases, as with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, you’ll have someone like Zachary DePue, who’s the concertmaster (or rather, co-concertmaster) of the ISO and also plays in Time For Three which is his jazz/swing/pop cover String Trio. From what i understand his appointment as co-concertmaster of the ISO was due primarily to his heavy touring schedule with Time for Three, but as I understand it, that group is now the “Ensemble in Residence” with the ISO (which i thought was very interesting).

        On the whole, though I think you’ll find this wearing of several hats amongst freelancers, and especially pop musician freelancers.

        I think what keeps most musicians from doing this more regularly is, again, the time commitment. As I took on more projects I had to cut appearances with the older projects. This had the side benefit of making the older projects more selective about the gigs they take, but at the same time it takes the bands off the map a little–fewer shows/appearances means less exposure, obviously. Also, the time to develop new skills appropriate to the side projects as well as having heavier rehearsal loads can seriously cut into gigging time. I suspect musicians who are more comfortable with improvising, or with the ability to read sheet music may find smaller learning curve.

        So yeah, just learning a different level of organizational skills is very important, but a big commitment if you want multiple projects to work.

        The branding problem is an acute problem. Before I was active in several projects I really wanted il Troubadore to be the “do anything” kind of band. You know–one night play classic bellydance music for bellydancers, the next play a set of classic Italian tunes at an Italian festival, then the next night play a rock club, etc. The biggest problem was how to market ourselves to all these different genres with the really odd instrumentation we had. I don’t think we ever really successfully solved that, and I don’t think the other members really had the time to do all the things I talked about above regarding the learning and organizational side of things.

        I think that’s one of the main reasons i branched out more and joined or started other projects–so that I could be the “do anything” guy. And I’m still trying to figure out how to make the branding work in a way that can encompass all of that. In the end, networking and word of mouth has been far more important for my ability to get gigs than any active branding/marketing scheme. then again, since everything we do actually brands us–I suppose I’ve inadvertently become somewhat successful at the branding.

        When I would get into those Covers versus Originals debate I would often throw them a curve ball and say something to the effect of “unless you’re improvising in real time, then you’re simply covering your own music when you’re playing your own tunes.” Of course that would often get both sides into a tirade about how they HATE Jam Bands! 😛

      • “Part of this evolution has as much to do with how the music industry favors the youth as a new band–when was the last time you saw an original act of 40 somethings become the next pop superstar, right?”

        I’m wondering how much the sort of indie-DIY model (exemplified nicely by Keating) can get around this somewhat. She’s a 40-something who is becoming not the next pop superstar because the DIY model doesn’t create that, but the next success story in this new way of doing things.

        So maybe it’s not possible for a band of 40-somethings to become old-school MTV pop superstars with their faces on lunchboxes. But can a band of 40-somethings become financially stable by playing covers and use that stability to support DIY releases of their own music?

      • See, I think if Zoe Keating would continue to tour regularly as she does–and if her fanbase is relatively stable–she might be able to do that indefinitely. the main issues she talked about was that, well, touring is for young people!

        The other problem would be the safety net that is, say, health insurance. I suspect most of the band musicians make the music a side job in favor of getting a day job with benefits–especially those who have families.

        On the other hand, my friend Sam King from the band “Push Down and Turn” is probably gigging more now than while he was with the band–but as a solo musician (doing covers). He’s regularly playing well over 200 (at least he was a couple years ago) shows a year, but also has that day job as well as kids that are no longer in that 0-6 range which seems to curtail the audience segment which falls into that stage of life.

        I think that in general we’re getting more permissive about alternative lifestyles, and that means those are more likely to work, or at least anyone who really works at it can make it work. Doesn’t matter how old or young you are.

        I think most full-time freelancers or working musicians without a full time band understand this–hence why they are full-time working musicians. It doesn’t take any special mystic powers of youth the recording industry demanded, nor the special mystical powers of a youthful audience that grew out of that industry marketing to the youthful consumers. Mostly it depends on how much you want, or how little you’re willing to get by with!

      • I guess what I’m saying is that yes touring is hard, but there appears to be a way to make enough money with the less musically prestigious activities to allow someone to get their original-work game on.

        Or maybe it’s a function of “you can have it all, just not all at once.” Make money (and networking contacts) doing side and cover work, and then use these when you are ready to start in on your own stuff as a DIY-er.

      • Quick comment: she does say that touring according to the old model was extremely rough. The touring she does as a DIY artist, while difficult, is a bit different in that she explicitly controls it in a way that makes is less grueling for her and for her family.

        It’ll never be easy though, and she does say that it’s her most expensive way of making money.

      • Further clarification: the touring she discussed in that Ignite Sebastopol talk was label-based touring that she did for Rasputina, I believe. In a Coilhouse interview that she did, she talked about how that band was indeed label-based, and that Melora Creager made considerably less money through touring than Keating has managed, simply because she had to recoup first.

        Touring will never be easy, but it’s at least simplified for a DIY-er, and slightly more likely to be manageable without completely ruining one’s life.

        I feel like we suddenly shifted topics here. I was talking about not restricting oneself to playing only one form of music, and suddenly we’re in “touring is hard.” Touring is hard regardless of what you play. But if someone is going to do it anyhow, is there a way to tour as a cover band and still put out one’s own music under the DIY model? Most sidemen at various concerts I’ve gone to all have their own CDs that the leader is happy to put out for sale. (Hell, even Bowie put Gail Ann Dorsey’s original CDs on the table during his Reality tour.)

        And I’m not really talking about becoming a superstar. I’m talking about making enough money to be self-sufficient by playing FOR someone else, or playing someone else’s music, while still making your own.

      • Yes, label based touring invariably works like that–the label fronts the money and they recoup their costs before you make anything. Same with the actual recordings. On the other hand–having the label cover the costs initially means that you may be able to tour more extensively (thus building a bigger fan base) than you might have been able to do as an indie. That’s basically what Mike Doughty meant with regards to his bold statement that Radiohead wouldn’t exist without early major-label funding and I think what most people don’t understand about how pop superstars’s careers are made as much by the subsidization by the label as anything else.

        I think what you’re talking about is certainly possible–think of playing in a regularly working cover band as being the “day job” and the original music as being the side job. Eventually, depending on how successful you are with your own material you might be able to slide more into doing your own project(s).

        So much of that is going to depend on how ambitious your original music project(s) are, of course. If it’s modest and all you’d like to do is maybe release an album every once in a while, or maybe pull together a pick-up ensemble to do some live shows to promote those albums, that’s more than doable while being a full time working musician in an orchestra or coverband. If your end goal is to turn the original music side project into the main project, that’s going to take much more work–and may never happen. As you say, though, being a regularly working musician rather than just having a traditional 9-5 day job, will feed into the original music project as you get to network and build connections you are much less likely to build if you’re a cubicle monkey. The trick is to create an environment for yourself that maximizes the potential of all your activities to positively affect anything you’re doing.

        I think that’s the hardest thing for most people to understand as it requires, as i said, a different level of organization and likely the building of new musical skills you wouldn’t otherwise ever consider building. That’s basically what I meant by “Diversifying you performance skills portfolio” — ironically, my real model for this idea of creating multiple skill sets streams which converge and amplify each other is much more informed by biologist, E.O. Wilson’s ideas about Consilience (that he describes in the book of the same name).

        As the wiki article defines it (yeah, I know wikipedia isn’t always a great source to reference, but usually basic definitions are adequate) Consilience is:

        (also convergence of evidence or concordance of evidence) refers to the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can “converge” to strong conclusions.

        In this case, that convergence happens to be the musical lifestyle I envision myself having. The problem is, most musicians don’t really understand the “evidence or concordance of evidence” and would rather blithely go along with the (often) uninformed opinions of folks who’ve never really worked in the industry, or who have only academically discussed –usually absent firsthand experience– how it works and how to do it.

        If you’re never in the trenches, you’re never going to understand the realities of the “war.” And if you don’t understand the realities of it, then any theorizing, consulting, or advising–no matter how brilliant a mind you may be and how compelling your arguments–are simply abstract meanderings rooted in your ideas about how things work rather than being rooted in how things actually work.

        So, going back to what you said here:

        Or maybe it’s a function of “you can have it all, just not all at once.” Make money (and networking contacts) doing side and cover work, and then use these when you are ready to start in on your own stuff as a DIY-er.

        That is certainly one way to do it–and you can also do them all concurrently–but the probability of success is going to be tied to how well you understand how things work in the first place and that’s simply a function of trench work.

  2. Catching up on this very interesting discussion.

    I think the economic point of working to get the younger demographic out to concerts is more long-term than anything. I’ve heard that there are studies to show that on the whole, tastes and interests are set in late adolescence and young adulthood, so when people start attending more in the 40+ years, it’s the stuff they didn’t have time/energy to attend in their mid-20s and 30s.

    More short-term for non-profits, why would donors give money to something that seems to appeal only to older white people? Right now I’m thinking seriously about my own giving, and the ISO, to whom I have donated some money, doesn’t rise to the top, regardless of how much I love my friends in it. There are hungry and homeless and unemployed people in my own county; there are organizations helping LGBT youth, who desperately need those services; there are the arts organizations in which I’m directly involved.

    A big challenge for traditional classical-music institutions is how to develop other revenue streams. Sure, the NFL can have plenty. I’ll watch a game on TV and see the ads. I go into Walmart and Colts stuff is everywhere. I’ll buy Colts shirts for my niece and nephew because they are recognizably from Indiana. Can a symphony develop any substantial revenue this way? If declining in-person attendance is made up for with other revenue, great, and it’s not surprising that big-time sports can do that. But creating that contributed income when attendance is low for a non-profit–that’s a real problem.

    And as for alternative venues, etc., as my friend Gail Wein likes to say, yes, you can do a big show at LPR and if you’re lucky your group will make hundreds of dollars. So there’s not much money in the alternative venue scene, either. Of course, as an occasional freelancer, and former full-time freelancer, I know that $150 here and $300 there, done enough times, can make it possible to live. But the alt stuff is not going to save the ISO or Philly or Louisville or whoever.

    As to halls, yep, for some they are a boon, others a curse. Philly’s problems stem in part from having to rent their performance space while they don’t get nearly the same revenue from renting out the Academy of Music which they still own but no longer perform in. (If I recall correctly.)

    OK, now I’m feeling blue. Sigh.

    • ” … on the whole, tastes and interests are set in late adolescence and young adulthood … ”

      I guess I’m questioning this as an overly broad conclusion. I’m reminded strongly of that comment Billy Joel made in a video the link to which I sent to Jon where he said that older folks are tuning out of pop and rock and becoming curious about classical. I think that there may be a good number of middle-aged first-timers in the classical audiences, and that this may be a trend, a quiet one for now, but a trend.

      I do love the pop and rock of my youth, but I am still looking for and finding new music, actively. It’s just not new pop or rock. It’s new alternative, new indie, even new classical and early music. (Gawbless Rachel Barton Pine and her rebec.) There seems to be an assumption underlying the above belief that calibrates how open one is to new music by how much top-40 one listens to. The pop and rock I like was set in my teens and 20s, but all of the other new music I’ve reached out for since then was not.

      The core belief that people are malleable up to a point and then congeal like unyielding rock is just … well, it’s an oversimplification of poorly understood pop neuroscience, and I just don’t buy it anymore. Not the way it’s always wielded. There are few people MORE anxious to find new experiences (and to many of them, Mozart and Beethoven are new) than middle-aged folks whose kids have finally gotten the hell out of the house. They may always feel a special deep love for the music of their youth, but they will always feel a special nostalgia for Shaun Cassidy and Farrah Fawcett as well. Doesn’t mean that they can’t and don’t fall in a deeper, more mature form of love with other people, even at an older age. And we shouldn’t calibrate how open they are to new experiences by how many Tiger Beat crushes they continue to develop at their age. It just feels like a lot of times when that statement is applied, that’s kind of what it’s being used to say.

      • Cultural Omnivores–interestingly at the tail end of the boomers cohort most people are described as cultural omnivores rather than “snobs” or “elitists” who stick to one taste. Omnivores are much more likely to try a variety of styles/genres throughout most of their life.

  3. The long term audience building initiative is a difficult one and I think the attempt to bring in a younger audience is going to depend on the demographic characteristics of the city–especially the net migration of the population. It seems like those orchestras that are trying to draw in a younger crowd as a long-term audience building strategy are attempting to expose the youth at a younger age which, as you say, is where tastes tends to be solidified.

    The problem is, if the city has high migration turnover of, especially the younger cohorts, then they may be “training” a significant proportion of the youth who will no longer be in the city to patronize the orchestra anyway.

    Seems like what we see of the actual declining number of younger audiences can be closely tied to the last time that classical music enjoyed the benefits of a much more national initiative in arts education as well as traditional broadcast media. The baby boomers were the last population cohort that got to see the NBC orchestra/Toscanini and the Bernstein Young Person’s concerts on a regular basis on the television/radio.

    Orchestras, individually, just can’t replicate that at the local level unless the orchestra happens to be in an area of relatively low out-migration where the audiences are training will actually remain in a large enough proportion to make a difference.

    The merchandizing issue probably has as much to do with how arts organizations operate as non-profs so don’t visualize themselves as industries that would do the sorts of things that for-profit entertainment businesses would do. This has probably hampered, more than anything else, their ability to even conceive of merchandising or licensing as a way to generate other revenue streams. It’s probably not surprising that Peter Gelb, who used to work for Sony, was a pioneer in doing the live Met casts which is finally starting to generate profits.

    Freelancing is really a separate issue than the age one your original post was about–and apologies for going on that tangent. I think the obvious way it relates is with declining classical freelance options, there’s this sense of how it fits into the overall pattern of declining classical music–and thus classical music audiences.

    As it relates to this issue on the economics side, with the purported decreased interest in classical music, there will be a decrease in classical music freelance opportunities as well as decreasing pay per gig. After you’ve maxed out on the number of $150 – $300 per gig you can take simply because we’re limited by the amount of time we have in any given day or week, then how do you increase your revenue. The only option is to find higher paying gigs–but if actual gig opportunities decline, as well as average pay-per-gig, then that may seem to be an impossible task. Add in the rate of inflation and we have the analogue of how the Cost Disease can impact solo musicians or smaller ensembles.

    And younger audiences aren’t going to help the freelancer either (except as a long-term audience building strategy) since that demographic has far less paying power anyway. It will be interesting to see how cellists like Zoe Keating and Ben Sollee do as they age–and more importantly, as their audience ages with them.

    I think that’s where my different (albeit, anecdotal) experience informs how I view audiences. As i slowly replace the least profitable gigs with the more profitable gigs, the median age of the audience is noticeably higher. When I was touring around the country with Ray Price, the audiences looked pretty much like the audiences for orchestras.

    Facebook pages gives you demograph stats for your fans which i check regularly, and it’s very interesting how I can easily divide up my least profitable musical projects which invariably have the larger proportion of younger fans from the much more profitable musical projects and the higher proportion of older fans. I suspect that if I graph all of them it would show at least linear growth towards the older audience/more profitable project. That goes across ethnic lines, and fandom communities, as well since I have the experience of playing for such a wide variety of ethnic groups and lately Geek communities.

  4. Hey, you guys can make me dinner any time! 🙂 And fireandair, I would comment on some of your posts if that function was enabled. 🙂

    Having just reskimmed this entire conversation, I’m struck first by Jon’s versatility and strategic planning in developing his multifacted, recession-proof career. Diverse portfolio, indeed. For so many classical musicians, especially of my age, the issue is that they are only into classical music. Jon has always been a “cultural omnivore” and musical explorer; it’s great that he can exist in many musical worlds.

    I’m thinking about how that translates into what we do in music schools. As Jon points out, professional-level classical musicians have the chops to play about anything. Some organically broaden their portfolios as they explore styles which don’t have the centuries of traditions that classical art forms do, because they are drawn to the music. I think we need to encourage students to do that; whether or not we need to actually teach them to do that, since many other genres are only semi-notated and have their own aural/oral traditions, is another matter. Push Down and Turn (who I kiss) didn’t need any formal support from a music school to have the success they did.

    As to the success of cover bands and classic rock bands, my assumption is that it relates very much to familiarity–most people want to hear things with which they are familiar, because they know they like them, and familiarity brings with it deepened emotional response. If it’s indeed true that what we buy in middle age and older is to a large part a function of tastes formed in youth, that would explain the success of classic rock, the older Ray Price audience, etc. (It was Judd Greenstein who talked about this at a CMA panel discussion last year; I don’t what study or studies he had read.)

    That isn’t to say that there isn’t a market for 40 and 50+ year olds seeking new experiences and to broaden horizons.

    fireandair suggests that the old warhorses will always be big sellers, but I don’t know about that. It’s not working for a lot of orchestras now. And neither is much new music, it seems. Zuill Bailey is premiering the Nico Muhly cello concerto tonight with the Indianapolis Symphony, along with Bloch’s Schelomo, and the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony is on the program, too. When I looked last night, there were a ton of seats available.

    It’s hard to filter out the ISO’s underfunded marketing, PR, etc., as factors in the low attendance, of course. For all these struggling orchestras, it’s going to take brilliant work in engaging the community and getting people excited about the performances and the impact of the institution.

    The idea of having smaller groups from a large orchestra go out and perform is part of what some call the “new model” for orchestras, and it meets often with a lot of resistance from the players, especially those who have been around for a while, who express fears that the quality of the larger ensemble will suffer from less rehearsing and performing together.

    Hey–when’s dinner? 🙂

    • Some organically broaden their portfolios as they explore styles which don’t have the centuries of traditions that classical art forms do, because they are drawn to the music. I think we need to encourage students to do that; whether or not we need to actually teach them to do that, since many other genres are only semi-notated and have their own aural/oral traditions, is another matter.

      That’s the interesting other side of the issue–since education has many of the same structural features as any other “non-progressive” (or as Baumol is now calling them since his latest Cost Disease book: “stagnant”) industries how long will it be before primary/secondary/university education simply has to adapt to the changing climate for, say, arts education?

      I know Marc O’Connor has been pushing the alternative strings methods for primary/secondary education and I think it’s absolutely wonderful that ASTA hosts an “Alternative Strings Competition” every year now. I read the piece about the winner from 2010 (I think) who played Indian Carnatic violin for the competition. Sure, it make it difficult to judge a competition when you place a Bluegrass fiddler next to an Irish fiddler next to a Persian violinist next to a Carnatic violinist, but I think arts education at the primary/secondary level is possibly adapting more quickly than the universities.

      The Purple Silk Music Education Foundation in San Francisco has formally replaced (or created) Chinese Music education in many of the schools in the Bay Area and have created a “continuing studies” type degree at one of the local community colleges. Given the high proportion of Chinese-Americans in the area, and high per capita number of traditional Chinese Ensembles and Orchestras, this kind of initiative isn’t surprising. I know the New York Arabic Orchestra has recently done a few fundraising concerts for the sole purpose of building an Arabic Music school in New York.

      Some for profits are also ahead of the curve–I was reading about the wonderful music store in Chicago called the “Old Town School of Folk Music” which decided (spearheaded by Jim Hirsch who’s currently the executive director of the wonderfully diverse Chicago Sinfonietta) that rather than focusing on Americana style folk lessons it would branch out and start finding teachers for the Sitar, Oud, Djembe, and other world instruments. Then it started adding infant/pre-school music classes which were highly adapted to parents busy schedules and average toddler naptimes.

      What was once a struggling music school that focused on classic Americans music instrumental lessons has blossomed into a fully functional world music education center for people of all ages. The lessons and classes that are taught so fully cover the day to day operating budget of the school that they have shifted into being an events center during the night where they can afford to bring in outside talent or give a forum for the students and local talents in a plethora of musical genres. World Music Wednesdays, Global Dance Party (focusing on different world dance music genres), and Pueblo Latino Chicago are some of the regularly occurring events on top of the traditional Americana, Zydeco, Bluegrass concerts.

      I get regular mailings from a local music store, “Mom’s Music,” which has (I think) three branches. I usually get my non-classical electronic gear from there as it’s a local store and not a big megachain. I’m on the mailing list and occasionally get event notices for their Clarksville, IN branch which is the one that actually has a regular band concert series. Most of the private lessons for rock band instruments are taught at that store (one of my cello students actually takes guitar lessons there) and the students form bands and occasionally give band “recitals” –and apparently this is a fairly regular type of phenomenon in more local music chains and I wonder how much of this kind of educational initiative is actually spurred by the declining economic situation for local bands.

      Going back to Push Down and Turn–Sam also said after about 1995, most of those nice 5-7 grand gigs started to dry up. More clubs opened, and music audiences got more diffuse. More opportunities opened for amateurs who just wanted to play out and venues started to realize they could get free entertainment if they weren’t already converting to using live DJs or Karaoke which were becoming more popular and cheaper alternatives to a four-piece band.

      I’m starting to ramble, but I guess the question is, if we’re starting to train kids at a younger age in many non-classical styles of music–whether it’s happening in the for profit or non-profit world, then where does that leave the music conservatories? I wonder how much of the entrepreneurial push is possibly a last-ditched effort by the university system show how it can make classical music training relevant!

    • Oh–and thanks for the kind words, and next time I’m up I’ll cook you dinner! 😀

  5. Pingback: Are music schools serving the needs of its students? | Mae Mai

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