Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Competing for the Leisure Dollar

Many years ago, when she worked as the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, I had the chance to interview Deborah Borda about women's involvement in professional music organizations. She mentioned that the New York Philharmonic had to "compete for the leisure dollar" in order to survive. The two cents (two leisure cents) I can add to the discussions on various blogs about the future of classical music has to do with the fact that we live in a time when all the arts (performing arts, visual arts, folk arts and crafts, and film) are considered more or less equal as far as cultural value is concerned. To make any kind of hierarchy would probably be seen as un-democratic or even elitist.

People who live in cities or in university communities have many places to spend their "leisure dollars." The people who like to be entertained by stuff other than current popular culture can spend their money going to plays, ballets, jazz performances, revival concerts by aging pop musicians from thirty years ago, films, museums, and flashy new "alternative artists." Of course this kind of competition forces the people in the still "fuddy-duddy" profession of classical music-making to market themselves. The people who run classical music organizations have to make Beethoven and Schubert appear flashy and hip in order to seem as "cool" as the competition. Another angle people use is to make classical music seem non-elitist and non-threatening. I don't know if either of these approaches will work for this current generation of adults. Maybe it is because they have been raised with too much diverse culture.

We all know that people who really love classical music and people who play and write classical music make up a tiny fraction of the American population (and also the world's population). Maybe this is because most of the people in America under the age of 40 never had adequate exposure to classical music because of unilateral funding cuts for music in the public schools during the late 1970s.

I think that the only way we can grow a new audience for classical music is by getting excellent music education back into the public schools and keeping it there. It should be active for those who have talent and interest (ensembles, lessons), and it should develop superior listening skills for those who do not have musical talent or do not want to perform. These are the people we need to fill the very important role of audience: people who express themselves emotionally through listening to other people express themselves musically. If school systems were to hire excellent music teachers (I was very lucky to have excellent public school music teachers from grade school through high school) and pay them very well to teach very well, we might have hope for the next generation.

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Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, what do you think of the tendency to build an audience by coupling concerts with before (or after) events (e.g., a symphony performance preceded by wine-tasting or a jazz trio)?

Elaine Fine said...

I think having people play music at a wine tasting is preferable to an orchestra trying to lure new audience members by tempting them (and lulling them to sleep, possibly) with wine before a concert. Wine tastings take a lot of concentration. My concentration and senses would be shot after a relatively short time at a wine tasting, and I would certainly not be in any position to give the concert the kind of concentration it deserves.

Maybe if an orchestra were to sponsor a wine tasting and pay some of its members to play background music (my, aren't those musicians good?) it might help generate audience interest because the wine tasters would have some kind of personal connection with a few members of the orchestra.

Going to a concert where you know somebody on stage, even if it is only by reputation or from hearing a recording, makes an audience member feel more like part of a community.

The idea of luring an audience to the concert hall by offering a Jazz trio performance after an orchestra concert is kind of like telling the audience that if they eat their main course they can have dessert.

After going to a concert the last thing I want to do is to go to another one! It think that it gives the wrong message to the perspective audience--"I liked the concert, but I really liked the Jazz afterwards. Maybe next time we should just go to hear the Jazz and skip the concert."

On the other hand, after a hard evening of playing Mahler or Brucker, many members of the orchestra might like to have the chance to hear some good Jazz and drink some good wine (paid for by the orchestra) if they were even invited to the after-concert performance, that is.