Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Looking at (or Ranting about) the Relative Popularity of Classical Music

I admit that I have been letting the discussions on line concerning the aging audience for classical music bother me. I think that some of the people who spend their time trying to believe that music really and truly fits into a consumer business model need to understand that the ticket-buying audience for classical music, at least in America, has always been small relative to the general population.

It isn't really possible to measure how many people listen to classical music on the radio, and it certainly isn't possible to measure how many of the people exposed to broadcast classical music (in coffee shops, in the Port Authority, in book stores) actually listen to what they are hearing. It is possible to measure CD sales, but it isn't possible to measure how often a person listens to a recording, or with what degree of attention. Most people (like me) who have some kind of CD library or record library (or access to one) listen to recordings that might have been made years ago.

It is possible to measure ticket sales, and in cities it is possible to believe that people will go to concerts if they are advertised properly. Advertising costs money, and I suppose the expenditure of money can only be justified by selling enough tickets to cover the costs. Some people believe that failure to attract an audience must have something to do with not giving the potential audience what it wants in a format that makes them want to have it again, so they try to change the way it is presented. That's the way you sell stuff. That's the way you run a restaurant.

I think that music is different, and I think that more of the people who understand it is different have always been people who have gone to concerts for the joy of going to concerts. I don't think of members of a given audience (or a desired audience) as customers. They are people who take the time to enjoy the experience of hearing music in real time and in real space. They are people who would rather brave cold weather and traffic to hear music than sit in front of the television and watch insipid game shows (shows that determine whether you are as smart as a 5th grader or test if you can endure extreme pain in complete silence). You can bet that the TV game show audiences are huge, and, relatively speaking, the concert audience is small. Tiny actually.

Do you think that there is any way to get those game show watchers to go to an orchestra concert? I don't think so.

The audience for classical music has always been tiny compared to the population at large, and for as long as I can remember it has always been primarily made of older people. It does take a few trips around the block and into a concert hall or two to find out that there is substance in a good deal of classical music. Some people don't get around to realizing that classical music isn't stuffy, isn't boring, isn't necessarily old, and isn't all the same until they reach the half-way point in their lives. Lucky people learn this earlier, and unlucky people never learn.

It would be easy to say that back when there were vibrant music programs in the public schools, everything was OK, but I don't think it is true. I had a great music program in my school system, and only a relative handful of students cared about it at all. The audience for classical music is self selecting. The people who want it will seek it out, and the people who don't want it will find other ways of spending their time, attention, and money.

It is the same way with literature. People who enjoy reading at a young age will continue to enjoy it when they get older. Some people don't realize that they even like to read until they are well into their adulthood. Other people will never understand why a person would read a novel or see a play when they could just as easily see "the movie." Unfortunately it seems that most people, at least in America, would prefer to watch a game show than go to a concert or read a book. That is not the fault of the way a concert is presented or a book is printed. It is the fault of a superficial television-based culture that offers an easy way to stay the mind without actually making any kind of intellectual investment. (Of course there are good programs on television, but I'm not talking about those, obviously.)

Classical music is not going to die. I don't think that musicians are going to stop playing and writing music just because it is no longer possible to make a living at it.

I firmly believe that music is not a "market." I believe that it is an life-enhancing act to play, practice, listen to, teach about, and write music, and as long as we do all of the above (play, practice, listen teach, and write) it will continue to exist. Music means everything to me, and I feel happy when I can share my love for music (in general or in specific) with other people, even if it is only a handful of people in their 70s and 80s. Let's just keep playing the music well enough so that an older audience (those who buy tickets as well as those who go to free concerts) with high expectations will not be disappointed.


Anonymous said...

Of course, classical music is not going to die. The 20th century building of recording companies is no measure of the far longer history of music. The symphony has been around longer than Sony, and the etude longer than EMI. To listen to the caterwaul of the numbers crunchers is to enjoy a nice trip to Depression-ville. Personally I enjoy being a part of an elite club of thinking, performing individuals, and I give no worry to whether someone who does not like classical music will ever learn to like it. My circle does, and that circle refreshes itself with new members as time goes by. Elite? Snob? Fine words for which I refuse to apologize to a world of un-classical folks who want to be offended by beautiful things. A Mendelssohn prelude and fugue gained applause in church when played recently. I'd say classical music is resilient, mostly free or relatively inexpensive to produce and only the big, top-heavy groups complain about the big bucks stuff. They trip to Depresssion-ville far too often for my thoughts on the subject, because the management of such business enterprises want one thing -- more money. That's not an issue for me, awash in wonderful music from centuries of interesting human beings.

David Guion said...

Arguments about the relative merits of classical music and popular music have been going on for a couple of centuries (cf Music and the middle class / William Weber). I can't say I have kept up with all of that literature, or even all of the most recent additions to it, but I am glad you posted this. You have some fresh thoughts I don't remember seeing before.