Thursday, December 2, 2010

Waiting for the day the music dies

On @GCcomposer's blog Killing Classical Music @Pattyoboe asked this seemingly perennial, and thorny, question:

"It's always been a puzzlement to me; we try to do new music and we lose the older audience. Sure, we want the younger ones in the door, but guess who are the largest contributors? So how do we deal with this?

I'll never forget the 1975/76 year in my city; we brought in American composers or groups for each concert: Copland, Cage, Hovhannes, Harry Partch Ensemble, Chavez ... it nearly killed off the symphony because renewals for the following year dropped horrendously. Sad, but true.

So how do we solve this, I wonder? Doing new works is (mostly) wonderful. It is also extremely expensive compared to doing the old stuff that is already in our library. We either need to convince the wealthier, older donors that that is true, or we need to convince younger people to start donating. Or both."

A really complex question, with many issues swirling within it. And it is important for classical and conservative music organisations, hose audiences are, quite literally, dying off.

Obviously marketing, new modes of performance, new media, and suchlike are partial answers to the question as to how to engage a broader audience. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, for instance, stands as a stirling example of how to simply promote classical music more effectively.

But I don't think this gets to the root of the question. At root, it's an issue to do with the meaning music has; the function it plays in the broader sweep f peoples' lives. The context in which music is heard has a much more significant impact than we like to admit. For instance, audiences that will boo and hiss Messiaen at the symphony (I heard it happen in New York in 1989) will just love the same music as a movie soundtrack.

But there's another piece to the puzzle: recording. Younger audiences are using recorded music more and more as their mainstream musical experience. What I mean is, older audiences will go to a Beethoven concert and then maybe buy the recording as a sort of memento of the live experience. A second-and version, in a way. But for younger audiences steeped in the pop paradigm, the recording IS "the music", while attending a live performance is an exciting optional extra.

In a way, this is good news. As I ask my students, "how many new recordings of Beethoven's fifth symphony are going to get made?". There will come a time - maybe it has come already - in which there are diminishing returns. Now it's cheaper and cheaper to record, more new music is easily available on iTunes ...

One final thought to add into the mix. Younger audiences are less interested in the passive consumption of music (and the typical concert is the most passive experience one could imagine) than their older counterparts. But there is a groundswell of participation in all types of music performance. I conduct a university choir in which there are many young people who would be much less likely to learn to get to know and love a classical work - Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, say - by attending a concert performance than they would through participating in a performance. We have just performed a concert of music by Australian composers, nearly all living. By the end of the experience, all the participants had become advocates of new music, despite their initial reservations. I think participation in music-making, not just passive consumption, is the key to engagement.

I offer no answers, just some partial thoughts. But answers are required; large orchestras and opera houses will start to fold unless they adapt to the changing nature of music, music technology, music participation. They will have to embrace the new in more ways than one.


  1. Thanks for the mention and for quoting me (but it's pattyoboe ... no i!) :-)

    One of my questions regarding embracing the new is regarding how to do that without sacrificing quality. I've participated and observed some of the "new" and, sadly, the quality wasn't where I think it needs to be. I wonder if we just have to let go and deal with this lesser quality. Will the (generally younger) public notice a difference? Is it better to get their attention even if the quality is somewhat lower?

    Just pondering ... and of course I'm "old/er" (whatever that means) so my thoughts might not count for much.

  2. What ages do you have in mind when you refer to younger and older audience members? Do you sincerely think the uninitiated young audience will know or particularly love the difference between old & new classical and/or come based on the age or living/dead status of composers on the program?  I know very interesting, talented composers and performers in LA who do new music well and they have a heck of a time getting an audience, young or old.

    Have you considered that audiences won't "die off" if orchestras intentionally market to those who are ripe for a more passive concert experience with still decades left to attend, develop loyalty, and donate?  I think it's a fallacy to think that today's 20s and 30s are forever lost if not somehow seduced now, while they're more naturally drawn to what's popular/conforming and high-energy, like rock concerts, clubs, bars, etc. Most people do change with age (see many non-pathetic elderly at those same rock concerts, clubs, and bars?).  Today's older audience includes a lot of yesterday's hippies who wouldn't have been caught dead at a classical concert when they were the age some seem to think is critical to classical's survival (they were doing then what the young now prefer). I maintain that it's misguided to think the future of classical lies with young audiences NOW. They're in a different stage of life (naturally attracted to more youthful, adrenaline-pumping, "popular" pursuits) - and, for plenty, that will change with time.  Enough of them will eventually mature into tomorrow's audience.

    Meanwhile, people are turning 35-50+ every day, with 30-55 more years to live. Maturity brings interests beyond the sensory-stimulating pursuits of youth, more introspective yearning for depth (including arts), greater concern for community and more.  In a very few years, 50% of the population will be over 50.  IMO, smart long-term marketing will focus on and warmly welcome them, not dismiss them as old fogies dying off, therefore less valuable as audience members. The rest of their world treats them that way. Classical music can expand its good in the world by being inclusive and embracing of those at a stage in life when ready to include classical concerts in their lives - and support them.  Younger audiences not only generally don't have the resources for major donations (much less tickets!), but they're still more self- than community-oriented (general life stage thing) and less likely to make substantial donations.  

    I'm not against new ideas (still haven't heard a single new one yet, though, just wailing that classical's dead if it doesn't update/conform), but disagree with the desperation to seduce young audiences based on their current tastes (which will mean continually jumping through hoops as those fickle pop-oriented trends change).  I believe there will always be an audience for high-quality classical performance. For the young worriers, it just may take a decade or so for them to look more like you. It did for me.