The Classical Music “Crisis” and Millennials

The Seattle Chinese Orchestra
The Seattle Chinese Orchestra

The Seattle Chinese Orchestra

I was reading a few posts about Millennials in Classical Music at Catherine Starek’s blog, Mezzaphonically Speaking, and it occurred to me that I haven’t spent as much time taking a look at how the changing ethnic demographic of the US is affecting attendance at music events.

Sure, I’ve brought up the emerging Demographic Racial Gap (e.g. the White population of the US is aging faster than the ethnic minority populations); I’ve suggested that what some have called a decline in Classical Music audiences might simply be a good match of the proportion of the White population to attendance of an art form dominated by White musicians and audiences (with a minor exception); I’ve discussed how changing ethnic demographics can be matched with changing arts organizations and that growing economic and social power can lead to the creation of non-Western Orchestras, Ensembles, and Bands; and how these things can imply a perfectly rational explanation for “Classical Music Decline” without the whole Doom and Gloom we’re seeing from some voices.

That aside, in Starek’s most recent post, she compiles some info about how Millennials feel about Orchestras.  Setting aside the issues that come from self-reporting/self-selecting in surveys, and the fact that the sample size is kinda small (n=110), I’m glad she’s actually collecting data rather than relying on anecdotes and heresy as some other Arts bloggers are wont to do.

But here’s an issue, in light of my focus on the ethnic distribution of populations and how that can affect the arts (it’s something that is also something of a problem for the NEA SPPA, so Starek’s in good company) — what is an Orchestra anyway?

Sure, we have an prototypical meaning of it that most of us understand it which historically ties the meaning to those big musical organizations having ties to European Art Music. But what about something like this:

or this:

The Seattle Chinese Orchestra and the New York Arabic Orchestra also orchestras, but probably not on the mind of survey takers for the SPPA and Starek’s survey.  The problem here isn’t that they aren’t factored into survey/questionnaire designs so much as when we base our conclusions about participation and attendance to Orchestras, we might come to incomplete conclusions about how active certain populations are in Art Music.  This could then lead us into thinking that fewer people are interested in such things and would rather be at more “popular” forms of entertainment when in fact I suspect the interest in “high art” might be relatively constant–it’s just what gets defined as high art (e.g. Orchestra) is changing to reflect ethnic demographic change.

How these conclusions become problematic depends on the types of responses we give for changing the model of orchestras–especially as they may reflect using Popular Entertainment models to invigorate the Art Music models.

Since there is no lack of ink spilled over bringing in a younger audience to Classical Music, premised on this populist idea of mixing up the arts with popular entertainment, it might be useful to understand that, as I’ve often stated here, there has been a rising number of Art Music organizations and non Euro-American bands–usually centered around dense ethnic populations (though not necessarily always the case)–and infusing Western Art Music with Western Popular Music/Entertainment isn’t likely to draw in the more ethnically diverse younger population.

Obviously this won’t address other issues of audience attendance and interest for classical music as a recent Knight/Wolf report and the NEA SPPA show with online participation.  Then again, popular entertainment industries are having the same issues too, so it’s a moot point.

In the end, Millennials aren’t “the problem” any more than the “Decline of Classical Music” is.  Times change, and populations are going to be interested in things that have to do with their own personal and idiosyncratic histories–much of which just happens to include ethnic and local backgrounds. As Flanagan states (quoting Kolb):

The trend does coincide with the increasing demographic heterogeneity of the U.S. population, particularly in the cities that typically support orchestras.  In the words of one observer: “The ethnic groups that do not trace their roots to Europe will increasingly affect the definition of national cultural values.  The traditional value system associated with classical music concerts is not universal, but derived from a European cultural heritage.  The style of concert performances may not appeal to members of ethnic groups” (Kolb 2001, p. 20).  The distinctly smaller proportion of ethnic minorities attending classical music concerts in the United States is consistent with this view.  There is a certain irony in this development, since earlier generations of immigrants stimulated the formation of early U.S. orchestras in the 19th century.

As the ethnically White Euro-American population diminishes and slides towards “minority” status, it only makes perfect sense that more recent generations of immigrants will stimulate the formation of a different kind of US orchestra.  In fact, they are already here.

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13 thoughts on “The Classical Music “Crisis” and Millennials

  1. You know, I’ve got an observation about this whole issue …

    I’m thinking of what you brought up before (well you talked, I ranted) when so much pre-Beatles pop music was written by folks who cut the vowels off the end of their names, and so much swing music was written by people who had cut the “-stein” off the end of theirs. What I mean is that pop and band music WAS greatly influenced by folks who were considered part of the ethnic Apocalypse in the early 1900s … but as long as they changed their names, no one even registered that it was happening, or at least didn’t register that it had an ethnic component. It was seen as just a lot of talented, creative Anglos making interesting new music.

    Hence, this sort of thing has already happened once before — it just flew under our radar the whole time.

    Which raises the question: If the applecart was already upset once and we didn’t even notice its ethnic origins … is it really the huge thing we think it is? Or rather, I just think it won’t turn out to be the thing we’re making it.

    Or maybe its ethnic origins were noticed at the time, and we’re forgetting that as well. So the forgetting is just one level up …

    Anyhow, just some rambling. I suppose what I’m saying is that, much like the classical music crisis, this new thing that is happening that we all think will be such a game-changer has also already been with us for a very long time.

    • I think we’ve just forgotten most of it. As much reading as I’ve been doing on music from the first half of the 20th century I’m struck by how aware of various issues folks (even everyday lay-people) were about the ethnic origins of things. With the benefit of hindsight, we’ve also lost the sense that people from that period were often highly critical of various “non-American” groups (of course what constituted “American” depended much on who finally got accepted into the club).

      I was just reading about the early history of the Film Industry and the technologies being developed and how the later disrupted live performance and was struck by how there was literally a huge battle (mostly legal, though some of the activities certainly weren’t) between the Major studios and the smaller “independent” studio which were run primarily by Jews–the latter won out, and eventually came to form all the big studios we recognize today (e.g. Paramount, MGM, Warner Brothers)–there was a lot of anti-semetic sentiment involved in those early battles.

      We’ve gottten so accustomed to all these forms of entertainment (including Classical Music) that we’ve forgotten that all of them were once associated with some ethnic or immigrant group!

      • Yeah … I think there’s a good chance that even the name changing was sort of a “let’s not talk about it’” curtain drawn over the fact that, for example, everyone at the time knew that Dean Martin was a paesan and Irving Berlin was a Jew but that they were sort of bowing politely to mainstream society by visibly pretending not to be.

        I think the name-changing and hiding poses more damage to later generations who don’t realize how rampant it was, and who have no reason to think they were named anything other than Martin and Berlin.

        (And I do think that there were many others who did very definitely hide it, especially the younger ones who were trying to appeal to teens.)

        We’ve gottten so accustomed to all these forms of entertainment (including Classical Music) that we’ve forgotten that all of them were once associated with some ethnic or immigrant group!

        Say amen, somebody.

      • And you know what, that’s another bunch of quotes I need to get out of that couple of mouse-crusher books on Haendel’s operas that I’ve got: reactions from “patriotic” English writers in the 16- and 1700s of the infiltration of this strange, effeminate, ethnic music called “opera” on the good, old-fashioned, red-blooded English populace in terms of cultural pollution and making them forget their good, old-fashioned English songs to be sung in the King’s English. :-)

        There is NOTHING new under the sun, especially the insecurity caused by running into someone who isn’t like oneself.

      • And now I wonder how much of an effect the whitening has had on all those early artist’s careers. I mean, would we still be talking about Dean Martin if we had to talk about Dino Paul Crocetti or Irving Berlin if we had to refer to Israel Isidore Beilin?

        I think we only have to imagine that kind of pressure to change names and the type of ridicule that accompanies it by all the times we’ve had to roll our eyes at an “Obama bin Laden” type comment. And most of us don’t have the benefit of having the Secret Service in our attendance (though I guess we could argue that Sinatra had the Mafia, I guess).

        I actually have many memories and experiences of hiding my ethnic background here in the midwest–I’ve done some talks in schools about some of those experiences and how it’s a little more different now–but then again, that’s probably also because I’m an adult, and am not from the Middle East.

      • Oh YES! That is interesting and I know I have collected a few regarding the Turkish music craze/influence in Mozart/Beethoven’s music. I hadn’t considered how various Europeans must have regarded German Symphonies vs. Italian Opera vs. French Ballet!

      • I don’t know if they would have been allowed to have a career without stiff-arming their ethnicity. The only time one is generally allowed to succeed is by essentially agreeing to make your own kind look bad, either by playing the stereotypes or in meta-fashion by visibly backing away from what you are. (I mean, Sinatra and Martin were both part of that Las Vegas Rat Pack scene, but the mob associations in the present day have only continued to dog Sinatra.)

        I’m very heartened by the things you’ve said about the kids of recent immigrants and the immigrants themselves nowdays being much less willing to do that. What one is can evaporate more quickly than you think.

        And yeah, the xenophobia was all over the place — it’s always been. And it’s depressing how frequently it connects to fears for the mainstream society’s masculinity.

      • We have made much progress on that front–I’ve seen more ethnic performances even in this region of the country than ever before. And more Americans not from the ethnic background doing performances of ethnic music.

        I think the biggest dilemma now is why do we need to keep calling it “ethnic music” rather than just American music? One of the things I do with il Troubadore is to highlight many of these issues. Doesn’t hurt that many of our original tunes are written in styles that aren’t traditionally considered “ethnic!”

  2. Experience is another factor. This small study has me asking the question “why no interest.” Sandow will say it’s the experience, but I disagree.

    I’ve taught music appreciation at the college level in two large metropolitan areas. Those classes were often highly diverse, or more filled with minorities than Caucasians. The only students in my classes who had heard an entire symphony all the way through were the few who had played in orchestras. Almost none had seen an opera all the way through. So, I led exercises in these areas, going through a Mozart symphony, teaching students about the important features of the form, pointing out thematic ideas, etc. We listened as a class and took moments to talk about them.

    I also took the opportunity to show students operas–once Das Rhinegold, the other Die Zauberflote. With Die Zauberflote, I was more prepared, with handouts not explaining the plot, but with questions for the students to consider.

    Both of those experiences were listed as major cornerstones of what my students loved about my classes. Several stated they would be more willing to go to concerts in the future (especially after I showed them how to get student rush tickets).

    I personally think a lot of it has to do with personal experience. Classical music is not part of the day to day life of most people, and usually only experience in commercials or movies (as a general style). Those unexperienced with the form feel they can’t understand it, that there’s something special “to get” with the music. That preconception closes more doors than sitting in a chair quietly.

    With the pullbacks in music education, and a focus on performance related education in middle school and beyond in America, younger generations aren’t even being exposed to the experiences as often. And, if they are, it’s an isolated event–a special school trip to see the Nutcracker in 6th grade, or a watching a couple scenes of an age appropriate opera in 4th grade. This is no fault of the teachers, as they fight for jobs and to show their curriculum is worthwhile, it’s hard to say “But my students appreciate orchestras!” and get administration to believe it’s worthwhile.

    So, perhaps instead of running off to change everything because it’s “not working,” perhaps we should look and see how certain demographics aren’t being served by organizations. Not just in their programming, but in actual service, in reaching out and providing experiences for young students. Some orchestras do a great job. Others lack the financing to expand their efforts. This is the essence of outreach, and something I think that many pundits are ignoring. And it’s where organizations need to step in and help teachers and schools be able to provide the experiences needed to change the minds of listeners.

    • That’s one thing I occasionally discuss–especially as it relates to outreach and educational initiative which some “new modelers” advocate for orchestras. Since we’ve all but lost the intense arts education in school systems, which was a nation-wide initiative, there’s just no way for individual organizations to replicate that level of education and exposure.

      It’s as much a financial, governmental, as it is a corporate-commercial issue. Corporations will go for the profits, and their ad dollars drove traditional broadcast media which focused on cheaper entertainment (like sports) to produce rather than orchestras. This created a feedback loop whereby orchestras were getting less broadcast time while sports got more, and the latter lost some of the backing to keep interest while the former snowballed in a corporate feedback loop which has probably gotten to the point where it is no longer financially stable as we are starting to see traditional broadcast media in decline.

      Without that broadcast media, and the early educational exposure, bureaucratic institutions had more to do with any loss of audience than classical music’s so-called “Lack of Relevance” has!

      • Yeah — I’m almost 50, and I grew up when cutting the arts started to get serious. No music in school except for the yearly musical (which we only had because I’d gone to a more well-heeled school after leaving the first one, which had ZERO ZIP ZILCH NADA), no arts, no nothing. The start of the downward slide. The only reason I had a major, major exposure to classical music and opera was because of my family, specifically my dad. It was a big part of our heritage, but that was also on a slide downward as people began moving into the suburbs and away from the ethnic enclaves.

        I think I would have been musical no matter what — I started nagging my parents for a piano at age 4. But the whole exposure and experience hinged on one person whose existence couldn’t have been predicted.

      • I remember that I posted about how the last big demographic cohort that has high attendance were right at the edge of the boomers, who were also the last generation to regularly see Classical Music on the telly with any regularity.

        Sadly, we just can’t replicate that early exposure at an institutional level–or rather, arts organizations can do it.

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