The Classical Music “Crisis” and Millennials

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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