“Wither the Audience for Classical Music?”

I was going to post something else, but had come across this piece, “Wither the Audience for Classical Music?,” by Douglas Dempster (while he was Dean of the Eastman School or Music) in the Harmony: Forum of the Symphony Orchestra Institute yesterday.  I had posted some snippets in the cello chat thread I started (that I mentioned in a previous post), but have also had a discussion exploding after I posted a link to Michael Kaiser‘s (President of the Kennedy Center) piece, “The Orchestra Conundrum,” on my facebook page where I mentioned some of Dempster’s analysis. 

Rather than bog this down with my own poor prose, I’ll just quote some of the more interesting bits and let you peruse the links to discussions above if you want more of my thoughts on the issues. 

Also of note, and relevant to this issue.  The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has cancelled the rest of their season.

A careful review of this research suggests a less startling conclusion. It is true that younger generations of Americans, especially the baby boomers, are not attending classical music concerts with the frequency of older generations. However, every generation considered in this study increased very significantly its listening to classical music through radio and recorded media over the 10-year period between 1982 and 1992. Americans born between 1916 and 1945 listened to classical music on the radio with greater frequency than younger generations. But growth in radio-listening habits was the very greatest in the baby-boom generation.

As the entire American audience for classical music was shifting toward radio, at the expense of concert attendance, baby boomers, more than any other demographic group, were shifting their attention to recorded media: the LP record, the cassette tape, and the CD. Between 1982 and 1992, listening to classical music on recorded media increased for every age group of Americans.25 But it increased the most, during that period, for the baby-boom generation.

These complicated statistics tell us several things. First—and this should be no surprise—classical music consumption is heavily influenced by electronic technologies and media. Audiences have shifted, and will very likely continue to shift, their discretionary time and dollars toward new technologies for listening to classical music. Second and contrary to the critics, younger generations of Americans do seem to be “growing into” a more mature interest in classical music, but they will probably, much more so than their parents, satisfy that
interest outside the concert hall. The audience in the symphony concert hall may be aging, in relative terms, but the overall audience for classical music is not.26 Third, the trends revealed by these demographic data have no special relevance to classical music; very similar trends can be found affecting a wide variety of other art forms and entertainments.

I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.

To illustrate: it’s true that professional orchestras have struggled financially as they have reached various limits on audience size, cost-cutting, fundraising, and expansion of programs. However, at the same time that orchestras have struggled financially, chamber music is enjoying enormous growth in the U.S.31 While it’s not the whole story, the mobility and cost-effectiveness of chambermusic groups surely contribute very significantly to the comparative economic success of chamber music. The struggles of symphony orchestras are reported everywhere in the press, but one hears little about the growth of chamber music.

I’m not entirely sold on the “death of Classical Music” but I do understand there are difficulties.  But it’s nice to see that there is growth!

related link:


5 thoughts on ““Wither the Audience for Classical Music?”

  1. I haven’t even finished reading the article, but this really struck me: “It is true that younger generations of Americans, especially the baby boomers.” Since when are baby boomers young???? The children of baby boomers are adults now!


  2. Back to media, which keeps coming up. Do you know of any orchestras that have made money by selling recordings of their performances? For example, had the concert I attended last fall been recorded (maybe it was?) and then a link to iTunes put on their website and on their FB site, I would have happily paid for the piece with the guest violinist. Probably for the piece with the bandura too.


  3. That’s an interesting question that’s popped up in some of the discussions about finding ways to make money for orchestras–why not record all the concerts and even if making a CD for each might not have the best returns, make them available for download for the normally nominal fee? And something that some opera companies are already doing is the live HD streaming into theatres that are equipped for that kind of setting. I nearly went to a Metropolitan Opera showing right in Louisville in one of the HD theatres as I had a friend who had worked on some of the choreography for it–I think I ended up having to play shows that whole weekend, but maybe orchestras could figure out a way to do that.

    But these organizations can be ponderous and conservative machines and it may take a while for them to wort out how to make that work.


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