Is there really a Classical Music Crisis?

I’ve been trying to catch up on my blogroll, mainly because (and maybe this is ironic) I’ve been so busy gigging that I haven’t really had much time to dig into my subscriptions.  This weekend will be no different as I’ll have 5 shows to play plus the two on Monday.  This despite Greg Sandow also stating that freelancers are having a hard time–this past month for me has been my busiest gigging month in, well, a year or so.  To be fair, I have a bit of an unorthodox skillset that allows me to, as the proverbial chinese chopsticks say, “pick up anything” so maybe I’m not a fair case to judge by.

But that’s what this post is about.  Eric Edberg posted a recent post at his blog questioning whether or not there is a classical music crisis.  He also linked to a recent post by Drew McManus (also on my blogroll though I hadn’t gotten that far yet) about the same topic.  I think they are a bit cautious about making such a claim (even if they both might have hinted at it in the past).  I don’t really think there’s a crisis either.

Or rather, I’m stating now that after a couple years of exploring and researching the subject that I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t really a crisis.  Sure, the face of classical music is changing, but Anne Midgett put some of that in perspective with a recent blogpost about the situation in Germany almost 20 years ago.

Let me quote at length what she says about Orchestras in Germany (she follows with some info about Opera and ballet companies):

Twenty years later (almost), we can look back and see what the crisis actually looked like. According to the book “Musical Life in Germany,” an informational publication put out by the German Music Information Center (MIZ) that just landed on my desk, there were 168 publicly financed concert, opera, chamber and radio orchestras in reunified Germany in 1992. “Since then,” the book states, “35 ensembles have been dissolved or merged.” That’s a lot. There are 2,237 fewer full-time positions for orchestral musicians in Germany today than there were in 1992 — a loss of 18%. As we wring our hands over the loss of orchestras in Louisville, Hono lulu, Syracuse, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s declaration of bankruptcy, imagine what we’d do if we lost 35 of them. The vast majority of these closures were in the states of the former East Germany; some areas, particularly smaller towns and cities, were left without orchestras and opera companies at all. And mergers and closures are continuing to take place.

However, even after all these cutbacks, Germany still has 133 orchestras, and 83 opera houses – one-seventh of the world’s opera happens in Germany alone. And the number of orchestral concerts, and of attendees, is actually going up: there were about 1,800 more orchestral concerts in the 2008-09 season than there had been in the 2001-01 season (and no, those figures don’t include school concerts and educational events). Orchestral attendance, given at 3,666,142 in the 2000-01 season, was, by 2008-09, up to just over 4 million. What are we to make of this?

Yeah, what are we to make of this?

See, for a few months, after mulling over data regarding live audiences versus audiences for digital media and/or live HD streaming, it just seems like the audience is still there and just as strong as it has always been.  Just the way the audiences ‘get their fix’ of classical music has changed.  Many of the pieces, reports, studies, etc. seem to be saying the same things–even over a relatively broad period (in some cases up to 20 years)–the audiences are still there, but they just aren’t going to live events.

I was thinking that what would happen here in the states is exactly what happened in Germany.  There’s going to be a restructuring–we’ll probably lose alot more orchestras before its over, but in the end with fewer orchestras, there will be a slightly (if not significantly) bigger audience for all of them.  Just as what seems to have been happening in Germany.

Part deux

What’s curious to me though, is that the German case also doesn’t give comparative analyses.  Or rather, given just Midgett’s post, it can be hard to see how the Classical music situation fits into the bigger picture.

Many of you already know I’ve been keeping tabs on the rising non-Western orchestra trend in this country, so it’s a given that I would like to know how, for example, the significant Turkish minority in Germany view the arts and what their participation in it is since in general ethnic groups are slightly more likely to attend arts events relevant to their ethnic backgrounds (and Turkish Art music has just as long and venerable a pedigree as Western Art music).  But I’m also thinking about other large and ponderous organizations, such as sports.

I’ve already stated some of my comments about using sports as a possible model or inspiration for renewal of a (not so dire) Classical Music scene in my previous post,  but lately since I’ve been playing the Convention circuit, I’ve also been hearing the same things regarding what ultimately constitutes a type of event that is inherently a part of pop culture–I mean, how much more popular can you get than the huge Star Wars/Star Trek contingents who regularly attend several of these yearly conventions every year?  But many of them are also currently having problems–Trekfest itself almost shut down this year and I know that the Sci-Fi convention in Louisville I recently played at is on the rocks, possibly not to return next year.

Also, as I was touring around the country with Multi-Grammy award winning Ray Price (who still, despite his 85 years, maintains a full touring schedule ) for a few years, the talk amongst all the regular band member who had been with Mr. Price for some length of time (in some cases, literally decades) was that “things weren’t as good as they had been” even five or ten years ago.  There’s just no work, and/or, the audience attendance was down from what they’d remembered.

I had the opportunity to talk to a number of the venue managers, booking agents, and other personnel involved with running these concert halls–in fact, I made it a point to always talk to them and ask a lot of question as I would like to see one of my many regular groups to tour and was doing case study research.  These were venues that many top names in the popular culture industry were performing.   I would pick up a season brochure and find names like Bill Cosby, Willie Nelson, Lady Gaga, Stomp, Cirque Du Soleil, alongside Ray Price and some newer acts (like the Chinese Arts troupe, the Divine Performing Arts).  Many times, I would get similar responses about declining audiences and poor attendance, etc.  The same complaints leveled at Classical Music institutions–but at high profile “Popular” entertainers.

Part trois

So sports and popular entertainment don’t give us a model of sustainability and relevance that Classical Music seems to lack as it is.   This is just telling us that culture is changing in general; and we’re obviously still at the tail end of a recession; and contra these big and ponderous organizations that are doing relatively poorly, there’s all the news that implies smaller and more adaptable organizations seem to be doing well.

I’ve blogged about some of that as well, though don’t feel like finding every single post to reference here any more than I wanted to reference all the posts I mentioned above either.  Think of this piece as a distillation of all the things I’ve been thinking about and researching.

In the end–going back to smaller organizations an adaptable organizations–I think, from my own perspective and from the perspective of, say, the US changing ethnic demographic and the rising non-Western ensembles to supply the demand for “indigenous” entertainment I’m not at all surprised at how many classically trained musicians are part of some of these larger orchestras as well as how comfortable musicians that don’t play Western instruments are much more comfortable “playing out” (as they call it in the ‘local [pop] musician’ world).  Which is just a reflection of the adaptibility of the US to its changing demographics.

Maybe not changing nearly quickly enough for some of us-I still haven’t come across Thai musicians doing anything other than Thai Classical music (nothing wrong with that at all) but it’s only going to be a matter of time before some of these orchestras start commanding the same cultural space, though for a different demographic, that Western Orchestras used to.  And personally (though I would support the Louisville Orchestra more had I the time) I would much rather be experiencing one of these orchestras live, if only because right now, my choices are relatively limited to a Euro/Anglo-American musical world.

Until then, I’ll keep building new sets of skills to help facilitate and bring all this non-Western music into the public consciousness, because in the end–the real underdogs right now, are trudging along on their own.

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