Changing US Demographics and Classical Music

Re-posting Ramon Ricker’s blog about Changing US Demographics and Classical Music in full, just because it can never be said enough!

Posted on November 9, 2009 at 5:00 am by Ramon Ricker
in General
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Here’s a personal observation and some thoughts.

When my wife and I visited the Netherlands a couple of years ago we were fortunate, at Judy’s persistence, to get tickets to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. We started a couple of months early trying to book tickets online, but they were “sold out.” Knowing that tickets often get returned on the day of the performance, we went to the concert hall that afternoon and talked to the ticket people. They put our names on a list (we were first on it), and they told us to come back a half an hour before the start of the concert. Long story short, Judy charmed our way into the Queen’s seats. The Queen did not attend the concert that evening and the seats were made available at the last minute. I’m not kidding. We got them—the best seats in the house. (I don’t know why I’m setting the stage like this.) Anyway—It was their new conductor’s debut, (Mariss Jansons), and he did Mahler 6—the one with the hammer blows. The percussionist with the hammer must have made it himself. It was gigantic and beautifully made, all of wood. He picked it up like he had a Strad in his hands.

As we waited for the concert to start, I looked around the hall and noticed that the patrons didn’t look like any of the people we were seeing on the street. The concertgoers were stereotypical “Dutch people,” in my mind—good sized with mostly fair complexions. But the people on the Amsterdam streets were much more diverse. There were many more dark-skinned people—I suppose from Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East. I thought to myself, “The people in the streets can’t be listening to European classical music. I’m not hearing it anyplace out here. The demographic of Amsterdam must be changing. But if it continues to change who will be coming to these concerts in 50 years?”

Now, scroll over to US orchestras? In my mind it’s the same as the Amsterdam example. As I look out at the audience at a Rochester Philharmonic concert, the attendees don’t look the same as the general population of Rochester. I ask myself, “Why were US orchestras formed in the first place?” My guess is that the population was predominately of European descent at that time, and they probably wanted to experience or recreate the culture of their homeland. It felt natural to them.

Thinking about the well-documented changing demographic of the US towards greater numbers of citizens with other than European (read: white) ancestry, I can’t believe that this population, in 50 years or probably less, will want to sit in a concert hall and listen to Mahler. It’s not in their DNA or culture. And that’s not a put down. They also don’t get exposure to this music in schools. If I keep going along this line of thinking, I don’t see a bright future for “classical” music in general or US orchestras in particular. Sure this music will be with us, but will professional musicians be able to make a living playing it? That’s already difficult to do today in all but the largest US cities.

In order to maintain their competitive advantage, companies must spend time and money trying to envision the future, asking themselves questions like: Who will be our customers? Where will they live? Will they need our product? In what form should it be? Etc., etc. As musicians it is probably a good idea for us to do the same. If I were a young musician just graduating from music school and bent on a performing career, I would be asking myself these questions too. I would also be flexible and ready to take advantage of opportunities that may arise.

When trying to envision the future, I am reminded of this quote that is attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. It’s a good one. When asked how he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and consequentially scored more goals than others, he replied, “I don’t go where the puck is. I go to where the puck will be.” Orchestras and musicians—maybe we should try to be like Gretzky.

What do you think?

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