Flanagan and Changing Tastes for Classical Music

Last night of the Proms

In Chapter Five, “The Search for Symphony Audiences,” of Robert Flanagan’s book, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, the author discusses several reasons for audience decline (as well as the statistics demonstrating this decline).  He does note, since this is what the NEA data tells us, that decline has happened for virtually all types of live events (which I often point out here and in other discussions about the decline) so whatever conclusions we can draw about the supposedly “more popular” types of live entertainment and the way they get marketed and draw audiences isn’t going to necessarily be of much help if it doesn’t allow those other events keep audiences.

After stating that “virtually all varieties of music have declined in public favor since 1992 (NEA 2009)” Flanagan makes a connection that many of you folks who are regular readers of this blog have already heard me say:

This trend is easier to report than to explain.  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.

Interestingly, Flanagan doesn’t say anything about the rising racial demographic gap here in the U.S.–which could surely have only made his case stronger.  If the median age of the population of whites in the U.S. is rising at a greater rate than the median age of the population of the U.S. as a whole it might be interesting to see how much a percentage of classical music audience decline correlates with the growing percentage of the population that is non-white.

Not that getting that younger and non-white population is going to ‘save the orchestra’ as is well known, even if orchestra fill their halls every time, the operating budgets would still need to be filled with contributed income (either private or public).

Within this next week I think I’ll be reviewing each and every chapter in Flanagan’s book.  As I just finished reading it yesterday afternoon I’ve been mulling over it for some time now.  Almost nothing in the book is surprising to me (or to anyone that has kept up with Orchestral economics), but the book doesn’t signal the death knell of Orchestras (or Opera or Ballet) either.

It’s a relatively unbiased view of the economic situation with plenty of data to back it up.  And a very easy read with concise descriptions and explanations (and excellent summaries at the end of every chapter).  It reminded me more of a series of technical articles yo would find in any peer reviewed journal in the sciences which is perfectly understandable as Flanagan is an academic economist.  What I find remarkable is the accessibility of the text–it is well worth the read.  Likely, it should be required reading for anyone going into the orchestra field in administration, management or even to serve on boards or as symphony musicians!

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