So a few weeks ago I was playing around with numbers, namely I was playing around with the numbers given by various surveys regarding arts participation as well as population.  Keep in mind that data are simply the raw numbers you work with while statistics (or statistical methods) is (are) the interpretation of the raw numbers.

The NEA (2009) released some figures from its Survery of Public Participation in the Arts for 2008 as well as the preceding 10 year intervals of the survey (which began in 1982).  Note that the sample is relatively large (18,000) so extrapolation from the sample size to the whole of the population isn’t especially problematic–at least in many ways but more on this later.  Given that, then for the four years with data we have:

  • 1982 – 13.0% = 21.3 million
  • 1992 – 12.5% = 23.2 million
  • 2002 – 11.6% = 23.8 million
  • 2008 – 9.3% = 20.9 million

where the percentage and following number is the adults attending at least one classical music concert during the previous year.

These are the numbers being thrown around by the Classical Music Doom and Gloom group and reported in various news sources with the commentary that this shows the marked and continuous decline of classical music attendance in the US.

For those of you who are wondering “how can the percentage of people attending at least one classical music concert go down while the number of actual people attending goes up?”  That’s just an artefact of the rising population of the U.S. — the percentage of the growing population is declining even while the total number of attendees is rising.

White population of the U.S.

Since 1970, the percentage of the population that is white has been steadily decreasing by an average of 3.5 percentage points every ten years to the all time low of 72.4% in 2010.  The all time high(s) was(were) in 1930 and 1940 at 89.8% and by 1970 had only dropped by 2.3 percentage points to 87.5%.

If we assume an average 10 percent decrease per year in between census counts to get approximate percentage of the White population of the U.S.  for the years 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2008 (82.54%, 79.3%, 74.4%, and 73.1%) and calculate the the percentage of adult population attendees given the percentage of the White population, then the numbers we have would be:

  • 1982 – 11.1%
  • 1992 – 11.4%
  • 2002 – 11.1%
  • 2008 – 9.4%
U.S. real median household income by race and ethnicity from 1967 to 2008 from “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008” (U.S. Census Bureau 2011)

and could indicate that classical music attendance is in a relatively constant proportion to the proportion of the White population in the United States.  Note that the 2008 figure is an outlier, but if we look at the years when the surveys were given (the year preceeding the numbers) we know that there were small recessions in 1981, 2001, and of course what many are calling the “Great Recession” which began in 2007.  The small recession in the early ’90s ended in beginning of 1991.

Other reliable indicators for attendance

Median income levels (but not per capita income levels) along with unemployment levels,  are considered markers for the Economic Capacity of communities for classical music (i.e. Orchestras).  According to Flanagan (2012) population size is an even more reliable indicator of economic capacity.  He states that “[p]opulation captures the potential size of an audience, while real income and unemployment signal the economic capacity of the population to attend concerts and support a local orchestra” and that

The key local characteristic that emerged from the statistical analysis is population size.  Orchestras in areas with larger populations experience higher attendance per concert; within an area, attendance per concert rises as population increases and declines as people move out of the area.  Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities have encountered increasing difficulties in supporting their orchestras as the population of their city centers has declined.

This would seem to be relatively intuitive–more people, larger potential (or real) audience; fewer people, smaller potential (or real) audience.  Flanagan, however, doesn’t look at the demographic make-up of populations.  Only 39% of Philadelphia consists of a White population (approximately 595, 142 of the total 1,526,006 population) while Detroit’s white population is merely 10.6% (75,758 of 713,777).

Metropolitan Statistical Areas obviously give different proportions.  The Detroit MSA is 4,296,250 with 70.1% of tat population being white giving the 6 county area a White population of 3,011, 671.  What is interesting is the the MSA is also home to the largest Arab-American population in the U.S. (and by some counts, the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East) with a population of 403,445 mostly centered in Wayne County.

The city of Dearborn in Wayne County is 40% Arab-American, and is also home to the Michigan Arab-Orchestra, which is an organization that specifically play Art and Classical music from Middle Eastern countries.  This is similar to the Bay Area which has a population of approximately half a million Chinese-American and which also boasts the highest number of Traditional Chinese Orchestras per capita in the U.S.

While it seems to be true that a larger population is much more likely to support a large ensemble, the demographic of the population can have as much to do with what type of large ensemble will be supported.  With a rapidly changing racial and ethnic demographic in the U.S. it shouldn’t be surprising to see more non-Western orchestras emerge.

Preference Externalities or Who Benefits Whom

Waldfogel has long studied preference with regards to different markets.  In many of his studies he’s found that there is a correlation between the ethnic and racial demographic and the types of Radio, Television and Newspaper media supported in the cities and metro areas (Waldofogel 1999, 2003, 2004, 2007; Berry & Waldfogel 1999; George & Waldfogel 2003).  Given the number of large non-Western Orchestra that have emerged and flourished in areas with large ethnic and racial populations and the possibility that there is a decline in European styled Orchestras in areas that have declining White populations, there’s good reason to believe audience preference for performing arts organizations is similarly correlated to ethnic and racial populations.

Waldfogel’s studies have also demonstrated that the total population count doesn’t necessarily matter for the specific media markets–what does matter is the population demographics.  Having more (higher proportion of) Whites in a population doesn’t increase the number of Radio, Television stations or Newspaper publications that are preferred by Blacks or Hispanics any more than having a higher proportion of Blacks and Hispanics in a population will increase the market size for the media targeted to, and preferred by, Whites.

We know from most of the data as exists that the audience for Classical music consists of primarily Whites.  We also know that the median age of the White audiences for Classical music is rising faster than the median age of the population of the U.S. as a whole.  The other side of the coin tells us that the median age of the U.S. is younger than the median age of the White population, and that the proportion of the White population is shrinking in comparison to the proportion of ethnic and racial minorities.

So if it is true (and my crude figures at the beginning of this post are simply an initial and informal interpretation of the numbers) that the audience for classical music is roughly correlated to the proportion of the White population with neither a marked decline nor rise, then given the changing demographic make-up of the U.S. the absolute decline in classical music audiences relative to the total population shouldn’t be too surprising.  And neither should the emergence of non-Western styled orchestras and an audience for classical art music from outside of the Western world.

The other aspect of Waldfogel’s analysis is that given high fixed costs, the above kinds of market forces are expected to take place.  In other words, until a population with a specific preference reaches a certain size (critical mass) then the product will not be produced.

While there is an overall decline in the proportion of the White population in Philadelphia and Detroit, for example, that’s not the whole story. Chicago’s demographic profile with regards to the proportion of the White population is comparable to Philadelphia’s but Chicago has nearly twice the population of Philadelphia, giving it nearly twice the number of Whites in a region that can support an orchestra.  Both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the LA Philharmonic benefit from having a larger absolute population pool with the right preferences (i.e. Whites) to help keep these organizations doing relatively well in comparison to Detroit and Philadelphia.

I think that a closer look at population demographics of the regions orchestras are based might give some interesting details and is something I’ll probably be looking at in future posts.

What does it all mean?

I think one important implication, if what I’m hypothesizing is anywhere near correct, is that European Styled Orchestras in the U.S. might need to decide how their size, budget and season can match the demographic of the audience that seems to be closely tied to them.  The alternative is to figure out a way to reach the growing racial and ethnic population in ways that those populations are already starting to do for themselves in the creation of Traditional Chinese Orchestras, Arabic Orchestras and other non-Western large scale ensembles.

One suggestion given by the doom and gloom sayers has been to use popular music as a model to follow, but as I’ve said in the past, that’s wrongheaded for several reasons, not the least of which being that the NEA and other data is also showing a marked decline in all forms of traditional American popular music attendance which, in a similar way to classical music, can also be tied to a traditionally White audience.  Again, as Flanagan states

More important for the question of preferences, the percentage of adults who report liking classical music has declined steadily since 1992 and by  2008 was below the 1982 level.  This information contributes to an understanding of the trend decline, since cyclical influences on the evolution of tastes seem unlikely.  Once again, classical music is not special.  While some types of music (classical rock and country and western) are more popular than others (opera and bluegrass), virtually all varieties of music have declined in public favor since 1992 (NEA 2009). (Flanagan 2012, pg. 56)

so adopting and incorporating pop music elements into classical music will do little but delay the decline as many pop music genres in the states are also in decline.  Whether the ethnic pop and art music genres are also in decline is unclear but with regards to preference Flanagan does talk about the changing U.S. demographic

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. (Flanagan 2012, pg. 56)

Of course, I would amend Kolb’s statement regarding “classical music concerts” with “classical music and pop music concerts.”

I believe that the ultimate irony here is that, in the two examples I gave regarding Traditional Chinese Orchestras and Arab Orchestras–both emerged as a fusion of native traditional art forms with the large scale European Orchestra model that those cultures encountered through Westernization and Colonialism.  Similar hybrid ensembles exist throughout the world through contact with European culture: Mugam Opera, The Georgian National Ballet, Turkish Firqat, Persian Symphonic Music, Bulgarian Folk Orchestras.

Now we are finding these ensembles, originally heavily influenced by European Orchestras, becoming more and more prominent in the U.S. (which has essentially given up its drive to create a distinctly American Concert Music in favor of preserving European–and sometimes Soviet–masterpieces) which is just a reflection of the changing ethnic and racial demographic of this country.

With the release of the 2012 NEA SPPA, we’ll have a chance to see if the dip in 2008 is an artefact of the recession or if it shows a continuing trend towards a real decline.


  • Berry, S.T., J. Waldfogel. (1999) “Public Radio in the United States: Does It Correct Market Failure of Cannibalize Commercial Stations?” Journal of Public Economics 71: 189-211.
  • George, L., J. Waldfogel. (2003) “Who Affects Whom in Daily Newspaper Markets?” Journal of Political Economy 111:765-784.
  • Flanagan, R. (2012) The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges. Yale University Press.
  • Kolb, B. (2001) “The Effect of Generational Change on Classical Music Concert Attendance ad Orchestras’ Responses in the UK and US.”  Cultural Trends 41:1-35
  • National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).  (2009) 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.  Research Devision Report no. 49.
  • U.S. Census Beureau.  (2011) “Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1967 to 2010” Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010.
  • Waldfogel, J. (1999) “Preference Externalities: An Empirical Study of Who Benefits Whom in Differentiated Product Markets.” Working Paper 7391, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Cambridge.
  • Waldfogel, J. (2003) “Preference Externalities: An Empirical Study of Who Benefits Whom in Differentiated Product Markets.” RAND Journal of Economics 34:557-568.
  • Waldfogel, J. (2004) “Who Benefits Whom in Local Television Markets?” Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 5:257-284.
  • Waldfogel, J. (2007) The Tyranny of the Market: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Harvard University Press.

21 thoughts on “What if there’s really no “decline” in Classical Music audiences?

  1. Great and thorough investigation of this topic, especially given that we are always hearing about how ‘pops’ concerts are necessary to keep otherwise traditional ensembles active. Nothing wounds me more than the assumption that people can’t enjoy the music of the great European masters without hearing another tacky arrangement of Beatles tunes in front of them.

    Global ensembles are on the rise, and I think that this is only a good thing; we need to have a wide variety of styles that is not merely a play on popular tastes. “If you build it, they will come” can apply equally as well to music. Don’t use a gimmick to sell your brand; be yourself and the TRUE fans will come to you.


    1. Exactly, Jazzman–my next post is going to be specifically about brands and how ineffective they are and how that possibly has to do with changing ethnic demographics. The changing demographic issue is so often left out of the analysis and I think so many insights can be found by looking at how closely tied ethnic audiences (or preference minorities) are tied to specific musical genres (either pop or art genres).

      Basically, it seems to me that by producing events with ties to popular culture, the audience base may well be bigger, but it is shrinking as much if not even faster than the audience base for classical and other traditional art musics. The end result is a delay in the decline, no real answer to it!


  2. This analysis is disgusting. Classical music exists only for Caucasians? You have to use some incredibly twisted logic and racist reasoning to account for the decline in popular music audiences. You should be ashamed!


    1. Nope, just saying that for the most part, Classical Music audiences–and musicians have been primarily White which is tied to the European background of most immigrants to America. There are practically no Whites playing in the traditional Chinese Orchestras in the US which have audiences primarily composed of Chinese-Americans, and the musicians found in Arab Orchestras like the New York Arabic Orchestra, consist of a large proportion of Arab-Americans which have an audience comprised of mostly Arab-Americans.

      I’m not ashamed of anything to admit that Western Classical Music and the art musics of other cultures appeal to audiences with a background from which those art music originated, and it’s not particularly controversial to state what most statsitics about demographics already say about the issue.

      Some could just as easily say that assuming Western Classical Music is something that should be appreciated above and beyond every other music, and by audiences of all types because it’s a ‘universal’ and ‘timeless’ music is the real racist (or at least nationalist) sentiment here.

      Decline in popular music audiences is just as well documented, and we can put that in perspective with the growth of such non-US popular music industries centered around the Eurovision Competition, which draws up to 600 million viewers, worldwide and the Bollywood Music Awards which draws up to 300 million viewers worldwide, compared to the American Grammy Awards which the media made such a big deal about with it’s record breaking 46 million viewership:


  3. This struck me:

    “The alternative is to figure out a way to reach the growing racial and ethnic population in ways that those populations are already starting to do for themselves … ”

    and brought me back to an idea that I had floated in another of your posts … WHY do Western orchestras feel that it is even their place to be all things to all people? I mean, if these other classical traditions are as complex as the Western one (which they are), then how the hell can a Western-trained orchestra do that music justice and serve those populations a tenth as well as they can serve themselves?


    1. Right–when I first posted this almost two years ago, I obviously felt very differently about how to draw in audiences. And this was still on the tail end of my changing viewpoint about large ensembles-or at least I think I was trying to make the point that Large Western Classical Orchestras aren’t the only large art ensembles, but what if we really tried to change them in this manner?

      I decided to tweet this piece because I was getting some hits for it from a bulletin board discussion about that recent Slate piece–someone actually linked to this post and referred to it as a study! I’d love to turn it into a study, but for now it’s just a hypothesis–with growing data which can support it, but a hypothesis nonetheless.

      I think that in this wider debate–the Crisis folks’ need to change orchestras (since they narrowly focus on them as one of the few organizations that matter to classical music)–that suggestion, which many have rejected and I’m sure many more will, might illustrate the fact that switching to a more populist sample of repertoire might be just as big of a complication–and for very similar reasons!


      1. Yeah, I did look up at the date when I realized that the picture looked familiar to me. 🙂 I know my own opinions have shifted and crystallized gradually since I stepped into this whole issue. It’s strange, but the assumption by eager, earnest young people heavily invested in the traditional (Western) classical music industry that they can and should be a part of whatever serves a non-European population can be motivated by a desire to be genuinely helpful and “inclusive.” But it always ends up being SO “white man’s burden” in the end.


      2. Good point. I gave the classical is dead camp the benefit of the doubt when I first heard of it–I’d been so long out of that scene I had no idea how people viewed it. But the accumulation of more info just showed me how precarious that position is, and how it’s being used more as a selling point for something else.

        And I remembered all my readings about cognitive and cultural bias, and I started to get a different sense of all this.


    2. One rather obvious point about relating Western classical music to ethnicities is the great attraction it has for Asians. When I first went to Japan, I looked on the radio dial for stations playing traditional Japanese music and couldn’t find them. Western classical music stations were quite numerous.

      I do note that audiences for classical music concerts I attend in my large East-Coast city have very few African-American members. I can think of some reasons for that, but I’d rather not speculate.


      1. I’ve mentioned the Asian overrepresentation in Classical Music in a previous post: and really, they are overrepresented in the performing arts, period. Nearly all of the Chinese Traditional Orchestras in the US is populated by Chinese/Chinese Americans!

        Some organizations, like Sphinx are trying to create greater representation of blacks in Classical Music.

        There are some very interesting sociological reasons for the discrepancy, and I should write a post about them!


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