Audience sitting in a movie theater
Audience sitting in a movie theater

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the issue of declining audiences for classical music here (see especially my post, What if there’s really no “decline” in Classical Music audiences?) but have only touched tangentially upon the purported “Aging Audience” issue.  Most of what I’ve blogged about dealt with how much we as a culture tend to idolize youth and how that creates interesting economic consequences when we believe (erroneously, as I think) that this youthful demographic (the “Savior Demographic” as I have been facetiously been calling it) will, well, “Save the Day” for industries prone to the Cost Disease.

Matthew Guerrieri has taken some of the data as has been mentioned on numerous occasions at Greg Sandow’s blog and shown how the aging audience fits in perfectly well with the the rising age of first marriages (for both men and women) and average life expectancy rates.  In other words, the trendlines match almost exactly.  He also mentions the average first birth rate fits in pretty well with the average rise of the age of the audience.  Note that these are all median ages, not arithmetic means.  As Guerrieri states:

This intuitively jibes with the NEA’s “Audience Participation in the Arts” surveys, which show the median audience age going up for all surveyed forms of performance. In other words, the problem—if it even is a problem—would seem to be more a function of demographic evolution than a lack of cultural wherewithal on the part of classical music specifically.

In my comment on his blog, which I’d originally posted on a discussion I was having with Lisa Hirsch on her facebook page about how the rate at which the audience is aging almost perfectly matches the rate at which the US population is aging (again, median age)–here’s the relevant comment for reader’s convenience:

Oh, as an aside, the median age of classical music audience is proportionally the same relative to the median age of the US since the Baumol and Bowen Study (1963-1964)–going back to the earlier studies (LA Orchestra 1937; Grand Rapids 1937; Minneapolis Oymphony 1955) isn’t particularly helpful since those weren’t 1) random samples; 2) were self-reported; 3) were particularly small samples (n= approx 900; 1000; 1900 respectively) relative to the sample size of the later studies Baumol/Bowen, NEA SPPAs, MkKinsey studeis (n= 28,000; 18,000; 25,000 respectively)–and Greg should know better than to take the arithmetic mean of the median age of the two 1937 referenced studies (33 and 27) and refer to that as ‘median age’ (30) of that study as a whole–just doesn’t work that way. Of course the median age of audiences has risen faster than the population–otherwise the latter wouldn’t be consistently within a range of 74-76% of the former for all five time points (1963-64, 1982, 1992, 2002, 2008)–the average life-expectancy has maintained a consistent proportion to the median age since 1900 too (range between 46-49%) and that had to rise far faster relative to the median age of the population to remain so. I think the doom and gloom folks make far too much of the median age issue–the actual decline of audience issue is a bit trickier, but I think given how mass media has developed–and how entertainment industries have capitalized on them (or not as the case may be) has far more to do with the decline of population cohorts than anything else.

Since that conversation, I’ve managed to get copies of all the primary source materials (except the Minnesota piece) that Sandow has been using, as well as compiling a bibliography of a number of other sources that do discuss median age of audiences–most of which take place between the original 1940 book mentioned and 1976 (well before the first NEA SPPA in 1982) and will be taking a very critical look at each and every one of the sources and how they are being used to “prove” that the median age of the audience for classical music has been rising faster than the median age of the US population.  In other words, as Guerrieri states:

Which circles back around to Botstein’s point—classical music has historically played to an adult audience, it’s just that the passage into adulthood—as indicated by first-marriage age—has been getting later and later, and the length of adulthood—as indicated by life expectancy—has been getting longer and longer.

There are so many inaccuracies as well as fallacious reasoning behind the usage and interpretation of this data that I think it might be useful for those of us interested to really understand what these numbers mean, and the limits of what the numbers can mean within a broader context of demographic data.  Also, I’ll relate this to that other issue of the declining audience which, I believe, is a much more serious issue but one that may also be overstated though in ways (if you’ve read my first linked blogged post above) that are counter-intuitive since we don’t tend to think of populations as being heterogeneous with correspondingly heterogeneous preferences.


For more post in this series, visit the Aging of Orchestra Audiences page.

14 thoughts on “Aging of the Orchestra Audience is a Red Herring

  1. I still REALLY find this fascinating — tracking the “aging” audience to the general aging of the population is something that should have been done a long time ago. It really is a big elephant in the middle of the discussion.

    Another piece of reasoning I’d love to see considered (alongside the non-aging of the audience, and the idolizing of youth) is the fact that becoming enamored of classical music in middle age for many people is not a symptom of stodginess but a desire for something new and fresh. Outside of the classical music beltway, very, very few middle-aged to older folks have ever heard even the Four Seasons all the way through nowdays. People who are hitting retirement age today were the ones getting blitzed out of their minds at Woodstock and headbanging to Page and Plant. Vivaldi, Mozart, and Beethoven may be “been there done that” for the classical beltway folks who have heard it a million times, but there are a lot of people who are interested in hearing it completely through for the very first time precisely because they’ve heard pop and rock for the last 40 years and are looking for something new.

    Basically, if after 4 decades, today’s greyhairs were still listening to pop and rock at their (our) age, they (we) really WOULD be farty stodges who wanted same-old-same-old.

    I’ll leave aside my pet dead horse, which is the classism inherent in thinking that a chi-chi 300-seat club club that puts on shows at 10pm on weeknights is in ANY WAY less elitist than a matinee concert in a 5000-seat city concert hall within walking distance of public transit.

    Anyhow — I LOVE this article. I would buy a book by you if ever you decided to write one to counteract the current messages. “Why The Audience Isn’t Aging Any Faster Than The Rest Of Us.” “The Savior Demographic and the Idolizing of Youth.” “Why Wanting To Hear Classical Music Is An Adventurous Choice for Today’s Middle-Aged.” “Why Pop Music and Sports Models Won’t Work for Classical Music.” I’d seriously buy it.


  2. You know, I wonder if an essay collection by people like you, me, Soho the Dog, Lisa Hirsch, etc. wouldn’t be a worthwhile endeavor. “The Iron Butterfly: Why Classical Music Will Be Around for a Long Time to Come.”


    1. Thanks–glad this is striking a note *ahem* –and yeah, that Billy Joel comment about coming to classical later in life–I never thought of it before, but it makes a kind of sense. Since I teach so many kids music, I’ve gotten to know a number of parents who were never really particularly musical nor had any musical training, but have really grown to appreciate it so much later in their lives. One parent, whose daughter just started music school, is in the process of learning as much about all the standard composers as possible–every week she’s telling me about the latest thing she learned about the ‘greats’ and all the music she’s listening to now. Other parents take their musical kids to concerts–something they wouldn’t have otherwise done had their child not picked up an instrument–and just hearing their enthusiasm for something they’ve never really grown up with is so refreshing!

      And ugh–I’ve been around, and played shows with enough local pop/rock band musicians to know that many of them are every bit as elitist as any fan of classical music or classical musician.

      There’s just so much wrong with how the median age numbers are being used as ammunition for, well, whatever chicken little viewpoint suits the agenda–and the misunderstanding of usage of numbers and statistics is just deplorable–even if you can just get past the (intentional?) misquoting of actual figures.

      And essay collection by the four of us would be ace–I would buy it (even if I weren’t one of the contributors!!)–maybe we need to look for a publisher? I am actually shopping around for some academic/peer-reviewed journals to submit some of what I’ve been blogging about in a more polished format (of course), so with luck some of this will get to a ‘broader’ audience.

      I think the biggest irony here is that, given Greg Sandow’s latest barrage of “musical maverick” posts–someone like me, who’s probably so far left of what most of his examples are doing, is one of the most vocal defenders of the ‘status quo’ in a manner of speaking! 😛


      1. Short comment: yet more irony in the fact that someone like me, who grew up in extremely modest (let’s say) financial circumstances, is pointing out that the chi-chi club model of “hip, trendy” classical music is actually a way for the elite to maintain classical music as a sort of Lexus for the ears.


      2. I can relate! After moving back to this area, I occasionally drive by a number of the houses I’d lived in here (we moved a lot) only to see how many of them have been, well, demolished. A few not long after we’d moved out (or were asked to move out for whatever reasons). I felt the same way about a local and, from what I understand, very popular art gallery in town–went to an opening night and there were literally hundreds of young hipsters there rocking out to one of the several hip local bands playing in various wings, or skating in the makeshift roller-derby ring they set up with a DJ in another gallery–all while sipping their wine, dressed in their Art-Gallery-Opening-Best safe and secure in the knowledge that they are the right people in the right scene!

        Made me want to go and beat on some amplified sheet metal! 😛


      3. A not-really-tangential minor comnment: ” … that Billy Joel comment about coming to classical later in life–I never thought of it before, but it makes a kind of sense..”

        This reminds me a bit of something that’s not even musical: my oldest brother is in his mid-50s now and has been a carhead for his ENTIRE LIFE, restoring, fixing, pampering the things like tropical fish. After over 4 decades of it … he’s simply starting to be done with it. He still does it from time to time, but gradually, he’s just finished with it after over 40 years. He’s done EVERYTHING, he’s learned EVERYTHING, he’s restored and driven EVERYTHING … And it’s starting to get been-there-done-that for him. What else is there to do after a while?

        It makes sense to me that folks in their 40s and 50s might feel the same way about pop and rock music, aside from their core loves. It is NORMAL for people in midlife to go looking for all kinds of other experiences, beyond music as well. Middle age in general is starting to sound like a time of exploration, and not stodginess, and we’re in an era when that’s more easily culturally facilitated. And for them, the enduring warhorse standards of classical music comprise one more unexplored territory.


      4. It’s makes sense now that I think about it–but would we have thought about this particular issue had we not had the experience of your brother or my students’ parents or the Billy Joel Comment? I guess it’s an issue of awareness, and getting out of our own idiosyncratic worldviews to consider how other folks might feel about such issues. And I guess that’s where you remarks about academics, who are constantly surrounded by college age ‘youngsters’ may have a skewed worldview that is much more informed by the issues their students may resonate with, right?


      5. That and possibly that they are also moving toward what is new for them. For a lot of the insiders, I suspect that until they had students, they were fairly ignorant of popular music and so maybe now they are finding that to be new and unfamiliar … ? Ultimately, might we all be moving toward whatever seems like a shiny object to each of us … ?


      6. ” … getting out of our own idiosyncratic worldviews to consider how other folks might feel about such issues.”

        OMG YES. Everyone seems to be moving toward the new bright, shiny object.

        1) Typical non-insiders to classical music are thinking of Beethoven and Vivaldi as new and fresh.
        2) Classical insiders are thinking of popular music and some avant garde stuff as new and fresh.
        3) Anyone very familiar with Western music of one kind or another is thinking of other cultures’ traditions as new and fresh.

        And your comment highlights that, for obvious reasons, the people who are the insiders in classical music feel somehow that their definition of “new and fresh” is the real definition within that world.

        Didn’t you make a comment/post someplace about how the western classical tradition might have an interesting row to hoe making cultural inroads in say, India, not because Western classical music “fails” to be sufficiently politically correct to attract them but just because they already have an enormous, complex tradition and so don’t really feel the need to get that particular itch scratched with Mahler? That they aren’t poor little neglected outsiders but simply entrenched insiders in their OWN culture? Their idea of “new and fresh” isn’t ours, where of course “ours” means Western beltway insiders.


      7. “Western beltway insiders”


        Yeah, I think that’s the gist of it–we have skewed ideas of what constitutes the “new” and “fresh” because from our vantage points we can’t often see things within our own spheres as being something that can be new or fresh! Then we skew our predictions relative to what we think will be embraced as new and fresh–and sometimes, just sometimes, we don’t even understand the actual breadth of our own fields since we might also be caught within a subset within that world as well!


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