Aging of the Orchestra Audience is “A Function of Demographic Evolution”

The Hobbit movie, in 3 weeks, has surpassed the international take of The Hunger Games during its whole 29 week run.  That's Staying Power!
The Hobbit (1937) movie (2012), in 3 weeks, has surpassed the international take of The Hunger Games (2008) movie (2012) during its whole 29 week run. That’s Staying Power!

“In other words, the problem [of aging audiences]—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.”


The graying of classical music audiences seems to be one of the talking points for those who claim that classical music is on the decline.  Much of this has become an issue because of the coverage of the latest NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) from 2008 and the subsequent analysis of the trend of a rising median age of [all] audiences–and in some cases, the rise is far faster than the rise of the median of the population as a whole.  As I mentioned in my first post in this series of blogs about the Aging issue, “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,” and Matthew Guerrieri has noted that the rising median age tracks almost exactly with the trendlines for the rising median age of other events such as first marriage age (for both men and women) as well as the rising life expectancy as birth.

The quote at the beginning of this post is the main point that Guerrieri makes in the post I linked.  Since we know from the NEA SPPA data, all audiences are aging rapidly (including Stadium Rock and Sporting Events since both are included in the benchmark events) so the worry over the aging of Classical Music Audiences is misguided.  While looking for pieces about aging audiences, I forgot to include “Classical Music” or “Orchestra” in the search phrase and came up with only two of the first ten hits (excluding my original post about the Aging of Orchestra Audiences is a Red Herring post) dealing with the issue in other entertainment or arts industries.  Here are the pieces, and in the order they showed up on my google search (followed by the corresponding industry, even if it is obvious by the title, in parentheses):

  1. Gray Gardens: Broadcast Audience Older Than Ever (Television)
  2. Musical Briefing: Ageing Audiences (Classical Music)
  3. Theater audiences are getting older (Theater)
  4. Media’s ageing audiences: Peggy Sue got old (Television, Broadcast Media, Popular Music)
  5. Aging of the Orchestra Audience is a Red Herring (Classical Music)
  6. Aging rockers. Aging audiences. Hope they retire before they get old (Popular Music)
  7. Oscar’s aging audience: Time to shake up the academy? (Cinema)
  8. Broadcast TV Audience Aging FASTER Than US Population (Television)
  9. Chasing Audiences: Too Much Emphasis On Youth? (Arts and Classical Music)
  10. Age and Arts Participation: 1982-1997 (Arts and Classical Music)

Viewers, listeners and readers are ageing [sic] fast. Oddly, media companies don’t regard that as a catastrophe

The fourth piece in the list has the subtitle, “Viewers, listeners and readers are ageing [sic] fast. Oddly, media companies don’t regard that as a catastrophe.”  In other words, as I’ve mentioned in the past (in a commentary on #9 on the list above) because the baby boomers are now entering into retirement age, they constitute one of the largest markets (and one with a lot more buying power as a result of the size) than any that has preceeded it.  Here’s a quote from the piece:

“They” are consumers in late middle-age or beyond, who increasingly drive the music market. In Britain people aged 60 or over spent more on pop-music albums in 2009 than did teenagers or people in their 20s, according to the BPI, a trade group. Sony Music’s biggest-selling album worldwide last year was “The Gift”, by Susan Boyle, a 50-year-old Scot whose appeal derives in part from her lack of youth. And what has happened to music has also happened to other forms of entertainment.

As a piece (in case the link doesn’t work, here is the cached version) from noted in the middle of last year:

As of two weeks ago, old albums outsold new ones for the first time since Nielsen Soundscan started tracking U.S. album sales, back in 1991. The first half of 2012 brought sales of 76.6 million catalog albums (i.e, albums released more than 18 months ago) as opposed 73.9 million current albums. Some of the best-selling catalog albums are fairly recent beasts that won’t go away (Adele’s 19, Taylor Swift’s Speak Now); some are ancient classics that should be carved into Mount Rushmore (Dark Side Of The Moon, Licensed To Ill).

And this was the butt of a humorous (thanks to Janis for pointing this piece out) “4 Easy Solution To Problems We All Complain About“–the third problem is, “We Can Start a Music Revolution Right Now” and from the opening paragraph:

I’m talking about the fact that music is scientifically proven to have gotten progressively more bland and homogenous since the 1970s. Or consider that the list of top-grossing concert tours is almost entirely populated by artists who haven’t had a hit in decades. The simple reason is that new music isn’t even worth leaving the house for. But people are still hungry for music that actually says things beyond “Here we are in this club — watch me dance to this beat I didn’t create.”

Aging Rockers

The aging rockers piece is another not so nice take on the problem.  Here is a select quote from the beginning of the piece which sets the tenor of the whole work:

Someone was telling me the other day that he went to a Bob Seger concert in Ypsilanti, Mich., and couldn’t believe how old the audience was.

How old were they? I asked obligingly.

The audience was so old he half expected to see adult diapers for sale beside the souvenir T-shirts.

It occurred to me later that since veteran rocker Seger is now 66 years of age, maybe the theme of his classic song Night Moves now has something to do with the large intestine.

This definitely fits into the “too much emphasis on the youth” idea discussed by Judith Dobrzynski (#9 on the list) and in my post about her blog.  Also, as you can see from the study linked in Dobrzynski (and I posted some select quotes from the piece in my post), older audiences are becoming disillusioned with broadcast media’s constant focus on the youth market.  I’ll requote this one, as it seems to embody the frustrations of a demographic that is quickly becoming more than half of the population of the US:

A Tempering of Our Youth Obsession

“Why is the society obsessed with youth? Is it a media-created thing? My grandma says in her times only older people were taken seriously and highly respected. So what happened? Why is everyone so ageist nowadays? I find it stupid big time.” —Giselle, posting on Yahoo! India

Ironically, aging rocker Billy Joel, in a masterclass from Tanglewood (1997), stated this (again, thanks to Janis for pointing this out) close to the 19 minute mark, “People in my age group are turning away from popular music in droves — we don’t like what we hear. We’re looking for something else, we’re looking for an alternative. Let’s hear some of this classical stuff. Maybe played by somebody new.”

What’s More Popular: Twilight or Harry Potter? Twilight’s Aging Audience

There’s no guarantee that what is popular today will be popular tomorrow.  that’s a truism, I think.  That Classical Audiences still enjoy Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms means that the dozens, if not hundreds of forgotten composers during those periods are practically forgotten.  That is staying power.

In an interesting piece talking about the relative staying power of the Harry Potter franchise as opposed to the Twilight franchise:

According to the demographic numbers over at Vulture, 80% of the Twilight audience was female– I know, I know, please try to control your shock. The actual surprise, though, is the age of the women who were seeing it. 60% of Breaking Dawn‘s audience was over the age of 21 and under 25; by comparison, only half of the audiences for New Moon and Eclipse were over 21.

Given that both of those movies came out several years ago, it seems safe to conclude that the Twilight audience is aging with the movies, without bringing in a significant number of younger fans to join in their fandom. Compare that to the Harry Potter films, which throughout their 10-year run consistently brought in kids, to the point that the kids seeing Deathly Hallows Part 2 in theaters weren’t even born when Sorcerer’s Stone came out in 2001. Where Harry Potter turned out to be a long-lasting phenomenon, these numbers might indicate that Twilight is more like a fad, intense and memorable for the people that are part of it but unable to translate for anyone who comes after.

How do we know what’s a fad, and what actually does have staying power?  How do we know that, 50 years after the publication of the Harry Potter books there will be a renewal of interest in the franchise such as the one that’s happened with the Middle Earth franchise (e.g. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit)?

How do we know that the current Youth Obsessed Popular Entertainment markets aren’t just fads based on the Demographic Evolution of the 20th Century?  That is the big question, and though the timeline might have been a bit longer for this fad, it is certainly starting to look as if that’s all it was–a fad.  And it will probably be a mistake to adopt the marketing and economic techniques used to develop that fad in fields (e.g. Classical Music) which already seem to have some level of staying power.  Develop the staying power, not the fad.


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


  1. Smiled very widely when I read the fourth article and saw this quote: “They don’t download, and they don’t want to download.”

    Want to make money as an artist nowdays? Court older audiences.


    • That piece is just full of money quotes! And an insightful look (along with the Judith Dobrzynski piece) on how the “other half” of the older demographic feels about all this focus on youth who just aren’t particularly willing to support things!


  2. BTW, thanks for linking that Billy Joel comment; as a pianist, I have to say that he is someone who makes me happy and even maybe a little proud to play that instrument as my primary one. He started out as a heavily classically trained musician (11 years of very hardcore lessons), and has slowly found his way back to it. He’s released some classical stuff, which is not Brahms but still it’s pretty good.

    The reaction of the classical insiders was in many cases to throw a conniption fit. He took attention away from them! What’s he doing muscling his way in and writing classical?! That’s OUR fishpond! *sigh* Greg Sandow even did an interview with him after his classical album came out that had more than a few patronizing comments implying that Joel was a lesser musician without having gotten schooled and certified properly by the beltway academics, that no one could really “do” classical right unless they had gotten the star chamber stamp of approval. This from someone who talks about how to attract outsiders! I started out admiring much of Sandow’s passion and seeming commitment, but that really BUGGED me, and was the first sign of the gloss wearing off of his punditry for me.

    They talk such a good game about attracting new folks and breaking the boundaries, and when someone with such great talent and experience came flying in from the side, they want him to either

    1) get back on his side of the fence, or
    2) debase himself before his betters before being allowed to participate in their holy space.

    You know why Billy Joel “got to” release a classical album? Because he’s Billy fucking Joel, he paid his dues, and if they want to get their classical albums accepted for release as quickly as his was, then they can damned well have 4 decades of brilliant work behind them.

    Anyhow, that was a bit of a tangential rant from nowhere I know, but the insiders’ reactions to Joel dipping his toe into the world of classical music was so totally in contradiction to what they claim to want.


    • I’m listening to those piano pieces and think they are delightful–sure, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking in them, but so what? Like early Mozart, Beethoven, or Chopin was particularly groundbreaking, right? This review sums up the attitude you’re talking about–this part, from the end, in particular:

      Fantasies , yes of course…. but you should have been satisfied with your not too shabby rock career. Achieving what you achieved would be anyone’s wildest fantasy come true.
      Delusions of grandeur, most assuredly but only if you think this concoction is worthy of inclusion in the Schirmer archives.
      Then again, maybe it is I who is making the mistake by treating this too seriously; maybe it was intended to be nothing more than parody.

      To potential listeners: if you want “classical” music look for the real thing. If you want Joel writing for and playing the piano, try “Piano Man”. That is where he hit his peak.

      But if you like water in your wine, by all means this would be the music to listen to while you savor it.

      I think the negativity shown towards this (and I remember similar things being said with McCartney released his Oratorio) does more damage to classical music than anything else. I don’t think Greg’s Wall Street Journal review is quite as negative, but there are certainly hints of that attitude in it.

      I think all classical musicians (and critics) should be required to spend some years training in a actively working pop/rock band (cover or original–doesn’t matter which) so they can really understand that side of the music industry and the nature of the work that goes into it before they start spouting off cuff like this (and before they start saying what should be taken out of that field as a working model for classical music). Sheesh!


      • I’m thinking of Joel’s homage to blues “Baby Grand,” which Ray Charles didn’t get into a pissy snit over. He participated instead of implying that some suburban white guy didn’t should have stuck to his rock career. And there was his homage to the Four Seasons “Uptown Girl,” and Frankie Valli didn’t get his rocketship underpants in a knot over that. Only the classical folks got their bowels in an uproar when he set a toe into their tiny little pond. Jesus.


    • Oh–and, you’re very welcome for linking the comment! It would probably be good for more people to know that there are fans of classical music (any classical music–not just the new stuff) out there in all walks of life!


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