Was there ever a “Before the crisis” in Classical Music


He’s at it again.

Yes, the classical music crisis, which some don’t believe in, and others think has been going on forever.

This is the third post in a series. In the first, I asked, innocently enough, how long the classical music crisis (which is so widely talked about) has been going on. Answers poured in, here and on Facebook and Twitter. The answers — as I said in the second post — suggested that we don’t know how to talk about our crisis, because we don’t have enough information. Compared, as I’ve said before, with data that’s widely available about other industries in crisis, like newspapers.

In future posts, I’ll show why non-crisis beliefs — that we don’t really have a crisis and that the crisis has always been with us —  don’t hold water. I’ve worked in classical music, as a student and professional, since the early 1960s, and I guarantee that there wasn’t widespread talk about a crisis, about classical music being endangered, until perhaps the 1990s. Though hints of it had surfaced earlier.

I’ll also offer data — from my own experience, and from what others report — that can teach us when and how our crisis showed itself.

Of course Sandow states that “These situations have been paraded by crisis skeptics, as if they showed that the crisis is perpetual, but when that happens, they’re taken out of context.”

He tries to give some of that context, while ignore other contextual aspects as I pointed out on his facebook page here (reproduced below for the reader’s convenience):

“New orchestras were created. Half of all orchestras that existed in the US in 1940 were founded during the depression, despite 25% unemployment and a huge drop in industrial production. Which could hardly have happened if classical music had been in crisis.”

It happened due to the WPA and Federal Music project funding. Nearly all the WPA orchestra formed during the depression era no longer exist. It’s actually a similar to the economic bubble that happened during the Rockefeller/Ford funding years (and to a lesser extent the 90s boom). In both periods there was rapid expansion, and after the funding ceased the industry was forced to adapt for funding. Few enough of us would recognize popular music from that era. With the exception of niche groups like Pink Martini we have no more Sinatras, Dean Martins, Edith Piafs singing to full scale backing orchestras and the era of the big band is effectively over too. The cost disease will eventually negatively affect any kind of industry where the product (e.g. live performance) requires significant human labor. With the funding that came from the dying broadcast media and big labels drying up as those industries hemorrhage, sports and popular music will follow course too as they are already showing signs of doing.

Cherry picking (also known as: suppressed evidence, fallacy of incomplete evidence, argument by selective observation, argument by half-truth, card stacking, fallacy of exclusion, ignoring the counter evidence, one-sided assessment, slanting, one-sidedness) is also another fallacy, one that he’s claiming those who don’t have his viewpoint have done while doing it himself.  Of course Rosy retrospection (otherwise known as Nostalgia bias) is a pretty robust human trait too. and is necessary for us to believe in a magical pre-classical crisis world (or to redefine the boundaries of when the crisis began).  To be fair, maybe he’ll fill in the contextual holes in his viewpoint in future posts since he seems intent on beating this dead horse.

And this is not to say that how the crisis was viewed was at all homogenous, or that the sense of the Classical Music industry crisis has remained the same–as I mentioned I’ve only listed the pieces in my Timeline of Orchestra Crisis that talk about a general crisis.  For every one of those pieces there are a handful of pieces that talk specifically about individual institution deficits and season changes due to shortened funds.

I’m sure we can even go further back and find nothing about deficits and funding issues simply because nearer the Cival War era there really weren’t many permanent (as opposed to professional–an important distinction that’s made by early 20th century discussions of orchestras in the papers).

Sandow is right about one thing–none of us seem to know exactly what we’re talking about simply because none of us have a very good historical perspective on the topic and simply Cherry picking all the negative (or positive) press and mentions about Classical Music throughout US history isn’t going to give us one!


18 thoughts on “Was there ever a “Before the crisis” in Classical Music

  1. “Was there ever a “Before the crisis” in Classical Music?”

    NO. Mozart had to nag his employers for money. Claudio freaking Monteverdi was owed YEARS of back pay in the very early 1600s and never got it! (Bach probably stayed in church music partly because of the steady paycheck.)


    If Sandow wasn’t talking about a crisis in the 1960s, it’s because he and his friends weren’t middle-aged yet. The only crisis here is his awareness of his impending mortality.


    1. “The only crisis here is his awareness of his impending mortality.”


      I really think that Economic History of Classical Music needs to be written–I’ve half a mind to write it myself. It would be interesting to see what the court musicians and then the secular musicians had to deal with regarding their livelihood.

      And really, if anything it’s a crisis of SOBs right now. No one is really talking about Chamber Music, Solo Artists, or for that matter the SOB management and CEOs who seem to still get paid even when there’s no product.


    2. I’m not really trying to be ouchy — he’s got a lot of energy, verve, a great platform, and he’s not stupid by a long shot. But damn it, I’m almost 50, I can call out someone’s midlife crisis when I see it.

      I can understand a teenager thinking that because they are feeling something for the first time that it’s the first time anyone on Earth has ever felt it. That’s part of what being a teenager is about — you have new feelings, and you’re sort of taking them out for a spin before you learn to steer. But for him to still be acting like that at his age is not good. After a while, aging makes you realize that the world doesn’t calibrate itself by the stage of life you happen to be going through. Or it should — otherwise what the hells the point of it? There’s got to be a silver lining to it SOMEPLACE or else it’s just farting a lot when you wake up in the morning and knee joints that sound like Rice Krispies when you go up a flight of stairs.


    3. I hear you. And maybe I’m too jaded but I often work around college aged kids (and younger ones for that matter) especially in my New Music Esnemble and I get to hear all the lofty ideals and wanting to do music solely for the sake of art and other romantic tropes and I always have to bite my tongue to keep myself from stepping on their dreams. I guess I’m just going to turn into one of those grumpy old men. 😛


    4. Yeah, I don’t want to get seriously personal because well … it’s an assh*le thing to do, but I really do think there’s a personal component to this. That plus I think the Dr.-Haber-ish qualities in the whole thing irk me — personal influences apply to me as well, certainly.


  2. You mean having a 20-years-younger wife and 2-year-old don’t cure late-midlife-crises? (He is nearly 70.)

    Re cherry-picking: it’d be interesting to know how many orchestras folded during the Depression, and how many newly-founded orchestras didn’t survive to 1950.


    1. His latest post is about all the exapansion of orchestras during the depression years. I pointed out that the WPA and Federal Music project had a fair hand in that expansion, and most of those orchestras no longer exist (at least 36 WPA orchestras and several partially funded ones), he balked and said I was misreading the source. I pointed out the specific passages he referenced in his post and gave the specific references with page citations. I’ll be interested to see how he responds. Exchange is here: https://www.facebook.com/gsandow/posts/10151682894687794


  3. I’m also thinking about the difference between “crisis” and “change.” Is the world changing? Yes. Has it always been changing? Yes.

    Is it changing away from something that a lot of people are invested in?


    Was it ever really that way to start with?

    Not really, no.

    Are we still pretending it was like that when we’re (poorly) preparing the next generation of kids for music careers by spending more time teaching them how to play in 134th position than in how to arrange and prepare an album and what economical tools exist for the construction of a home studio?

    Well … yes.


    1. Good points–the crisis is primarily just change. There seemed to have been a few true near crises (in the sense that the field might have been irrevocably changed)–mainly during the great depression and during the Rockefeller/Ford funding eras, but the field weathered those (mainly through unprecedented expansion). I guess what we’re really asking here is have we finally reached a boiling point for what I sometimes refer to as the Classical Music Industry bubble.


    2. I was thinking of it more along the lines of a an economic bubble or speculative bubble. Of course not all economists really believe they occur, but I think both the funding initiatives during the WPA and Rockefeller/Ford periods spurred too much growth (and too fast)–the 90’s might have also been another growth spurt–and as we know, sustainable growth is generally slower.

      Of course, if the bubble does finally burst, we’ll simply go back to the days when there were very few full time SOBs and musicians will have to heavily supplement their incomes with non-musical or tangentially related jobs just as they’ve always done in the past!


      1. Yeah — I think I’m trying to find a way to say that bubbles are temporary by their nature. I can imagine the crisis-pundits saying, “Well, yes the bubble will burst! That’s what we’re saying! To arms, the bubble is bursting!”

        To which I think the proper reply would be … well, it’s a bubble. Of course it’s going to burst eventually. It was never stable and didn’t exist for nearly as long as we think it did. You’ve said before in your blog how the full year’s schedule of performances is only a recent thing, and how many musicians even from Big 5’s used to have side jobs in the off season.

        This bubble has just not been here forever and ever — and I think that’s sort of a meta-bubble that’s also close to bursting.


    3. Right–the Rockefeller/Ford funding era (during the late 50s and 60s) was where we had the push for full time (52 week) orchestras–which is interesting because it was not long after that we had Sports turn into a full time profession as well–but something i had read the other day (and had posted in response to a discussion on Greg’s Facebook page) was this:

      Ironically, the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Symphony magazine had a piece discussing the old 1969 Time Magazine article about the McKinsey report that many people [erroneously, of course] seem to think is the first reference to an orchestra crisis–but in the piece Jesse Rosen interviews William Foster, Russell Willis Taylor, and Peter Pastreich about why that prediction of doom failed. One of the things Russel (pg. 14) said was:

      “When I started my job…at what was the National Arts Stabilization Fund…, I dug out of the archive a box of documents from the Ford Foundation that had been protected sort of like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of the documents I read was the internal, candid, confidential report about why they had closed the symphony program. Stripping it down to its most basic, what they felt they had done was to increase and institutionalize the size of the problem…They had more money in the bank, but their operating deficits were getting bigger. This had not achieved what the Ford Foundation wished to do, which was not just to have more orchestras, but to have more of them that were sustainable.”

      The problem was the rapid expansion rather than development of sustainable slower growth. This apparently also happened a little in the 90s–and I suspect also during that WPA Depression era though that’s what Greg and I are arguing over–he wants to paint the field as rosy and growing of its own accord because classical music was popular–I called bullshit, and he paraphrased some of my references and comments in his response to me at his blog (where I had copy/pasted my initial reply to his facebook posting of that blog post). *sighs* I don’t know why I bother sometimes.



        I’ve got more than a few musicians in my family tree, it turns out. Like the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is data, so take this with all the skepticism you feel is warranted.

        My paternal great-grandfather, my grandfather and his brother, and my grandfather’s uncle on his mom’s side were all musicians and nevertheless dirt-poor. My grandfather was a harpist who used the harp to keep his family fed during the depression playing funerals, christenings, etc. He lived in Philadelphia with its Big-5 orchestra, which you’d think would make it a haven for well-paid classical musicians. Yet he was not a well-paid classical musician; he used to pick the harp up and carry it on his back to go from gig to gig, and my father could have told you to your face the conditions they had to tolerate during his childhood. The minute my grandfather could find a construction foreman’s job, he did so and the harp fell into disrepair well before I was born.

        His brother was a WPA musician during the depression … who was listed as a tailor in the 1940 census.

        Music, even hoity-toity harp music with a big old monster harp, was clearly something to be done freelance and not relied on.

        I still have no idea how the hell my grandfather came to be a harpist; pedal harps are Rolls-Royce-expensive nowdays. Given that his father and uncle were also musicians (and his father was born a sharecropper in Italy), I suspect that our current ideas of classical music as popular enough to be a profession one could raise a family on back in the good old days need to be revisited.

        I’m also reminded of another child of poor immigrants Adolphe Marx who also grew up as a harpist when he was a boy and clearly did not think it the sort of thing that could support him by itself …


    4. Nothing wrong with anecdotes as long as they are used to support data rather than as data (or “proof”) itself. I simply cannot understand how the depression era years could ever be considered a booming time for any industry–especially Classical Music. But that seems to be what Greg wants us to believe–maybe if he’d read stories like yours more regularly he’d change his tune but somehow I doubt it.

      Ok, so now I’m going to start a bibliography of WPA Orchestra newspaper articles! 😛


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