Myth of the “General Audience,” Classical Music, and Token Activism

One of the most enduring myths, and one that complements and amplifies the Monolithic Pop Culture trope discussed in a previous post is the Myth of the General Audience. Like the Monolithic Pop Culture, the General Audience requires an assumption of homogeneity to a population that simply doesn’t exist.  By maintaining the homogeneity of the General Audience the Monolithic Pop Culture can be treated as a singular and undifferentiated mass while ignoring the actual differences between different audiences and the populations from where these audiences come.

Given how much fragmentation is happening in all media forms, it’s not a particularly controversial claim to state that there’s no longer any real General Audience. In a recent blog post by Elissa Milne, titled “A Simple Reason Why Audiences Are So Small For New Music Concerts,” states that:

The most important lesson was this: there is no general public. Even when you are an institution with a subscriber base. Even when you are a producer of a Broadway hit musical. Even when you are a decades-old rock band. The audiences you connect with are specific, and have vested interests in participating in your event, even when there are tens of thousands of them.

Some performers would tell me an hour before going on “I haven’t told any of my friends about this – I want to see what the general public looks like” and my heart would sink. “There is no general public,” I would whisper to myself as I pulled out my phone to track down even two or three extra friends prepared to drop everything right then and there to come in and bulk out the “crowd”.

With fragmentation, even these audiences are growing smaller as there are increasingly more and more choices for entertainment in all its forms.

One of the things that Crisis folks regularly bemoan about current Classical Music Culture is that it is out of touch with Contemporary Culture and doesn’t speak to the audience derived from contemporary culture.  This is actually a common technique for talking about outsider culture in media forms.  For example, in her scathing critique of the SkippyJon Jones Childrens Book series, Dolores Inés Casillas states that

For instance, in the inaugural self-titled Skippyjon Jones book, the cat’s adventures take place “far, far away in old Mexico.” Much like the perpetual placement of African Americans in the past tense within children’s books, situating Mexico in the imaginative past reinforces perceptions of all-things-Mexican as distant, foreign, and old.

By putting Classical Music into that mythic “distanct, foreign, and old” past (I’ll be blogging about this Mythic Musical Garden of Eden in a future post) the Classical Music Crisis folks are free to talk about a normative, contemporary, and homogeneous (i.e. the Mythic Monolithic Pop Culture) musical culture into which the old Classical Music needs to adapt. That there are still some 30 million (as opposed to the 17 million attendees at NFL events) attendees at live Classical Music events (as charted by the NAI 2013 report), and that the NEA SPPA show the highest level of online participation being Classical Music belies the fact that Classical Music, as it is currently practiced, has an audience which doesn’t fit into that Mythic General Audience category.

If nothing else, this simply shows that there are a variety of audiences, and that the composition of them change and evolve over time, and that any attempts to significantly alter them requires significantly altering the live performance culture–thus altering the very nature of what constitutes the music as product and possibly further alienating the audiences that already prefer the types of performances currently being given.

What we do see is that this mythic General Audience often overlaps what I’ve come to call a Savior Demographic–that mythic younger audience which is supposed to save the performing arts world when they are currently the least economically powerful of demographic cohorts and may very well carry some of their economic disadvantages into their future as the financial setbacks they’ve experienced will accrue in ways that will affect their futures.

Add in the fact that this is one of the most ethnically diverse of cohorts and the likelihood that they can or will support any one particular performing arts genre is negated as we see this shift to more local content and alternative specialist niche orchestras and ensembles.

This is further problematized by the fact that by discussing a subset of [younger] audiences, and how they differ from [older] audiences, we’ve simply negated the whole idea of a mythic General Audience in the first place. The current Classical Music Audience is as much a part of contemporary culture as current Classical Music Culture is. Let’s not confuse a normative view of what a contemporary culture should look like with what the contemporary culture actually is.

This current Classical Music audience is simply one of many audiences, as Milne stated, there are audiences, and in the end they are all a part of contemporary culture. Also, talk of this General Audience intersects with tropes of the Monolithic Pop Culture and all the issues I mentioned in the Monolithic Pop Culture post regarding maintaining the status quo.

We simply have to look at the Grammys as White Nostalgia; or how music execs are primarily a White Boys Club; or how White Women function in American Pop Culture; or how some Pop Audiences believe it’s OK to sexually assault artists during performances; and how acceptable it is to objectify Women and Fetishize ethnic cultures to see that any call for more politically active stances by Classical Music Organizations  doesn’t necessarily extend to the problematic elements in Popular Culture that the Savior Demographic (e.g. Millennials) want to see infused into Classical Music Culture.

This uncritical desire to emulate the Monolithic Pop Culture to draw in the Mythic General Audience is perfectly consistent with the White Savior Industrial Complex and its Colonialist roots especially as it pertains to how populations with some power and a degree of privilege view it as their collective obligation to save the Other through their activism without critically assessing how that activism is enmeshed in, and can support, another system of power and privilege. As Jessie Daniels illustrates:

By resisting more male-dominated version of white supremacy and articulating that form of white supremacy that is more inclusive and egalitarian along lines of gender, and even allowing for the possibility of a version of “equal rights” within white supremacy for gays and lesbians, the women of Stormfront illustrate another way in which white supremacy is inherent in white identity.   This suggests something troubling about liberal feminism. To the extent that liberal feminism articulates a limited vision of gender equality without challenging racial inequality, then white feminism is not inconsistent with white supremacy. Without an explicit challenge to racism, white feminism is easily grafted onto white supremacy and useful for arguing for equality for white women, and possibly for white gays and lesbians, within a white supremacist context.

This is not to say I’m calling for an Oppression Olympics, simply saying that the hazard of any kind of activism which doesn’t look for the intersecting lines of power and privilege and how they can be mutually reinforcing isn’t particularly helpful (or moral). If we simply replace one audience’s culture with another’s without dismantling the system of power and privilege which informs both, then we haven’t done anything helpful for Classical Music Culture other than engaging in Token Activism which is related somewhat to the “I have black friends, so I’m not racist” argument.

In summary, Contemporary Audiences are Fragmented and there is no General Audience.  There are audiences for various fragmented genres that each fill different niches–and the number of niches is increasing. Since the General Audience is a myth, then equivocation of a subset of the population (e.g. Youthful Demographic) which is also highly fragmented and in no way homogeneous is specious, at best, and highly problematic when we consider how those characteristics the subset audience is purportedly looking for in Classical Music Culture are naive, unexamined, and simply reinforce (e.g. Token Activism) many of the issues that they were designed to address in the first place.


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