Vampire shows, Fragmentation & Oversupply, and the “Classical Music Crisis”

While watching the second episode of Penny Dreadful, I was struck by a thought* — I just don’t have time to watch all these geek themed television shows! Penny Dreadful is just the latest of shows which features vampires.  The recently cancelled Dracula series, The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off, The Originals, and Being Human are series which center on stories of vampires. Like Penny Dreadful, the Lost Girl, Supernatural, and even Da Vinci’s Demons are set in worlds where vampires exist**.

Da Vinci meets Vlad the Impaler. Even "Da Vinci's Demons" wants to get in on a some vampire action.
Da Vinci meets Vlad the Impaler. Even “Da Vinci’s Demons” wants to get in on a some vampire action.

Not that CosPlaying a bloodsucker was ever on my to do list as I consider different Cellist personae, but the main reason I’ve started watching television shows again is to familiarize myself with some of the primary source material that geeks are familiar with.  I got sucked in–and after bemoaning the cancellation of the Dracula series my interest was piqued by Penny Dreadful because of the mention of putting all these familiar characters into a Victorian Landscape (the Vampire Diaries and The Originals have created their own mythology for the creation of vampires that has nothing to do with the Dracula story or Vlad Țepeș). The point is, for anyone into any of these genres or subgenres that we normally associate with geek culture (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, Superheroes, Steampunk, Dystopias, etc…) there is no lack of television series for pretty much any taste.

Dracula had just finished off his nemesis, Lady Jayne Wetherby, in the season (and what would be the series) finale.
Dracula had just finished off his nemesis, Lady Jayne Wetherby, in the season (and what would be the series) finale.

The problem is, there is too much content. Also, as has been increasingly the case with television series, we’re seeing 13, 10, or even 6 episode seasons (opening season of The Walking Dead, for example). One would have to be a fanatic about this stuff (or an obsessive completist as I tend to be), or make a living watching television to be able to watch everything within genres. Like most people, however, despite the explosion of content and channels, we generally stick to a small range. Time is as valuable a resource as money–if not more so.

What would it be like if this were to happen in the live performing arts?

Actually, it already has. With fragmentation and oversupply, there will be diminishing returns on audiences and revenue. That it’s already happening in many fields is a given; that it’s already happening in the live performing arts fields is also pretty much a given. Within the past eight years since the beginning of the Great Recession, the Louisville area has seen the formation of two full orchestras, a baroque orchestra, two new music chamber orchestras, two chamber choral groups, and three chamber music groups which focus on new music. There could be more (I know of other chamber music ensembles that have formed, for example), but this constitutes the bulk of what I know happening here.

What’s that mean for the audiences of these new groups?  Certainly there are many of them who still frequent the larger or older established organizations–just as fans of vampire shows will still watch the series which focus primarily on vampires while possibly branching out to a series like Being Human which has a trio of protagonists consisting of a Vampire, Werewolf, and Ghost. But if the there are fans which also love werewolf series, or who even prefer them to vampire shows, they are no longer limited to werewolf stories via characters The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Being Human, and Lost Girl as the show Bitten can fill that need.

No vampires on Bitten--just wolf on wolf action!
No vampires on Bitten–just wolf on wolf action!

Like witches? You can head over to Witches of East End or Salem, without having to mix things up with vamps and lycans in the Vampire Diaries and The Originals. Prefer New Music?  You don’t have to wait for your local Orchestra or Opera to play it–now there are New Music ensembles everywhere.  Prefer baroque, but can’t stand it on modern instruments–never fear, now you can go to a baroque orchestra. Setting aside the fragmentation that comes from the proliferation of ethnic orchestras and online content (which puts non-local performing arts orgs in direct competition with one another) we’re already seeing that audience fragmentation is happening at some level and with that means fragmentation of resources.

Given that the NAI 2013 report has the largest sample size of any arts survey to date (n=200,000 — almost six times larger than the 2012 NEA SPPA) and that it takes its sample from 83 different metro areas we can see and compare pops attendance with symphonic attendance (and also with NFL stats since franchises exist only within the set of 83 different metro areas). Pop attendance (for 2011) is somewhere near 53 million while symphony attendance is around 27 million. Attendance for Opera is separate (a little under 3 million) while chamber music and non symphonic ensembles aren’t included.  While the 27 million estimate is much larger than the NEA SPPA figures and a fairly sizable audience, it’s still about half the size of the Pop attendance. Note that NFL attendance was about 17 million from that period.

Question is, what if all the fragmented audience figures were to be included with the Symphony and Opera attendance? By selectively excluding segments of classical music from the discussion, we’ve left out any consideration of attendance figures with which to compare. The pop attendance figures are broken down by large genres (e.g. Rock, Pop, Rap, Country), all of which have smaller attendance numbers than orchestras (and sure, Opera has smaller attendance numbers than each of the pop genres). Granted, I suspect that a vast majority of audience attendance figures probably don’t include ‘local band’ attendance, but no one wants to bring into this Crisis discussion the innumerable local bands which regularly draw an audience of under 10 to all their concerts.  This wouldn’t help the Crisis folks’ case.

My “Classical Music Crisis Crisis” hypothesis can be stated simply:

  • Content (e.g. performances, performers, recordings) and the audiences/consumers for the content are increasingly fragmented/specialized.
  • We don’t have aggregate figures for the whole field.
  • What data we do have is unrepresentative of the whole field, so should not be used to characterize the whole field.

Given the fragmentation, it shouldn’t be surprising that many individual traditional organizations will see “decline” but that decline is only representative of those particular organizations, not the whole field, nor the audiences for that particular set of organizations. It wouldn’t matter if every single orchestra, opera, and ballet were to see declining audiences since the totality of every single orchestra, opera, and ballet is a subset of the whole field–and increasingly a smaller subset of the whole field.

Until we see orchestras, operas, and ballets get cancelled with the frequency of television series, let’s get beyond the Crisis talk and start focusing on what is actually happening in the whole field of Classical Music.


*Well, I’ve had this thought a few times in the past while watching episodes of geek themed television series.

**Granted, Da Vinci’s Demons focused more on Vlad the Impaler than his Dracula namesake, but elements of the supernatural were definitely there.  Speaking of Dracula–his castle is for sale.

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