Classical Music discovers Clubbing just as Clubbing Declines

There have been a number of recent pieces about Classical Music and Clubbing over the past few months and a couple of hefty dissertations about the “new” phenomenon and the “Indie Classical Scene.” I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time (well, years, actually) as I’ve been playing clubs for a couple of decades now (for the most part with the cello as my main axe) and have seen the explosion of clubs during the late 90s and their subsequent decline over the past 10 years or so.1

It’s interesting that there’s so much media and talk about Classical Music Clubbing but very little discussion about the decline of clubbing as an activity. I know I’ve said in the past that it seems like Classical Music is always a step behind the Pop Music world in that it adopts practices which popular entertainment forms have already moved beyond, and this case isn’t much different.


Decline of Clubs

The decline of clubs is happening in the US, and many parts of Europe (especially the UK).

According to Nielson

One in six neighborhood bars closed between 2004 and 2014, with a peak in 2014 when the national closing rate averaged more than six per day.

The unsettling trend isn’t stopping bold entrepreneurs from entering the fray, however, as roughly 334 new bars are opening per month. But these new neighborhood watering holes can’t compete with the rapid rate of those shutting down their doors and their taps—approximately 609 close each month.

That’s a loss of about 10,000 bars.

Nightlife Association (the Official Trade Organization of the Nightlife and Hospitality Industry in the US) states that 6,500 U.S. nightclubs have cut back hours or closed within the first year of operation.

In the UK, things are possibly worse. The Lobby group, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), states that 7000 pubs (more than 10%) have closed between 2007 and 2012 and according to the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), 20,000 pubs have closed over the past two decades.

A Report by the Music Venues Taskforce published by the Greater London Authority states that “Between 2007 and 2015, London lost 35% of its grassroots music venues, a decline from 136 spaces programming new artists to just 88 remaining today.” The UK venue representative, Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers states that “there are now only 1,733 clubs, down from 3,144 in 2005”–a 45% drop.


Why the Decline?

Several reasons have been suggested for the decline in clubs. The rise of “stay-at-home” culture due to “home-tainment” has been suggested as one. De Graaf suggests that Tinder has significantly shaped nightlife activities in which doesn’t favor of the random hookup at a club.

This Huff Post listicle touches on those, but also mentions the issue of music (echoed by the White Hutchinson Piece I linked to above as well as this New Theory Piece). Namely, Big Stadium events or Festivals2 as well as online streaming services are preferable avenues for discovering new music.

View of the audience from in front of the stage at the Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, Texas.
View of the audience from in front of the stage at the Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, Texas. This was earlier in the afternoon before our set.

Notice, however, the demographics of some reasons given in surveys for not going to clubs. From the White Hutchinson Piece:

A recent survey from wine app Vivino found that almost half (47%) of Millennials and 61% of GenX and Boomers would rather drink wine at home than at social gatherings, restaurants or wineries. The survey found that only 3% named bars as their favorite place to drink wine. Another survey from yPulse found that almost 3 in 4 (73%) of 18-33-year-olds agreed they would rather stay in on the weekends than go out at night.

From the New Theory Piece:

A survey by ULI/Lachman Associates dictates that only slightly higher than 60% of all millennials spend time at nightclubs. Of that 60%, only 25% spend time at nightclubs more than once a month. The millennials who go to nightclubs say they mostly go for “special occasions,” like bachelor/bachelorette parties, viewing a specific DJ, attending a celebrity event, or going out to explore party capitals like NYC and Las Vegas. Although these serve as the main reasons why millennials venture into nightclubs, they don’t seem to be enough to back up such dismal numbers.

Nightclubs do not have a large return rate of millennial consumers. Nightclub owners are finding it very difficult to keep their doors open when a large portion of their clientele only stops by occasionally and skimps on drink orders.

Setting aside the millennial-bashing tone of the latter (as well as the issues that comes with self-reporting) this demographic, as I’ve discussed in many previous posts, has far less buying power than older generations. This was recently hilariously demonstrated after the ill conceived tweet by The Economist linking to a piece titled “Why aren’t millennials buying diamonds?”

Me performing with il Troubadore at the Rex Theater (a 587 capacity club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Me performing with my world music group, il Troubadore, and bellydancer, Amber Nagy, at the Rex Theater (a 587 capacity club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

This brings us to…


“Club shows attract a young audience, people in their 20s and 30s.”

In a two part guest blog post, Sarah Robinson states

There’s one last point, something very important, something that I could write pages about. But I’ll just mention it quickly, because even though it’s crucially important, it’s also very simple. Club shows attract a young audience, people in their 20s and 30s. To be most effective in drawing that audience, the performers themselves should be young. The location itself isn’t enough. The entire operation needs to feel young, meaning that not just the performers but also the producers and in fact everyone involved in producing and marketing the shows should be young. So here’s a lesson for the classical music world. If you want to attract the lost generation of listeners, go to the places they hang out, and understand that they’ll be most attracted to performances by musicians their own age. Mainstream classical music groups should learn this lesson. Given how effective these concerts are in attracting a new audience to classical music, it makes sense for mainstream classical music organizations to jump onboard the club classical train. It’s taking off with or without them!

One of the talking points of the Classical Music Crisis is the need for a younger audience. But where is that going to come from when clubs are dying out and the younger generations aren’t actually patronizing them? Chris Shipman’s piece, “Culture clubbing: Can classical music save the UK’s nightclub scene?” asks the question: “With nearly half of the UK’s nightclubs having closed in the past decade, can Bach replace breakbeat?” and ends with an optimistic:

Far from dying, the role of the great British nightclub is undergoing a radical evolution, and the world is taking note.

I feel like, as I mentioned above, this is just another example of the Classical Music World (in this particular case the advocates of the Classical Music Crisis) being two steps behind the Popular Music and Entertainment Industries which are already abandoning a tanking avenue for live music. I suspect in a few years we’ll start reading about how Classical Music is taking over Music Festivals especially now that we’re starting to see some chinks in the armor of these types of events. This will put Classical Music right on schedule to be behind the times again.3


Image Credit: Me playing with my Rock Band, Mercy Academy, at the Mercury Ballroom (a 650 capacity club in downtown Louisville, KY)

  1. While the vast majority of my clubbing gigs have been in the Midwest, South, and Mid Atlantic regions, for a few years I was actually actively touring all over the US playing clubs in the band of the late Country Music Legend, Ray Price. I always made it a point to talk to venue owners, sound engineers, and other acts I share bills with to get a sense of how various scenes are getting along.
  2. I’ve blogged about the economics of Festivals here. I’ve posted some about my Stadium/Festival performances in my “What’s it like playing for 50,000 people?” post. As many of these events take place outside, and usually during the warmer months, I am infinitely glad my festival season is, for the most part, over this year.
  3. Note that since I don’t believe there is a Classical Music Crisis, in the sense that the whole of Classical Music is declining, my statement refers to the sub-group of the classical music that does believe the crisis exists and tends to do the things advocated by thought leaders in that camp.

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