Questions about the state of Classical Music

Black & White
Black & White

I had started another blog post but decided to wait on writing that one as I realized that it would be one that may take a few hours to write and not being as young as I used to be I should probably sleep on it some before digging in to it.

As it stands, I had a nice meal after getting home after a gig with a Rock Band that I play [cello] with and though I often state “beer is good food” it still pales before the “real” thing.

Before I left for the show, I checked the stats to my blog (as I’m often wont to do) and noticed a fair number of visitors to it and as I viewed the link that the hits came from I realized that Alex Ross (music critic of The New Yorker and blogger about Classical Music at The Rest is Noise) had written a post and linked to a number of my posts about the Orchestra Crisis and Age of Orchestra Audiences.  The post is titled, “The orchestra crisis at 110,” which references the first NYT article that I have in my Annotated Bibliographic Timeline of “Orchestra Crisis from 1903 (hence the 110 years of an orchestra crisis).

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve only included pieces that reference an Orchestra Crisis in general.  Pieces that reference an Opera Crisis date back a bit further and there are several pieces that talk about the deficits or financial difficulties of specific orchestras as opposed to the whole field.  I haven’t really found (nor looked for) Ballet Crises pieces.

In one of my previous posts I linked to a recent piece by Greg Sandow which specifically states: “No one, to my knowledge, has gone searching through old newspaper articles, trying to find the first reference to a crisis.” though I’d started my bibliography some six months or more ago.  To which blogger, 113yearslater, asks “Even if he doesn’t know that someone has, then I really have to ask, if he thinks that, then why the hell isn’t he doing it?!”

This makes Ross’ comment, “There are real problems in the classical world, but the lack of a sense of history and perspective can be exasperating” and conclusion that “all stories about this non-topic — including those protesting that classical music isn’t dead after all, as well as those protesting that the entire discussion is a waste of time  — are a waste of time.”  all the more relevant.  While on the other hand, Sandow would say this simply means that since we don’t know then we can’t say there isn’t a crisis.  If we lack a sense of history and perspective, then we can’t really say that there is a crisis either, right?  This just takes us back to the problem of how terrible we are at dealing with simple binaries and predictive reasoning.

I could spend this whole blog just saying things about human reasoning, but I don’t–hence why I maintain another blog (one of many) dealing specifically with comparative neurophysiology (for a while I thought I would quit music altogether and go into this fascinating field) so I can post about things that may only have a tangential relationship to music.

But I really should just outline the fallacies which arise due to erroneous reasoning about binaries such as the bifurcation fallacy of “Orchestras are Healthy” vs “Orchestras are in Trouble” which actually only refer to two of the four logical states that Orchestras (or the Orchestra field) can be in, the other two being “Orchestras are not Healthy” and “Orchestras are not in Trouble” (or the more cumbersome locutions, “It is not the case that Orchestras are Healthy” and “it is not the case that Orchestras are in Trouble”).

The fallacy comes when you collapse the four distinctive logical possibilities into two binary oppositions by equivocating “Orchestras are Healthy” with “Orchestras are not in Trouble” and “Orchestras are in Trouble” with “Orchestras are not Healthy.”  When you make those equivocations you leave out the other two possibilities and lose the ability to see how grey and nuanced the situation is rather than simply being a Black/White issue (other names for the “Bifurcation Fallacy” are the “Black/White Fallacy, “Either/Or Fallacy,” or the “False Dichotomy”).  Orchestras could just as easily not be in Trouble AND not be Healthy; also Orchestras could both be in Trouble AND be Healthy.

Ironically, this lack of a sense of history leads the Chicken Little Think Tank or the Pollyanas to reinforce their own beliefs about health of Classical Music (that’s sometimes referred to as the Confirmation Bias) so are unlikely to be able to see the latter two possibilities mentioned in the previous paragraph.  But seriously, after a 110 years of crisis, maybe it’s time for all of us to get a better sense of history and perspective so we can stop making an arse of ourselves and realize that things just aren’t so Black and White.  As Ross quotes Charles Rosen’s immortal aphorism, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”

Aging of the Orchestra Audience is a Red Herring

Audience sitting in a movie theater
Audience sitting in a movie theater

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the issue of declining audiences for classical music here (see especially my post, What if there’s really no “decline” in Classical Music audiences?) but have only touched tangentially upon the purported “Aging Audience” issue.  Most of what I’ve blogged about dealt with how much we as a culture tend to idolize youth and how that creates interesting economic consequences when we believe (erroneously, as I think) that this youthful demographic (the “Savior Demographic” as I have been facetiously been calling it) will, well, “Save the Day” for industries prone to the Cost Disease.

Matthew Guerrieri has taken some of the data as has been mentioned on numerous occasions at Greg Sandow’s blog and shown how the aging audience fits in perfectly well with the the rising age of first marriages (for both men and women) and average life expectancy rates.  In other words, the trendlines match almost exactly.  He also mentions the average first birth rate fits in pretty well with the average rise of the age of the audience.  Note that these are all median ages, not arithmetic means.  As Guerrieri states:

This intuitively jibes with the NEA’s “Audience Participation in the Arts” surveys, which show the median audience age going up for all surveyed forms of performance. In other words, the problem—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.

In my comment on his blog, which I’d originally posted on a discussion I was having with Lisa Hirsch on her facebook page about how the rate at which the audience is aging almost perfectly matches the rate at which the US population is aging (again, median age)–here’s the relevant comment for reader’s convenience:

Oh, as an aside, 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 (1963-1964)–going back to the earlier studies (LA Orchestra 1937; Grand Rapids 1937; Minneapolis Oymphony 1955) isn’t particularly helpful since those weren’t 1) random samples; 2) were self-reported; 3) were particularly small samples (n= approx 900; 1000; 1900 respectively) relative to the sample size of the later studies Baumol/Bowen, NEA SPPAs, MkKinsey studeis (n= 28,000; 18,000; 25,000 respectively)–and Greg should know better than to take the arithmetic mean of the median age of the two 1937 referenced studies (33 and 27) and refer to that as ‘median age’ (30) of that study as a whole–just doesn’t work that way. Of course the median age of audiences has risen faster than the population–otherwise the latter wouldn’t be consistently within a range of 74-76% of the former for all five time points (1963-64, 1982, 1992, 2002, 2008)–the average life-expectancy has maintained a consistent proportion to the median age since 1900 too (range between 46-49%) and that had to rise far faster relative to the median age of the population to remain so. I think the doom and gloom folks make far too much of the median age issue–the actual decline of audience issue is a bit trickier, but I think given how mass media has developed–and how entertainment industries have capitalized on them (or not as the case may be) has far more to do with the decline of population cohorts than anything else.

Since that conversation, I’ve managed to get copies of all the primary source materials (except the Minnesota piece) that Sandow has been using, as well as compiling a bibliography of a number of other sources that do discuss median age of audiences–most of which take place between the original 1940 book mentioned and 1976 (well before the first NEA SPPA in 1982) and will be taking a very critical look at each and every one of the sources and how they are being used to “prove” that the median age of the audience for classical music has been rising faster than the median age of the US population.  In other words, as Guerrieri states:

Which circles back around to Botstein’s point—classical music has historically played to an adult audience, it’s just that the passage into adulthood—as indicated by first-marriage age—has been getting later and later, and the length of adulthood—as indicated by life expectancy—has been getting longer and longer.

There are so many inaccuracies as well as fallacious reasoning behind the usage and interpretation of this data that I think it might be useful for those of us interested to really understand what these numbers mean, and the limits of what the numbers can mean within a broader context of demographic data.  Also, I’ll relate this to that other issue of the declining audience which, I believe, is a much more serious issue but one that may also be overstated though in ways (if you’ve read my first linked blogged post above) that are counter-intuitive since we don’t tend to think of populations as being heterogeneous with correspondingly heterogeneous preferences.


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

Musicians’ income from Sound Recordings

aggregated amount of income derived from sound recordings in the past 12 months was 6%
Selling recorded music just isn’t particularly profitable anymore

The Artist Revenue Streams has posted the latest study from their musician survey and it seems to confirm other hypotheses and trends regarding the ability to make money from recordings by musicians.

The link is to the summary but also has a link to the original piece.  Basically, the trend is that fewer musicians are able to make money from recordings when they are sold in a traditional hard-copy format (CDs, LPs, Cassettes, etc.), and while most are reporting an increase of revenue through digital sales it never makes up for the difference of the loss of physical sales.  In other words, the ability to make money selling recorded music in a consumer market is declining.

Continue reading “Musicians’ income from Sound Recordings”

Grand Rights and Belly Dance

Copyright all rights reserved
Copyright: all rights reserved

I’m in the middle of writing a “Grand Rights” primer for dancers which will likely be a separate web page rather than simply a blog post.  Copyright issues and copyright law are incredibly sticky issues and as I’ve been increasingly dealing with contractual work that deals with licensing my music (or the music of the ensembles I work with) I’ve had more than ample opportunities learn just what my rights are as a composer and maker of music.

Much of this is also the result of following local (and national) issues regarding the usage of pre-recorded music for theatrical or dramatic productions.  In particular, the recent Priscilla Queen of the Desert Broadway production, which is slowly floundering due to the bad word-of-mouth as the result of the producers to use canned music– a first to actually happen in the Broadway world (though not the first attempt).

Since I’ve been involved relatively heavily in the belly dance community for close to a decade now (among other smaller dance communities/industries) it has always been a bit of an uphill battle to convince dancers to use live music whenever they can.  At the very least to get them support the musicians whose music they are dancing to which most are more than happy to do.

Continue reading “Grand Rights and Belly Dance”

Modern Cello Techniques


Quartertone excercise from Modern Cello Techniques

Modern Cello Techniques is a fantastic new website dedicated to extended cello techniques by Chicago based cellist, Russell Rolen.  Of special interest to my blog readers who also are interested in Arabic and Turkish music, there is a section on Quartertones and a page with some samples from usage of them by Western classical composers.

Be advisd, though, that Western composers use quartertones and microtones in very different ways than you’d find them used in Middle Eastern or South Asian Music so don’t expect to find much that would be useful for pedagogical or learning purposes if you’re interested in non-Western microtonality.  Also, see my caveat about the whole issue of microtones here and here which help to explain some of these differences between the West and the Rest.

What’s really wonderful are all the exercises such as the one picture in this post.  As I slowly brainstorm how to start an Arabic Orchestra, I’ve only given passing thoughts on how to train the string players how to learn the ‘scales’ used in the music.  I actually hadn’t thought of approaching it in the same methodical way that our Western music training does in the copious number of method books for instruments that we have.  Mr. Rolen’s website just pointed me in a direction that I hadn’t thought about in this context and I may have to start developing some form of method book for training Western Classically trained string players in many of the Eastern Classical music styles!