Negativity Bias and the “Classical Music Crisis”


Marketing consultant, Mark Schaefer, discusses how Negativity Bias can have a profound effect on how we perceive industries and businesses in a world of social media. He uses the recent #McFail incident to illustrate how the bias operates:

And even when one of their social media experiments did not go as planned, the company had something like 79,000 tweets and 2,000 of them were negative. So on one of their worst days, they had a positive sentiment analysis of 97.5 percent. In any company I’ve worked for, that would be cause for celebration.

And yet the all headlines focused on the failure. It will probably be a case study discussed for years alongside the Gap logo debacle. That may not be fair, but it’s what we need to anticipate from our society as we lay our social media plans over this layer of Negativity Bias.

In other words, the insignificant number of negative tweets had a greater impact with regards to traditional news media than the far more numerous positive tweets. This simply tells what we already know, that negative news sells much better than positive news.

Placed in the context of the Classical Music Crisis, it should be no surprise that the Doom and Gloom talk has gone back for, well, centuries. One of the reasons I posted the “Classical music is the sum of all its institutions” blog is precisely because we have this tendency to focus so much on the small subset of institutions which happen to be making the news because of how poorly they may be doing at the time. Any good news about the field gets lost in the shuffle.

But why is that? Schaefer gives one possible reason:

One of the most interesting talks at SXSW was between Billy Corgan of the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, and author Brian Solis. In the talk, Corgan hypothesized that artists take less risks today because of a realization that one embarrassingly human moment will get tweeted and go viral — and possibly kill a career. Before the social web, these moments might be laughed about and become part of band legend, but today it can be career-defining. He wondered aloud about a world where artists would be nothing more than politically-correct robots.

But this is more of an Post hoc ergo propter hoc explanation. The Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, puts the Negativity Bias in the context of evolution:

Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

In the context of the small number of troubled organizations, which get the majority of press, this makes much sense especially as we can see how these have been discussed. These “failing” organizations (and often the failing is simply a temporary acute instance) are almost invariably referred to as “threats” to Classical Music, or as symptomatic of the “threat” of the industry as a whole to the evolution of Classical Music (or a narrowly perceived view of the future of Classical Music).

The overestimation of threats is easy to see. What about underestimating opportunities? Since much of the discourse has to do with how much this small subset defines the whole field, then the opportunities for change are informed by the subset to the exclusion of viewing the change that is happening (as well as the things that aren’t changing much while remaining to be successful). By defining the problem this way, it’s easy to see how we can easily underestimate resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). Talk about declining and aging audiences, and donor fatigue would fall apply here.

The thing is, this Negativity Bias works so well in conjunction with another related bias, the Availability Heuristic. When we use anecdotes to support a point, we’re using the Availability Heuristic Bias.  When we use immediate examples that come to mind, that’s the Heuristic Bias. If those immediate examples happen to be the ones supplied to us in Negative media portrayals of select organizations in trouble due to the Negativity Bias, then I think we can see pernicious feedback loop we have going for these kinds of discussions of Crisis.

This is not to say that talk about how healthy Classical Music is are any better–simply citing examples that come to mind about great things that are happening in the field, or about organizations which are doing well, definitively show that the field is just fine and peachy. This Pollyanna-ish viewpoint (also referred to as the Positivity Bias) is just as prone to the Availability Heuristic and as I said in my previous post the negation of both these viewpoints is perfectly compatible. Both the Negativity Bias and Positivity Bias can be amplified by the Availability Heuristic.

These are just both sides of the same coin which Philip Tetlock‘s research describes regarding experts’ (in)ability to make accurate predictions:

The aggregate success rate of Foxes is significantly greater, Tetlock found, especially in short-term forecasts. And Hedgehogs routinely fare worse than Foxes, especially in long-term forecasts. They even fare worse than normal attention-paying dilletantes — apparently blinded by their extensive expertise and beautiful theory. Furthermore, Foxes win not only in the accuracy of their predictions but also the accuracy of the likelihood they assign to their predictions— in this they are closer to the admirable discipline of weather forecasters.

The discourse about the field is constantly being defined by both these sides. And the problems and/or solutions to it are constantly being informed by small subsets of the whole field which tend to rely on information given us by biases which are systemic to the groups of people (Tetlock’s Hedgehogs) involved in the discussions.

As Stewart Brand states about Foxes versus Hedgehogs

Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

We need more Foxes in these discussions, but until then, we probably need to stop giving so much force to the Negativity Bias.  We can’t control how often bad news gets near unilateral focus in the media, but we can control how skeptical we receive the news, especially as it pertains to making big and grandiose claims about the future of this industry.

School music programs should be teaching Mohammed Abdel Wahab rather than Ludwig van Beethoven

Mohhamed Abdel Wahab, sometimes referrrred to as the "Beethoven of the Arabic World,"  with a Cümbüş.
Mohhamed Abdel Wahab, sometimes referrrred to as the “Beethoven of the Arabic World,” with a Cümbüş.

Fireandair had this to say in one of my recent blog posts about parochial nature of Western Classical Music:

fireandair November 13, 2013 at 4:57 pm · Edit · Reply

Still thinking about this — in a way, the attitude that says that Western orchestras should just stick to what they do best is not a bad one. The idea that a Western orchestra could have a hope in hell of presenting such diverse types of music with any real fluency — or worse, that they “should” — is an ego trip. If the African drum virtuosi can crank out polyrhythms with one hand behind their backs … then in a way why do the Western orchestras need to? I could see how the musicians would find it fascinating (especially the timpanists) but isn’t it an ego trip to treat these incredibly complex traditions like some sort of political bingo chips, or to imagine that most of the (culturally Western) members of a Western orchestra could have a prayer in hell of playing that sort of stuff with the mastery of someone who has been doing it since they were in diapers? Classical musicians are quick to say that you need to start in the womb to be able to play their stuff — well, that African drum master did just that. You can play with those tools but unless they are a part of your culture, you probably can’t touch the master’s virtuosity.

Just thinking about this — that it can either be a hallmark of ego of of humility to say that Western orchestras have a “home court” of music and will probably always be best at that kind of stuff — either because one feels that Beethoven is the ultimate expression of passion, or because the other varied traditions are simply too complex, great, and involved to master them on the side after a lifetime of training in Western music. Individual musicians in a Western orchestra may have a grounded feel for it if they come from that background, but the orchestra as a whole may not.

my response (which didn’t address everything she brought up) was:

Jon Silpayamanant November 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm · Edit · Reply

That’s a good point. I think one of the reasons I posted this blog and occasionally about the ethnic orchestras is simply to dispel the “myth” that Western Classical is universal in any sense. Especially the way it has been practiced in the past century by focusing on the canonical warhorses.

I remember when the early music/historically informed practice movement started to get a lot of negative attention from mainstream classical music institutions–it all seemed to be a way for one population to disparage another by highlighting the legitimacy of a “correct” (and universal) way to perform classical music. I think the underlying fear is that this “correct” way is simply one of many and has now become another form of “historically informed practice” since most new music that is performed is rarely done by the SOBs–Symphony, Opera, and Ballet organizations are just another historical way of approaching a relatively narrow range of music from a particular period of time and region (primarily 19th century Europe).

To admit that there is other “great music” out there–other “great performing traditions” with ensembles and practices–would lessen the legitimacy of the one touted as featuring the “greatest” musical works of mankind–and we can’t have that, right?

So maybe it is best to let SOBs do what they do best: Specialists in one art form of many. This begs the question of what then do we mean by music education since it become untenable that by bringing back music education in the schools at the pre-college level we should be focusing on the traditional string orchestras, full orchestras, and concert bands. Then it becomes a question of Whose Art are we supporting–and once you ask that question, then you realize that there’s no reason why Western Instrumental Instruction should be the norm and we should actually be bringing relevant music instruction to communities rather than subsidizing one cultural art form over another–letting the local cultures determine what arts they value!

My question to music education advocates would be how would they feel if instead of teaching violin, and string classes we teach erhu and other traditional Chinese huqin strings as the Purple Silk organization does in the Oakland area?  Or instead of teaching timpani and flute in band class we started teaching dumbek and ney as the New York Arabic Orchestra hopes to do with their new Arabic Music School?  Instead of school orchestras playing German symphonies, we have them learn how to play Turkish fasıl, Azerbaijan mugham, Indonesian gamelan, Arabic waslah, or Japanese gagaku?

If the answer is that “we should teach kids how to play the greatest music of mankind,” then unless we can demonstrate that there is something greater about a Beethoven Symphony over, say, an Abdel Wahhab Waslah, the question was loaded with an ethnocentric and eurocentric bias in the first place and that percolates up to the Music Conservatory Level and then the Professional Performing Arts world level.

The Classical Music Crisis during the Great Depression

Greek clarinetist Nicholas Oeconamacos, who had performed under John Philip Sousa and the Seattle Symphony conductor Homer Hadley, returned to Seattle during the Great Depression to play for change on the street.
Greek clarinetist Nicholas Oeconamacos, who performed under John Philip Sousa and the Seattle Symphony conductor Homer Hadley, returned to Seattle during the Great Depression to play for change on the street.

In a recent post I described how the Classical Music recording industry practically floundered during the Great Depression.  What was the live performing scene like?  Looks like it was pretty dismal.  Here’s a synopsis by Kenneth J. Bindas (1988):

By the late 1920s, the golden finish began to tarnish. In 1928 the sound track for the moving picture appeared, and by 1929 mechanized sound music machines replaced many theatre musicians. By 1930 some 22,000 of these professional theatre musicians were thrown out of work. In the nation’s capital over 60 percent of those employed as theatre musicians in 1930 were replaced by canned music in the following year. The growth of the radio industry in the late 1920s also spelled unemployment for many musicians. Restaurants, pubs, hotels, and other employers of musicians and orchestras favored the cheaper canned sound of radio. New Jersey’s Funeral Directors’ Association went so far as to recommend the radio over hiring musicians for funerals. Even Prohibition created musical unemployment. Many night clubs and bars, forced by the 18th Amendment to close their doors, no longer needed musicians, and another 30 percent faced unemployment. All in all unemployment for America’s musicians rose dramatically. The American Federation of Musicians estimated that in 1933, 12,000 of its 15,000 members in the New York City area were unemployed, and that two-thirds of the nation’s musicians were also out of work.

As the Depression deepened, the already critical unemployment problem for the country’s musicians grew worse. (pp. 31-32)

Ray Allan Billington, in his survey of Government Support for the Arts (1961), states:

With the economic collapse of the 1930s a worse defect of this system of patronage was revealed. Private philanthropy abruptly halted as wealthy men shifted their dwindling fortunes into more practical uses, and as it did so theaters and operas closed their doors, symphonies gave up the struggle and artists and writers begged for bread on the streets. (pg. 468)

“America’s opera companies, orchestras, and theatres, which relied on private patronage, also collapsed,” Bindas (1988) states, because “[t]he philanthropists could no longer support the arts, and the funding drain forced many companies to close their doors” (pg. 32).

William McDonald (1969) states that the collapse was already happening by 1929:

Cancellation of contracts harassed the professional musician throughout 1929. Two opera companies suspended their season. Orchestras curtailed their seasons and reduced personnel. Hotels, legitimate theatres, and restaurants dispensed with orchestras. State and local assistance for public music was withdrawn in many localities. (pg. 586)

The curtailed seasons and concert schedules fell by over 30% according to John Tasker Howard (1937) where we had a reduction of 3,750 commercial concerts during the 1929-1930 season to a “mere 2,600” three years later during the 1932-1933 season.

The graph I posted in my “Part-Time Musicians are the Historical Norm” post from Tassos Kolydas’ (2011) piece shows that the New York Philharmonic had a pre-Depression concert high of over 150 concerts during the 1929-1930 season, to reach roughly 125 concerts during the 1932-1933 season.  By the 1936-1937 season, the orchestra gave fewer than 100 concerts–well over a 33% reduction of concerts.

Table 1: Number of concerts of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York for each season (by Tassos Kolydas)
Table 1: Number of concerts of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York for each season (by Tassos Kolydas)

A NYT piece from 2009 by Daniel J. Wakin about the the woes in the New York classical scene after the Great Recession highlights the fact that this is nothing compared to what happened during the Great Depression:

But at least so far, and despite the frequency with which current economic troubles have been compared to the crises of the 1930s, the woes of the city’s signature musical institutions are nothing compared with the situation during the Depression, when the very existence of New York’s orchestras and opera houses was in question.

A dip into the archives of the venerable New York Philharmonic, which traces its history to 1842, shows something near panic seeping through the onionskin carbons of board minutes and browning newspaper clips from 75 years ago. The board grappled with crushing deficits that threatened the orchestra’s existence, despite the presence of its titan of a music director, Arturo Toscanini.

Given that the New York Philharmonic has recently digitized a number of documents which can be perused on their online archive, both the Kolydas and Wakin pieces make use of the resource for their pieces and what Bindas and McDonald state about philanthropic giving and financial health during the period is matched by those documents:

In the middle of the 1933-34 season, at the depths of the Depression, the Philharmonic-Symphony Society, as the orchestra was officially known, reported a $150,000 deficit on expenses of $686,000 — the equivalent of a $13 million gap on the current Philharmonic’s budget, $60 million.

In December 1933, the board reported a “marked loss of income” from ticket sales and a hit from higher taxes. Since the 1931-32 season, the endowment fund and contributions used to make up deficits “had largely ceased to be productive,” according to minutes. With the orchestra’s ability to borrow tapped out, its survival hung in the balance.

So about a 70% reduction of the musician workforce (with the rest having little gainful work); roughly a third of all commercial concerts were curtailed; some operas and orchestra shut down for a time or completely folded; and classical recordings doing dismally–a far different picture of classical music in the 30s than the more rosy one we’re given elsewhere.



Billington, Ray A. (1961) “Government and the Arts: The W. P. A. Experience” American Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 4. pp. 466-479

Bindas, K. J. (1988) All of this music belongs to the nation: The Federal Music Project of the WPA and American cultural nationalism, 1935-1939. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Toledo, United States — Ohio. (Publication No. AAT 8909905).

Howard, John T. (1937) “Better Days for Music” Harper’s, 74.

Kolydas, Tassos (2011) The repertoire of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. from a presentation at “Dimitri Mitropoulos: 50 +1 years After” conference in 2011. <<>> <<>>

McDonald, William F. (1969) Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: The Origins and Administrative History of the Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration. Ohio State University Press

Wakin, Daniel J. (2009) ” The Maestro and the Money” New York Times, January 16. <<>>

What if there’s really no “decline” in Classical Music audiences?

So a few weeks ago I was playing around with numbers, namely I was playing around with the numbers given by various surveys regarding arts participation as well as population.  Keep in mind that data are simply the raw numbers you work with while statistics (or statistical methods) is (are) the interpretation of the raw numbers.

The NEA (2009) released some figures from its Survery of Public Participation in the Arts for 2008 as well as the preceding 10 year intervals of the survey (which began in 1982).  Note that the sample is relatively large (18,000) so extrapolation from the sample size to the whole of the population isn’t especially problematic–at least in many ways but more on this later.  Given that, then for the four years with data we have:

  • 1982 – 13.0% = 21.3 million
  • 1992 – 12.5% = 23.2 million
  • 2002 – 11.6% = 23.8 million
  • 2008 – 9.3% = 20.9 million

where the percentage and following number is the adults attending at least one classical music concert during the previous year.

Continue reading “What if there’s really no “decline” in Classical Music audiences?”

Flanagan and Changing Tastes for Classical Music

Last night of the Proms

In Chapter Five, “The Search for Symphony Audiences,” of Robert Flanagan’s book, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, the author discusses several reasons for audience decline (as well as the statistics demonstrating this decline).  He does note, since this is what the NEA data tells us, that decline has happened for virtually all types of live events (which I often point out here and in other discussions about the decline) so whatever conclusions we can draw about the supposedly “more popular” types of live entertainment and the way they get marketed and draw audiences isn’t going to necessarily be of much help if it doesn’t allow those other events keep audiences.

Continue reading “Flanagan and Changing Tastes for Classical Music”