Classical Music, Aging Audiences, and the Emerging Demographic Racial Gap

The San José based Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra is one of several Chinese Youth Symphonies in the US

I had come across an old (May 17, 2007) New York Times piece by Sam Roberts yesterday while doing some searches for the Aging Audience of Classical Music issue. The piece, titled “New Demographic Racial Gap” is outlining the age gap between the dominant majority in the US and the [still growing] ethnic minorities. To put it in a nutshell the white population in the US is aging faster than the ethnic minority populations which has some implications that the article opens with

That development may portend a nation split between an older, whiter electorate and a younger overall population that is more Hispanic, black and Asian and that presses sometimes competing agendas and priorities.

“The new demographic divide has broader implications for social programs and education spending for youth,” said Mark Mather, deputy director of domestic programs for the Population Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan research group.

“There’s a fairly large homogenous population 60 and older that may not be sympathetic to the needs of a diverse youthful population,” Dr. Mather said.

but has other implications with regards to the Aging Audience in Classical Music debate. See all the current data, especially that compiled by the recent NEA survey as well as other sources is pointing to an audience for Classical Music (as well as other arts institutions) that is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole. And the above piece is claiming that the white population of the US is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole. Think about those last two statements for a bit.

If the implications aren’t entirely apparent for you folks let me state it a bit more bluntly: If the white population in the US is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole and the Classical Music audience is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole I’m wondering if the rate of the aging white population is at all correlated to the rate of Classical music audiences.

One of the other things the data states is that ethnic minorities are far less likely than the [white] ethnic majority to attend arts events which lends some more weight to the idea of Classical Music audiences (in the US) being more of a Caucasian Euro-American cultural artifact. Part of the issue is the relative lack of ethnic minorities in Orchestras (roughly 13%) across the country, well below national average (roughly 33%) of ethnic minorities in the US. It’s difficult to show you’re a part of the local community if your musicians don’t reflect the folks in the community. Some organizations and Orchestras are actively trying to bring more blacks and Latinos into the field as I discussed a bit in a previous post, but by far the more interesting thing is the rising number of non-Western Orchestras in the US.

What I’ve been doing lately is looking at how the high density ethnic minority regions in the US also correspond with a relatively high number of non-Western Orchestras and ensembles. For example, I’ve found that the Bay Area, with a Chinese-American population close to half a million, sports nearly 2 dozen active traditional Chinese Orchestras. Same can be found in regions that have a high density of ethnic groups throughout the states. There’s still a demand for “High Art Music” –it’s just that ethnic populations are demanding their High Art Music rather than European High Art Music. Question is, can Western Classical music institutions in this country adapt enough to account for that change in taste or will they continue to appeal to a primarily more rapidly aging white audience? And what happens when that ethnic majority demographic becomes a minority as folks are projecting will happen by 2050?

In the end, there’s far more demand for Orchestras than data focusing on Western styled-orchestras would indicate. It’s just that this demand is going to be filled by Orchestras that play music the growing ethnic minorities in this country want to hear.


Related link:

Portions of this post were adapted from a conversation I’ve been having with Greg Sandow on my facebook page. The full discussion may be found here:

Are Orchestra Musicians Replaceable?

Drew McManus pointed out a piece written by Michaela Boland which had some interesting quotes by Greg Sandow with whom I don’t necessarily agree on many points though he is one of the critics of the current status quo of Classical Music in the US.

Among the orchestras that have shut their doors and dismissed players there are some groups that have survived due to radical restructuring, which is where Sandow sees the future of the industry. Columbus Orchestra, by way of example, staved off closure in 2008 and retained 53 full-time players by reducing salaries by 27 per cent. Detroit Symphony Orchestra is engaged in similar talks with players.

Sandow argues that players in America’s top orchestras have traditionally been well paid, with salaries above $100,000, and the cuts are having an invigorating effect. “It’s interesting to talk to young musicians about this; they don’t see it as a problem, they’d consider themselves lucky to get any of these positions,” he says.

Historically, however, because of the status and the good pay, few of them could secure such jobs.

Sandow says that if the Philadelphia Orchestra were to suddenly discharge all its musicians and replace them with young players on contract, what might be lost in polish could easily be made up for in pizazz.

“I wonder if that wouldn’t be more exciting to hear,” he says. “It might really surprise people.”

This echoes some things said by Eric Edberg during the Detroit Symphony Orchestra debacle

I’m living in New York this semester, and have met a number of young free-lance players, some of whom are graduate students at big conservatories.  Guess what?  Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players (who have not managed to successfully reframe the conversation and are losing the PR war, even with music students). They love all sorts of music in addition to classical music.  Plenty find traditional symphony (and other) concerts boring.  There are plenty of classical-change advocates, in various stages of self-awareness, among them. Right now, they have little or no work.  Student and, in many cases, instrument loans to pay.  Fantastic players.

Many see the union as the problem (even if they’re not going through one of those college-age Ayn Rand phases).  The players have been successfully characterized to/construed by them as greedy, selfish, and/or out of touch.  A lot of these incredibly-accomplished young players (and I bet there are bunches more in Baltimore, Bloomington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, LA,Miami,  etc.) seem excited at the idea of going to Detroit to work in a “new model” symphony.

While Unions may or may not be the problem (cf. Michael Kaiser’s recent post, Are Unions to Blame?) there is this sense that for good or ill, with younger musicians (many of whom are, as Eric says, struggling as freelancers much less in this economy) who haven’t matured in the Union environment, few are going to have as much sympathy as those musicians who rely on collective bargaining to sustain their livelihood.

On the other hand, a question I’ve been exploring–or rather, I could reframe the title of this blog post in a different way–is, “Are Western Orchestras Replaceable?”

Continue reading

Too Many Notes, too few orchestras

While reading the comments to a post by Drew McManus that I mentioned in my previous post, I came across a reference to a post that drew had written about the issue of having too many groups offering the same thing in a metropolitan area.

While Drew disagrees than in general there may be too much of this redundancy (as he responded) he does think there are some areas, like the Northern Virginia/Washington DC area he talks about in the post I linked, that do have a problem.  Drew seems to think it’s a dangerous idea for mergers, but at the same time he understands that in the case above that might actually help.  Anne Midgette’s snapshot of the German orchestral crisis post-unification would suggest the same.

But back to Drew’s points:

Although I was glad to see that there weren’t any duplicates between the four ensembles, they do have remarkably similar programming (but I give Alexandria a few extra points for programming more new works than their sister ensembles).  If you’re familiar with that area, you’ll also know that all four ensembles perform within eight miles of each other and two of them even perform in the same venue.

Granted, Northern Virginia is a densely populated area but doesn’t it seem reasonable to think that four full orchestras performing similar works for essentially the same audience is simply too many notes?

I have a different idea–what would happen if, say, one or more of these orchestras actually turned into a non-Western Orchestra?  Or what if the re-structuring made it possible to actually provide full symphonic works that were so Eurocentric?

For example, what if that Northern Virginia/DC area had, say, a full Arabic Orchestra, a full Chinese Orchestra, a full Mugham Orchestra in addition to the fourth full Symphony Orchestra?

There certainly wouldn’t be any overlap of programming, nor any duplicate composers in just one art music tradition.

I know, it’s a pipe dream–with the exception of special events American Orchestras don’t often program outside their 100 + year old niche of music from a region on this planet [Europe] that has less than a tenth of the world’s population.  But I know I would be as excited, if not more excited to be able to hear a full orchestra perform the masterworks of Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, Fikret Amirov, or Lü Ji.

I guess I’ll have to wait until the ethnic population(s) of the US reaches the critical mass able and willing to support these non-Western Orchestras–or until this century’s version of the Ford Foundation Grants spearheads “a major boost to [non-Western] orchestras’ quality, length of season and sustainability by providing endowment capital for orchestras that were able to raise matching funds from their communities .”

I guess the question is, if Western Orchestras are having difficulties then how will the non-Western Orchestras fare?  That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out and it is exciting to imagine the future!  Right now, though–there aren’t too many notes or too few orchestras.  Just not enough of the right balance of notes and orchestras.

“…he has no European blood in his veins to make sense of our European repertoire…”

Los Angeles Gagaku Group

The quote in the title is from a comment made by a poster to a recent article in Slate about the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s current search for a new conductor now that maestro James Levine will be leaving.  The full quote is:

A few years ago the Boston Globe wrote an article about a whispering campaign against Ozawa, which basically said “Ozawa can’t be a good composer [sic]; being Japanese, he has nor [sic] European blood in his veins to make sense of our European repertoire.[“] Maybe they should find some black female rising star and watch them tie themselves into knots. Seriously, I would look to the future and choose Gustavo Dudamel. If some members of the orchestra “erect barriers” retire them – immediately [my emphasis].

which I find a bit baffling.  At the same time I can also understand the sentiment since at this blog I write quite a bit about various countries and their respective indigenous art musics.  It’s so difficult for folks to separate out ethnic ancestry and cultural institutions as opposed to ethnic ancestry and the musical history of the indigenous arts.  Japan, of course, has a centuries long art music tradition (e.g. Gagaku, NōgakuJōruri).

I think that it can be difficult for folks to understand what relevance that, say, Japanese Court Music like Gagaku (, literally “elegant music”) can have for society in general.  But in a sense, that is increasingly the position Western Classical Music has in relation to society especially as newer music written in the style isn’t actively being promoted within the mainstream institutions.

Continue reading

“Eurocentrism? We Aren’t The World” by Jon Pareles

Can’t believe this was written over twenty years ago:


What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Music, popular and classical, is a potent cultural symbol, one that arouses visceral reactions as well as rational ones. It speaks to its listeners’ sense of place and history, and to deep-seated beliefs about the organization of communities and the perception of time. And many people like to think that the music they love is timeless, eternal, universally recognized as a pinnacle of human achievement – not a historically conditioned, minority preference in a big world.

Part of the Eurocentrism battle has to do with whether the gamelan should be discussed alongside the orchestra, the talking drum alongside the tympani (and, perhaps, the telephone). Opponents of such a broadened curriculum raise the specter of students learning about the sitar instead of the violin, which no one is actually proposing. Still, defenders of the Western classical tradition, already feeling beleaguered by changing public tastes, now face credentialed colleagues who can point out that notated concert music is a relatively recent, relatively local phenomenon compared to age-old oral (and often improvisational) traditions of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

For some people, Eurocentrism equals elitism, the determination to protect what’s best. In music, it’s not elitism – it’s just plain ignorance.

I thought the following was as woefully parochial as as the “standard, Eurocentric classical-music education” that the author bemoans as “woefully limited” because of its focus on “reading music rather than improvisation, re-creation rather than creation” and dependance “on the score rather than [the] ears“:

The Eurocentrists ask, Where are the masterpieces outside the Western European tradition? And where are the composers whose music has survived the centuries? Those are trick questions, based on assumptions that are themselves Eurocentric. The Western European tradition treats music as something that resides in a tangible (and salable) artifact like a score or recording. But in other places and times, sometimes including our own, music has been more properly considered as sounds in the air, made to be heard once by an immediate audience – which might even participate, or dance.

Continue reading