Thursday, June 4, 2009

'An audience, period'

Anne Midgette of The Washington Post serves up good food for thought, writing that classical-music ensembles and presenters should reconsider their preoccupation with reaching younger audiences. "I think that we need to stop fixating on the young audience and focus on reaching an audience, period," she writes:

To which I would add: Classical musicians and their audiences need to learn how to be a subculture. They should talk to the bluegrass/old-time crowd or the Celtic revivalists, who've thrived for years on word-of-mouth, mailing lists, end-of-the-dial radio – and now, the Internet, which makes subcultural networking easier and much cheaper.

The long-standard guestimate of the size of the classical-music audience – people who listen to it on the radio, buy recordings, buy or might be induced to buy tickets to the symphony and opera – is 5 percent of an urban-suburban population. In greater Richmond, that would be 50,000 people. The number grows if you add fans of musical theater, amateur choristers, music students and their parents, occasional patrons from surrounding rural areas, among others who might be attracted to some classical events.

That's a substantial audience, but it's dispersed in the larger population. It skews old on the age range, which makes it less desirable to youth-fixated mass media. It's predominantly white, with a growing Asian contingent, but few African-Americans or Latinos; so it flunks the cultural-diversity test. The classical audience is better-educated and more affluent, and the portion of it that goes to live performances (many classical fans don't) probably attends more events, than the people who turn out for touring musicals or big rock shows.

Classical organizations and presenters in this country historically have depended on establishment support, which is now crumbling as corporations fail or are merged out of existence, mass media shrink and local and state governments cut grants to arts groups and marginalize or eliminate arts in public schools.

An economic recovery won't see the reconstruction of that old support system. A new one will have to be built by the people who promote and sustain classical music. That's going to require more active and sophisticated networking – especially via the Internet – which, in Richmond and most other places, is only beginning to occur.