Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dotage or evolution?

The classical-music world is going through round of hand-wringing over the aging, and resulting shrinking, of its audience. It began with a National Endowment for the Arts study, "Public Participation in the Arts," published in 2008:

Subsequent studies, by the League of American Orchestras and others, suggest that attendance of classical music events has fallen by as much as 30 percent over the past generation, and that the highbrow audience is older than ever.

Seemingly alarming stuff. "Seemingly," because researchers and analysts have downplayed or overlooked several factors:

1. The audience for every art form (and most everything else) is aging, because the population is aging – particularly the affluent, white and Asian population that is the core audience for classical music. That’s the downside. The upside is that these people are living longer. Many 60-year-old symphony and opera patrons will still be alive and mobile for another 20 to 30 years.

2. Classical music is rapidly evolving beyond the Bach-to-Rachmaninoff repertory that has been "traditional" and the performing configurations (orchestras, opera companies, concert choirs, string quartets, etc.) that play and sing this repertory. Recent decades have seen the rise of mini-orchestral chamber ensembles of strings, winds, piano and percussion – eighth blackbird, in residence at the University of Richmond, is a prominent example – that play little if any of the formerly standard classical repertory and draw audiences that don’t regularly attend symphony and opera. These groups, and even more exotic configurations such as electroacoustic and all-percussion ensembles – now lumped under the label "alt-classical" – may transform classical music, and the audience for it, as radically as the symphony orchestra did in the 19th century.

3. Classical-music media are also evolving rapidly. Many communities are losing their classical radio stations, and airtime devoted to classical music is shrinking on public radio stations. But satellite radio, new digital-radio channels and web-based audio services are filling that void. Listeners have vastly more access to classical music on their computers than they ever had on their radios.

4. The audience for music of all kinds is more fragmented and eclectic in its listening habits than it ever has been. Formerly "popular" music styles have shattered into numerous sub-genres whose audiences are no larger than those for formerly "esoteric" or "niche" musics. (Locally, the Richmond Symphony and Virginia Opera play to larger audiences than most pop-music concerts.) I addressed this phenomenon in more detail two years ago in "Your Niche or Mine?" posted on NewMusicBox:

5. Comparisons of performing-arts attendance and other leisure-time spending in the 2000s vs. the 1980s and ’90s that don’t take into account the lack of growth in middle-class incomes, alongside inflation in the costs of healthcare, energy and other basics, aren’t telling the whole story. Changing taste is one thing; diminished ability to afford what you like is another.