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Posted at 10:24 AM ET, 02/25/2011

NEA survey: good news - bad news

By Anne Midgette

Whenever I express my concerns about the declining audiences in classical music, people rush to inform me that I’m quite wrong and there’s more interest than ever before. The NEA’s latest figures on participation in the arts, released Thursday, prove that we’re both right.

A survey released in 2008 indicated a steep decline in audience participation in the performing arts. But it turns out the data paints quite a different picture when analyzed differently -- when the definition of "participation" is expanded to include more than simply buying a ticket to something. The 2008 survey told us that only some 35% of adults attended a performance or visited a museum; but the new survey pulls the lens back and realizes that 75% of adults interacted with art in some form via their computers.

And classical music is leading the way: 18% of that audience participated in classical music, more than any other kind of art (Latin music, visual and literary arts followed: 15% each). That’s notable because classical and Latin are thought of as niche genres. This is the best concrete demonstration I’ve seen of the long-tail theory of the Internet, the idea that the Internet enables people with specialized interests to find and cultivate their interests more easily.

This is really great news. It proves that there is, indeed, a healthy interest in classical music. As I’ve said all along, the field itself isn’t endangered: the music will prevail, and people will continue to find new ways to discover it, hear it, make it.

But it also proves that the old institutions are being left in the dust. Classical music has the highest participation of any art, and ticket sales are still tanking (as the same data demonstrates)? This is more evidence, say I, that orchestras in particular are going to have to continue to work to expand their role if they want to stay alive in an era that loves classical music more than ever but is happy to pursue it without them.

By Anne Midgette  | February 25, 2011; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  news, random musings  
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Comments

Can you define "expand their role" with respect to orchestras in a little more detail? You haven't written anything about the labor problems with the Detroit Symphony. One of the issues there has to do with an expanded role for orchestra musicians. DSO management has one possible idea and the musicians clearly disagree.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | February 25, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I think you mean that I haven't written anything about the Detroit Symphony THIS WEEK. I feared I was blogging it to death. I addressed the very issue you mention in at least two earlier posts (I'll spare you the links to my other past DSO strike posts)

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-classical-beat/2010/09/from_motown_to_mobtown_orchest.html
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-classical-beat/2010/11/music_and_the_law.html

As to "blogging it to death," I fear the DSO may die very well without me.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | February 25, 2011 12:37 PM | Report abuse

That's remarkable and encouraging, Anne. I don't know if you've read Douglas Dempster's piece "Whither the Audience for Classical Music" that was published in "The Forum of the Symphony Orchestra in 2000" about the purported declining interest in Classical Music up to the year of publication. Choice snippets:

"First—and this should be no surprise—classical music consumption is heavily influenced by electronic technologies and media. Audiences have shifted, and will very likely continue to shift, their discretionary time and dollars toward new technologies for listening to classical music. Second and contrary to the critics, younger generations of Americans do seem to be “growing into” a more mature interest in classical music, but they will probably, much more so than their parents, satisfy that interest outside the concert hall. The audience in the symphony concert hall may be aging, in relative terms, but the overall audience for classical music is not.26 Third, the trends revealed by these demographic data have no special relevance to classical music; very similar trends can be found affecting a wide variety of other art forms and entertainments."

and:

"I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.

To illustrate: it’s true that professional orchestras have struggled financially as they have reached various limits on audience size, cost-cutting, fundraising, and expansion of programs. However, at the same time that orchestras have struggled financially, chamber music is enjoying enormous growth in the U.S. While it’s not the whole story, the mobility and cost-effectiveness of chamber music groups surely contribute very significantly to the comparative economic success of chamber music. The struggles of symphony orchestras are reported everywhere in the press, but one hears little about the growth of chamber music."

He also mentions the staying power of classical music in the recording industry and how there has a been moderate decline (1989 vs 1998) which is in the range for year to year fluctuation while Rock, Jazz, and Pop music were the industries with precipitous decline. Well worth a read!
http://www.polyphonic.org/harmony/11/Audience_Music.Dempster.pdf

Posted by: JonSilpayamanant | February 27, 2011 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I love classical music, but I'm finding it ever harder to get enthusiastic about concerts when I can buy half-a-dozen CDs for the same price. I'm also getting increasingly annoyed with the audiences at Strathmore (where I usually go), some of whom hold extended conversations during the music or decide after the music starts (sometimes immediately after the music starts) that they desperately need a cough drop right then.

Posted by: kevinwparker | February 27, 2011 3:06 PM | Report abuse

If classical music did what McDonald's and other great restaurants do - change the menu every once in a while - we would not be having this conversation. When composers once again write great music, the audiences will come back all by themselves. Forget great - I will settle for plain good music, the type that has not been produced since 1950. I have only been saying this for the last 20 years. Perhaps someone will believe me during the next 20.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | March 1, 2011 8:11 PM | Report abuse

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