Thursday, January 23, 2014

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession

As a classical musician, I can't tell you how many times I've had people tell me that classical music was dying. I've been performing and teaching violin and viola for over twenty years, and throughout that time I've had "The Death of Classical Music" repeatedly announced to me. In fact, one of the most interesting articles I've ever read on "The Death of Classical Music" came out in 1992. Is classical music dying but taking an incredibly long time to leave the stage, like a Wagner Heroine? Or are all these articles about as obnoxious and fact-free as the weight-loss advertisements that seem to pop up everywhere after the Holidays? I'm guessing it's the later.

That's not to say that classical music isn't struggling, or that it doesn't face some profound challenges, but reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. In fact, I think the decline of classical music really reflects the struggles of middle class Americans in the face of gross economic inequality and ruthless corporate robber barons. And yes, there are definitely some ways that classical musicians can evolve to face the challenges of the 21st century.

How then, has classical music been harmed by our current economic climate? Let me count the ways.

1. Deunionization

It sometimes surprises people that I'm a union member, but many musicians, from classical to rock, are members of the American Federation of Musicians. Yet, union membership is declining, and many orchestras are hiring union-busting lawyers to drive theirs out. This has had a devastating effect on classical music, particularly orchestras. For one thing, management tactics like lock-outs drive away audiences and keep musicians from performing and recording (see the Minnesota Orchestra). Worse, without a strong union, orchestra boards often push changes that leave musicians and their audiences with fewer performances and a greatly reduced orchestra, while giving lavish salaries to conductors and management. One local orchestra I knew was completely destroyed when the board cut musicians' salaries to give their conductor a huge raise. It's important to note that there are several successful chamber orchestras who don't even have a conductor, who is arguably the least important person on the stage in terms of the music (after all, you can't hear conducting), so short-changing musicians to pay a conductor is utter nonsense. 

2. Ineffective Real World Training for Young Musicians

More and more, a college degree comes with a crippling amount of debt and very little real world knowledge or experience in how to function at a real job or build a career. As someone with a Bachelor's and a Master's in music, I can attest that music programs are especially horrible at preparing students for the real world. So many programs train students as though they are going to have a career as a violin soloist or at least play in a major symphony orchestra. Music education is frowned upon as an option for the less talented, because those who cannot do, teach (which is one of the most destructive mentalities I can ever imagine). This completely ignores the fact that there are only around a hundred professional violin soloists in the entire world. Some of the greatest musicians throughout history, including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Haydn, supported themselves by teaching music lessons, yet music schools treat teaching with disdain. Teaching music is an art that requires intelligent, thoughtful, and talented people, and without it we cannot pass on our great artistic legacy to the next generation. 

Personally, I'm hugely excited by teaching artists--people who put on innovative classical programs for children and other people in the wider community who don't normally attend formal concerts. I've seen some incredible work in arts organizations on outreach programs that bring classical musicians to schools, libraries, and rural communities. When I worked at the Santa Fe Opera, they had teaching artists engage kids in creating their own student-produced operas. Music schools should start preparing young musicians to work on outreach and building audiences, instead of following a now defunct career path.  

3. Lack of Government Support

In his Slate piece "Is Classical Music Dead?", Mark Vanhoenacker mentions declining audiences for classical concerts and radio (seriously, radio? who under thirty listens to radio anymore?) as evidence for classical music's inevitable demise. But what he fails to mention is that affordable access to classical music has dramatically declined as well. Why are American orchestras going bankrupt while orchestras in Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world thriving? Simple. In those countries, the government heavily subsidizes classical music, while here we don't. That means that ticket prices for concerts in the US have sky rocketed. In 1960, the average classical concert tickets cost the equivalent of ten dollars. Today, the cheapest seats cost around sixty dollars, and many seats are over a hundred dollars. In this economy, that prices the average classical concert well out of range for the middle class. Other countries have far higher concert attendance because government subsidies keep ticket prices affordable and orchestras financially solvent. In the US, the GOP stripped away funding from the NEA, which had supported most orchestras, especially small regional ones. That began a horrible cycle of bankruptcies that have plagued US orchestras ever since.

To take Vanhoenacker's beloved (and very successful) Tanglewood Festival as an example--one of the things that makes Tanglewood so popular is affordable ticket prices, which includes free tickets for concertgoers' children (for some concerts). As a veteran of many free concerts in the park, I can attest that free concerts are usually packed. That tells me that many Americans do enjoy classical music--but they can't always afford it.

4. Arts Programs in School

Music education is a beacon of hope in the world of classical music. There are many thriving orchestra programs in schools across the country, and plenty of independent music schools or studios where students take private lessons. Yet these programs are at risk of budget cuts due to inadequate funding for education. This is a terrible problem that should concern all Americans--but it's not a result of a lack of interest in classical music. It's because we're in the midst of a nasty recession and we have a crop of politicians willing to destroy public schools in the name of austerity.  This tragic situation can deprive poor and middle class children of music programs, despite compelling evidence the music education dramatically benefits them.

Of course, I have many adult violin students too. No one makes adults take violin lessons--they decide to learn violin and play classical music on their own, which is a sign that there is still quite a bit of interest in it. If there are fewer adult students learning now, that might have more to do with how the recession is eroding the middle class than a lack of interest. Sadly, I've lost several excellent students after they could no longer afford to pay for lessons after the loss of a job.   

5. Spotify, iTunes, and Pandora

Vanhoenacker points his finger at declining classical music sales, but the truth is that the entire music industry has lost half its value since the dawn of the digital age. Napster, iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora have contributed to a society that expects to listen to music for little or no money. As CD and record sales collapsed, the music industry as a whole lost billions of dollars. Yes, perhaps some genres of music lost more than others, but in the face of crippling industry-wide losses, is it fair or reasonable to complain that classical music hasn't sold more CDs? Besides, one of the difficulties of recording classical music is that you end up competing with dozens of other recordings of the same piece.

In short, like many industries in recession-era America, classical music is suffering. But its suffering is a sign of the recession and the declining fortunes of the middle class, not a lack of interest in music. Maybe not everyone listens to classical music or attends concerts. After all, not everyone watches indie art-house movies, or professional cricket, or even a fantastic TV show like Game of Thrones. But classical music still has devoted fans, and so long as there are still people who love Mozart more than Justin Bieber, it's premature to declare it dead. Trust me, the old girl's got plenty of life in her yet.

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  1. Oh Wise Serpent, classical music is struggling for all the reasons posted, but the lack of a Music Program in the elementary schools is an eroding factor. I wonder if today's teacher training programs include the appreciation of the arts. Are classroom teachers taught about the value of classical music and learning. Again, we have been very busy engaging in wars and not taking care of our future-our children.

  2. I agree that there should be more classical music in schools. It's horrible that so many children, especially in poor or rural school districts, don't have music in school. However, there are many schools with excellent music programs. Where I live in Texas there are several school districts with wonderful orchestra programs. I teach private lessons, and I have lots of kids (and adults!) who love learning classical music. I think there's a lot to be hopeful about.

  3. Very good observations Oh Wise One... but if I may suggest that #5 is actually a gross malaise called Fragmentation, which afflicts not only fine art music but popular music, and is having profound affects on event attendance even in sports! This may provide more reasons to fashion HELL YEAH introductory experiences with classical in non-traditional settings which validate traditional concerts.

  4. True, I think that it's important to bring classical music to non-traditional spaces. Here in the DFW Metroplex, some friends of mine started a "Classical Open-Mic" where classical musicians perform in places like coffee shops. I've played there several times and had a blast! I agree that fragmentation is a big problem for all the performance arts, from music to sports to movies. It's a complicated problem.

  5. I feel precisely the way you do: classical music is just malnourished, not dead. I don't think the danger of its death is near, either, due to all the crossover bands that are incorporating classical music in their repertoire. These, as blasphemous as some say they are, help direct young people like myself (I'm a sixteen year old who will never stop listen to Stravinsky and Prokofiev despite my rock-and-roll-raised parents' complaints) to classical music. For example, look at Trans-Siberian Orchestra's album, "Beethoven's Last Night." A friend of mine would never have listened to Beethoven if it wasn't for that band. Also, I do my own part in spreading the word about the value of classical music; my brother, thanks to me, is now a devoted fan of Gustav Holst's energetic Folk Suites.

  6. The other problem is that we have done a horrible job in the past of trying to appeal to minorities! In effect, we have told them that classical music is not important and it somehow makes you a race traitor to enjoy it or want to participate in it if you're anything other than Caucasian. Look at the performers today - we don't have any more Marion Andersons, Paul Robesons, Yo-Yo Mas or Sekiya Toshikos around as role models for young minority artists. And in failing to promote new ones, we have destroyed any interest in classical music among Asians, Native Americans, and (especially) blacks and Latinos. And because the US has so many of them here, they could have formed the next generation of opera and classical music audiences by their sheer size, perhaps even more so than white audiences could! And because we insisted on telling them the notion that poor people can't appreciate it or hope to afford learning it, we missed out on this opportunity and I don't think we'll ever get it back within the lifetimes of most people reading this.