Classical Critics Survey

1. Is there enough of a younger demographic listening to, studying, and/or discussing classical music today to sustain its profitability (from a label's perspective) and a sizable readership (from a publisher's perspective)?

This question is stated in such a way to make a certain answer inevitable. There are plenty of young people today interested in what the Internet calls "post-classical" music--Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young. The problem is that the classical music business, tyrannized by the record industry, has so calcified the concept of "classical music" that the music young people are interested in is a priori excluded. If the question is, are young people today interested in Faure, Mussorgsky, Bellini, Brahms, Dvorak, then the answer is, "of course not." But the "classical" music that does and could interest young people is excluded in, treated as peripheral by, the "classical music" world. And the problem is that profitability is taken as a primary goal rather than a side effect. You have to start with a vision of what a society's music can be, and then profit will eventually result--not the other way around.

No. Forget about the future--the big classical labels aren't profitable even now. Or at least they can't make a profit selling serious classical CDs; any money they make comes from crossover releases. Is there any rising wave of interest among younger people that might reverse these things? Not that I've seen.

It's also worth asking about the future of live concerts, since (unlike classical record companies, and classical media coverage) these haven't been declining. In fact, if you look at the long-term picture, they attract a larger audience now than they ever have before. But will that audience be there in the future? It's largely an older crowd, with its average age around 50, a little older for orchestras, a little younger for opera. What happens when these people aren't on the scene any more?

One line of thinking, more or less the conventional wisdom in the classical music business, says, yes, of course there will be an audience for live classical concerts in the future, because the age of the present audience isn't really an issue. The classical music audience has always been in its 50s, or so this line of thinking runs, so as younger people get older, they, too, will start attending classical events. (We're talking, of course, about the small proportion of the population who'd consider going to a classical concert at all.)

But is this really true? Common sense might suggest that younger people today are much more into popular culture than any generation in the past. Many of them like artistic music that isn't classical. (This won't exactly be news to people who come to this web site.) If in later years they get tired of the bands they liked in their 20s, they can listen to blues, world music, or jazz. There's no reason they should gravitate toward classical music, which in any case doesn't reflect the world they live in. So maybe the classical audience will be smaller in the future, and the classical music biz should be worried.

It's hard to know which line of reasoning is right. For one thing, it's not even clear that the classical music audience has always been so old. I uncovered a book published in 1940, a study of American orchestras which offered data nobody in today's classical music world had ever seen, data that says the average age of the orchestral audience back then was somewhere between 28 and 33, depending on which orchestra you looked at.

That discovery underlines a sad truth--the classical music business doesn't have solid data to base any theories on. We don't, for instance, know how many younger people went to classical concerts a generation ago, as compared to the number that goes to them today. If many more went a generation ago, maybe that means today's younger people don't even have much of a latent interest in classical music, and thus might not go to classical concerts very often when they get older.

But then there's no shortage of younger people studying classical music, and starting professional careers. Music schools don't report any drop in applicants, even from people playing less popular instruments like the viola or the bassoon. Youth orchestras are thriving. There are even younger critics, people in their 20s and 30s, who are starting to make their mark in the field. Orchestras, moreover, are now younger than their audience, something anyone can verify at an orchestral concert simply by comparing the people on stage with the people in seats. If there's no shortage of younger classical music professionals, then maybe in the future there won't be any shortage of people to go to classical concerts--but we still need studies to tell us why that might be true.

Probably not. At least not with the current price of tickets and CDs and not outside of the music schools (and within the music schools is a whole other problem, of students who tend to be [or are encouraged to be] interested only in the professional side of classical music). I'm not sure who the audience is for books about music, aside from biographies. At least there seems to be a small but persistent readership for newspaper reviews, though when the newspapers do their demographic surveys, they don't even ask readers if they look at classical music items. And of course, editors seem to feel there's more interest in features and personalities than in reviews.

So there's an access-to-good-music problem. When classical music gets treated as a kind of wallpaper (and here the radio stations--the few stations that still play classical music at all--encourage a kind of non-listening, specifically encouraging listeners not to pay attention to what they're hearing) how can anyone get excited about it? At least the major newspapers still have some commitment to publishing reviews, though there may be a greater shift towards record reviews than live-performance reviews. Performance organizations have been doing some things--pre-concert talks, "singles" receptions--to attract a younger crowd, but I don't think this has been an unqualified success. Though this past weekend, there were two free, heavily publicized performances of Carmen on the Boston Common and between 50 and 60 thousand people showed up for each performance--thousands under 30, and of numerous ethnic persuasions.

The way to get people interested in music is to get them interested at an early age, and here the greatest failure has been in the school systems. Every now and then I meet a young person who has suddenly gotten turned on by classical music. And I think the best way to encourage that interest is to address that listener in an intelligent, uncondescending way, as someone with a shared interest.

Has there ever been a large enough demographic interested in classical music to make it "profitable" in the sense that would interest a modern billion-dollar label, or yield a readership that today's media would term "sizable"? I doubt it. The issue is as much the change in media and the marketing of music as the change in the audience: that is, the number that becomes interesting to big business is far larger than it once was. By all accounts, the conservatories today are overflowing--although this may be simply contributing to a growing gap between aficionados and practitioners on the one hand, and the general public, who cares less and less (and who aren't getting any music education in the schools at all), on the other. Still, I think the real concern is the idea that something is not "worthwhile" if it can't reach a large audience. Classical music is almost by definition made up of niche markets: an opera buff is not necessarily going to buy the latest recording by pianist Evgeny Kissin; someone can be passionate about organ music and not give a damn about the orchestral repertoire.

As for the audience's age: while there may be grounds for concern that the audience is growing older, when I look around the field I see young people moving up through the ranks, on both sides of the footlights, much as they always have. Take classical critics: Justin Davidson at Newsday, who won this year's Pulitzer; Alex Ross at the New Yorker; Philip Kennicott at the Washington Post. I believe that I, at 37, am older than any of them, and they've all been visible at major papers for longer than I have. Which is all to say: are there younger people coming up? Yes. Are there "enough" to satisfy a label? No; which is one reason we're witnessing a huge seismic shift in the recording industry (one not, may I add, confined to classical music).

One thing to make clear: it's hard for me to generalize about the overall interest among the public in classical music, because the Times has a special place in the field. The paper's culture section has always been widely valued, and that remains true. Whatever falloff there has been in general, and there has been some, the Times is less affected by it than many other papers.

That said, no, not enough younger people are involved directly with music and this hurts the cause, both in the concert halls and in the news rooms. I do see signs that musical education in the schools is getting better. And almost every orchestra, opera company and chamber ensemble has an outreach program for school children.