Is classical music dead?

Now that we’ve got an orchestra back in Minneapolis, it’s time to renew the debate that preceded its year-long labor strife: Is classical music dead?

Mark Vanhoenacker, writing in Slate today, presents a punishing list of data showing that the genre has gone toes up, or soon will. Low record sales, classical public radio stations switching to news/talk, and people dying.

(Musician/writer Greg) Sandow notes that back in 1937, the median age at orchestra concerts in Los Angeles was 28. Think of that! That was the year, by the way, that Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer festival, was founded. I grew up near Tanglewood and had various summer jobs there in the 1990s. When I worked at the beer and wine stand, I almost never carded anyone.

Sandow and NEA data largely back up what I saw on Tanglewood’s fabled lawns two decades ago. Between 1982 and 2002, the portion of concertgoers under 30 fell from 27 percent to 9 percent; the share over age 60 rose from 16 percent to 30 percent. In 1982 the median age of a classical concertgoer was 40; by 2008 it was 49.

If classical music was merely becoming the realm of the old—an art form that many of us might grow into appreciating—that might be manageable. But Sandow’s data on the demographics of classical audiences suggest something worse. Younger fans are not converting to classical music as they age. The last generation to broadly love classical music may simply be aging, like World War I veterans, out of existence.

He says instrument purchases are relatively unchanged at about one per 50 students.

Who would like to defend the future of classical music? Discuss.

  • MrE85

    As some will remember, MPR is responsible for the death of at least one classical music station, the late WCAL, now known as “The Current.”

    • Hmm, that’s odd. And also wrong. The school’s board of directors wanted out of the station ownership business and the only other bidder for the property was an evangelical Christian broadcaster.

      Repent for your lying sins, Moffit.

      • MrE85

        Okay, MPR may not be the total villain in this story — but that’s not how the WCAL fans saw it.

        • Well, it’s good to see you finally adopting as gospel that which people believe to be truth in the absence of facts. You’ll start to feel right at home now with many of the nation’s largest controversies. :*)

          • MrE85

            Oh, snap!

          • jon

            This is why I love reading newscut. Thanks Bob.

  • Kassie

    The SPCO has changed how it is doing business in the last few years and I have noticed a much younger crowd lately. They offer cheap subscriptions and cheap tickets. It is an affordable and classy date. I’m sure it is a struggle, but I think orchestras are learning to adapt. I think there are a lot of things they could still try to make the music more comfortable for younger and/or less experienced concert attendees, but they are heading in the right direction. Or I hope they are.

    • MrE85

      Good to hear, but we are still “the kids” when the SPCO plays at Benson Great Hall at Bethel. But you’re right, tickets are very cheap, and the music is top-notch.

  • jon

    Classical music is not dead, far from it, though it has changed venues…

    Sit down, watch an episode of Dr. Who, listen to the music there…

    Heck Family Guy has a full orchestra playing the music for their show…

    Sure some TV shows, and movies are using popular music, though lots of them struggle to get dialog in over the vocals from the music, or only use the music for segways.

    Sure bugs bunny isn’t fighting with elmer fudd to the extent that he used to, and when we do see the looney toons they don’t use classical music as heavily as they used too…
    but there is still classical out there, the trick is going to get people to see it as an independent art form as opposed to a function of TVs and Movies… we’ll see if John Williams has doomed the genera.

    p.s. I’d pay to go watch Indiana Jones with a live orchestra performing the music all the way through the movie (I can’t think of many scenes that aren’t accompanied by some sort of music)

  • David Brauer

    I, for now, appear to be aging into classical, to my great surprise. This was helped, weirdly, by the clarifying drama of the lockout, when I more fully grasped what the loss of truly “world-class” something might mean. What the musicians’ concerts at the Convention Center had was passion & urgency & emotion not all that different from rock shows I saw 20 years earlier, albeit in a different genre. I hope they can retain some of that back in the modernist cocoon, but I despair they won’t. Still, it is lovely to be a philistine more fully grasping skill.

  • MinnSusan

    About two years ago I attended the Legend of Zelda symphony with my son, an avid fan. For the uninitiated, Legend of Zelda is a video game series that’s been around for over two decades. The concert was all (at least what I consider to be) classical music from the video games and it was sold out. I’m sure at 45 I was one of the oldest attendees although there were other parents/grandparents in the audience. I was amazed at the enthusiasm of the crowd and their rapt attention. The concert was accompanied by videos portraying different games and activities in the games. I think it cost about the same as a MN Orchestra ticket, which is a little high for our household, but I thought it would be a good experience for my son. I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it too. To me, that’s one future of classical music.

  • Guest for the day

    The average life expectancy in 1937 was 58. So the 28 year old concert goer was not the youngster it is today.

  • boB from WA

    To paraphrase Frank Zappa: “No, it only smells funny”.

  • John O.

    As a young man, I played both violin and viola, but life and work took me away from continuing that. I have always enjoyed a variety of classical music and find myself listening to classical on Sirius in the car and listening to different composers via my online subscription to Xbox Music.

    The beauty part of the Xbox subscription (and other similar services) is that I can stream different composers, conductors and/or orchestras at minimal cost.

  • DRS

    My wife and I regularly attend SPCO concerts at the Ordway. I notice very few empty seats and people of all ages. Before the concert, the restaurants are filled with concert goers often mixed in the Wild fans. Classical music is not dead or dying. There is just more entertainment options out there for people.

  • aad

    It may take remarkably little to win over new supporters of the classical music scene.

    I snapped up a Groupon-type deal two years ago as a 30th birthday splurge for myself– 10 Minnesota Orchestra concerts for $100. I had only attended the occasional concert prior to that, but I was hooked, and became an active and engaged supporter during the prolonged labor dispute. I can’t wait to see the Orchestra back up and running and hope it will stay strong for years to come.

    Having said that, the stage was set for my interest in classical music by years of music education. Though my arts education in rural Iowa was haphazard and I was never a particularly serious performer, paying a little bit of attention to the music world since an early age added up to a sincere and lasting interest in the classical music scene. Younger generations may yet see the musical pursuits of their youth turn into lifelong interests.

  • A more accurate headline might be: Is classical music performance dead?

    I think I have enough recordings of Bach sonatas to keep me busy for the foreseeable future, and as other commentators have pointed out, the genre is strong in other media forms. The cost of maintaining and selling tickets to an orchestra of world class musicians is perhaps making live performance of classical music untenable in the future, but that’s not the end of classical music.

  • ad

    Well, demand for tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra’s “homecoming concerts” seems to have their ticket sales server, if that says anything…

    • ad

      *melted* their ticket sales server

  • Jim G

    I played the viola in a suburban public school through high school. Orchestra introduced me to kids who were self-motivated, disciplined learners. It changed my life. I wasn’t just a “jock” any more but a jock with a viola and an appreciation for Bach. Educationally, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It wasn’t always easy. I practiced an hour each weekday and worked hard to learn the pieces assigned. Then there were kids who didn’t appreciate classical music. In 8th grade, a bully outside of school once accosted me as I waited for the bus. He must have thought I was an easy mark as he kicked the viola case out of my right hand.

    After gym class the next morning while combing my hair, fellow jocks surrounded me at the mirror, looking for bruises. They didn’t find any, however the bully who had kicked my viola the previous afternoon looked very different that morning. I heard the left side of this fellow’s face was sporting a wide variety of bluish purple colors. His swollen eye opened a few days later. Not surprisingly, I never had trouble with bully behavior again.

    I love classical music… I’ve fought for it. Bring back Orchestra to the public schools if you want to see interest in classical music on the rise again. It just might help solve our current bully problems too.