The Future of Classical Music Audiences
I have a friend who is convinced that the world has changed, and we humans have become entirely visual in everything we choose to consume. Therefore, no one will ever come to a symphony concert; opera perhaps, because the action unfolding on stage can be looked at. But a bunch of people dressed in black sitting on chairs and sawing away at their ancient instruments? You’ve got to be kidding! And yet with each passing season, I see more and more seats filled at Las Vegas Philharmonic concerts. How can this be?
A related argument was raised back when I was a teenager, growing up with the Milwaukee Symphony. It was observed, in the 1970s, that most of the audience was “old.” The horror! This meant in ten to fifteen years there would be no audience left; they would have died out. In the 1980s, I heard the same contention. Every publicist I met in the 1990’s bemoaned the “aging” audience for classical music. In the 2000’s death knells rang—the end of classical music was right around the corner, with a geriatric in every seat! And here we are in 2018, and I hear similar doomsday fears. These publicists and consultants are highly paid people, and the wringing of hands, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth continues unabated.
I turn to a memory when my career was just beginning in New York in the mid-80s. I had the opportunity to hang out at the (then) Factory of Andy Warhol. Employees and hangers on filled the building as we prepared to film a segment of his TV-show, “Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes” which turned out to be the last episode, because he died unexpectedly a week later, in February of 1987. One guy, who would have been in his early 40s, came up to me and said he had been spending twenty years of his adult life listening to hard rock, at the highest decibel possible, and he has come to the point where he is tired of it. He recently dropped somewhat randomly into a classical concert, and felt…here is a whole new unexplored terrain!
So if people begin to replace their taste for rock with classical music sometime around middle age, why is this a bad thing? Why is age 40 considered too late? Why are only young people in their 20s deemed a suitable subset of the population? Just because Madison Avenue covets that age group does not mean that symphony orchestras have to campaign for that same sector.
In other words, why don’t we see what a wonderful demographic older people are? They have the most disposable income, the most free-time to attend concerts, and are the most appreciative in finding culture that nourishes them. If they have grown tired of the simple structures of popular music in our culture, and they have graduated to something more interesting and rewarding—halleluiah!
Older people understand and respond more readily to the phenomenon that symphony concerts provide a communal ritual whose mysterious vibrations in the air can raise our hearts both in catharsis and nutrition for the soul.
Imagine if the health care system shrieked and hollered, proclaiming that all hospitals would be out of business in ten years, because the majority of the patients are old and dying out! Would we really lament and grieve for the future of our hospitals, tearing them down for lack of need?