Analyzing the decline of classical music has become a full-time job for many (and a lucrative one for some). It’s almost assumed that any newspaper piece on classical music will have some reference to “declining audiences” or “aging listeners” or “financially struggling orchestras.”
The fact is that for much of the 90’s and 00’s, classical music has done well. The 90’s in particular saw a huge renewal of recording, dozens of new halls built, expansion of seasons at many orchestras and generous increases in musician compensation at many orchestras. Endowments grew and ticket sales grew. Things have changed in many ways in the current decade- the recording industry has largely turned its back on classical music, endowments have shrunk, and audiences have declined somewhat. Are we failing?
A careful study shows us that many of our problems as an industry are external. Of course endowments have struggled as the stock market weakened, and the weakness of endowment earnings have been the single biggest contributing cause of orchestra budget shortfalls. Likewise, a generally stagnant economy, slower job growth and political uncertainty have, no doubt, put great strain on ticket sales. Audiences, especially younger listeners, have less time and less disposable income than they did 10 years ago.
The recording slump has been caused by two factors. First, many important labels with long-standing records of excellence in classical repertoire have been bought up by giant international conglomerates. Second, those very giant conglomerates have been hit by a strong economic challenge in the rise of the internet as a new distribution model.
Already we can see that a number of our challenges are externally created. Does it really make sense to sit around conferences talking about changing concert formats or doing more pops programs or changing the orchestra dress code? Shouldn’t we instead be looking to the larger society and making our voice heard? In part two, we’ll see why it’s both incredibly difficult and incredibly important to do what needs to be done to restore and ensure the health of art music in our society.