Classical Music Circling the Drain in the USA

Another in the regular dispatches from America's moribund classical-music scene:

Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever. Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. But “even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.” Live orchestral music is essentially a charity case. A Bloomberg story on the recent wave of orchestra bankruptcies (an unheard-of phenomenon outside of the U.S., says Flanagan) notes that by 2005, orchestras got more money from donations than from ticket sales. The New York City Opera, once hailed as the “people’s opera,” filed for bankruptcy in October. If the “people” want opera, they’ve got a funny way of showing it.

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 arenot 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.

What about making music? In 1992, 4.2 percent of American adults reported performing or practicing classical music at least once in the previous year.

By 2012, the number had dropped to 2 percent (compared with, say, the 5 percent of Americans who reported they created “pottery, ceramics or jewelry.”)

The only thing that can save classical music in America is a recognition by politicians of all parties that classical performance will never pay for itself, will never be popular with the mainstream, and is yet important enough to deserve large subsidies to prevent its ultimate disappearance.

And that will never happen.

3 thoughts on “Classical Music Circling the Drain in the USA

  1. Tax cuts (and thus budget cuts) are a popular theme in US elections at least state level upwards. They may not always be realized for fear of hurting larger focus groups, but as it’s said above, the number of people (voters) that are interested in classical music is meager. And even if not, office runners that keep pointing out the fact that state institutions are spending on arts, which are rather seen as a matter of the private sector over there, will make the image stuck that the peoples hard earned money gets wasted on some lib-elitist stuff, no matter how much or few it actually is.
    It’s not necessarily the current politicians don’t want to conserve culture, but if they try to hard, they might get replaced by others who do.

    Changing things would require a long term process even though matters seem urgent. Getting rid of the dualism between intelectual abilities and down-to-earth-attitudes, opening the upper class niche, arts have become, trashing the antiintelectualism that has spread over the last decades.

    Maybe your recent articles about the GDR were inspiring in an unintentional way, but I feel about that matter, the Bitterfelder Weg may deserve another try. Let politics invite Kansas farmers and Pennsylvania miners to operas and orchestras, let classical artists join the proletarians to merge their impressions into works, both can relate to.

    And then, when art has arived in the middle of society again, we’ll talk about subsidies.


  2. The “Sandow data” link apparently does not work. I’d be really interested in that, if you could restore it?

    Musical education (playing yourself an instrument and also music appreciation) has apparently failed even worse in the US than in Europe. But I am not so sure how strong the correlation between concert attendance and being able to play an instrument is. In bourgeois circles in Germany many children still play the piano, flute, violin etc., but only very few become seriously interested in listening to classical music.
    Anti-intellectualism is probably worse in the US, but in Germany/Europ for some reason visual arts and theatre perfomance seem to fare better than classical music. I am not at all sure about causes and reasons for this.

    Finally, I think one should realize that for most of its history, western classical music relied on some kind of subsidies, grants, patronage.


  3. It’s difficult for any politician to argue that classical music – how to define the term, btw – is more deserving of tax money than any other form of performing (or rather underperforming, in purely economic terms) art. Let the market decide, goes the mantra in America, so it’s only consistent not to come to the rescue of the orchestras, as sad as that may be.


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