Age Shall Not Wither
by Vivien Schweitzer
Awards Issue, 2003
Millions of Americans - of all ages - attend concerts and operas every year, so why all the gloom, asks Vivien Schweitzer

Classical music is a dying art form. Or is it? The recently released Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), the most comprehensive national survey on arts participation, offers some surprising statistics. It reports that in 2002, 23.9m American adults attended a classical concert, up from 23.2m in 1992, while the number of opera attendees rose from 6.1m in 1992 to 6.6m in 2002.

Other findings were more predictable, such as statistics showing that the average age of classical music audiences continues to increase. In 1992 it was 45, while in 2002 it was 49. However, the median age for ballet, art museums, plays, jazz and musicals all jumped a few years between 1992 and 2002 as well, and important to note, the survey shows that the median age of the adult population increased from 42 to 45. So it should be good news for the arts that people are living much longer and in better health. An aging population may be bad news for government pensions, but instead of heralding the demise of classical music it should conversely indicate a growing, not shrinking, audience.

Many musical genres have an 'average' age - check out the crowd at a Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears concert and teenagers will probably in the majority. If the population is aging so fast, pop should be in more danger of dying out than classical - but I've never read a newspaper column lamenting the imminent demise of boy bands or teen pop stars.

Most teenagers (hopefully) grow out of formulaic pop music, but it doesn't matter for the industry, because those kids are always replaced by more. Likewise, an aging audience for classical music is constantly replenished - because as people age their tastes evolve. Perhaps the continuing decline of musical education in schools will affect this. However, I know many adults who hated the piano lessons they were forced to take as kids but still gravitated towards classical music later in life. Every musical genre has its average age, but is this really such so disastrous? It's very unlikely you can interest 100 percent of the population in anything, whether theater, football or salsa dancing.

You can glam up classical music all you like, but it's undeniably a more sedate activity than a rock concert. It rarely involves alcohol, dancing or otherwise 'partying' - and while the Nigel Kennedys and Vanessa Maes of the classical music world may add a touch of rebelliousness to the genre's sometimes staid reputation, it's probably not, on the whole, counter culture enough for many teens and twenty some-things.

However, as people grow out of crowded bars and clubs they often gravitate towards more sophisticated genres, such as jazz and classical music (although the former, of course, is no stranger to smoky dives…) Just as people wear different clothes at 20 and 40, their entertainment tastes change as well. After all, most 40-year-olds don't frequent the same venues they did at 20.

It would be interesting to do another survey and ask those adults who now regularly attend classical music concerts what they preferred when they were 20. There will no doubt be a large chunk (perhaps raised by classical-loving parents) who have always enjoyed classical music. But there would no doubt also be a significant number of fifty-somethings who would have bought a ticket to the Beatles over a Mozart symphony without hesitating 35 years ago.

So perhaps too much attention is focused on attracting the youth population. Does it really matter if 20 year olds don't attend classical concerts if ages 30-90 do? The current obsession with youth culture and its participation seems to lead to the assumption that if the very young are not involved (thus consigning the activity to the deadly wasteland of the unhip and untrendy) then it is somehow less valid.

It would be a real harbinger of disaster if there was a sudden drop in applications to conservatories each year, no-one showed up for international competitions and major orchestras had trouble recruiting players. If there was no-one left to make the music, classical would (for the first time) be in legitimate danger of dying out. However, while Beethoven maybe losing the fight with MTV to attract young listeners, the number of young musicians choosing to try their luck in what remains a fiercely competitive industry shows no sign of diminishing. But being by nature such intense places, music conservatories can be quite insular. Perhaps young musicians could do more to interest their non-musical peers and attract a wider audience to classical music.

The SPPA also points out that classical music is skewed towards the wealthy. For example, in 2002, people with an income of $75,000 or more constituted 22.2 percent of the adult population (some 45.7m - out of an adult total of 205.9 million people), but also constituted 40.8 per cent of the adults attending opera. This makes sense, because people usually have more money as they get older. The survey states that people with incomes under $30,000 are under represented at arts events, which is also no surprise, as people with low incomes are under represented many places, including doctors' offices and universities. Unfortunately the arts, like many other things which ideally would be accessible to all, are sometimes out of reach. So new means of marketing cheaper tickets to disadvantaged groups should always be under discussion.

However, the statistics do not fully explain why the young and less affluent do not attend concerts. While concert tickets (and opera in particular) can be expensive, there are often plenty of seating options around the $10-15 range, which is not much more than a movie, and much cheaper than many sporting events, for example. So it boils down to what people choose to spend their money on.

The SPPA says 11.6 per cent of adult Americans (23.9 million people) attended at least one classical event in 2002, which is a healthy chunk of the population, while a survey released in April 2002 by Audience Insight offered the comforting news that 18 percent of Americans listen to classical music on the radio several times a week. Ideally, these figures would include more young people. It would be great if they attended concerts and steps should certainly be taken to encourage them to do so. However, it seems silly to constantly trumpet the lack of participation of a very small percentage of the population as a threat to one of the world's most respected and long-established art forms.

Copyright The Gramophone, 2003