When it comes to classical music and American culture, the fat lady hasn't just sung. Brünnhilde has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton.
Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There's little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that's increasingly neither. Don't forget the attacks on arts education, the Internet-driven democratization of cultural opinion, and the classical trappings — fancy clothes, incomprehensible program notes, an omerta-caliber code of audience silence — that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture.
The holiday season typically provides a much-needed transfusion. But the most recent holidays came after an autumn that The New Yorker called the art form's “most significant crisis” since the Great Recession. Looking at the trend lines, it's hard to hear anything other than a Requiem.
Let's start by following the money. In 2013, total classical album sales actually rose by 5 percent, according to Nielsen. But that's hardly a robust recovery from the 21 percent decline the previous year. And consider the relative standing of classical music. Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.
What about the airwaves? There are only a handful of commercial classical music stations left in America. One of the last, KDB in Santa Barbara, Calif., was put up for sale in October after years of “six-figure losses.” Even public classical radio is in trouble. The number of noncommercial classical radio stations — on the air and online — has risen. But much of that growth is due to commercial stations switching to a public format. Actual listenership continues to decline.
And some public classical stations have ditched the music. One such station, WUIS in Illinois, added an online classical channel after switching the main station to talk and news. As the station's manager put it, “[C]lassical radio is one of those things that's slowly going away.” Sirius XM, the satellite and online radio provider, has nine jazz channels, 20 Latino channels, and eight Canada-themed channels — but only two traditionally classical stations. One, called Symphony Hall, has 3,500 Facebook likes. Sirius' all-Pearl Jam channel has 11,000; their D.J. Tiesto-curated channel has 89,000.
Now let's look at classical concerts. 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.
Non-orchestral performances are harder to track. But Greg Sandow, a musician and writer, reports anecdotal evidence for a decline in chamber music. There's also grim data from the NEA that shows the percentage of adults who attended a classical concert (even one per year) declined from 13 percent in 1982 to 11.6 percent in 2002, and 9.3 percent in 2008. A further decline to 8.8 percent in 2012 was not considered statistically significant, though significant declines in those years occurred in the 35-44 and 45-54 age bands.
Which brings us to demographics. 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.
But are there any bright spots at all? Despite the worries over music education, instrument purchases for schools have remained fairly constant at just under one instrument for every 50 kids, each year. That's not a lot, and instruction time and quality is another question. But at least instruments are physically in the classrooms.
And it's not as though the classical music world isn't trying to address its image problems. Kudos to Groupmuse, for example, which arranges informal but high-quality live classical performances in Boston-area private homes, and markets them to a young audience (“halfway between a chamber music concert and a house party ... Jam out on the air-violin if that's your thing!”). Greg Sandow also notes that America's population growth will continue to buy time for classical music. Some strong institutions, like Tanglewood, will endure — maybe even thrive — on a declining share of a growing pie.
Myself, I cling to the forlorn hope that classical music has been down for so long, it must somehow be due for a comeback. More realistically, though, I'm hoping for Jeff Bezos to step in. He recently described Amazon as a symphony of people, software and robots. Maybe he'd like a struggling orchestra to go with his newspaper.