THE NEW YORK TIMES
Check the Numbers: Rumors of Classical Music's Demise Are Dead Wrong
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: May 28, 2006
EVERYONE has heard the requiems sung for classical music or
at least the reports of its failing health: that its audience
is graying, record sales have shriveled and the cost of live
performance is rising as ticket sales decline. Music education
has virtually disappeared from public schools. Classical
programming has (all but) disappeared from television and radio.
And 17 orchestras have closed in the last 20 years.
All this has of late become the subject of countless blogs, news
reports, books and symposiums, with classical music partisans
furrowing their brows and debating what went wrong, what can
still go wrong and whether it's too late to save this once-exalted
industry. Moaning about the state of classical music has itself
become an industry. But as pervasive as the conventional wisdom
is, much of it is based on sketchy data incorrectly interpreted.
Were things better in the old days Has American culture given
up on classical music?
The numbers tell a very different story: for all the hand-wringing,
there is immensely more classical music on offer now, both in
concerts and on recordings than there was in what nostalgists
think of as the golden era of classics in America.
In the record business, for example, it can be depressing to
compare the purely classical output of the major labels now with
what the industry cranked out from 1950 to 1975. But focusing
on the majors is beside the point: the real action has moved to
dozens of adventurous smaller companies, ranging from musician-run
labels like Bridge, Oxingale and Cantaloupe to ambitious mass
marketers like the midprice, repertory-spanning Naxos.
Similarly, someone shopping anywhere but in huge chains like
Tower or Virgin might conclude that classical discs are no longer
sold. In reality the business model has changed. Internet
deep-catalog shops like arkivmusic.com offer virtually any CD
in print, something no physical store can do today. The Internet
has become a primary resource for classical music: the music
itself as well as information about it.
On Apple's iTunes, which sold a billion tracks in its first three
years, classical music reportedly accounts for 12 percent of
sales, four times its share of the CD market. Both Sony-BMG and
Universal say that as their download sales have increased, CD
sales have remained steady, suggesting that downloaders are a
new market, not simply the same consumers switching formats.
In their first six weeks on iTunes, the New York Philharmonic's
download-only Mozart concert sold 2,000 complete copies and about
1,000 individual tracks, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's two
Minimalist concerts, combined, sold 900 copies and about 400
individual tracks. Those numbers, though small by pop standards,
exceed what might be expected from sales of orchestral music on
Other orchestras are catching on: the Milwaukee Symphony and
Philharmonia Baroque in San Francisco offer downloads on their
own Web sites. And the major labels are planning to sell downloads
of archival recordings that will not be reissued on CD.
In concert halls, season subscriptions have plummeted in favor
of last-minute ticket sales. That doesn't mean the business is
tanking, however, just that audiences have shifted their habits.
As two-income families have grown busier, potential ticket buyers
are less inclined to commit to performances months in advance
(or as ticket prices climb, to accept predetermined concert
packages). But as much as orchestras and concert presenters
would prefer to sell their tickets before the season starts, the
seats are hardly empty.
Neither are the stages. The American Symphony Orchestra League
puts the number of orchestras in the United States at 1,800 (350
of them professional). The 1,800 ensembles give about 36,000
concerts a year, 30 percent more than in 1994. And in the most
recent season for which the league has published figures, 2003-4,
orchestras reported an 8 percent increase in operating revenues
against a 7 percent increase in expenses, with deficits dropping
to 1.1 percent from 2.7 percent of their annual budgets from the
Meanwhile corners of the field generally ignored in discussions
of classical music's mortality - most notably, early music and
new music - are true growth industries. When Lincoln Center
presented a 10-concert celebration of the composer Osvaldo Golijov
this season, there wasn't a spare ticket to be found. The Miller
Theater's Gyorgy Ligeti series packed them in as well. And
though the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Minimalist Jukebox festival
sold slightly fewer tickets than its regular programming, it
drew a younger crowd: 25 percent of the audience was said to be
under 45 (compared with 15 percent normally), and 10 percent was
25 to 34 (compared with 2 percent).
By relying heavily on contemporary programs and concerts of
Renaissance and Baroque works, Miller has achieved an 84 percent
increase in ticket sales since 2002, and this season's box office
receipts have exceeded last season's by $100,000.
Zankel Hall, the newly built, high-tech, adventurously programmed
addition to Carnegie Hall, has produced a steady increase in
sold-out houses, from 57 percent of its concerts in 2003-4 (its
first season) to 63 percent in the first third of the current
season. At Carnegie's main hall and its smaller Weill Recital
Hall, ticket sales have been fairly steady since 1982, with
565,000 tickets sold in a slow year and 635,000 in an exceptional
one (most recently 2003).
The classical music world has even found a silver lining in
the reports about its imminent death. Fund-raising letters now
allude to classical music's parlous state as a way of shaking
larger donations from supporters. And when EMI needed a marketing
hook for Placido Domingo's "Tristan und Isolde," it jumped on
predictions that it would be the last studio recording of an
Finally, concert halls are sprouting like mushrooms. New symphony
halls are about to open in Miami, Nashville and Costa Mesa,
Calif. (not far from the newly opened Disney Hall in Los Angeles),
and Toronto is opening a new opera house in September. Clearly,
someone sees a future for this music.
UNDERLYING many of the jeremiads is what might be called golden
ageism: the belief, bordering on an article of faith, that
everything was better, both artistically and commercially, in
the relatively recent past.
To a degree, the golden ageists have a point. From the 1920's
through the 70's, classical music was plentiful on the radio and
on nascent television. Variety shows like "The Bell Telephone
Hour" and "The Ed Sullivan Show" presented both top names and
newcomers, and networks offered symphony concerts, opera and
seductive introductory shows like Leonard Bernstein's "Young
People's Concerts" in prime time.
There was a vogue for films built around classical music and
musicians as well: "100 Men and a Girl," with Leopold Stokowski
(1937), and "They Shall Have Music," with Jascha Heifetz (1939);
"Humoresque," with Isaac Stern on its soundtrack (1946);
biographical films like "Rhapsody in Blue" (1945); and extravaganzas
like "Fantasia" (1940).
All this made classical music's reigning stars - from Toscanini
to Bernstein, from Heifetz to Stern, from Horowitz to Van Cliburn
- household names in a way that only Luciano Pavarotti, Placido
Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma are now.
But the disappearance of this exposure is hardly a lethal wound.
Though classical radio stations have become scarce in most cities,
the Internet offers a global radio dial. The Internet radio
audience is said to be small at the moment, but people who want
it will find it. When the BBC offered a Beethoven symphony cycle
as a free download last year, 1.4 million people took up the
offer. And if classical music is now scarce on television, with
even PBS cutting back, DVD labels are pouring out everything
from long-forgotten TV performances to newly produced symphonic,
chamber and recital discs.
The golden age of concertgoing, meanwhile, is at least partly
a matter of idealized memory. Organizations did not collect
demographic information then, but musicians and critics who
attended concerts during those years remember the audience as
always middle-aged (and concert videos bear out those memories).
And despite the music's greater visibility in daily life, it was
a niche market even then. The pianist Gary Graffman said recently
that when he began attending New York Philharmonic concerts at
Carnegie Hall in the 1940's and 50's empty seats were plentiful.
And among the great soloists, he added, only Heifetz, Rubinstein
and Horowitz could expect to sell out Carnegie Hall.
At the time Carnegie was undisputedly the city's premier hall,
with Town Hall, Hunter College and the Metropolitan Museum of
Art as the principal chamber music and recital halls. Carnegie
Recital Hall (now Weill) and the Frick Collection offered chamber
concerts as well, and McMillin (now Miller) Theater at Columbia
University was a hot spot for new music. When Lincoln Center
was planned in the late 1950's, Carnegie Hall narrowly escaped
the wrecker's ball. It was thought, however briefly, that two
large halls were an extravagance New York didn't need and couldn't
Consider how things have changed since Philharmonic (now Avery
Fisher) Hall opened in 1962. Carnegie, until then a rental hall,
began doing its own presentations, and it now offers about 200
concerts a year. Lincoln Center - with its two opera houses,
Avery Fisher Hall for orchestras and star-turn recitals and Alice
Tully Hall (opened in 1969) for chamber music - quickly undertook
its own presentations as well: some 400 annually now, extending
to halls and churches beyond its campus.
The 92nd Street Y revived its long-dormant concert series in
1974, and Merkin Concert Hall went up in 1978. Carnegie added
Zankel Hall in 2003, and Lincoln Center opened the Rose Theater
and the Allen Room - intended mostly for jazz but sometimes used
for new-music concerts - in 2004.
Meanwhile the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection
remained committed to classical concerts. Small- to medium-size
halls at the French Institute/Alliance Francaise, Scandinavia
House and the Austrian Cultural Forum have opened since the late
1980's. And the Morgan Library and Museum opened a new chamber
musichall this month.
That's in Manhattan. Just across the rivers, the same period
brought a revival of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the construction
of the Tilles Center on Long Island and the New Jersey Performing
Arts Center in Newark and the advent of small but successful
enterprises like Bargemusic.
In the deficit column? Town Hall and Hunter College have largely
abandoned classical music, although each offers a handful of
concerts. But apart from the old Metropolitan Opera House,
demolished when the Met moved to Lincoln Center, no halls have
closed in New York since Lincoln Center opened.
The concert world has expanded in other ways too. Through the
1950's the music season ran less than 30 weeks. But in 1964 the
New York Philharmonic negotiated a 52-week contract with its
players. Other orchestras quickly followed suit, and the season
grew longer. The Mostly Mozart Festival cropped up in 1966 and
spawned similar series around the country. And in 1967 the Ford
Foundation began giving orchestras grants for even greater
expansion, in most cases, more concerts each week.
The nightly offerings in classical music are immensely more
plentiful and varied now than during the supposed golden age.
The wonder isn't that audiences fluc tuate from night to night
or that empty seats can be spotted. It's that so much comp
etition can be sustained in a field usually portrayed as moribund.
One way to keep the gloomy reports in perspective is to understand
that the rumored death of classical music has been with us for
a very long time.
The Metropolitan Opera was in almost constant financial peril
between 1929 and 1944, and there were dicey moments in the 70's.
The orchestra world's 1960's expansion caused anxiety as well.
In an essay in The New York Times on Sept. 3, 1967, "Do We Have
Too Much Music in America?," John O. Crosby, the founder of the
Santa Fe Opera, worried that the audience was insufficient to
support the blossoming 52-week orchestra contracts.
Those worries were soon born out. In "Dip in Concert Audiences
Troubles Impresarios" (Dec. 21, 1968), The Times reported that
classical music ticket sales had dropped as much as 40 percent.
The reasons included everything from the distractions of television
and recordings to street crime, parking difficulties and high
ticket prices, meaning a $15 top at the Met and "as much as
$8.80" for "other prestige events." Young people reading these
reports would have had little reason to expect the classical
music world to exist in 2006. But now that those same people
have begun "graying," are they joining it? Demographic information
over the couple of decades institutions have been collecting it
suggests that they are. For whatever reasons - changes in taste,
a desire to expand their musical experiences, a lack of interest
in current pop - middle-aged listeners continue to join the
audience. And the generational shift is coloring both programming
Listeners now in their 50's - the core classical audience - were
the baby boomers who grew up in the 1960's and 70's. For those
already interested in classical music during their student years,
Shostakovich, Ives and Mahler were musical obsessions, and the
early-music boom was a campus phenomenon. All that music,
marginal in the 70's, joined the mainstream as those listeners
became performers and ticket buyers.
Classically inclined boomers were also new-music agnostics, at
home with the rigorous atonality of the previous generation but
also open to a trippy avant-garde scene that ran from Cage to
the Minimalists. That has had a telling effect too: witness the
standing ovations Elliott Carter's music now gets at symphony
concerts and the rock-star popularity of John Adams and Philip
At the same time this generation's fascination with pop has
influenced its composers (and younger ones), who draw on the
energy of rock. They have also left behind their elders' bias
against amplification and sound processing, which they use not
simply to increase the volume but also to expand their palettes
of timbre. A fascination with world music, which also has roots
in the 1960's, has stretched those palettes further.
All this is changing the classical repertory, and to judge from
the comparatively young audiences to be seen at concerts by
daring groups like the Kronos Quartet and Alarm Will Sound, it
is more likely to rejuvenate classical music than kill it.
Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" observation about relationships and
sharks - that both must either move forward or die - also works
for culture. In classical music, lots of people really just
want the dead shark. They pine for the days when Bernstein,
Reiner, Szell and Toscanini stood on the podium, with Heifetz
fiddling, Horowitz at the piano and Callas and Tebaldi locked
in a perpetual diva war. Most of all they want their repertory
dials set between 1785 and 1920.
You can send those people your condolences.
For the rest of us, the shark is still moving. We're getting
our revivals of Machaut and Rameau along with vigorous
reconsiderations of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler and a
varied gallery of contemporary composers. We may be hearing
much of this in small, high-tech halls instead of cavernous
temples of the arts or finding it online instead of in shops or
on the radio. But it's all there, constantly renewing itself.
You just have to grab onto the dorsal fin.
"Edson Tadeu Ortolan" <[log in to unmask]>