Wednesday, 16 September 2015

How the old ways faded

In my last post I said that I'm now not happy talking about the decline of classical music. That post was a striking anecdotal report about falling ticket sales at European music festivals, which in the past I would have offered as evidence of decline.

But now, as I said, I'd rather say that classical music is changing. Changing, not fading. Not declining. And certainly not dying.

Still, the fading of the old ways — though not classical music itself — is worth chronicling. So here I'm reprinting a chronicle I blogged two years ago, in a post (mentioned the last time I blogged) called "Timeline of the crisis."

"Crisis" is a word I'd still use, because the old ways are going through a crisis, and the new ways haven't fully emerged. So here's my chronicle, showing the passing of the old ways, in slow but steady steps, from 1969 to 2013.

I don't think you'll find this story told anywhere else.


Timeline of the crisis

[I've left out my introduction, in which I talk, among other things, about sources for the data that follows. If you'd like, you can read it here.]



Huge decline in Time magazine coverage of orchestras, in articles and reviews.

storm clouds blogLate 1970s

Unsold seats for Friday afternoon Boston Symphony concerts

from Larry Murray, in a blog comment:

Peter Gelb and I were doing promotion for the Boston Symphony in the late 70's when the Friday afternoon concerts began to have unsold seats. Women had entered the job market and Fridays were still fine for the monied older subscribers, but when they died, their seats were no longer the most sought after item in their wills. Daughter was now often working. Subscriber numbers were also slipping, but trustees of the Orchestra were reluctant to make any real effort to pull in the younger music lovers. Michael Tilson Thomas was brought in to do some outreach but any variations on the ironclad traditional produced wrinkled noses from the older set which wrote checks. So they sorta fired him, and lots of us young people were really angry at the ignorance of the board and management. They even stripped the chrome off the BSO's guest artist car because it was too ostentatious. The problems only grew in the following decade as the old line decision makers talked about the problems of changing audiences and did little concrete to address it with creativity. There are new managers there now, and some contemporaneous board thinking, but old institutions abhor change.

Decline in the number of people taking piano lessons

from S Phillips, in a blog comment:

The piano industry has long been able to tell you when the crisis started. 1979 was an eye-opening year when it was apparent that the baby boomers' piano lessons were at an end and the TV/ radio/ recorded music business was eclipsing the piano business. No longer were Horowitz and Rubinstein household names and the audiences for classical concerts started looking older.

By the 1990's orchestras were easily seeing that subscriptions were purchased by an older demographic and the Friday morning performances mostly populated by women (who had almost always had piano lessons as children or had played in band or orchestra as high school students) were dwindling not because of disinterest but because they were too old to get to the performances.

Early 1980s

Beginning of the orchestra crisis

blog comment from Tom Wolf (of WolfBrown, a leading arts consulting firm; Tom has been working as a consultant to orchestras and to the League of American Orchestras for many years, and did seminal work on orchestra financing)

Our company (then called Wolf Organization) did a study for the American Symphony Orchestra League [now the League of American Orchestras] in 1991 looking at 25 years of audience and financial trends. Our report was called "The Financial Condition of Symphony Orchestras" (nicknamed the "Wolf Report"). It was clear even then that a crisis was imminent but we weren't very popular for saying so. The boom years of the 90s masked the extent of the crisis because endowments were growing so fast that orchestras looked healthy — even though the first generation of European immigrants that had swelled audience ranks in the previous half century were dying off. Once the boom was over, the extent of the crisis was clear to anyone who was unwilling to bury their heads in the sand.

Somewhat later the Packard Foundation gave us a grant to study the bankruptcy of the San Jose Symphony. The book we wrote "And the Band Stopped Playing" was a case history of much that had been predicted in the "Financial Condition" study. I would date the beginning of the crisis that we know today to the early 1980s.

Late 1980s

Time pop reviews outnumber classical reviews. (I counted these reviews, looking at every issue of Time from 1980 to 1990. In 1980, there were about two classical reviews for every pop review. By 1990, the proportions had reversed.)

blog comment from Nancy Barry (she's a veteran artist manager)

I think [the crisis] began in the late 80s or early 90's. All I know is that it was not nearly as difficult to present and promote classical music then as it is now. One of my colleagues from that period it called it the high point of her experience.


last Time magazine classical music cover (Vladimir Horowitz)

Early 1990s

Time no longer has an active classical music critic. (I'm not sure of the exact date. Newsweek, too, stopped having a classical music critic, though I'm not sure of the exact date.)

blog comment from David Snead (Vice President, Marketing and Communications at the New York Philharmonic):

I entered the orchestra biz in 1979, and at that time I didn't hear many people talking about a crisis. But by the early '90s there was growing concern about the subscription season model, which is fundamental to how most orchestras organize and manage themselves. In the mid-90's I left the orchestra world for the first time in my career; it was then, when I first saw that world from the outside, that I realized how much trouble it was in.

Some may get their dander up over the word "crisis," but I think it's true that the fundamentals of the orchestra business model have been out of whack for the last 20 years or so. Orchestras are resilient, though, and most have, so far, found a way to stay afloat despite the odds.

Orchestras give more concerts, but start seeing a notable decline in the average number of people attending each one.

Classical record labels worry about selling records. Many attempts to repackage old recordings in ways that will appeal to people who don't normally buy classical records. A marketing executive at one of the big classical labels tells me that — in his belief — it's crucial never to mention the word "art."


Ticket sales to big orchestras' core subscription concerts start to drop. (I've seen private figures showing this. It's possible, though, that the decline began earlier, because the numbers I saw didn't go back further than 1990.)

Wolf Report reveals financial problems of orchestras (see Tom Wolf's blog comment, above, under "Early 1980s")


The New York Times reports that presenting organizations are booking fewer classical performances.


American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) releases a report called Americanizing the American Orchestra. It calls for changes that seemed radical then, but are commonplace now: orchestras should become more accessible, should relate more closely to their communities.

An NPR study shows that NPR's core audience doesn't like to listen to shows featuring classical music and opera. (Also jazz.)


Orchestra attendance (not just to core subscription concerts, but to all orchestra events) starts to decline, according to figures released to me by Julia Kirkhhausen, former VP for Communications at the League


The National Endowment for the Arts publishes a report that documents the aging of the classical music audience from 1982 to 1997. The report shows a dramatic drop during those years in the number of people under 30 in our audience, and a sharp rise in those over 60. The report also notes that the classical music audience is aging faster than the general population.


An NPR study shows that NPR's music listeners give less money, on the average, than people who listen to news and talk programs. News and talk programs generate far more money per broadcast hour than music programs do. The study also showed that listeners to NPR's classical music and opera programs were a full generation older than public radio's core audience.


Attendance at big US opera companies starts to decline. (Many thanks for this information to Kate Place, research manager at Opera America, and to my assistant, Caroline Firman, who worked with Kate to get it. Kate reports that Opera America's surveys of attendance at smaller companies' performances aren't reliable enough to quote, because not enough companies respond.)


WNYC — New York's public radio station — drastically cuts its classical music programming.

NEA data continues to show that the classical music audience is aging. In 1992, the largest age group in the classical audience was people 35 to 44. Now it's people 45 to 54.


Opera News magazine reports what it calls a "blackout" of opera on public TV. There's far less of it than there used to be. In the article is a memorable quote from John Goberman, executive producer of Live from Lincoln Center, who says that some opera telecasts had a dramatically small audience:

There have been some broadcasts over the years where we'd have been better served to have made videocassettes and just sent them to the people who actually wound up watching.


HMV records closes its stores in New York. Some had large classical music departments.

Mid 2000s

I don't remember the exact year, but I was asked by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters to facilitate a full-day discussion involving more than a dozen chamber music presenters in New England. All but one of them said they were having trouble selling tickets.


Tower Records goes out of business. Its stores in New York had large classical music departments. The Tower store near Lincoln Center was almost a classical music landmark.


The National Endowment publishes a report showing that the percentage of American adults who go to classical music performances has dropped 29% since 1982.


The Virgin Megastore in New York closes. It was the last major record chain in New York with a large classical music department. The remaining classical record stores in New York are those at Juilliard and the Met Opera, which of course are small. And also J&R Music World, a large independent store, which shrunk its classical music department early in this decade, expanded it in 2007 in an attempt to pick up some of Tower's business, but since has shrunk it again.

Patelson's closes. It was a classical music legend — the main place where classical musicians in New York went to buy printed classical music. I myself must have spent thousands of dollars there over many decades.


The New York Times reports that freelance work for classical musicians in NY is drying up.


Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, gives a dramatic speech at the League's annual conference, outlining a crisis for orchestras in very plain language. He cites the 2008 NEA report, and also says:

  • Orchestras report decreasing income and rising costs.
  • In 2008 50% of orchestras had deficits, and in 2009 70% did.
  • The average size of orchestra deficits more than tripled between 2005 and 2009.
  • Corporate giving to orchestras has declined by 50%.
  • Local and national donors are doubtful about continued donations to orchestras.
  • Many foundations have stopped funding orchestras, and many others express serious doubt.


Serious orchestra crisis. Financial problems lead to labor disputes. Several orchestras, including big ones, delay starting their seasons. The crisis continues in 2013. 

This was the last in a series of posts I did about the crisis. Here are the others:

Original Content: How the old ways faded

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