Classical music has a new audience but nobody noticed

Yesterday's post described how the tanbur master Ostad Elahi was lavishly praised by Yehudi Menuhin and Maurice Béjart, despite never appearing in public or making a commercial recording. There is a strong case for arguing that the power and purity of Ostad Elahi's music came about because of, rather than despite, a lack of commercial exploitation. It can also be argued that Western classical music can learn much from this Persian jurist, spiritual seeker and master musician who died more than half a century ago, and who never performed before a conventional audience.

Art music and its cousin Western classical music evolved from sacred music created by Hildegard of Bingen and other early composers for no audience other than God. Over the centuries classical music morphed from being a privileged means of communicating with the Divine, to communicating with a less-Divine and more human audience. By the 20th century it had become accepted that this human audience would exhibit three essential characteristics: first, the audience would be passive consumers of music, secondly that they would pay for the music they heard, and thirdly, that the audience would be relatively homogeneous in taste and lifestyle. The bloated business model which celebrity classical music operates on in the 21st century depends on this compliant, financially submissive, and monolithic audience, and the failure to understand the rapid decline of that traditional audience - traditional not in age or taste but in behaviour - lies at the heart of most of classical music's current problems.

Western classical music is obsessively committed to exploiting new media; but only in futile pursuit of its legacy audience. Concertgoers are given the concession of applauding between movements, but are otherwise expected to be passive and compliant consumers. Concertgoers are given the concession of free streams of operas and concerts, but are still expected to pay handsomely to enter a concert hall or opera house. And concertgoers from an increasingly diverse society are assumed to all have the same tastes, and consume en masse the same programmes featuring the same few composers.

Why hasn't classical music woken up and smelt the coffee? Listeners are no longer passive consumers: they are active users of new technologies that allow them to customise their playlists very precisely. The same technologies have changed the way people pay for their music, and have also changed the perception of how much they should pay. And the advent of streaming and other selective technologies is making 'one size fits all' concert programmes of established masterpieces redundant. Much has been made here and elsewhere of Britten's 'holy triangle' of composer, performer and listener. That holy triangle is derived from a Newtonian worldview of discrete entities, but we now live in an era of quantum entanglement, where all events - subatomic and musical - are interconnected. New technologies are blurring the boundaries between composer, performer and listener; which means we are fast approaching the point where, to quote another great Persian mystic Rumi "The listener is the performer, and the performer is the listener".

We are told repeatedly that the audience for classical music is dying because of the average age of concertgoers. It is true the audience is dying; but because of changing technology and expectations, not changing demographics. Anyone who thinks I am overstating the impact of these changes should use journalism as a case study. New technology allowed newspaper content to be made available free online - just as classical music is being streamed free online. This precipitated a massive shift from print to online content. Publishers have belatedly countered this by offering content for monthly online subscriptions that generate far less revenue than traditional printed papers - Spotify and Apple Music are the classical equivalents. But, despite this, newspapers are hemorrhaging cash. Take the case of the Guardian, the news media equivalent in status and quality of the Berlin Philharmonic or London Symphony Orchestra. In its current financial year the Guardian will have burnt through almost £80 million in cash, and, as a result, is being forced to cut its costs - including staff - by 20%. And, classical music please note, success online does not compensate for failure elsewhere. The Guardian is the world’s second most popular English-language news website. This is an impressive achievement that has failed to solve the newspaper's financial woes; because, unless you are Google or Facebook, it is very difficult to monetise Internet traffic.

Disruptive technology, surplus capacity, and faltering demand are facts of life in classical music. Yet the response of the London Symphony Orchestra, to which Simon Rattle is moving from the Berlin Philharmonic, is simply to press for increased capacity in the form of an expensive new concert hall just yards from a perfectly serviceable alternative opened in 1982. Classical music is far from dead; and if it is smart it will not be playing to empty halls in the future. But it must adapt its business to appeal to the new self-curating, heterogeneous audience, and those changes must be far more fundamental than allowing applause between movements, boosting Facebook 'likes', and building yet more concert halls.

At the root of the problem is the inequality between classical music's superstars and the rest. The top 1% not only enjoy eye-watering incomes, but they are afforded a status by a sycophantic media that belittles the huge number of fine musicians working in the many other ensembles away from major metropolitan centres. The result is that grassroot professional music making has become no more than a training ground for tomorrow's superstars - an invidious process that simply raises financial expectations throughout a fiscally challenged industry. Celebrity classical music is a dinosaur that is feeding off the carcass of the moribund traditional audience. The spotlight needs to be shifted, both in finance and status, to the rump of non-celebrity professional and amateur musicians and ensembles who are better positioned to weather the coming financial storm. Flattening the supply pyramid will also bring the diversity that classical music needs to meet the demands of the new heterogeneous audience. Classical music may not be dead, but in its present form it is a car crash looking for a place to happen. New hands are needed on the wheel to prevent endless rounds of 20% cuts, mounting operating deficits, and closures of grassroots ensembles.

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What a terrific post. I especially like your pointing out having audiences sitting mutely in the dark is not the way it's always been. When I tell friends and family who don't know much about classical music that Handel wrote the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks to be played as background to social events, they're always surprised. And over the years, Greg Sandow has done posts with contemporary commentary on how opera performances were chaotic parties. And there's that letter Mozart wrote about writing some music meant to get the audience to applaud in the middle of a movement, and was delighted when they did so. Listening to live music can be a sacred transcendental experience - but in different places and times it can be a lot of other things as well.
Pliable said…
"Anyone who thinks I am overstating the impact of these changes should use journalism as a case study" -

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