Yesterday I wrote that the decline in the number of people attending classical music concerts is mostly due to people deciding that they are not attracted to social conventions of a classical music concert. I hinted, darkly, that I might flesh out that assertion in a future post. Lo and behold, the future has arrived.
I was provoked into responding (provoked, I tell you!) by a comment from Maria Caswell. She wrote last night that “according to [Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s] Executive Director one back, attendance is down at all live concerts, irrespective of genre, except possibly the huge stars. So, we can’t blame declining attendance at classical concerts with the stuffy protocols. I think that there are just too many easy ways to entertain oneself at home and far cheaper.”
I know the “attendance is down at all live concerts irrespective of genre” argument and I would be stupid to claim that it has no basis. It is also true that there are many ways to entertain oneself at home that are far cheaper than going to a concert. But I cling to my assertion that the social environment of classical music concerts has been influential in declining attendance.
In what will be read as backpedalling furiously, I concede that the stuffy protocols are not the direct cause of declining attendance, but the change in the social environment of a classical music concert – who is there and why – has been tremendously influential. Simply stated, if your spouse or partner, friends, professional colleagues, and social peers aren’t going to be at the concert, the only reason you would have to go is for the music itself, which is for most people a relatively insignificant reason to go.
I hold this opinion because of a lot of direct experience in producing and promoting concerts. And also, probably, because of a wee case of sour grapes. The sour grapes come from the realization that there was a golden age of producing and promoting classical music concerts, and I missed it by about 10 years.
Case in point: the visiting artist concert series at Cornell University, which I ran from 1996-2004, gave most of its concerts in a 2000-seat auditorium. In 1980, all 2000 of those seats could have been sold on subscription. That is, each of those 2000 seats for all 9 or 10 concerts that were produced over an academic year could have been sold prior to the first concert of the season. (As it was, some of the seats were held back from being sold to subscribers so that there could be some single tickets sold, but the demand was there to sell all 2,000 on subscription.)
By the time I started managing the concert series in 1996 there were about 250 seats subscribed, or a reduction of around 80% from the height of the concert series’ “popularity” in 1980. What had happened? The calibre of the musicians and ensembles being presented was equivalent. The kind of music – the mix of familiar to unfamiliar pieces from the classical repertoire – was equivalent. The ticket price was higher in 1996 than 1980, but consistent with inflation.
What had happened? Since I was not in Ithaca in 1980, I depended on the perspectives of people who were. The most insightful commentary I heard on the difference between 1980 and 1996 was from one of the truly great people I have ever been privileged to know, Cornell University’s eighth president Dale Corson. Dale Corson was a physicist by training, a university administrator by affinity for that demanding work, and a music lover. He and his wife Nellie had subscribed to concert series for more than 40 years. Dale was a plain-spoken Kansan with a brilliant analytical mind. He told me that the concert series was 100% subscribed in 1980 because that was where all the faculty knew they would see – and be seen by – their colleagues. It was THE social gathering place for the university, and its status as the gathering place meant that there was some unstated but very real potential liability to you socially and professionally if you were not there.
Dale Corson had been president of Cornell through most of the 1970s, and his authentic interest in classical music – and commitment to attending the concerts while president – helped establish the significance of the concert series as a social and professional meeting ground. All of the concert protocols that were expected by concert-goers in 1980 were accepted without question, because it was in each attendee’s best interest to be there and to conform to whatever social protocols were in place.
Now, Cornell, as the faculty and students are fond of saying, is in a “centrally isolated” location in upstate New York. It is, in many respects, its own little world. But the history of concert attendance at Cornell’s concert series is a microcosm of what has happened throughout the United States. When attending classical concerts is important socially and professionally to the individual, then attendance is strong. (I’m happy to say that, generally speaking, that appears to be the case in Montpelier, Vermont, where I Iive.) When it is not important socially or professionally, attendance falls off.
If the social and/or professional motivation to attend becomes less, the protocols of concert dress and concert deportment begin to be questioned for their desirability and relevance to the people for whom the music is a relatively minor part of the reason that they choose to attend, or not to attend, a concert. As I wrote yesterday, I am happy to report that I think that classical music is becoming a friendlier, less socially-uptight art form. And it seems that the value and experience of hearing live music is broadly endorsed as being more experientially significant than buying a recording.
But the real catalyst for changing concert attendance patterns is in changing who wants to be seen at a concert. True music lovers are the least of our worries. We need the presidents to attend concerts again.