On An Overgrown Path recently highlighted a Milwaukee Journal article by music writer Tom Strini. Tom makes some interesting points in this article on the target demographic of classical music and the lack of cultural centrality of this music. Here is an excerpt from his column:
The survival of larger classical musical institutions, particularly orchestras, is in doubt across America. But there are some hopeful signs.
A semi-underground classical recording trade is taking shape on the Internet. Musicians are making discs and marketing them on their own mini-labels, and small, creative recording companies are finding ways to stay in business.
The aging of the population is a good thing for classical music. People might well start looking for more substance as they hit 50.
In a related development, the revival of the American city is bringing the most likely audience – mature empty nesters with money to spend – back into the central cities, the natural home of high culture. Art museums, theater companies, opera houses and symphony halls appear to be main drivers of the urban revival.
Some classical music institutions are getting better at marketing, and the level of musical performance is much higher than it was 40 years ago. If you can get them to come, they’ll probably like it.
The economic elite of our cities have proved unexpectedly tenacious and generous about saving classical music, and musicians and managements have turned out to be more resilient and resourceful than we might have expected. Several orchestras have folded, but as often as not leaner, smarter institutions have risen from their ashes.
But will classical music regain the standing it had in society in the first half of the 20th century?
Classical music and new music rising from that tradition will remain marginal. We can take comfort in the fact that almost every cultural commodity is marginal these days – marginality is a matter of degree.
Most of us are intensely interested in certain things and oblivious to many more things of intense interest to millions of our fellow citizens. We have sliced and diced ourselves – and been sliced and diced by media manipulators – into hermetically sealed demographic bits.
Once there were three TV networks and we all had them more or less in common. Now, cable and satellite offer hundreds of choices. The Internet expands and subdivides the spectrum vastly. Each channel and Web site has its target audience, and each slice of pie is thinner than it used to be. The result is that we all have less in common.
It’s not the size of the audience that counts anymore; it’s the target demographic and whether you hit the bulls-eye. Celebrities can pop out of the white noise and span multiple demos, but do so as often for freakishness as for accomplishment. Even I know who Paris Hilton is. I don’t care, but I do know.
John Adams, Andreas Delfs, Lorin Maazel et al. will never enjoy such notoriety, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Classical music must embrace its marginality and make a modest nest in a splintered marketplace.
Here’s the target demo: Thoughtful people with long attention spans and a little bit of money. It’s a small market, but surely sizable enough to keep the music playing in this country if the classical business is smart enough to draw them out and serve them well.
I agree with the thrust of Mr. Strini’s arguments. When classical music tries to become all things to all people, it is usually dumbed down, losing its core audience of loyalists (the type of people described at the end of the section I excerpted).
Does this mean that we should abandon all hope of winning people over to classical music? Of course not. There is however, a line between making things accessible and dumbing things down, and some organizations are better at it than others. A master music director can combine both successfully (the IRIS Chamber Orchestra’s Michael Stern is a great example), but too often directors go too far in one direction or another.