Benjamin Coy


Framing a question

January 28, 2014 at 11:14 pm

This past weekend, I played a performance of Mozart’s Coronation Mass. This was not a highly publicized event from one of the major ensembles in the city, but just a community event for people who loved music. It was bitterly cold out, but the hall was still full. The experience made me consider the problems of selling tickets to performances in the context of the statistical reality that interest in classical music is growing. Concert attendance is decreasing over time, but it is due to non-artistic factors.

We must ask ourselves what it is that compelled these community members to go out on a frigid night to hear a freelance orchestra play. What did my little gig offer the audience that is lacking at the major venues that struggle to fill seats?

I have my own ideas about the direction the industry should go, and maybe I’ll write about that some day. First, though, it is important to make sure we’re discussing the right question.

  • The question is not whether patrons are leaving the arts in favor of sporting events. All leisure activities with the exception of exercise and volunteerism have experienced a similar decline in participation for decades.
  • The question is not whether classical music is appealing to younger audiences. In 2008, classical musicians in the USA performed for almost a million more members of Generation X than the Silent Generation.
  • The question is not whether adults stop caring about music after they graduate high school and are not enrolled in band or orchestra. From 2002 to 2008, the percentage of adults who perform music increased despite declining music education programs.

(All statistics from Symphony Magazine. Here are more statistics. I don’t think they tell the whole story, but they should inform what questions we discuss!)

Our culture is obsessed with the performing arts. While it is less common to see a performance live, much of our time is spent enjoying performances. The movie industry (with its subsidiary acting and music industries) is booming like never before, and the people who create those works are minor deities in our society. But it’s not enough to see a movie on the weekend. Every night, nearly every household in America turns on the TV to watch more actors and listen to more musicians. And if I need to point out the obvious, every smartphone in the country is stuffed with playlists of professional music performances.

Everyone loves music. Everyone listens to music every day. The opportunity to see a favorite artist live is a special event. Personal tastes may differ about preferred styles or performers, but the music industry (including classical music) does not suffer from a lack of interest or appeal.

The problem isn’t with the art form. It’s with how we’re presenting it.

The question we must ask is not “How do we change or enhance classical music to make it cool enough for modern audiences?” but “What is so distasteful about our presentation of music that people choose not to hear the music they would otherwise enjoy?” Better yet, we can ask “What kind of frame can we put around our artwork to make it most attractive in a 21st century gallery?”

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