Yet Another Tiresome “Death of Classical Music” Article

Oh boy. I think my last flicker of patience has finally burned out.

This week, USA Today published an article by Matt Daneman that once again trumpeted the death of classical music (“As Interest Wanes, Classical Music Hits Sour Note.”) The core of the piece was an interview of Robert Freeman, who previously served as director of University of Rochester’s Eastman School and president of the New England Conservatory, before moving to his current position at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Fine Arts.

With respect to Freeman’s enormous contributions to music education, and his familiarity with the classical music world, I have to take issue with many of his points… along with Daneman’s overall framework of the article.  

* * *

“The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2011. The New York City Opera followed suit two years later. The struggling Minnesota Orchestra was effectively shut down for more than a year over labor issues until early 2014. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was shut down twice in two years due to lockouts of musicians.

Right from the very first sentence, I want to scream in frustration. First of all, let’s take the case of Philadelphia. Yes… it filed for bankruptcy. But I’m astonished at how this simple fact has been inflated, stretched and demagogued over the last few years; it’s been trotted out each and every time someone has wanted to “prove” the “death” of classical music. Even though the ensemble is still performing today.

I agree that Philadelphia’s bankruptcy was sobering—but what other sector of the economy has been summarily written off as “dead” based on a single, isolated case from four years ago? At roughly the same time the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy, General Motors did, too. But although that was disturbing, no one today is saying that GM’s problems from back then mean that the death of the entire auto industry (including not just manufacturers, but also ancillary activities such as gas stations, repair shops, and highway construction) is at hand. Nor is anyone arguing GM’s troubles in 2009 are a sign that Americans are about to abandon driving en masse. This argument is wildly simplistic… and tedious.

I am grateful that at least in this article, Daneman tried to fill things out a bit by providing several other examples of orchestra-related troubles. But a quick moment of reflection would show that all the examples he cites are equally problematic in supporting his point.

For one, Philadelphia. Beyond the issues I outlined above, let me remind people that it bankruptcy raised several eyebrows in the world of classical music. Philadelphia still had an endowment of many millions… was it really bankrupt? Also, the bankruptcy proceedings revealed that CEO Allison Vulgamore received very high levels of compensation, even after the bankruptcy. And of course, despite “going bankrupt,” the organization is still very much around today and still performing.  Many have wondered if filing for bankruptcy protection wasn’t simply a maneuver by the administration to extricate itself from pension obligations to the musicians. To be honest, I’ve never really delved into the situation at Philadelphia, but I think it’s hard to argue that the “decline of classical music” was the leading cause of Philadelphia’s bankruptcy, when it appears there were so many other, more “earthly” and organization-specific factors at play.

The New York City Opera? Again, that’s a very complicated case study. Reynold Levy, formerly of the Lincoln Center, has written about the company’s demise in his new book, They Told Me Not to Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center … and he argues that its bankruptcy was caused by “succession of self-inflicted wounds; severe case of governance failure; poor succession planning, resulting in flawed decisions on C.E.O. selection; trustees too few and too disengaged; charitable contributions wanting; budgets out of balance; endowment shrinking; patient living beyond means; displacement and uprootedness.” Again, these feel like organizational problems, rather than classical music problems. Does the fact that one opera company had a bad business model mean that every other classical performing group is in the same boat… and cursed to suffer the same fate?

And of course, the Minnesota and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras. I don’t see how these could be considered “proof” that classical music is tottering on the edge of chaos. In both these cases, there weren’t impersonal “labor issues” that exploded without rhyme or reason; in both cases, the respective administrations locked out their musicians as part of a plan to break the musicians’ unions, and impose a radically different business model on their organizations. Realizing they faced an existential threat, the musicians fought back hard. For the record, this was the same thing that happened with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera—the “unrest” was the result of a specific, management-led labor negotiation strategy.

But more to the point. I’m surprised that these four examples “prove” classical music is in decline. Bruce Ridge pointed out the following at the 2014 International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) conference:

  • The Chicago Symphony received the two largest gifts in its history, totaling $32 million.
  • The Indianapolis Symphony saw a 19% surge in ticket sales with an increase of 30% in subscription sales.
  • The Cleveland Orchestra announced a balanced budget, growing audiences, increased endowment, and a record number of student attendees.
  • The Lyric Opera of Chicago, which has operated in the black for 26 of the past 27 seasons, saw significant increases in revenue and fundraising, and an increase of 8% in ticket sales.
  • The city of New York City increased funding for arts in the public schools by $23 million, and is expected to hire 120 additional arts teachers.
  • In Syracuse, where Symphoria works heroically to establish a great and permanent orchestral presence in the wake of the unnecessary Syracuse Symphony bankruptcy, the new orchestra is now receiving grants, including funding for its educational mission.
  • The San Antonio Symphony celebrated its 75th anniversary as it prepares to move into its new home, the Tobin Center.
  • The Florida Orchestra saw an increase in attendance of 30%.
  • The Houston Symphony’s gala raised over $2.5 million in one evening for education programs on the heels of consecutive years of record breaking fundraising.
  • The New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala Celebrated Fifty Years at Lincoln Center and raised over $3 million.
  • The Milwaukee Symphony reached a goal of $5 million dollars from new donors.
  • The Cincinnati Symphony’s endowment has grown by 43% and the number of gifts has increased by 94%, leading to a double-digit increase in attendance.
  • Our newest member, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched a $40 million endowment drive with a $20 million gift.
  • The Detroit Symphony’s holiday concerts set a new box office record just one year after seeing a 43% increase in donations.
  • The Buffalo Philharmonic saw an 11.9% surge in contributions, endowment growth of 7.7%, and an increase in ticket sales with records set for subscriptions.

The entire address can be read here.

This accumulated data makes it somewhat difficult to claim that interest in classical music is “waning” across the board.

“Ultimately, the rarified world of Ravel and Kalliwoda faces the same mercantile business problems as Radio Shack or Eastman Kodak Co. — a product that fewer customers want.”

What do you base this on, especially in light of the information I posted above? What data are you using? What are your criteria? What are your metrics?

” ‘We’ve always imagined the elitist part of society were the people who’d patronize that, so we’ve marketed ourselves into a dumb corner of our own making,’ said Robert Freeman, former head of Eastman School of Music and author of The Crisis of Classical Music in America.”

“We?” “Always?” With respect, Mr. Freeman, who are you talking about? Every art group I’ve been involved in has been keenly aware of the need to engage audiences. Moreover, they’ve been grappling with this problem for some time.

“ ‘You can either act as a musical performer as somebody who comes out, bows, plays, gets up, bows again and goes away or you can engage the audience through,’ Freeman said.”

Really? Again with respect, of course performing arts groups—and classical music groups in particular—are concerned with audience engagement. Can we do more? Sure. But the work is being done. There are so many examples of audience engagement to choose from… including this example of the Minnesota Orchestra encouraging listeners to engage through social media.  Nothing “elitist” about it.

“When you’re in school, you’re hoping to be the principal oboe. Then you get out of school and it turns out there are 500 candidates for the job, 100 of whom are perfectly well qualified.”

This is true, and obviously a problem. But this is hardly unique to classical music—this is a problem faced by nearly everyone who graduates from college, law school or business school. And in my experience, no one is more aware of this trend than Millennials.

“Largely what it comes down to is you can’t make productivity gains in the performing arts. It still takes 85 players to play a Beethoven symphony and you don’t get anywhere trying to play it twice as fast with half as many players. At the same time, the musicians need to be paid more. You can’t put the New York Philharmonic into Yankee Stadium — acoustically it doesn’t work.”

And here we go again. This notion is essentially a restatement of the famous economic principle referred to as “Baumol’s curse” or “Baumol’s cost disease.” The name comes from economist William Baumol who first postulated it several decades ago… and it been used as a cudgel against performing arts groups ever since to show how they are fundamentally “unsustainable.”

I don’t buy it—and lots and lots of people have pointed out the myriad problems with this argument.

For one, the whole notion is that since its impossible to introduce efficiencies (such as reducing the size of the workforce or otherwise streamlining production), classical music ensembles become pricier and pricier over time, to the point that they are no longer economically sustainable.  But Mr. Freeman brings up a well-established counter-example:  the New York Yankees. The number of baseball players has also remained fixed for more than a century, and the players’ pay has likewise steadily increased over time… does that mean that baseball teams are inherently unprofitable? Of course not.  Costs and revenues are far more complex than that—rising personnel costs have been balanced out by a number of additional revenue streams.

It’s not just me saying this; William Baumol himself points out that while there haven’t been productivity gains in the size of an orchestra’s personnel, there have been gains elsewhere… in all the various activities that surround the performance. In his 2012 book, The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t, he writes:

The rise in productivity that makes it possible to create commodities with less and less labor, thereby lowering what consumers pay, has occurred in almost every industry. Even services that seem most impervious to productivity growth have participated indirectly in this process. I frequent use the example of a Mozart string quartet written for a half-hour performance as an example of a service that resists reduction of its labor content. But even an activity like live musical performance has benefited from considerable savings in time expended. In 1790, when Mozart traveled from Vienna to give a performance in Frankfort am Main, the trip required six days of extreme discomfort. (At the time, however, that was considered swift – Mozart wrote that he was surprised at the speed of the journey.) Today, the same trip takes only six hours: 1.5 hours for the airplane flight and 4.5 hours for transit to and from the airport and other preliminaries. Surely this is a marked reduction in the time required for such a musical performance…..

I could add to that the notion that there have been efficiencies gained in the number of rehearsal hours required for pieces, the marketing needed to attract audiences, and a host of other areas.

But more important, this model ignores the fact that classical music ensembles are nearly always 501 (c) (3) non-profits, as categorized by the IRS. This means that they are allowed to fundraise to support operations… and performances. This is a completely different economic model than the one used to manufacture iPhones or flat screen TVs.

Can we please stop unthinkingly toss out Baumol’s cost disease as “proof” that classical music is financially unsustainable?

“Caleb Burhans, I’ve never met him. But he was taken to task by an orchestra for wearing purple hair. He was told ‘Are you trying to ruin classical music?’ No, I’m trying to save classical music from itself.’ ”

I admit to being confused. Are you suggesting that Caleb was going to save classical music by… wearing purple hair? Or that having a purple-haired musician would help improve audiences interest in orchestra? Was that what was holding the orchestra back?

I’m not trying to be glib here… I’m honestly confused about why the episode with Caleb’s purple hair is such a pivotal moment.  Is this solely a question about being relatable to younger audiences?  For what it’s worth, my hometown band, the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted focus groups with young audience members; the top things that would get them to come to a performance were price, transportation and the encouragement of their friends. Flamboyantly-attired musicians didn’t make the list.

Or is it just an example that classical audiences are inherently uptight, and unwelcoming of “differences?”  If so, this seems to fly in the face of the rest of the purple-haired musician’s story:

“In New York City he makes a living singing counter tenor in an Episcopal Church. He’s also a composer, has two rock bands, plays keyboards, violin, percussion, he’s fully occupied in repertories classical and otherwise. Because he’s versatile.”

So, he is making a living? And doing so at least in part via classical music? And that these other classical ensembles don’t mind his purple hair? So… is he the best example of how rigidity in the world of classical music is driving people away?

“Q.: It’s funny and it’s strange that one of classical music’s problem is it’s entertainment that’s not entertaining.

A.: It takes itself too seriously.”

Oh for Heaven’s sake. So we have someone who has no great love for classical music writing about what’s “wrong” with it… and doing so by interviewing someone who thinks classical music is too full of itself.

Perhaps this is why I found this article so…weak.

* * *

Look. Classical music does face significant challenges. But could we have honest discussions about the real issues involved, instead of making sweeping, lazy claims based on nothing more than conventional wisdom?

And could these analyses be done by people who weren’t already hostile to the art form?


12 thoughts on “Yet Another Tiresome “Death of Classical Music” Article

  1. I agree 1,000% with you, Scott. And to add a little extra fuel to the fire: Consider the number of composers who have applied to the Minnesota Orchestra’s “Composers Institute” before the lockout and that, although only seven individuals are chosen per year, they usually receive between 80 to 100 submissions from all over the world!


  2. I am generally very supportive on your positions, and appreciate your input and coverage of all things musical. That said I do have concerns regarding the direction of classical performance, particularly in America. Several sets of data have shown long term downward trends of concert attendance, particularly with the big format opera/symphony segments. Money issues being a separate issue which I believe you detail very nicely, do you not believe the data regarding those attendance trends? My personal belief is that this is not just a reflection of classical music, but of society in general particularly in the US, where the public is more likely to heat up a ready made meal or dinner from a box, rather than taking the time to cook a meal from scratch. Huge segment of the public no longer has the attention span to listen to music longer than 3 or 4 minutes, as evidenced by pop music on the radio today. Playing devils advocate, but what is the counterpoint here?


    • Hello and thanks for the comment. Which studies have you seen? The major study I’ve seen that suggests a decline in ticket sales—one that many writers base their cases on—was completed in 2012. Moreover, the real decline this study showed happened in 2009; given the onslaught of the Great Recession, this is not surprising. But this particularly damning study doesn’t account for trends in the last four years. Recent studies from the NEA have suggested that arts attendance is holding steady or rising.

      Other indicators suggest that interest in classical music remains strong—not just ticket sales, but attendance at the Met’s HD broadcasts, classical radio and such (an interesting compilation of these stats is here.)

      On the anecdotal front, many classical music groups reported substantial spikes in attendance last year, including orchestras in cities like Cleveland, San Diego, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Opera companies in Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston had record-breaking years in terms of attendance. So there are groups that are succeeding.

      For me, it gets back the questions I posed to Mr. Daneman: what data do you draw from, along with what your criteria and metrics are. For me personally, when I step back, I can see that this or that ensemble has a weak marketing plan or audience engagement strategy, but as a whole arts groups continue to be relevant, innovative and successful.


      • I’ve seen various things referenced at different times but was looking at a report thus morning by a Prof. Flanagan at Stanford, reporting to the Mellon Foundation. He cites the League of American Orchestras for his data, though admittedly I haven’t taken the time to research any further than that. Am actually surprised to not hear more from organisations like that who should be able to provide better reliable data amongst various groups. I also believe orchestras are still relevant and successful, though much has to do with not just the marketing and business plans, but the interest level of the local community. The “dumbing down” of America in general may be a bigger factor to this “problem” than many within the industry would like to accept. Doesn’t mean the end of classical, but certainly will pose challenges to fill large concert halls regularly.


  3. A third generation professional musician myself, I have deidcated my life to the preservation of what has been called classical music and of the musicians who join me in that enthusiasm. And I agree with Scott Chamberlain’s critique of the USA Today inreview which, of course, quotes me only in the context of that interview. My book, “The Crisis of FClassical Music in America; Lessons from a Life in the Education of Musicians,” is still very much worth reading, by you and your readers. It proposes a variety of reforms that, I believe, would be good for music’s future. The aging of our audience, the diminishing number of orchestral subscription sales, the diminishing contribution of earned income to orchestral budgets, and the recent escalation of the draw down rates on orchestral endowments are all signs that we should take seriously, like the speedomer on Amtrak 188 shortly after it left Philadelphia on Tuesday.
    Bob Freeman


    • Scott, My principal point is that Daneman’s article, the result of an hour’s interview, results in a long series of the kinds of minunderstandings that you and your readers point out. Rather than argue with Daneman, I would much rather that you read my book, available through and getting excellent reviews, and argue with the book. We are all on the same side. My good friend Henry Fogel, former exeuctive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and of the League of American Orchestras, told me recently, “I wish you hadn’t’ used the word “crisis” in your title. In my judgment , we are not yet quite at the point of crisis, though at the rate we are going we will be there in a year or two.” The idea to use “crisis” in my title came my editor at Scarecrow Press, who is after all in charge of selling books!
      Bob Freeman


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