Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Shocking Decline in Audiences

I like to find a new angle, a new perspective on music whenever I can. Lately it seems as if everyone has been talking about the terrible decline in classical music. By that they are talking about falling sales of recordings, smaller or aging audiences and the disappearance of classical musicians from the public space. Occasionally someone will argue that there are more classical musicians and performances than ever and the quality is higher than ever, but that is a minority view. Most debate is about how to rescue classical music from decline by learning how to appeal to bigger audiences or "re-branding" classical musicians to be more hip or creative or something. Greg Sandow focuses on that kind of approach in his blog.

Let me turn all this around. I think that classical music is in great shape. There are wonderfully talented young musicians all over the place. The standards of concert performance are higher than ever. There are all sorts of new recordings appearing all the time of well-considered interpretations of the core repertoire as well as discoveries of out of the way repertoire. We live in a time of a wealth of music. You could go to YouTube and just browse for hours.

So why all the worries? The problem seems to be related to popular music. Ever since the 60s popular music has had an ever-growing economic clout to the point that it has come to dwarf classical music. There are pop musicians like Paul McCartney that are billionaires. Others, like Beyoncé and Jay-Z are close to being billionaires. UPDATE: There are NO classical musicians who are billionaires and precious few who are millionaires. A look at the personal wealth of a typical contemporary composer would probably be embarrassing! Pop music dominates all mass media to the point that even very prestigious institutions like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal barely acknowledge the existence of classical music. In the New York Times' annual tribute to the musicians that have passed away in the year, they consistently omit classical musicians. Last year this meant ignoring the deaths of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gustav Leonhardt and Elliot Carter. I would say that there was an element of cultural imperialism here making it easy to pay hommage to drummers of obscure American 60s bands while ignoring the death of one of the greatest singers who ever lived because he was German (or one of the greatest keyboard players because he was Dutch), but the New York Times is equally prepared to ignore the death of one of the most important American composers of the 20th century, so it is simply prejudice against the music, not the nationality.

Here is my take on this: it is the mass audiences that are the real problem. They are stupider and crasser than ever and their choices are what drive the economics of music. In the 19th century the decline of the aristocracy and the growth and liberation of the middle class served to pump tremendous energy and economic resources into classical music. Popular and folk musics existed everywhere, but no-one took them too seriously and they were an insignificant economic force. If composers like Brahms or Liszt used folk melodies in a piece it was considered to 'elevate' the material. The economics of music since the middle of the last century seem to have elevated the tastes of another group. Instead of a middle class emulating the sophistication of a disappearing aristocracy, it is rather the case of all groups in society adopting the tastes of the least-sophisticated. What I believe Frank Zappa referred to as the metaphorical fourteen-year old girl from Cleveland. I can't find the exact quote, but here is something similar from Frank: "Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."

Who wants to argue with Frank Zappa, who also said that "Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read." Obviously a wise man. I hate to blame them because I do love their music, but the Beatles probably had a lot to do with this. I think they were intelligent, creative musicians, but they created an economic environment that other, much less-talented musicians, could exploit. And that is the world we are now living in. Here is an example:

Everything about that is as hackneyed, crass and as fundamentally stupid as possible. At least until somebody comes up with something even worse, next week!

We have to admit, though, that classical music has also been its own worst enemy. One of the best places for news and coverage of classical music in the mass media is the Guardian's classical music section. They have an on-going series of articles on contemporary composers that has been an excellent guide for listeners. The most recent one, on Alexander Goehr, captures some of what went wrong with the avant-garde. As quoted in the article, Goehr has written that
the music sanctioned by Boulez's ideological approach to serialism would mean "a conscious elimination of sensuous, dramatic or expressive elements, indeed of everything that in the popular view constitutes music".
Yes, the sad truth seems to be that, for career and ideological reasons, quite a number of the most 'progressive' composers in the last century found it necessary to destroy those aspects of music that the ordinary listener found appealing. No wonder the Beatles and their successors found it pretty easy to take over the whole show.

So now we have reached the point where real classical music has very little prestige in the public view. Classical musicians are rarely seen or heard outside of their little niche environment and highly prestigious concert series, like the one held at the White House and broadcast on PBS, feature no classical musicians anymore. The next one will be devoted to "Memphis soul". Honestly, I have nothing against Memphis soul, but at the same time, to present Justin Timberlake and Queen Latifah as the best in music is unfortunate. True, by focusing on pop music only, it is possible for the US to claim cultural leadership in the world, which is nice and nationalistic, but it is a tad absurd to ignore even outstanding American classical composers like Steve Reich, let alone all those other ones who don't happen to be American.

But we can't really blame the politicians either, even though they used to have great artists like Mstislav Rostropovich and Andres Segovia perform at the White House. Politicians are responding to popular taste. It is the popular taste that is the problem.

Because it would destroy their careers, classical musicians really can't say this in public, but all you folks out there? You have truly awful taste in music. Grow up! Quit listening to crap like Ke$ha and discover what real music sounds like. As Frank Zappa has said, "Most people wouldn't know music if it came up and bit them on the ass."

Ok, now let's listen to some real music. Here is the first movement of the piano sonata op 111 by Beethoven, performed by Daniel Barenboim:


Nathan Shirley said...

Ha, ha, nice post! I can agree with most of this...

I would also lay much of the blame with people like Boulez and Schonberg who all but killed classical music. People need music of their own time, and for a long time the classical music world wasn't offering much. Remember "I don't care if you listen"?

Bryan Townsend said...


Actually, the article, by Milton Babbitt, was entitled "Who Cares if You Listen", but I think the title was added by an editor. Famous essay and it has its own page in Wikipedia:

Nathan Shirley said...

Oh right, "Who cares..."

Another strong factor I'd say is the lack of music education in schools. If kids grow up learning absolutely nothing about music, can we be surprised what they end up listening to? Even cartoons today lack classical music. Disney, Warner Bros., and even Ren & Stimpy (my generation) certainly helped shape the ears of countless kids for the better. Now all these kids who didn't get any music training whatsoever are making the cartoons!

Bryan Townsend said...

Again, I think this goes back to the points I was making about the triumph of pop music. Kids growing up now are listening to pop and playing with GarageBand and they think they are getting a music education: in hip hop and pop. That's music. In their view. Classical is that old stuff composed by guys wearing wigs, hence no longer 'relevant'.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with many of the statements you put forth in your post, I must say that the attitude you demonstrate towards the general public and pop music in general is emblematic of part of the problem with "serious" music today. Your dismay at pop music and the public's taste is stated with a barely concealed sneer and an upturned nose that is only separated by degrees from Babbitt's elitism. I agree that the public's taste is woefully underdeveloped. However, that is not a matter of simple stupidity, but, rather, ignorance. And that ignorance is bred, systemically, by a culture that values military over education, might over mind, achievement over contemplation, and easily digested slogans over critical thinking. Those values are inculcated in the society and its individuals by everything from the media to the educational system. Taste is not a matter of intelligence. It is a matter of training and exposure. As with food, we gain a taste for those things we are exposed to, grow up with, and which become familiar. It is learned, cultivated. Given that, how can we expect our culture to appreciate things like the arts when virtually no attention is paid to it by our government, our schools, our public funding and policy?

I disagree that pop music is bereft of good, intelligent music. Let's not forget that The Beatles brought musique concrete to a wider public, The Who honored Terry Reilly, Radiohead pay homage to Messaien and Ligeti. What of Miles Davis' musings on Carmen? Electronica today is filled with people doing amazing things developing ideas that Reich, Reilly, Ligeti, and others first explored in the late 20th century.

We, as classical musicians, cannot afford to look down our noses at the public who, through no fault of their own, do not understand or have no taste for what has become a rarefied art form -- esoterica. As Ray Charles said: "Music is music. I like all music as long as it's good." The attitude you demonstrate in this posting, while totally understandable to me, is part of the problem and completely unproductive to our goal of saving this art. We must INCLUDE people, and show that classical music is not that different from pop music. A Schubert song, in its day, was not all that different from singing along to your favorite hits on a karaoke machine. The difference was the musical education of the public to be able to enjoy that Schubert song in their salon, living room, music room, etc. THAT is what the general public needs to see and understand. And we must be more open to new music -- and composers more respectful of their audiences -- so that music does not become a dusty museum of 200-400 year old pieces repeated ad nauseum.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah yes, the famous "you have the wrong attitude" complaint. Sorry, I would take your comment a lot more seriously if you were not, A. hiding behind an Anonymous tag and B. regurgitating all the politically correct shibboleths. Believe me, when I sneer, it is right out in the open, not "barely concealed"!

You also have a penchant for misattributing things to me that I did not say, another trait of Anonymous commentors. I am very aware of the quality of the music of the Beatles as I have stated in numerous posts on this blog. I also have mentioned The Who favorably. Sorry, I'm not a fan of Radiohead, but I have discussed them seriously a couple of times. I have also discussed Miles Davis, though I'm sure it was not reverently enough for you. If you are equating Schubert with karaoke, then I fear that you are one of those classical musicians who is indeed part of the problem.

Daniel Akerman, baritone said...

I did not post anonymously out of some sort of childish fear or lack of courage to stand behind my statement. I did it simply because I can't be bothered to go through the whole sign-in process.

My post was not meant as an insult to you, either. Rather, as a reminder that as artists and musicians, it's important for us to remember that we are not "better" than the public, our audience, or artists of a different ilk, and that we must be inclusive and open to the things going on around us, while maintaining a critical ear and a discerning taste. That sort of attitude can only be injurious to the survival of our art. To be sure, MOST of what is going on in pop music today is utter crap. And I completely agree with you in the assertion that the level of artistic knowledge among the general public, and the general public's "taste" is woefully, painfully, absent. My main issue with your post is not those statements, but the attribution of stupidity to the public, and the seeming condemnation of a whole area of music.

I stand by my statement about Schubert vis a vis karaoke, although I admit I was exaggerating for effect. My point was that the cultural context of that music was not all that different from what people do in their homes with karaoke machines today. "Art song," was, in fact, a form of popular entertainment in Schubert's time, accessible to a wide public, and meant to be enjoyed around the piano in the house, just as much as in a concert hall. The primary extra-musical difference to home-karaoke today was not the context in which the music was performed and enjoyed, but the musical education of the public that was consuming it. That is the point I was trying to make: musical taste is CULTIVATED. It has nothing to do with intelligence or stupidity. It has to do with exposure. And that has everything to do with the VALUES of the greater culture. Attention is paid to those things deemed important. Classical music, in this country, is unfortunately NOT deemed important. In a culture whose value set is about aggression, militarism, willful ignorance, and muscular simplicity, what room is there for consideration of fine arts, contemplation, critical thinking, and artistic cultivation? Until public policy in this country towards the arts and education changes, I fear that classical music and its audience will continue to suffer a decline.

OUR job as lovers and practitioners of classical music, should be to INVITE and INCLUDE as many people as possible. To show how rewarding the experience of classical music can be. To eschew anything that could appear as elitist, effete, or judgemental. We should endeavor not to alienate by condemning the public, but rather feed them a steady diet of that which we consider food for the soul. In the same way a fine chef presents strange and exotic foods to a diner, we should be trying to find ways to feed the public a steady diet of this art we find so beautiful, but which the public may find so strange. "Here, taste this... and this, and this, and this." Only through familiarity, will the public learn to enjoy and appreciate it. And public policy, arts education, arts in the schools, has everything to do with that.

And lest you misinterpret my statements, I am not espousing an attitude of blind acceptance. Quite the opposite: I am saying that developing a discerning taste is absolutely vital. But it can only come through openness and allowing people to make connections, comparisons, associations, and developing their own internal barometers of cultural excellence. It cannot come about if we write people off as "stupid." We must recognize that they are not being given the chance to develop the skills they need to be a good audience and critical thinkers. Therein lies our challenge: to slowly bring about a change in cultural values that will allow art its rightful place in the educational and civic life of the nation.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you, Mr. Ackerman, for a very well-argued riposte. I suspect that we agree on a great number of things, oddly enough! I won't respond at great length to your comment as I find nearly all of it quite well said and thoughtful. I can even, perhaps, see the point of comparing Schubert and karaoke. But let me say that my comment on the Ke$ha song: "Everything about that is as hackneyed, crass and as fundamentally stupid as possible" was also exaggeration for effect. But please notice that I at no point called people who listen to pop music stupid, or even those who create bad pop music. My remark is directed to the music and I still hold that that particular song, for example, is "crass and fundamentally stupid". The song, not the singer or listener. I agree completely with you that taste is a matter of cultivation.

But, as the writer of a blog, sometimes I really feel that I need to say something provocative in order to shake people up a bit. It worked with you!

One thing that I think we may fundamentally disagree on is how to attract people to classical music. I think it will appear much 'cooler' to younger listeners if we aren't always making it sound so safe. The most serious listeners will, I think, be attracted to it partly because it is difficult or dangerous or esoteric. Some of the so-called defenders of classical music, as I point out in this post: are actually more dangerous to classical music than helpful.