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Your Slate article “Requiem: Classical music in America is dead” is poorly-researched, badly argued, and, well, wrong. There’s so much crap in it, the only way I can think to deal with it is line-by-line, so here we go:

When it comes to classical music and American culture, the fat lady hasn’t just sung. Brünnhilde has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton.

From the outset you’re not saying it’s dying. You’re saying its done. Finished. We’re two sentences in and I can tell you, you’re not going to win this thing.

Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither.

How many years? 10? 20? 50? 100? 500? If there was ever a time when America was predominantly old and white, it was for a relatively short period compared to, say, the history of written music, which predates English as a literary language.

Don’t forget the attacks on arts education, the Internet-driven democratization of cultural opinion, and the classical trappings—fancy clothes, incomprehensible program notes, an omerta-caliber code of audience silence—that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture.

You’re going to have to try harder to show that any of these things have caused lasting harm. In the meantime, I’ll exercise my democratic right to bitch-slap your ill-informed cultural opinion back to the feebleminded pitch it came from.

The holiday season typically provides a much-needed transfusion. But the most recent holidays came after an autumn that The New Yorker called the art form’s “most significant crisis” since the Great Recession. Looking at the trend lines, it’s hard to hear anything other than a Requiem.

It looked like it might be hard so you didn’t bother? Problems for specific institutions don’t spell the end of an entire art form, you doofus. Rounding up a bunch of stats to support an intuitive position might be an easy way to make up your word-count, but it’s a bad way to figure out what’s actually happening in the world.

Let’s start by following the money. In 2013, total classical album sales actually rose by 5 percent, according to Nielsen. But that’s hardly a robust recovery from the 21 percent decline the previous year.

You’re telling me the genre is dead, so I’d be hoping you’d show zero sales. Instead, you’re linking to a source that not only tells us 14 million albums got sold, but you’re also telling us sales went up. This is not looking very deathly to me. If you knew anything about the record industry, you’d know that two big crossover records in 2011 would have caused a big enough sales bump to account for the subsequent 20.5% drop, and could have completely obscured a steady increase in sales. You’re drawing conclusions from the noise, not the signal.

And consider the relative standing of classical music. Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

Here’s the thing about this. A small percentage of a very big number can still be a big number, so marketshare is a foolish way to measure the success of something. 2.8 percent is bigger than the share of the US car market occupied by BMW, Volkswagen or Mercedes Benz. Are those businesses dead too? What about Porsche? Is 0.2 percent small enough to call “nothing”? I don’t think so, and neither do you. This is empty rhetoric, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

What about the airwaves? There are only a handful of commercial classical music stations left in America. One of the last, KDB in Santa Barbara, Calif., was put up for sale in October after years of “six-figure losses.” Even public classical radio is in trouble. The number of noncommercial classical radio stations—on the air and online—has risen. But much of that growth is due to commercial stations switching to a public format. Actual listenership continues to decline.

The number of noncommercial classical stations has indeed risen – to its highest point in history. This is great for the listeners, who now have more choice than ever. Some of them choose to listen to music elsewhere, while others choose to donate to keep their local station on the air because it is very valuable to them. If classical music is dead, how do these stations have millions of listeners donating millions of dollars to keep them on the air?

It’s easy to interpret the move from a  commercial to a public model as a retreat. If you own a radio station, you probably see it that way. If you listen to it, though, it’s no loss at all. It’s a step forward towards a programming format that values audience loyalty over sheer numbers. This is a win for serious classical music programming.

And some public classical stations have ditched the music. One such station, WUIS in Illinois, added an online classical channel after switching the main station to talk and news. As the station’s manager put it, “[C]lassical radio is one of those things that’s slowly going away.”

Just remember it’s you who bought this up. According to Arbitron, Classical accounted for 15.3% of all public radio listening in 2013. If you include classical/news formats, it accounts for 29.1% of all public radio listening, and its share is growing in markets where Arbitron uses its most accurate measure of listenership, the Portable People Meter.

Sirius XM, the satellite and online radio provider, has nine jazz channels, 20 Latino channels, and eight Canada-themed channels—but only two traditionally classical stations. One, called Symphony Hall, has 3,500 Facebook likes. Sirius’ all–Pearl Jam channel has 11,000; their D.J. Tiesto-curated channel has 89,000.

Are you seriously trying to measure how popular things are by counting Facebook likes? Is that your argument?

Now let’s look at classical concerts. Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever.

Do you have a source for that, or is it a guess, because it looks rather like it might be a guess.

Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. But “even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.” Live orchestral music is essentially a charity case.

So what? Some types of classical music (particularly orchestral performances and operas) are expensive to stage because the audience is almost outnumbered by the vast array of skilled individuals require to stage them. It’s pretty obvious if you think about it. This has always been a problem, which is why you either have to pay musicians badly or raise money elsewhere. It is not a new thing.

A Bloomberg story on the recent wave of orchestra bankruptcies (an unheard-of phenomenon outside of the U.S., says Flanagan) notes that by 2005, orchestras got more money from donations than from ticket sales.

In Europe, orchestras close when they lose their state funding. They can see this coming and plan accordingly. It’s harder to predict income from individual donors, so American orchestras keep going until they’re bankrupt. On either continent, the closure of an orchestra gets a lot more press than the launch of a new one – in part thanks to thoughtless “think” pieces like yours.

More to the point, orchestras are not classical music. They are groups of musicians. The institutions that go bankrupt are almost never groups of musicians. They’re large, complex presenting bodies with concert halls and contracts and huge numbers of employees who aren’t musicians. It’s not like the players all get executed when the company ceases trading. They all go and do music somewhere else.

The New York City Opera, once hailed as the “people’s opera,” filed for bankruptcy in October. If the “people” want opera, they’ve got a funny way of showing it.

Well, they probably should have seen this coming. When NYCO was founded in 1943, opera had been in financial crisis for 262 years.

Non-orchestral performances are harder to track. But Greg Sandow, a musician and writer, reports anecdotal evidence for a decline in chamber music.

The plural of “anecdotes” is not “data”. I’m ignoring this, like you should have.

There’s also grim data from the NEA that shows the percentage of adults who attended a classical concert (even one per year) declined from 13 percent in 1982 to 11.6 percent in 2002, and 9.3 percent in 2008. A further decline to 8.8 percent in 2012 was not considered statistically significant, though significant declines in those years occurred in the 35–44 and 45–54 age bands.

Alright. Do some maths with me. Let’s say the US has a population of 316,128,839 people, of whom 23.5% are not adults. That leaves 241,838,561 adults who could have gone to a concert, of which 21,281,793 did. That’s more people than the combined total populations of Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montata, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Hawaii, Idaho, [do stop me if this is boring you] West Virginia, Nebraska, New Mexico and Nevada. Those might be the sixteen least populous states in the union, but they’re still whole states and there are sixteen of them. Dismiss them as insignificant at your peril.

Also when something isn’t statistically significant but you still decide to mention it, you might as well say “I am talking bullshit”.

Which brings us to demographics. Sandow notes that back in 1937, the median age at orchestra concerts in Los Angeles was 28. Think of that! That was the year, by the way, that Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer festival, was founded. I grew up near Tanglewood and had various summer jobs there in the 1990s. When I worked at the beer and wine stand, I almost never carded anyone.

What else was there to do in Los Angeles in 1937? This older audience thing has been covered before, and anyway, are you trying to say that underage drinking would be a sign of a healthy artform? You keep citing things as evidence of classical music’s demise, and I’m struggling to imagine what their opposites might look like.

Sandow and NEA data largely back up what I saw on Tanglewood’s fabled lawns two decades ago. Between 1982 and 2002, the portion of concertgoers under 30 fell from 27 percent to 9 percent; the share over age 60 rose from 16 percent to 30 percent. In 1982 the median age of a classical concertgoer was 40; by 2008 it was 49.

Oh shit. Old people are getting out more. We should certainly put a stop to that.

If only young people came to concerts, you’d be moaning about how it struggles to retain anybody’s attention.

If classical music was merely becoming the realm of the old—an art form that many of us might grow into appreciating—that might be manageable. But Sandow’s data on the demographics of classical audiences suggest something worse. Younger fans are not converting to classical music as they age. The last generation to broadly love classical music may simply be aging, like World War I veterans, out of existence.

The audiences for lots of things are ageing. Get over it.

What about making music? In 1992, 4.2 percent of American adults reported performing or practicing classical music at least once in the previous year.

By 2012, the number had dropped to 2 percent (compared with, say, the 5 percent of Americans who reported they created “pottery, ceramics or jewelry.”)

Ah. Time for some more maths. This looks like less than half, but it’s not because the population has grown. In 1992, the US population was 256.51 million people, of whom 190,005,054 were adults. 4.2 percent of these is 7,980,212 people, which is a little less than the population of Virginia.

For 2012, we’re looking at 2 percent of 240,185,952 people, or 4,803,719 people. That’s only a 40% drop, but more importantly, it still leaves 4.8 million people playing classical music. There are 125 whole countries with a population of less than 4.8 million people. You can’t say “Los Angeles is dead. Only 3.7m people live there.”

What about music education? The story of how the ax of school funding cuts falls first on arts education, especially in poorer school districts, is an old one now. Yet despite all the studies that show the broad benefits of music education, many school systems will now have “no music specialists serving elementary schools,” notes James Catterall, a professor at UCLA. As for adult education, when the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass., decided to shutter its amateur education program, an outraged citizenry compared its importance to that of a hospital emergency room. But even the picketing, petition-signing populace of the People’s Republic couldn’t stop the program from closing.

Yup. People care about it. It is a living, breathing artform in which, as you’ve admitted, millions of people participate. It’s not dead. At all. Not even sick.

Finally let’s look at the general cultural positioning of classical music. This is harder to quantify, but there’s some useful data. Many publications no longer retain full-time classical music critics.

To be fair, there are more important things to write about, like “Why are public toilet seats always U-shaped” and “Why are there specialty license plates for quilters“. There’s just so much quality journalism out there, and so little space to publish it.

Yvonne Frindle, a music blogger, notes that Time has featured 64 classical figures on its cover—but the vast majority before 1956 (though Bach made the cover in 1968). The last, featuring Vladimir Horowitz, came in 1986. Today the notion that a pianist could culturally sideline a story about aircraft carriers sounds nothing short of quaint.

Time Magazine’s editorial priorities are not a good measure of anything but Time Magazine’s editorial priorities.

Classical music does retains [sic] overtones of, well, classiness. But in contemporary America, that’s arguably its biggest problem. Take the popular sitcom Modern Family. In one episode, Phil and Claire are mortified at the thought of attending a cello performance by Alex, their nerdy daughter. They panic and invent dinner plans with fictitious friends, “the Flendersons.” It turns out Alex is in fact playing cello for a rock band. Her mom and sister are pleasantly surprised.

Some fictional characters don’t like classical music? This is actually weaker than the Facebook thing.

Or take Manny—the show’s old-beyond-his-years kid who composes poetry and writes novels. Naturally, he loves classical music. It’s the perfect American shorthand for peer alienation. And note the joke. Classical music isn’t like broccoli—something Manny’s too young to love. He’s listening to something even “regular” adults don’t like. “Oh, crap!” says Jay, Manny’s stepdad, when he finds out a concert is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (one of classical’s rare actual hits) not Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Then he walks “like a man” to the nearest bar.

Also fiction. Congratulations, though, for finding a sitcom that assumes its audience is familiar with the celebration of cultural mediocrity.

Jay, and America, are unlikely to back proposals to tax the NFL in order to fund symphonies. But are there any bright spots at all?

Of course there are, you idiot. There are literally millions of people playing great music. If you’d spent anywhere near as much time exploring the music as you did hunting for bad news, you’d hear some of it.

Despite the worries over music education, instrument purchases for schools have remained fairly constant at just under one instrument for every 50 kids, each year. That’s not a lot, and instruction time and quality is another question. But at least instruments are physically in the classrooms.

One new instrument per 50 kids each year is not a lot if the instruments are all thrown away at the end of each year, which, I imagine, they are not.

And it’s not as though the classical music world isn’t trying to address its image problems.

Unlike you. You are not helping.

Kudos to Groupmuse, for example, which arranges informal but high-quality live classical performances in Boston-area private homes, and markets them to a young audience (“halfway between a chamber music concert and a house party … Jam out on the air-violin if that’s your thing!”).

When one defines death as broadly as you have, it’s hard to imagine what might be considered signs of life. If you’d looked at the standards of performance or the number of conservatory graduates, you might see that the actual music is doing fine. You didn’t bother, though, did you?

Greg Sandow also notes that America’s population growth will continue to buy time for classical music. Some strong institutions, like Tanglewood, will endure—maybe even thrive—on a declining share of a growing pie.

The institutions are not the art form.

Myself, I cling to the forlorn hope that classical music has been down for so long, it must somehow be due for a comeback.

If you didn’t have unrealistic expectations for where it ought to be, you would have noticed that it wasn’t down in the first place.

More realistically, though, I’m hoping for Jeff Bezos to step in.

Seriously? This is your plan? Because if you pitch him your Facebook argument, he will have you executed.

He recently described Amazon as a symphony of people, software, and robots. Maybe he’d like a struggling orchestra to go with his newspaper.

Or maybe his newspaper would like to hire somebody to write idiotic analysis.

Think about this for a moment: if your editor thought classical music was actually dead, and nobody cared about it, why would they have commissioned this article? Who would read it? The only justification for the existence of this whole article is that its central premise is false.

Every one of this article’s 1,300 words is bullshit. Your editor is probably delighted, because of all the comment it has generated. You’ve got to ask yourself, though, what’s the point of having all these readers if they’re only reading because you’re wrong. Perhaps next time you’d like to write about the state of journalism?

Further reading, in case you are in any way confused:

http://www.isclassicalmusicdead.com

Any questions?

Comments

38 Comments

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  1. January 24, 2014

    Thanks so much for writing this–I so wanted to write something like this, but didn’t have the energy after reading it since it was such a ridiculous piece!

  2. Eric Lewis #
    January 24, 2014

    Wow, a large series of ad hominem arguments used against ad hominem arguments, a series of ill conceived attempts to counter ill conceived attempts to use statistics to make a point (really if more people than the population of a given state or country do X then X is not in peril? Even if we had a state where only one poor soul lives, etc and so forth.) I can use this whole exchange in my philosophical reasoning courses, and not as examples of good reasoning, but of bile, diatribe and the misuse of math! Classical music is in danger if its gatekeepers, on either side of the argument, are you two! Substantive and careful discussion of the limits of the genre are in order.

    • January 25, 2014

      I think you’ve misunderstood what’s going on here.

      In the first instance, being rude to somebody isn’t always an ad hominem argument. In this instance, I’m just being rude. It’s not “you should be ashamed of yourself therefore you’re wrong” it’s “you’re wrong therefore you should be ashamed of yourself”.

      As for the remainder of the argument, it’s pretty simple. Either his position is “Almost nobody does classical music therefore it is dead” which seems like a straw man, but is actually what he wrote, or “Classical music is in such rapid decline that it will soon disappear” which is not what he wrote, but it’s a stronger argument.

      To disprove the first, we just show that the number of people doing it is not insignificant.

      To disprove the second, we illustrate that the things in great peril are not classical music, but some of the institutions around it.

      There are other ways to tackle this, but they’re vulnerable to getting bogged down in arguments over statistics or the definition of classical music.

    • Bill Rankin #
      January 26, 2014

      Eric, I’m glad you said this. This so-called critical argument is the weakest piece of written-down thinking I’ve ever read, and I’ve read millions of poorly reasoned student writing. Proper Discord’s effort does at least one thing; it argues for the value of an education that focuses on mental skills other than how to make beautiful and/or interesting musical patterns. I’ll be using this in my class and sending it to my two lawyer kids (who like classical music) to help me understand all the things that are so embarrassingly unintelligent about this diatribe. Thanks Andy!

      • Zach #
        January 30, 2014

        Really, now? You’ve “read millions of poorly reasoned student writing[sic].” Would that be millions of words, or millions of paragraphs, or millions of papers? Maybe millions of specks of fairy dust.

        I can only respond with skepticism that you are, in fact, a teacher. And if this turns out to be true, I can only offer my sympathies to your students. It’s scary to consider what you consider an “education that focuses on mental skills,” since obviously, you seem to believe that making “interesting musical patterns” doesn’t involve mental skills. Where you do teach, Phoenix Online?

  3. January 25, 2014

    I dug out an early post (possibly your first): “Dude, Where’s My Audience?” (http://properdiscord.com/2009/03/30/its-our-fault-for-doing-it-badly/#more-7). You sound a lot closer to Vanhoenacker in that earlier post, though more effective (than V.) because you were on the inside, writing experientially, wickedly funny and I still think right on . . . . . though in some areas (like pdx) I am seeing positive change in classical music content/presentation and growing audience numbers and demographic rewarding this experimentation/change.

    • January 25, 2014

      I think that really was my first post. I’ve never said there was nothing wrong. Sometimes concerts are bad.

  4. kayleigh #
    January 25, 2014

    If classical music is dead, then why are there more talented young performers than ever before?

    • January 28, 2014

      Necromancy, obviously. You’d think that would get more mainstream coverage, though.

  5. January 26, 2014

    The plural of “anecdotes” is not “data”. I love that. I’ve listened to Sirius Symphony Hall for years and never dreamed of going on Facebook to “Like” it. An enjoyable and informative rebuttal.

  6. January 30, 2014

    Reblogged this on After an Interval and commented:
    I wanted to thank….for writing this. I was surprised that this topic was brought up AGAIN. In my opinion, from what I see, classical music is doing better than before-its just changing. Im also glad he linked to this site: http://www.isclassicalmusicdead.com/ ;)

  7. Kristen @ TeachingStars #
    January 31, 2014

    Bravo! Bravo! Such a great post! I’m so glad I stumbled upon it. I’m about as UNprofessional a musician as one can get. I was not introduced to classical music in any appreciative manner until after high school. In my 20s I became obsessed with it after attending a Rachmaninoff concert on the whim of a date. The date with that man went nowhere but MAN! – hearing live music and {finally} grasping how beautiful music could sound and how evocative it can be– !! No longer would Salt N Peppa ever reside in my Walkman (I’m totally dating myself here!) but since that fateful evening I’ve been hooked on classical music. I know I appreciate it as a total amateur. I can’t read music. I don’t play any musical instruments. I don’t understand music theory. I don’t know the history or story behind every composer or piece. I just know that some pieces make me smile; whilst some cause me to cry. Some put in a spring in my step and others cause me to pause and ponder. I adore classical music and am raising my children to appreciate it from a young age. For us- the fat lady is still singing as reverberatingly as ever. http://www.teachingstars.com/2013/05/03/7-suggestions-for-fostering-a-love-of-classical-music-in-your-children/

  8. Leann #
    March 4, 2014

    Does anyone know the source for the 2% of adult americans practiced or played classical music in 2012?

    • March 4, 2014

      The source is the NEA’s 2012 Survey on Public Participation in the Arts, which you can read here: http://arts.gov/sites/default/files/highlights-from-2012-SPPA.pdf

      Although it relates to data collected in 2012, it was published in September 2013, and as of right now it remains the most recent published edition of this survey.

      One shouldn’t read too much into these numbers, though: the historical data given by the two reports shows the following variation:

      1992: 4.2%
      2002: 1.8%
      2008: 3.1%
      2012: 2.2%*

      We might just as easily use these numbers to report growth from 2002-2012. What is being analysed here is the noise, not the signal.

      What Vanhoenacker has done here (and elsewhere) is cherry-picking – he has taken numbers that appear to support his case and ignored the ones that don’t. If you do this enough times, you can create what looks at first-sight like a very solid-looking case.

      * This figure is rounded down to 2% in the summary, which may explain why Mark Vanhoenacker rounds down the low number but not the high one.

      • Leann #
        March 4, 2014

        WOW! Thank you!!! My husband and I have been working on a project with chamber music and were getting a tough time from some people about the viability of anything involving classical music because there is not a large enough client base. Your article and follow-up comment above have put a smile on my face and joy in my heart.

      • March 4, 2014

        :-)

        I wrote this post here (http://properdiscord.com/2014/02/13/f-u-stats/) specifically to help you in these situations. Good luck!

  9. May 29, 2014

    I’m Spicoli, and this is awesome. Totally awesome.

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