Classical Music is not Dying

Classical music is not dying.

I’ll say it again, and you say it with me:
classical music is not dying.

Was that hard?

You hear the rumors floating around sometimes: is classical music dead?  
No.  It hasn’t skipped a beat.

So why do we hear these things?  For one reason, musicians live in fear of “the death of classical music.”  When music grabs you, it is reluctant to let go.  Many musicians need music more than music needs them – I know this to be true for myself.  This is the very reason that I work so hard to find or create musical opportunities in my life.  As musicians, we fear that those opportunities will vanish.  Living with that fear makes the struggles of the last eight years seem prophetic.  

Number two, as musicians, we fear the loss of our living.  For us every-day musicians, that living is often modest at best.  We not only bemoan how our compensation is poorly proportioned to our life-long dedication and preparation, but we also eagerly wish for “someone” to provide us more opportunities to perform and thus make money.  

The classical music world is in the middle of a long-standing identity crisis.  We lost a number of organizations during the 2008 recession and felt fundamental bumps in others. I’m not aware of the financial situations of the orchestras that didn’t make it, but I imagine that many of them were already on the brink of folding.  These kinds of precarious situations do convince us that classical music is dying, that our audiences are dying.  

Let’s look from a different perspective.  

We are very lucky in the United States.  This country is chock full of artistic venues and organizations.  First and foremost, those entities would not continue to exist without our art-loving general public.  When we complain about the low level of compensation that comes with our jobs, let’s be very careful not to disparage the consumers of our product, who can only do so much but are allegiant; or the donors to our organizations, the people who truly believe in our missions and keep us afloat; or to the grant organizations and government funds that prove how much our communities value the arts.  

It is sad for us that we can’t all work solely as musicians and make a living wage.  But there are many of us out here doing this thing, and many of us are members of more than one organization even if we are not making ends meet.  Adam and I still cobble our musical lives together as members of no fewer than three institutions each!  The large population of classical musicians in this country is proof of how popular classical music has become over the last fifty years.  MANY small towns across the county feature their own orchestra!  The players in that orchestra are not always residents of that town, but they are often residents of that region.  Also, more young music students are taking lessons than ever before, even if they do not plan to be professionals.  This is a very different culture than existed in the 80’s and 90’s.  The classical music industry would certainly not have been viable for such a large population of musicians fifty years ago.   

I would guess that more musicians are making the majority of their income from musical activities alone today than at any previous point in history.  Even in the glory days of classical music – Austria in Mozart’s time or France at the turn of the twentieth century, for example – there was either a relatively small population of musicians making a living wage, and/or those musicians had other jobs.  For instance, the hornist for whom Mozart composed his concerti lived a double life as a cheese and wine salesman!  Adam and I have certainly worked our share of “straight jobs,” as we call them.  Many of us have accepted this as a reality of life, though the danger is to feel jilted by “the music industry” as an entity for not supporting us financially.  Who are we angry at?  The consumers?  The donors?  The supporting financial infrastructures in our local and larger communities?

This potential viewpoint is one of the dangers of capitalizing upon art.  If we start to look at classical music as a business that should make more money than it costs to produce, then we risk losing focus on the power of our art form and its message.  It is possible that we as an industry have ventured slightly down that road.  Adam and I share a joke about the “Beethoven Festival.”  One year, THREE organizations we knew were doing Beethoven Festivals!  It’s become our short hand for, “they think this will make them money, but they’re totally out of touch with the times.”  Thinking of ways to draw in consumers is necessary for a business, but the true question lies in how you strategize regarding your product.  When you choose something that has been done again and again, even the previous season in some cases, and often has been recorded dozens of times, are you choosing it because it’s popular?  Because people know it?  Because you don’t trust your audience to pay to hear things they don’t know?  Or are you choosing that music because you are actually creating / curating art?

I love Beethoven.  I think each work that Beethoven gifted us should be celebrated as a rare gem, not tossed into a CD set sprinkled across a season to sell tickets.  

We also need to consider the difference between creating and curating art.  When we present Beethoven, we are curating music.  We are displaying a work that comes from our history and that was especially meaningful during Beethoven’s time.  These days, many organizations make their bread and butter from curating musical art.   There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s how many of us are introduced to and experience the amazing repertoire that encompasses Western Classical Art Music.  

But I assert that these organizations should be spending an equal amount of time creating art.  We can either create art by presenting new works of music, or by pairing an existing work with some other art medium that gives it a new, fresh perspective.  If the reason Beethoven means something to us is because he created art that was meaningful to his time, let’s follow his lead.  Let’s commission works that say something about the world we live in today.  Let’s engage audiences not through pandering to the music they already know, but by making statements so soundly that they need to be heard.  Let’s insist up art solely for the virtue of its quality, not because we think it will be a capitalistic success.  Then, when we play Beethoven along with current music about our life and times, Beethoven will take on new depth and be even more meaningful.  

This is certainly easier to do on a small scale.  For the past fifteen years, musical self employment has been shifting to make room for a large entrepreneurial chamber music movement.  I can’t even keep track of all the groups in Chicago anymore!  It’s great – there’s room in that pool for anyone who does the leg work to make their own opportunities.  In my experience, it was not something that could sustain me financially as my only employment.  But as I said, I don’t even live that way now!  

The benefits to being a member of Fifth House Ensemble were many.  We set a very high standard of musicianship, and had open conversations about how to achieve our musical goals.  Unfortunately, this kind of dialogue is not natural to an orchestral setting – though I often hope that there are, or have been, horn sections out there who operate in an open, respectful, and musically meaningful way.

Also, we had complete control over our artistic product.  Like any team effort, things must be worked out in the collaboration, but that’s why you pick colleagues who have a similar work ethic and life view…and who are fun!

Then there are the general benefits of being a chamber group.  Fewer “mouths to feed,” so to speak; more flexibility in venue size; more instrumentation and works options; easier to commission works for than a larger group; etc, etc, etc.

All of this to say that, with so many qualified musicians running around, the future growth of classical music has naturally started to lean toward entrepreneurship.  In the main, that entrepreneurship has begun to point toward smaller ensembles or one-off individual projects.  These are the kinds of organizations that are currently making art based on things that need to be said today, and that can be said best through music – often in conjunction with the other arts disciplines.  This kind of teamwork creates stronger art, and more opportunities for everyone.  

This mission has already been launched: Fifth House, 8th blackbird, etc…
This is the face of music for the 21st century.  That doesn’t mean that our larger arts organizations have to die, only that they are also called to action. The band world is doing it!  They’re commissioning works left and right. This is also one of the reasons I love the Boulder Philharmonic.  Our music director focuses on creative programming, we often engage with the other arts disciplines, and the orchestra mission is driven by community engagement.  

So now let’s answer the earlier question of where to place the blame when we want more music in our lives, either for compensation or for artistic value.  Let’s take that upon ourselves.  Shoulder the responsibility of meeting your own requirements for artistic fulfillment.  EVEN – this will shock you – even if it doesn’t make you money.  

Now I don’t mean that we should all accept gigs for no pay!  Nor do I mean that we are making too much money in our organizations – we all know that’s not true.  I mean that if you have a free day, instead of practicing for 2 hours by yourself, get together with a friend and play duets.  Who knows, that might turn into trios, and that might turn into a group that makes music together regularly, which could become a reason to have music written for you that speaks to your time and place.  Seek opportunities to make music with people that you like, and all kinds of doors can open.  

So there it is, classical music – there’s your mission.  Put art first, be your own businessman, create unconventional opportunities, follow open doors, collaborate with fellow artists, and say something about the world we live in.  Simple, right? Maybe not, but at least there’s a path forward.

Now say it with me:

Classical music is not dying.