Saturday, July 02, 2005

A dis-concerting thought

And speaking of concerts - saw some stats recently on the profile of people who attend concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra - it seems they have a median age of 51 years, own two cars and their own home, have a median annual income of $ 130,000 and take 2+ vacations by air every year. It makes me wonder what I'm doing there!

There's an important social question implicit in this data (I mean a REALLY important one, nothing as relatively trivial as the existence of God, for instance) - is classical music (or at least performances of it) sustainable ? Is the age profile of the concert goers consistent over time (so were concerts in 19th century Vienna also attended largely by sweet old couples and lonely widowers with a sprinkling of scruffy looking students and the occasional college grad in a suit who is hoping to convince the woman next to him that he's 'deep'?), or is the greying of concert audiences a recent phenomenon that could spell the end of classical music as we know it? Is there any research on this, I wonder? (One would hope orchestra companies themselves would have done some - I can already see the power point!)

The basic model, is quite simple, of course. Let's say that we divide the entire population into g generations each with proportion of population Pg, and assume that for each generation there's a proportion Cg of people who like classical music and a proportion Ag of those who like classical music who attend concerts on a regular basis. Thus the proportion of the total population attending concerts from each generation is: Pg x Cg X Ag and the overall audience attending the concert is given by Pop X Sumg (Pg x Cg X Ag) (where Sumg is 'summed over all g')

We can now think about possible explanations for the relatively senior age profile of classical music concert goers, and think about the implications for the future of classical music.

Age demographics

A first point, of course, is that the population in many western countries is aging, implying that even if Cg and Ag were the same for all generations we would expect to see more elderly people at concerts, purely because Pelderly is going up. To the extent that the median age of people watching these concerts is 51, though, we can be reasonably sure that they do not represent an unbiased sample of the population, so this is probably a minor effect. Also, if it were true that Cg and Ag were the same across generations, then it would take a decline in overall population to reduce concert attendance, and though this is worrying too (I don't care if people die out - most of them deserve it anyway - just as long as there's someone around to play Schubert), it's has all the immediacy of a glacier a hundred miles away heading towards you.

Taste differences

A second possibility, and perhaps the most worrisome (for the fate of both people and music) is that younger generations may simply be less interested in classical music. Seduced by the neanderthal idiocy of rap and hip-hop, numbed by the easy monotony of trance and lounge (?), their brains congealed around the saccharine sweetness of pop (I've always maintained that you can tell a lot about the quality of music by the name given to the genre - think about it: classical, hindustani, jazz, the blues - all erudite, poetic names vs. hip-hop, pop, rap, disco - names clearly designed for people too brain-dead to spell or handle multiple syllables) young people today may be too deeply handicapped - by shortness of attention span, a tendency to relate to music on purely physical levels (as opposed to emotional, spiritual, intellectual) and the ridiculous notion that their sordid little lives deserve self-expression - to still relate to true art. This would of course, be reflected in a Cyoung that was much lower than Celderly.

What does this mean for classical music? There are two hypotheses possible here. The first, and more optimistic (I'm being optimistic! Who am I? What have I done with the real me?) is that Cg is directly proportional to age: that as people mature and grow older they are drawn more and more to classical music, treasuring it for its beauty, its grace, its grandeur, bringing to it the patience and the openness of spirit that it truly requires. (I say directly proportional, but the relationship could be U-shaped, with children, their brains unsullied by the bilge of hormones, being better able to appreciate the joy and brilliance of classical music than their teenage counterparts).

The second hypothesis, of course, is that the damage is irreversible, and short of lobotomising them (which we may want to do purely for humane reasons anyway) hip-hop and trance fans can never be won over from the dark side. If this is true, then it means that we shall see a steady decline in classical music audiences (unless of course we can somehow skip generations and get new generations to rediscover classical music, a direction in which most orchestras are making some efforts, but with limited success) as the average C in the population falls dramatically with the dying out of generations that had high C and their replacement with low C generations. This is a deeply depressing thought, both personally (just call me Hawkeye) and for the world (Auden writes somewhere: "We who know nothing, which is just as well / About the future, can at least foretell / Whether they live in airborne nylon cubes / Practise group marriage or are fed through tubes / That crowds two centuries from now will press / Absurd their hair, ridiculous their dress / And pay in currencies however wierd / To hear Sarastro booming through his beard / Some uncouth creature from the Bronx amaze / Park Avenue by knowing all the Ks / Sharp connoisseurs approve if it is clean / the F in alt of the nocturnal queen" - I wished I shared his optimism).

Differences in attendance

All is not bleakness and despair, however - because there remains a third explanation of why concert audiences are aging. It could be simply that older people have a greater tendency to attend concerts, so that the skewed age distribution of concert audiences is simply a reflection of differences in Ag rather than differences in Cg.

One logical explanation for this could be that older (especially retired people) have more time on their hands and are therefore more inclined to attend concerts, etc. while younger people are too busy working / raising children (vague memories of guff about 'empty nesters' from Kotler comes back to me - such a horrible term, btw) to be able to make it for concerts. If this is true, then given similar levels of Cg, we would expect the current generation of concert goers to be replaced by new generations of people who love classical music and finally have the time to attend the concerts they always wanted to make it to. The lark's in the wings, the snail's in the orchestra pit, God's in his season box, all's right with the world.

Of course, there is another possibility - which is that the tendency to attend concerts is fundamentally different by generation - which is to say people who attend concerts today have always attended concerts and those who don't attend them now never will. After all, sociologists and political scientists researching participation in voluntary and community activities have consistently found inter-generational differences in participation rate (for more details see Robert D Putnam's Bowling Alone or Civic Engagement in American Democracy Theda Skocpol and Morris Fiorina ed.), so why should concert attendance rates not be higher for older generations as well? If young people are increasingly less likely to vote, participate in community activities, volunteer with NGOs or go to church, why should they not also be less likely to go for concerts?

Why should such inter-generational differences exist? Following Putnam, I would put a large share of the blame on television. Television is an addictive and seditious force, whose place in the hearts and minds of the modern family / individual has played a large role in destroying other forms of social interaction, entertainment and art (I know this sounds like a rant - it is in a way - but there's actual research backing this up, along with some pretty interesting theories on why television is so addictive). How can we expect people whose idea of fun is to vegetate in front of a flickering television screen to find any joy in attending a classical music concert? (this I think is the key difference between true culture and pop entertainment - culture tries to stimulate us, take us beyond ourselves, stretch the possibilities of who we could be; popular entertainment allows us to celebrate who we are, numbing our senses and accomodating itself to our ever shrinking intelligence and taste. Art is about vision; entertainment is about images.). It's ironic, isn't it (if it's true, of course) - music that survives 250 years of religious upheaval, technological change, war and political unrest; crossing national and linguistic boundaries; spawning devotion and love in those it touched, should finally come to be destroyed by American Idol. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a simper.

It would be interesting, of course, to go out and test the model to see which of the hypotheses actually held (or if, as I suspect, all of them do, what's the magnitude of the effect of each one). A simple first step could be to simply sample current concert goers, to see if they were going to concerts when they were young people. This wouldn't be conclusive of course (if generations differ in their taste for concert attendance at 25, they could also differ at 50), but it would be a worrying indication.

Meanwhile, I for one will continue to attend every concert I possibly can. And will continue to hope that they'll still be around when I'm 51.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot! » » »