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Classical Music is Off the Deathbed, Downgraded to Stable Condition

1 Zachary Preucil

Has the cultural tide turned in the favor of classical music? If you live in Cleveland, your answer might actually be yes. According to a press release issued on January 14th, the Cleveland Orchestra generated a whopping 2.8 million dollars in revenue in November and December alone, representing a 47% increase from the same period in 2011, and sales are up 24% for the season as a whole. Even more striking are the statistics concerning youth attendance: the report states that the number of students attending concerts has “more than doubled,” with an average of 200 students attending every evening subscription concert, even representing as much as 20% of the entire audience on some nights. Cleveland hasn’t just gotten lucky, however; the press release cites the orchestra’s wide variety of program offerings during the holiday season as the primary cause for these astounding attendance figures, and attributes the surge of younger concert-goers to its comprehensive outreach initiatives, which include a unique student ambassador program as well as a vibrant social media presence. After a depressing autumn where it seemed as though every other week brought more news of yet another orchestra going on strike or filing for bankruptcy, these latest statistics are a much-needed ray of hope within the gloom that seems to have settled over the classical music world. Have we indeed turned the corner on the days of dwindling audiences, picket lines, and talk of the “death” of classical music?

Not necessarily, a skeptical observer might rebut, and with good reason-some unusual good news does not by any means change the implications of  last year’s tumultuous events. But the report out of Cleveland isn’t an anomaly, either. A YouGov poll released in mid-December found that 31% of individuals under the age of 25 are interested in exploring classical music, a comparable percentage with those professing an interest in jazz and a much greater percentage than those indicating their preference for Blues (19%), African (16%), and Oriental (13%). Interestingly, the poll also revealed that “the under-25 group [has] joined over-55s in being most interested in classical music, possibly suggesting that interest in the genre has skipped a generation.” These intriguing new statistics lend credence to what I like to call the “audience replacement theory,” which holds that the dominant audience demographic of elderly patrons will be “replaced” by younger audiences as the years pass, paving the way for a sustainable future. What is significant about both of the Cleveland and YouGov reports, however, is that the “replacement” audience is coming from the millennial generation and not from the generations in between, who would be next in line age-wise to assimilate into the base. While this unprecedented interest of the millenials could be due to a number of contributing factors, it is my conclusion that the primary cause is three-fold: first, today’s young adults are attending college in greater numbers than any generation preceding them, and past statistics have indicated an increased proclivity towards classical music amongst college graduates; second, within the past decade, orchestra managements have gotten on top of the ball and launched a number of highly successful outreach initiatives, much like the ones in Cleveland that were described above, with social media in particular proving to be an invaluable resource; and third, it is becoming much more common and feasible for children to take music lessons, fostering within them a lifelong appreciation for classical music and the arts. Each of these factors alone are not enough to reverse the discouraging trends classical music has witnessed in recent years, but all of them combined are, if nothing else, a promising starting point for a renewed and vibrant interest in the genre.


As a music student who has closely followed the events taking place in the field, reading these reports has given me hope as well as an opportunity for reflection on some of the ideas I have previously expressed on this blog. Back in December, I published a post here that detailed the debate over whether audiences are getting older. At the time, I did not present a personal opinion on the matter, although I admit that I was leaning towards the “aging audiences” viewpoint as opposed to the “replacement” one. After considering these recent reports, however, and giving a great deal of personal thought  to the issue, I now strongly feel that the current situation is as follows: the audience has gotten older-I still maintain that it hasn’t always been old-and it’s not being replaced by the ‘next generation,’ but it’s being replaced by the millenials, and it’s largely because of the factors I listed above. However, a continuation of this trend is dependent upon the continued development in orchestras around the country of the types of initiatives employed by Cleveland, as well as a universal recognition by orchestral managements that such initiatives and changes are vitally necessary for classical music’s future. We’re not out of the woods yet, but I think that we can safely say that, just as the apocalypse didn’t happen on December 21, 2019, the “sympocalypse” isn’t going to happen either.

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  1. Comment by
    June 7, 2019 at 5:28 PM

    I’ve been disappointed by things that the current regime at Severance Hall has done and not done, but their outreach programs are a fantastic accomplishment.

    Can one hope that building a new and committed audience will eventually return to a concert season that is shaped around subscribers instead of concert intended to appeal to varying specialty audiences?