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“The Audience is Getting Older”: Myth or Reality?

2 Zachary Preucil

It was a quiet spring evening at the New England Conservatory of Music, and I found myself sitting alone in the school’s small cafeteria, immersed in contents of my computer screen. The weekly meeting of the school newspaper staff had just adjourned, and as a co-editor, it was my job to type up the minutes, a task I was eager to complete while the discussion of the meeting was still fresh in my mind. In fact, I was so focused on my work that I failed to notice that an unassuming elderly gentleman was approaching me until he was less than a foot away.

“Excuse me, is this the newspaper meeting?” he asked tentatively; I jumped in surprise, accidentally deleting my last bullet point.

“Oh, well, we just finished,” I told him, slightly confused. “Um-have you read any of our recent issues?”

“Yes, that’s why I came,” the man replied excitedly, his eyes suddenly lighting up. “I want to talk to the student who wrote the article about the audience!”

My eyes widened.

I wrote that article!” I exclaimed.

It had appeared in the previous issue, entitled, “The Audience: Left in the Dark?”  As its titular pun suggests, the piece posited the idea that we performers tend to forget about who’s coming to hear us and why, and that we must constantly strive to view our performances from the audience’s perspective in order to ascertain how we might best fulfill their musical and intellectual desires. To illustrate my point, I had opened the piece with a short vignette about some orchestra musicians who go out after a concert and are approached by an elderly gentleman from the audience, who tells them that he loved the concert but grew extremely nervous during the first piece. When the understandably confused musicians ask him why he had been so anxious, he explains that he had paid an exorbitant amount of money for his ticket, and that it would have been a terrible waste of money if they had delivered a sub-par performance. I had enjoyed conjuring up this neat reversal, placing the importance on the audience member instead of the performers, but now as this man stood before me, I felt as though I was in the twilight zone. My fictional audience member prototype had come to life!

Hastily shutting my MacBook, I invited him to have a seat, and we ended up having a wonderful conversation that lasted long after the luminescent rays of the sunset outside had transformed into the deep blue of a New England spring evening. He told me how grateful he was to have NEC close to his home, how much he enjoyed our concerts, and how he always tried to persuade some of his friends to come along. More significantly, he described his enthusiastic interest in classical music and how deeply it had enriched his life. Now, nearly a year and a half after that chance meeting took place, I still remember it  vividly, and not just because a random man had walked into the NEC cafeteria to talk to me about my article (although I do think that the alleged “law of attraction” was certainly operating to some extent on that fateful evening). It was because I had physically interacted with an obviously enthusiastic member of the classical music audience, and it inspired me to work even harder to bring more people to my concerts, so that they might have a similarly meaningful experience.

But many among the pantheon of classical music commentators assert that audience members like the man I met are a dying breed, soon to be extinct from the concert hall with nothing to their legacy but a handful of crumpled cough drop wrappers. It’s a debate that seems to be popping up more and more frequently these days: is the audience getting older? Somewhat alarmingly, a variety of evidence suggests that this is indeed the case. A 2009 report by the League of American Orchestras revealed that audience attendance has declined significantly over the past three decades, and that the median age of a classical music audience is significantly higher than that of the general population (it was 49 in 2008). Additionally, prominent commentators have weighed in with convincing analyses of their own; Greg Sandow, for example, utilized both historical statistics and anecdotal evidence such as concert reviews and literary works to conclude that “the same people…[are] continuing to dominate the audience as they age, and not being replaced.” The “aging” theory makes sense in a sociocultural context as well; recent generations (Gen X and Gen Y) were not exposed to classical music in the same way that their parents and grandparents were, so it can be reasonably assumed that they will be relatively less inclined to attend concerts as they grow older. And unless scientists suddenly discover a way to dramatically increase the lifespan of the average human being (possible, but unlikely), our current base of “grey hairs” are probably not going to be buying tickets twenty years from now, either. So, if we are to accept the “aging” theory as reality, we are in turn faced with the inevitable ultimatum: figure out how to alter these current trends, or play for an empty auditorium full of cough drop wrappers.

But such a scary projection could very well be unfounded, say a significant number of musicians and commentators who subscribe to the alternative viewpoint, which I like to refer to as the “audience replacement theory.” The audience has always been old, say these folks, and the reason we don’t see as many younger people at concerts is because their interests lie elsewhere at this time in their life. It’s certainly true that people will engage in different activities as they age, and the greater the age difference between various groups, the more apparent are their differing interests. A group of fifteen-year-old boys wouldn’t be caught dead playing bridge, for example, but their grandparents would relish such an opportunity. It’s actually quite likely that new retirees will want to check out the classical music scene, even if they hadn’t been interested in it before-after all, everyone enjoys some type of music, and you definitely don’t see grandmothers standing in line to see Justin Bieber (Bieber’s apparent proclivity for exceedingly casual attire probably doesn’t score many points with grandma, either.) Furthermore, there actually are a significant amount of young people attending concerts, thanks in part to recently conceived outreach initiatives at a variety of prominent performing organizations. In fact, at a recent concert I attended at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of twenty-somethings filling up the seats around me, all of whom were dressed appropriately and genuinely interested in the evening’s production of “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” In addition to the demographic of younger non-musicians, we also must take into account the skyrocketing number of kids taking music lessons these days-just think of how competitive music school admissions have become over the past couple of decades!-and even if these young musicians don’t go on to pursue music professionally, there is a very good chance they will continue to maintain an interest in it as they grow older. All of these points certainly lend credence to the “audience replacement theory”-but whether they are enough to undermine the dire implications of the aforementioned statistical and cultural analyses remains to be seen.

What do you think? Is the idea that the audience is getting older a pessimistic myth or an undeniable reality? Comment below to contribute to this important discussion.

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2 comments feed top ↑

  1. Comment by Jeanne LaBarbera
    August 19, 2019 at 6:17 PM

    I have just seen this post and it is August 2014.
    i agree , something more needs to be done to draw an audience in.
    If you listen to “From the top” on NPr. well there are young people who play so well
    and there is an audience!!!!! they are the future.
    they , the power the be,,,,need not to cut music programs from schools for one thing.
    Children need exposure and school is the way!

    People are inter-active savy.
    I believe concerts need to be more inclusive.
    A lottery for people to be able to sit next to a performer in an orchestra, during a rehearsal or performance.
    wow I think people would want this. a chance to be a part of it all.

    Orchestra 101. Give a 1/2 hour lecture on a composer, build a program around his work.
    College and high school age folks I believe have an interest.
    What an interesting way to spend an evening……

    Concerts are too stuffy.
    they need to dress down some. have repore with individual players.
    make it personal. Who are the people who play so well?????
    Oh yes. life has changed, and the Orchestral music programs,
    must change to meet the demand…..
    also smaller groups in smaller places.. More flash mobs of classical. music.
    It will change lives.

    Education of the masses is the way,
    and it needs to be fun and not a dreary thing to sit through.
    I am a music school grad.
    I don’t care to go to an evening of something baroque, romantic and then the second half cntemporary.
    Give me Bach. a little music history, maybe a quartet, maybe something on the organ or piano. maybe a violin piece or two—and finally something large to end the evening. Now for that I would buy a ticket. Let the contemporary people have their own evening.
    So those are my thoughts. I would hate to see the great symphonies close their doors. It could happen.

  2. Comment by Roland Tec
    August 11, 2019 at 4:09 PM

    At a recent performance of the New York Philharmonic Biennial, five orchestra members approaching retirement were singled out and thanked publicly by the Board Chairman, Gary Parr for their years of service. As each accepted his or her bouquet of roses and made a brief statement of thanks, there was one personage that no one forgot to thank: The Audience. I couldn’t escape a slight feeling of unease on hearing this. Listening to musicians who had played for decades in one of the country’s most renowned orchestras, it struck me that if they all have The Audience in the forefront of their minds, that must mean only one thing: the relationship between symphonic music and audiences in this country is precarious. And possibly moreso than ever before. A cursory glance around the orchestra section reveals a sea of greying and white hair. In fact whenever I bring my 83-yr old mother to the NY Phil, she makes the same remark as we take our seats: “Isn’t it wonderful how many old people are getting out in this city!” The New York Philharmonic is already doing a lot to cultivate the next generation of audiences but let’s face it, cultural institutions like the ballet, opera and symphony orchestras will never be funded sufficiently to fill the gap left by dwindling public school budgets which seem to always cut music and other arts first. Whether aware of it or not, the musicians standing on stage at Avery Fischer the other night were sounding a warning bell. Unless we put an instrument into the hands of our eight, nine and ten-year-olds, The Audience will grow to be an ever more rarified thing to behold.