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Peering Into Classical Music’s Future
Is the current model supporting classical music adaptable enough to ensure it will exist 50 - 100 years from now?

by Drew McManus
October 11, 2004

There’s quite a bit of discussion about the future of classical music in America these days. Most of it focuses on the larger institutions of classical music, such as orchestras, and whether or not they’ll be financially viable and culturally relevant organizations.
But of course, there’s much more to classical music than just orchestras. However orchestras do hold the status of representing the art form to the majority of the population, so how well they fare is often the chief indicator on the classical music barometer.
So where will classical music be 50 to 100 years from now?
In order to look ahead, it usually helps to look back. A paper written by Douglas Dempster (PDF File) and published in Harmony magazine in 2002 concluded that the increase for aggregate revenues of 625 American orchestras increased 1,476% during the 30 year period from 1971 through 2001 with aggregate expenses not far behind at a 1,442% increase.
However, those tremendous increases conceal the issue that classical music has been steadily slipping in attendance for that same period of time. According to a recent Knight Foundation study, that decline in attendance has resulted in only 4% of Americans actively participating in classical music.
In the 30 years prior to 1971, many orchestras that are now considered large by today’s standards, such as Indianapolis and Baltimore, were barely part time jobs and performed a fraction of the concerts they do today. So the increase in revenue and expenditures doesn’t exactly carry a similar increase in participation. Overall, it’s a very mixed message with regard to where orchestras have been and where they may go.
But there are a few facts which can’t be ignored. The current decline in active participation has directly influenced how much classical music’s impact has on the overall American cultural consciousness. So even with the increase in revenue from sources such as federal and private philanthropic funds you still have to have a certain level of the population interested in what you do in order to justify your existence.
If the current rate of decrease continues among attendance of live orchestra events, there won’t be more than 1% of the population actively participating in classical music. That’s a very tiny percentage of any population.
If only 1% of the population 50 years from now participates in classical music, that low of a percentage will cause enough of a reduction in earned income to force 2/3 of the professional American orchestras into bankruptcy or reduce their expenditures to such a degree that they will once again become only community ensembles, incapable of supporting musicians at even poverty levels. This would effectively return the state of orchestral classical music back to a time before 1971.
And what about 100 years from now, will orchestral based classical music even exist in all but the largest metropolitan centers as a sort of cultural throw back? Will it be a type of “dead language” art, mentioned in the same breath as Latin and Greek?
That may very well be the case, but only for orchestral based classical music. But there will still be that fractional percentage of the population who will always have some interest in classical music. And that interest will focus on everything that is not at the conscious center of classical music today; the countless number of chamber musicians who regularly perform the wide body of traditional and new repertoire.
And barring a new dark age descending upon humanity that could wipe out even the memory of classical music, there will always be the possibility that the seeds of chamber music will create a new interest in the large scale works.
Will this future come to pass? It’s impossible to say, however, the current direction the orchestral side of classical music is heading seems to be one of near extinction. Without a significant increase in the percentage of the population actively participating in live orchestral music there will be an ever increasing need for orchestras to subsidize their operations on funds from philanthropic and government sources.
It would be wise to consider that subsidies are a poor substitute for direct interest and participation. As a result, classical music may have some very turbulent times ahead if orchestras are forced to endure a sort of extinction event resulting from a financially unsustainable model.
Ideally, in 50 years we’ll see a future where both large orchestras and smaller ensembles equally share prominence in the cultural consciousness. They will be ensembles capable of financially sustaining professional musicians and revenues as an industry will concentrate on listener participation and not subsidies.

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