The Nation's Pulse

Classic Collapse

The market for classical music in the U.S. is in deep trouble.

By 1.24.11

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The music industry has been charting the decline of classical market in the United States for at least a decade, attributing it to aging audiences, crashing CD sales and shrinking private subsidies. Music lovers beware: there are signs now of an accelerating downward trend. 

The root of the problem, musicians tell me, is a plague of pirated Internet downloads and a spreading anti-intellectual climate in the U.S. music world, especially among the young. Further pressure, as if any were needed, comes from the current economic squeeze.

Several of the nation's leading symphonies are wholly dependent on private donations. As the recession has taken hold, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Pittsburgh orchestras are in dire financial difficulty, and Louisville last month filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Honolulu Symphony, the oldest orchestra west of the Rockies, went broke and shut down in December. In music-mad New York, many second-tier orchestras, including the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Long Island Philharmonic have stopped performing and others are downsizing, curtailing their season and asking players to take salary cuts.

Highly trained instrumentalists complain that the demand for their services is eroding year by year as job opportunities evaporate. Moreover, the arrival of Chinese, Korean and Japanese virtuosos from the top U.S. conservatories has heated up the competition both for permanent and freelance work.

It looks like a perfect storm has hit the business of serious music, so far sparing only the major orchestras in New York, Boston, Chicago and a few other cities.  Some say they see an end of an era coming.

"It's a tough time for great music," says Melinda Bargreen, a composer and former Seattle Times critic who was recently sacked in a cost-cutting campaign at the newspaper.

The New York Times has called it the Classical Music Recession. This time, however, the recovery may come too late for city-based orchestras and players throughout the country.

It is already too late for some. A typical case is a professional cellist in New York who has seen his income plunge by two-thirds, forcing him to sell his home to feed his family and stay solvent. Another musician, a New York percussionist, has gone public with his plight, calling his once-busy life now haunted with "long stretches of quiet."

Even light-hearted classical concerts such as Peter Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach have stopped, not for quality reasons but because dumbed-down audiences miss his wisecracks due to poor musical knowledge.

A pianist friend, Ivan Ilic, says the pervasive public ignorance of serious music has been a major factor in the current crisis. "It is naive to pretend that people will spontaneously flock to concerts because, say, the harmonic progressions are worked out in more detail in a Schubert symphony than those is a song by Lady Gaga." 

People need context to understand the music, he believes, "and the older the music the richer the context."

Reaction from residents of the cities worst affected has sparked emotional debates on the Internet over how much subsidy makes sense when audiences and benefactors are turning away. Many residents favor market forces as the main indicator in deciding whether an orchestra deserves to survive. In Detroit, where a crippling strike over wages has shut down the orchestra since last October, one local reader wrote to the Free Press website:

"Given the high (too high, actually) ticket prices for the DSO and those high salaries for what basically is part-of-the-year work, I have almost zero sympathy for a symphony that has more or less struck itself out of a job."

Wrote another reader:

"I don't need an orchestra in town and apparently I am not alone, otherwise enough paying customers would attend. The DSO loses money. It is not a compelling value proposition in the competition for the entertainment dollar of enough metro Detroiters to justify its survival. Take the pay cut, or shut it down. Simple as that."

In Louisville, a Courier-Journal reader commented: 

"Either community support exists or it doesn't. In this case, clearly the community support for an orchestra of this size doesn't exist and the LO should reorganize into a sustainable entity."

As bloggers continued opting for a shutdown, one reader asked, "Tell me dear sir, what is the color of your neck?" 

France and Germany have largely avoided U.S. problems, supporting their leading orchestras mainly through government subsidies. In Italy, however, opera companies and orchestras are both suffering. In Britain, subsidies are under pressure by cutbacks in government spending but an innovative economic model helps them survive.

London, arguably the music capital of the world, "is doing pretty well," says leading British music critic and writer Jessica Duchen, partly by "paying their players one heck of a lot less than the Americans do -- possibly a quarter as much." The most successful orchestras -- the London Symphony, London Philharmonic and Philharmonia -- do not give full-time salaries. Players are paid on a freelance basis.

Ms. Bargreen laments the disappearance of the music critic from many U.S. newspapers. "What was lost was not only the continued vigilance and critical attention to this field," she told me, "but also the ability of classical performers to get their story out in a way that got more considered attention than the millions of tiny voices shouting into cyberspace."

The survival of orchestras has hit players' private finances in other ways, too. Demand for private lessons, which normally supplement their incomes, is dropping off as schools cut back music education and the entertainment industry floods the young with other options. One classically trained music teacher in Britain told me he has been forced to learn, and teach, the electric guitar to keep his job. Youngsters are not opting for his music appreciation courses.

Music lessons in British schools are expected to be chopped further as the government seeks to privatize this side of education.  "It's as if, rather than just pruning the tree at sensible points of the branches, they want to pull it up by the roots," says Ms. Duchen.

And finally, the once-ubiquitous CD, which started losing market share about ten years ago, continues to fall in all categories. "The demand that everything on the Internet be free has meant that the vast majority of music downloads are illegal, thus depriving performers and composers of their deserved income," says composer-critic Bargreen.

Only in Asia is the classical music industry in ascendancy. China has built modern concert halls across the country and implemented an aggressive music-education program in schools. An estimated 20 million young Chinese have been hand-picked to study classical piano. U.S. conservatories such as Juilliard and Curtis are training the best of them.

Many of these young players are technically brilliant but critics are waiting for signs of deeper interpretations. Chinese-born Lang Lang, known by critics as Bang Bang, may be the first of many to grow into this role, and in the process to help pick up the slack in the Western classical tradition.

Mr. Johnson served nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.