All Things Strings

NEA Arts & Music Survey: Good News, Bad News

The latest National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts confirms that classical music audiences are dwindling, but not all the news is bad, especially in the nascent online world.

First the bad news. Among the results, released this week, the survey supports earlier findings that millions of adults consume classical music through the mass media—the Internet, TV, and radio—rather than attend live concerts. Indeed, the NEA ranks classical and Latin salsa as the most heavily consumed music in this fashion. That mirrors one other recent survey that found that more people listen to classical music in their cars than in concert halls.

The periodic survey—compiled five times since 1982—could not confirm a direct correlation between concert attendance and the recession, but the NEA acknowledges that concert attendance in 2008 fell sharply. Classical music attendance continued to decline—at a 29 percent rate since 1982—with the steepest drop occurring from 2002 to 2008.

The new survey shows a clear trend in terms of the age of the classical audience: the classical music audience still is graying. “For one thing, 18–44 year olds are not attending arts events at the same rate as they did 26 years ago,” the survey found. “As a group, arts participants are older than before. They also are increasingly older than the average adult.”

The average age of the classical music fan rose from age 40 to 49 between 1982 and 2008—only jazz and ballet audiences aged as much. Even as the classical audience is graying, fewer older patrons are attending concerts: the percentage of adults age 45 to 54 attending classical concerts dropped 33 percent.

During that same period, the percentage of adults ages 18 to 24 attending classical music concerts dropped 37 percent.

These declines were seen even among the most educated adults.

Now the good news.

The percentage of people making music has increased, ever so slightly, over the years—an indication that enthusiasts may be becoming a more significant segment of the musical community. For example, the rate of participation in classical music performance slipped from 1992 to 2002, then grew over the next six years, showing an increase of 1.2 percent. That increase came at a time when concert halls saw their aforementioned decline.

And the Internet has become a major outlet for those seeking the arts. Overall, 47.3 million Americans view, listen to, or download music, theater, or dance performances on the Internet.

“One captivating finding is that most adults who use the Internet to engage with artworks do so at least once a week,” the survey notes. “Future analysis will show the extent to which online participants differ from other arts participants, and what are some overlapping characteristics.”

What does all of this mean for musicians, concert programmers, and educators?

“For the time being, the survey poses an opportunity to contemplate the costs of reduced arts participation, and to review strategies—in arts programming and arts learning, in public policy and popular media—for cultivating this vital form of personal and social engagement,” the NEA concludes. “In a recession, those costs may be even greater than before, as entire segments of the US population, especially young adults and less educated and lower-income groups, are denied life-changing experiences through art.

“Such experiences are important not only for producing an inspired and imaginative citizenry, but also for preserving and articulating our cultural heritage as Americans.”

Read, or download, the NEA survey summary here.

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Comment by Shawn Smith on June 18, 2009 at 7:41pm
The key to reversing this downward trend is music education. If we can instill aesthetic intellect and sensitivity in children, then they will become adults who value music and the arts. More importantly, they will become patrons of the arts. We must fight to keep music education in America's schools.
Comment by Colleen Schoneveld on June 18, 2009 at 5:54pm
My husband and I attended the 40th anniversary concert for the Children's Orchestra Society at Carnegie Hall June 3rd. This orchestra founded by Yeou-Cheng and Yo-Yo Ma's father is made up of the neighborhood children of Manhasset NY. It was an amazing concert! Michael Dadap and Yeou-Cheng have developed incredible skills in these kids. The concert was truly worthy of the great hall.
I know the orchestra struggles for support, but the interest and talent is definitely there! We need to support efforts of such dedicated musicians and music educators. Classical music will never die if we allow it to grow... But music and art are (foolishly, in my opinion) the first things dropped by "educators" when money gets tight.
I have formed an orchestra for musically challenged adults The Really Terrible Orchestra of Pennsylvania... modeled after the Scottish RTO. There are 5 RTOs in the USA now. All are thriving. People that haven't played in many years and those of us that started very late in life are finding great joy making music... no matter how good we aren't.
We encourage people to start RTO type orchestras... The idea has come into it's own. People are having so much fun. We are the people that will continue to come to live concerts (You know, where the good musicians play) Live music can not be replaced by recordings. The experience is so incredible. Sadly ticket prices are often beyond most people...
I believe Classical music will rebound. But we need to allow youth to experience the joy of making such wonderful music. It needs to be encouraged. I am grateful to Strings for all the effort you put in to keeping such music before us. Thank you.
Comment by Charles Shafer on June 18, 2009 at 5:43pm
My experience as a parent to student musicians, a husband to a local symphony musician, and a presenter of roots concerts with an emphasis on fiddle is this: younger students, who are the future audience for any type of music, are tired of being pigeonholed into one genre. We hold free workshops all the time, and students can sit down and learn from world-class fiddlers like Alasdair Fraser, April Verch, Hanneke Cassel, Andrea Beaton, etc. We'll get all ages of fiddlers for these, but very few who are taking classical Suzuki-style lessons. For the most part, when I talk to local teachers, I find they're actively discouraging their students from such low pursuits as fiddling, no matter how complex it may be. A few kids who are into fiddling have a hard time being pursuaded to take classical lessons. In actual; practice, the new generation of great fiddlers are all classically-trained, having attended such institutions as Juillard, Berklee, New England Conservatory, etc. It's not unusual to have one of our performers launch into a Bach Partitia in the middle of their solo. The audience loves it. I believe our last show outdrew the local "big name" symphony orchestra. Audiences ARE there. Performers are there. We try to get the classical students fiddling during the summer as a way of keeping sharp, but not burning out. There's a lot of great "garage band" bluegrass bands out there. High school kids are pretty sophisticated, too, if you reach out to them. At a recent show with John Jorgenson, world-famous gyosy-jazz guitarits, he was stunned to see about 20 high school kids sitting on the floor in the front, all wide-eyed. He was pummeled with questions from them after the show. After about an hour, as everything was winding down, he came up to me raving about the fact that he was reaching young kids. Apparently, no other venue he's played at has ever really gone after the student audience before.

My point is in all this, there's a lot of talent and a lot of interest out there. A bit of cross-training for the students and audiences will go a long way to building up the audiences and interest again. Music should be far more than a background white-noise kind of thing. Instead of worrying about classical music audiences, worry about audiences for all music, and things will take care of themselves. Classical teachers in every town ought to take a group of students to play some Saturday morning in front of the local supermarket, busking away. Play for some local charity. Play for fun. Let the average person see how much fun live music is. Get outside, and broaden the repertoire, or audiences will dry up.
Comment by Greg Cahill on June 18, 2009 at 11:15am
Two things:
First, I find it encouraging that the Internet is such a tremendous resource for classical music fans and musicians. That trend may grow as orchestras, educators, and others find new and exciting ways to develop that audience.

Second, I want to hear more about this combined orchestra! This sounds really exciting. What type of repertoire? Do students switch off between instruments? How do the students feel about it? What's the response to their concerts?
Comment by Ira Kraemer on June 18, 2009 at 5:04am
As music director and conductor of a youth orchestra in central New Jersey, I can tell you that there is no shortage of young high school age string players which comprise the many youth orchestras in my area. There are at least 8 to o 10 large orchestras which have no trouble recruiting violins, violas, cellos and basses. This is due in part to the large Asian population where there is an intensity of string playing. We even have a large orchestra made up of Chinese instruments which play both Eastern and Western music with a high degree of proficiency. I recently attended a rehearsal where there were about 15 Erhu players who played extremely well.

The question arises as to whether these young players will continue to play after their high school days are over and they are attending colleges and universities, and whether they will comprise the audiences of the future. The likelyhood is not very good. I have seen this happen with those who have graduated from my own orchestra and when I communicate with them they inform me that they do not play any longer. Most of them extremely fine players who are so burdened down with academic studies that the instrument is religated to the closet.

This situation does not bode well for the future of classical music. It seems to me that we need to see more classical music presented on TV and Radio so that it is not a niche market. If one is not listening to a classical music station which programs for older audiences or hear classical music as part of a TV commercial, as a special program on public television, or as mindless background music at a shopping mall, we loose sight that it exists at all.

If we were able to bring more classical music to the general public as a regular part of daily entertainment, maybe those who stopped playing after their high school days would be encouraged to continue and we would create a demand for this type of music to be encouraged and promoted. As it stands now, it is not a part of American culture with regard to a younger generation.

Ira Kraemer

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