With my Facebook News Feed exploding with updates and opinions about the Atlanta Symphony lockout (link to the musicians’ webpage, not the douchey talking points of the ASO!), and various articles about classical music’s struggle to fit into modern consumer culture making the rounds (even if they’re almost four years old!), I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Wagnerian-length swan song of classical music.
For the uninitiated, classical music faces a bit of a PR problem when it comes to attracting audiences, at least in the US. Depending on who you ask, classical music is:
- not what I grew up listening to
- (insert your gripe here)
Classical music suffers from something of a museum culture, where people-who-don’t-go-to-classical-music-concerts feel that there is a dress code (oh, how I wish there was a dress code! I love a good dress code.), a weird set of behaviors to follow (they’re not wrong on that point, what with the adulated silence, the standing, the sitting, the only-coughing-in-the-moments-where-the-conductor-has-the-baton-up-but-nobody-is-playing), a lack of opportunity to proposition other audience members for sex (compared to popular music concerts…I see you, single-parent-bringing-your-tween-to-One-Direction-concerts-to-pick-up-other-single-parents!)…
But seriously, classical music has this problem, and has had it for as long as any of us can remember. And now with the Internet, we can be reminded of it in regular biannual cycles, because the death of classical music brings foot traffic! And as a contemporary classical composer, this death of my art form is obviously a great concern to me. And there is no shortage of solutions offered by the well-intentioned. The problem with most of these solutions is that they lack a lot of the nuance that the situation actually requires.
I’ll address the two that drive me the craziest:
1. Classical Music Needs To Drop Its Silly Dress Code and Ritualistic Behaviors
This issue stems from the main issue of “classical music is elitist/anachronistic.” For a long time, it was considered proper to come to classical music concerts in black tie (aka tuxedos for men, evening gowns for women). What most people don’t get is that, for a long time, it was considered proper to be in black tie after 6:00pm, even if you didn’t leave your goddamn house! We get a regular dose of this from Downton Abbey, that show that doesn’t seem to be doing too badly despite being most obviously about a group of elitists. Why is it that the people watching that show (which is famous for its costumes and set pieces), would, when presented with the opportunity to go out and do the exact thing they’re watching, say, “Nah, fuck it. I’m no elitist!”
For anyone that hasn’t been to a concert in 100 years, the dress code for classical music’s audiences has updated significantly, to the point where fancier-dressing types like myself feel overdressed for this supposedly elitist event I’m going to.
I don’t think that the dress code has as much to do with peoples’ alienation from classical music as people ascribe to it. Remember the time when Justin Timberlake rocked the shit out of Tom Ford’s tux to sell millions of albums?
The rituals of the concert, on the other hand, I kinda get. It’s awkward to stay perfectly still and silent for two hours, and getting glared at by the elderly for clearing your throat or coughing at the wrong time is a little bit much for entry-level concertgoers. So I’ll give you that, fixers-of-classical-music.
Some of the most elitist assholes I’ve ever met only wear t-shirts. Have you been to an indie rock show? A comics convention? Anywhere on NYU’s campus? Tuxedos aren’t the uniforms of elitists anymore. Elitists look like everyone else nowadays (except maybe for the comic convention elitists…I bet they’re in cosplay!). There are people willing to look down on you for your taste in anything these days, so why is classical music being targeted for this?!
2. Classical Music Can’t Compete On The Free Market
This “reason” for classical music’s unpopularity is, bar none, the worst. The absolute worst. For those who don’t understand this, there is a vocal segment of the classical-music-hating population that believes that all music should behave by the rules of capitalism, that demand for the music will ensure its survival, and that lack of demand demonstrates that, like my 1999 dotcom, www.treadmillforyourlove.com, it should go under in favor of more popular choices. As all producers of music that isn’t popular will tell you, this attitude basically ensures a race to the lowest common denominator. Capitalism is what makes shitty pop music shitty pop music: the reason is that companies identify qualities that sell records, and imitate them ad nauseum because it’ll move units.
This reason is like an octopus, with tentacles suckered onto all the other reasons people don’t like classical music. Because it eschews popularity through avoiding capitalist behavior of appealing to the lowest common denominator, classical music is “elitist.” Because it doesn’t obey free market rules and depends on public funding to get by, it’s “socialist.” And on, and on, and on…
The people who want to “fix” classical music have come up with a solution: composers and performers need to be more entrepreneurial. This word has been the new music buzzword of the past ten years. There hasn’t been one performer who hasn’t had this told to them by some well-meaning mentor. I find two major problems with this, both stemming from the fact that the solution is, once again, way too reductive.
Firstly, classical musicians may not want to be entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurialism is really really really hard. There’s a reason that the vast majority of workers in the country aren’t entrepreneurs. If you told me that I had a choice between looking for a secure job where I’d get to do what I love 75% of the time versus a precarious string of individual gigs doing what I love 100% of the time, I could see myself choosing either for equally valid reasons.
Secondly, for many millennials, “entrepreneur” is synonymous with “money-grubbing douchebag.” Observe:
So, your businessman relative telling you to “be entrepreneurial” basically comes of as, “be the kind of asshole that’s pricing artists out of living in San Francisco.” No wonder we aren’t out there rushing to be entrepreneurs.
I’m not looking to provide any solutions to classical music’s problems. I’m also not looking to cynically mock anyone’s attempts to solve them, either. What I want is a more considered, nuanced discussion of how to fix this problem. It’s not going to be fixed by one thing, and it’s not going to be fixed in a year. Can we please stop treating it like a news cycle story and get down to fixing it?!