If you play it, what if they don't come?
"If they don't want to come, you can't stop them" — Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra
Let's say you're the practitioner or presenter of some kind of public media — arts, entertainment, sports, newspapers, on-line, whatever. You present something for other people to attend, read, watch or listen to. Over time, you note that you're losing audience. Whose responsibility is it to reverse the trend and start increasing your audience — yours or the audience's? You'd think the answer would be a no-brainer: yours. And in almost every media field it is.
But not classical music. No one should doubt that the audience for classical music in the U.S. has been in decline for decades. Some institutions are doing better than others, but overall, the situation is deeply concerning. Or at least those who have the most to lose, the composers, performers, presenters and other stakeholders (e.g., critics, record companies) should be concerned. Are they? Again, some are more concerned than others, but overall, the level of concern is not what those of us who love the music might hope for. Instead, there is in too many corners of classical music a circle-the-wagons attitude, and a belief that the musicians and other insiders know best. It's the audience that needs to get its act together.
How do I know this? I admit that I've come by this impression mostly anecdotally — and yes, I've heard that "the plural of anecdote is not data." But take the review by Boston Phoenix critic Lloyd Schwartz I blogged about recently, which Schwartz ends by asking "Is it ever a good idea to be different just to sell tickets?" Trust me, folks, Schwartz's intended answer is "no." Or take the 2010 Guardian article by critic Alex Ross I also blogged about, in which (as I read it) he lays much of the blame for the problems some audiences have with some contemporary music on the audience, not the music. Or the encounter I had with the keynote speaker at a classical radio conference a few years back, after I pointed out that, through extensive research, we radio folks had learned that some of his prescriptions for audience growth had been tried and found counter-productive. He cut me right off, saying "oh, don't go finding out these things!" He, by the way, was Leon Botstein, who's not only an important conductor, but the President of Bard College. A college president saying not to learn something — where else but classical music? I could go on, trust me, but I might be violating confidences or inaccurately putting words in the mouths of others who can certainly speak for themselves. Let's just say that there's still a strong strain of the "Field of Dreams" attitude among classical musicians: put it on and they will come, or at least they should. And if they don't, blame the schools, blame the politicians, blame the whole darn culture, but don't blame us.
You know, I can't say I blame the classical insiders for feeling this way. They got into the classical field generally out of commitment to the music, not to count fannies in seats. And they get understandably nervous when the administrative types start suggesting changes that go against their core beliefs. Trust me, this happens in radio too. But if the audience is indeed declining, shouldn't at least the musicians be concerned? I can tell you as a broadcaster that I like it lots better when I find out that my audience is growing than when I hear it's shrinking. The music I'm playing is reaching more people, and that makes me happy. Besides, wouldn't the musicians be at least concerned about job security? Every orchestra that folds due to declining audience and revenue removes that many job opportunities for musicians.
Yet there are ways to add new audience for a public presentation without either alienating the established audience or cheapening the product. Take baseball, for instance. Without going all Ken Burns on you, let's just say that baseball's a pretty significant American cultural institution, yet one that's had its ups and downs of popularity over the decades. So, when attendance was slipping in the 60s and 70s, what did the Lords of Baseball do to fix it? Did they seek funding for "baseball in the school" programs to teach youngsters about the rules of the game? Did they engage powerful orators to lecture the benighted public on the poetry of the sacrifice bunt? Did they belittle the short attention spans of people who preferred dumbed-down (i.e., more exciting) sports like football or basketball?
No. This is baseball, not soccer (snicker). The Lords of Baseball instead did the right thing: they changed their product and their presentation to make them more appealing. They lowered the pitcher's mound to increase offense. They (at least some of them) added the designated hitter for the same reason. They built cozy new ballparks with homer-friendly dimensions and lots of cool amenities. They changed their playoffs to keep more teams in contention for longer into the season, thereby maintaining more fan interest. More recently, Major League Baseball and its teams have embraced the internet and social media in a huge way, compared to which most classical music institutions (though improving) are far behind. Does anyone know of a classical equivalent to the superb "MLB At Bat" smartphone app? Sure, some traditionalists railed against these changes. There are spoilsports in every crowd. But while it's still one, two, three strikes you're out, the ol' ballgame went on to enjoy its most successful period ever, until the recent economic woes dampened things a bit. No one worries about the future of baseball. And the on-field product is terrific.
Of course, classical institutions are all free-agents and don't compete in an organized league under an all-powerful commissioner. But I bet classical music can still learn a thing or two about from the National Pastime about how to balance tradition and innovation. Hey, how 'bout a line of classical trading cards? Play ball!
*The actual quote is "If you build he will come." But like "Play it again, Sam," the misquote has entered the vernacular.