Play to those who pay

The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini addresses the “dismaying ageism” of a cultural commentariat that sees the death spiral of classical music in statistics showing the average ages of audiences for symphony concerts and opera in their 50s and 60s. “Classical music should do its best to cultivate new listeners – to be accessible to anyone who might want to participate,” he writes. “But having an aging audience is not necessarily dire.”

Tommasini points to what he suspects is the real issue: “For some time now, I’ve seen the main challenge of engaging new classical music audiences – of all ages – as related to diminishing attention spans in an era of nonstop connectivity. . . . [A]n audience at a concert has to settle in and really pay attention to a performance that, for all the dynamic involvement of the musicians, offers only so much visual stimulation. Classical music should embrace this reality and promote performances as rare opportunities to disconnect, at least for a while, from the digital life outside.”

There’s another angle to this discussion – an issue I kept trying to raise in the waning years of my newspaper career. Editors had grown obsessed with cultivating a younger readership, often at the cost of alienating older, longtime readers. They ran head-on into reality: Most people under 30 didn’t, don’t and won’t read newspapers – a reality compounded by the rise of digital media. At the same time, they turned off many older readers who, not incidentally, command an outsized share of disposable income and whose interests aren’t addressed by most commercial television and other non-print media. They kissed off the affluent audience that they had in order to court a less affluent audience that they weren’t going to get, and plunged into a competition for advertising that they weren’t going to win. The consequences land on your doorstep (or not) every morning.

Few entities in the entertainment and leisure sphere have been hit harder in the coronavirus pandemic than classical-music organizations and presenters. Some major ones have effectively put themselves out of business for the duration. Others are staging concerts with sharply reduced live attendance and/or presenting performances online. (The Richmond Symphony plans to try both approaches this fall.) All are urging patrons to contribute whether or not they get any music for their money.

Who’ll keep them going, and buy tickets when “normal” life resumes? Old folks.

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