That’s the sort of headline you see from time to time in places like Arts & Letters Daily and the arts sections of major newspapers. Invariably, what follows a few weeks letter is the rebuttal which argues, “No, it isn’t.”
It’s obvious, the Dying side says, that appreciation for serious, adult music is at an all time low. Just turn on any radio, walk into almost any business, or attend nearly any function purportedly for adults and you will hear simple, pop music, or worse. Classical music has all but disappeared.
Not true, say the Optimists. Just look at our attendance figures for last season’s opera or for the yearly Jazz Festival. Sure, the numbers wax and they wane, but they have held steady since roughly 1950. Concert halls are just as filled as they ever were.
I’ll suppose that later claim is true, that attendance is holding roughly steady. I can’t find an exact figure, but let’s say that concert attendance is 100,000 seats per year in the United States. The precise number doesn’t really matter: pick any steady number you want and what I’m about to say is just as true.
Here’s the relevant picture:
The left-hand vertical axis depicts the U.S. population in millions since 1950; it shows a doubling over the past 50-60 years. The right-hand vertical axis depicts the percentage of residents who buy tickets to adult music concerts conditioned on the fact that each year about 100,000 tickets are sold. The numbers are in hundredths of a percent. If I’m wrong and the number of tickets sold is a million, then the figures are the same but are in tenths of a percent.
This figure, of course, doesn’t account for people who buy multiple tickets. If we assume that the percent of people who buy multiple tickets is roughly constant, then the shape of the red line is still the same, it’s just shifted up or down a slight bit. Even if this percent is not constant, there will only be a small correction.
So, while population has doubled, appreciation has fallen by roughly 50%. No trivial amount, that.
Of course, some people will not go to concerts and will buy music instead. But we already know that the sales of classical music have dropped off a cliff. The number of radio stations that host classical music has declined, too. Do you even have one where you live? (NYC is an oasis in this respect.)
How about listening online? For one example, it wasn’t until earlier this year that Pandora began carrying adult music. In fact, when I was listening the other day they had a tool pop up on the side of their player which would allow you to move three sliders and then click a button, after which a search engine would find music you like. The distressing first slider was BPM: Beats per Minute. The others were something inane like funkiness or quirkiness. I wish I had the opportunity for a screen capture to show you. Anyway, I am unable to discover statistics on on-line listenership beyond the anecdotal, but I don’t find anybody boasting. The opportunities are there, on line, they are just not being fully used.
I don’t think lack of education accounts for the demise of serious music. There’s more than enough of that panacea going around. I believe it has more to do with fears of being called an elitist or of being thought old, or at least no longer youthful. To say that what you are hearing when you go into a bar (restaurant, store, bookstore, etc., etc.) is juvenile, simplistic, or just plain awful makes you sound crusty and sour. If it wasn’t for the constant barrage of bad music everywhere you go, we elitists would keep quiet about all this. But silence in a public establishment is rarer than a sense of humor in an Upper-West-Side Obama supporter.
To some extent, it’s those who create music who are to blame. Some of the musicians who call themselves “serious” are anything but. I’m thinking of that fellow Glass (which rhymes with) and that guy who “wrote” the piece where those on stage sit still for 9 minutes so the audience can hear the sounds of people gasping for breath after discovering they paid good money for the privilege. That’s art. Jazz in the mainstream has mostly devolved into the pablum called “smooth”: all flutes, and what I suppose are synthesizers, all the time.
I’m with the crowd shouting “Dying!” Too bad the only response seems to be “Who cares!”
To get a head start on the criticisms: no, there is nothing wrong with listening to pop music, just as there isn’t anything wrong with drinking pop. An occasional glass can be just the thing. But if you drink nothing else, your teeth will rot out, your stomach will ulcer, and you’ll regress towards diabetes and imbecility. Listening to Andrea Bocelli is like switching to diet pop: you have the idea that you’re drinking real pop, you just can’t identify that strange aftertaste. You are what you listen to. The British Invasion was just that: we should have fought back. Imagine a world without the musics of John Lennon. It’s easy if you try. Heaven.