Golden Ages and Unsustainability

There was a minor storm in the classical music blogosphere in the last two weeks or so. What started it was Heather Mac Donald’s article Classical Music’s New Golden Age and Greg Sandow’s massive, blunt, multiple post response, which was then again countered by Mac Donald.

Mac Donald claims classical music has entered a new golden age and her central thesis is basically this:

It is indisputable that classical-music lovers have never enjoyed such an abundance of great music, performed at levels of consummate artistry.

Indeed, this is indisputable. There are some good arguments to back up her thesis too, and she lists some of them: more orchestras now than in 1937; more and higher quality recordings; more and higher quality musicians through conservatories.

By all means, it looks like Mac Donald is right. However, as Michael Bruce writes in one of the comments underneath one of Sandow’s posts: “Golden ages, by definition, do not last.”

And that’s perhaps Sandow’s central thesis: the classical music environment, such as it is, is unsustainable.

At the onset of writing this article, I thought I was going to stand somewhere in the middle. No golden age, but rather strike the golden mean between Mac Donald and Sandow. But then I realized they’re both arguing quite different things.

Mac Donald argues that sheer quality and quantity of performances must mean we’re in a golden age and Sandow argues that audience trends indicate that the current structure is not sustainable. So Mac Donald is arguing from the viewpoint of performances, whereas Sandow is arguing from the standpoint of audiences.

And that’s precisely why this matter is such a delicate issue. In business everything revolves around the customer (the audience); however, in the arts, things really revolve around the product (the performance). But of course, this doesn’t preclude the need for an audience in the arts (otherwise, what’s the point), and more specifically an audience that can sustain the art.

So where Mac Donald argues that the product is experiencing a golden age, Sandow argues that the audience for the product is declining. These two are mutually exclusive if you take a snapshot in time: one is an observation in a specific moment in time; the other is a trend over time and a prediction for the future. So it’s only when you start looking into the future, you see that the two will affect each other. This qualitative and quantitative golden age of classical music cannot be sustained if the audience keeps declining.

So, the fact that there are now more orchestras than in 1937 is a good thing in Mac Donald’s snapshot view, but it is not necessarily a good thing for long term sustainability considering the audience that can sustain this number of orchestras is trending downwards.

I’ve compared the classical music dilemma to print media many times. Despite the availability of an abundance of great journalism, written at levels of consummate literacy, one would hardly call this the golden age for print journalism. There really is an uncanny comparison in many aspects. The big difference, however, is that print media had considerably less time to react to the external environment that made it irrelevant (i.e. the Internet).

  • Growth of news organizations: organizations became bigger, more complex, more expensive, and harder to manage and sustain. These organizations could not react to the changing external environment fast enough.
  • Number of organizations: up until the recent quick crash-and-burn of print media, the number of magazines and newspapers was growing. This fragmentation looked good for the industry on the surface—more journalism, more niche journalism—but paired with a decline in audience, you are faced with less and less costumers for more and more news.
  • Number of students: what about the number of journalism students enrolled in college? Surely, this says something about the level of training and preparation for the journalistic workforce. The number of students is steadily rising, despite the industry caving. This means quality goes up, but sustainability of this quality goes down.

So what’s happening next?

  • Deprofessionalization: journalism, like classical music, will never die. But what are the trends we have seen in journalism? Citizen journalism and blogs. These are a thread to the quality of journalism (and the quantity of quality); when there is no money to support journalism, you cannot expect the same level of reporting.
  • New business models: on the other hand, there will be a handful of journalists and publishers finding new ways to sustain professional journalism.

At the core, print media, or classical music, if you will, serves the community and will always serve the community. It just won’t go away. Their original missions and purposes are still relevant and true. Who am I to define art, or to define classical music? Who am I to dictate how orchestras should bring classical music to communities?

Curt Long, in a guest post for Adaptistration, wrote a fantastic article inspired by this year’s “Orchestra Revolution” discussion at the League’s conference: Changes In The Model…Do We Need Revolution Or Evolution? He ends with:

On balance, I would suggest that

      1) in many ways the traditional model focuses on the right things, and that
      2) there are still basic building blocks which an orchestra can implement which will help to address those things effectively, but that
      3) the environment in which we operate has become sufficiently dynamic and complicated that we should abandon the idea that there is any “simple” model which captures what an orchestra needs to do to thrive, and that
      4) every community is different, and every orchestra needs to make its case for community support within the context of the resources, aspirations, and priorities of its own community.

I think this perfectly echoes what I’ve been writing: that orchestras need a structure that facilitates a purpose defined by those who use it.

So although I won’t argue against calling this a golden age for the quality and quantity of classical music performances, we must realize that, golden age or not, classical music in its massiveness and complexity cannot be sustained into the future by a declining audience.

We have more time to react than those unfortunates in print media, but react we must. Not through revolution, but through building a good structure that will facilitate a purpose specific for each unique organization.

Classical music organizations of the future will be simple: they will be a catalyst for musicians to come together and make music for the community. Just as they’ve always been at their core. But on the way to this simplification, there will likely be casualties, big and small. On the other hand, new organizations, capitalizing on the changes in the external environment, will sprout and become successful. Such is the world.