The Latest Sky is Falling Pronouncement

There’s a simple reason why classical music culture is dying. The culture behind it isn’t endemic to youth. Consider the ticket prices and the required formal attire. Right now, if I wanted to see the San Francisco Symphony perform Mozart’s C Minor Mass, I’d have to spend anywhere between $62 to $220 for my girlfriend and me to see it. Factor in dinner and parking and the tab (at midrange) comes out to about $200 for an entire evening (unless, of course, I can somehow score a laughable student discount, where I save a mere 50%, but only if I attend six shows). Plus, I’d have to dress up to look presentable (not that I mind doing this, but I really don’t like wearing neckties).

Conversely, I can go to Bottom of the Hill in a scruffy T-shirt and jeans and pay a whopping $24 to see three bands play. Plus, I can drink beer.

It’s really as simple as that. $200 is a lot of money to fork over. I can’t imagine how much a classical music junkie might pay. (Is it in the four digits?) Small wonder why upper middle-class people over the age of 50 are patronizing these shows. They have a little thing called expendable income. (Full confession: I’ve worked as an usher to see high-ticket theatre and symphonies because I didn’t have the dinero to spring for it. What does that say about putting the “class” into classical music?)

If symphonies want to survive, then they need to eject the decorum associated with attending classical music concerts and decrease their ticket prices. If my peregrinations to the free (and crowded) Stern Grove summer concerts are any indication, people are still interested in listening to live classical music. In fact, you’re likely to find younger people there because they can come in early, have themselves a little picnic (without dressing up), and not fork over an astronomical sum of money to hear a symphony play. They get to experience a concert in a comfortable and affordable setting. It’s one of the best deals in San Francisco.

So why don’t symphonies offer a few dress-down concerts at reduced prices? Or is this too lowbrow for them to handle?

[RELATED: In addition to Greg Sandow’s blog (where all this originated from), you can check out this article, which applies Beckerian theory to symphony concert demand in an attempt to isolate the problem (although it concludes that income has no direct bearing upon supply and demand, it doesn’t penetrate into the cultural trappings I suggest above). There’s also this 1923 Time article, which reports that then New York Philharmonic chairman Clarence Mackay concluded that symphonies could not profit even with full attendance at all concerts. And this 2005 study from Leo J. Shapiro and Associates draws a few different conclusions than Sandow: 40% of the adult audience is under the age of 45, but it does acknowledge the median age at 49. Further, median income of concertgoers is (no surprise) $65,000, with the opera-going median at $113,000. And 51% of classical music goers also attend pop concerts. But there is this striking conclusion: “A deterrent to the continuity of the audience for classical music performance is the price of tickets.Ticket prices have generally outpaced inflation making the bite of attending classical music performances a bigger share of the family budget.”]

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2 Comments

  1. I hear you, Ed. I used to go dress rehearsals because they were $15 and it was worth watching an interrupted performance for such a great price.
    Although I will say that at least in NYC it’s not necessary to wear a tie to performances and I can’t imagine that formality should be a barrier, particularly since I see both jeans and nice clothes at performances.

    The Met Opera here in NYC has been offering $20 tickets to all performances lately. That and a lot of cross-cultural, cross-discipline composers who the arts organizations highlight these days are helping. Examples are Tan Dun’s recent opera as well as Golijov and others.

    Anyway, it’s a big topic and glad to see people talking about it, because like books, despite a lot of great classics, without a vibrant contemporary community the form will certainly die out. And without an audience to attend concerts and buy CDs that community can’t exist.

  2. A co-worker recently clued me in to $15 standing room tickets at the Met. I don’t know if they have beer, but if you’re standing in the back, you might be able to sneak in a flask. And, according to their FAQ, there’s no dress code. Maybe San Francisco has something similar?

    (The New York Philharmonic is a bit stricter when it comes to dress, indicating that maybe opera has a better idea of how to court the young folk.)

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