The Middle (Golden) Age…..

Some seriously good naval gazing into the future of Classical music is going on over on Greg Sandow’s blog.  Really detailed posts (there will be 5 in the series) covering a lot of ground and summarizing in his view where things appear to be headed and what to do about it.  I do think though that the issue of the average age of the audience is not as alarming as it appears, and quite possibly is something to celebrate…..

I encourage you to read the series, but I need to depart with Greg on one point.  In this post Greg states:

And data from the past — which I’ve uncovered on my own — is astounding. A study of two orchestras in 1937 showed the median age of their audience to be around 30! The Minnesota Orchestra (then the Minneapolis Symphony) surveyed its audience in 1955, and found that half of it was younger than 35. The median age of this audience was about 33. In the early 1960s, a major study showed the audience for all the performing arts to have a median age of 38, with no difference reported between one art form and another.

So evidently the age of the classical music audience has been rising for decades — for 50 years or more! Some people say this is natural, because the age of the population of the whole has risen (my emphasis). But this can’t account for the trends in classical music. In 1955, if we assume that the Minnesota data would be valid for all orchestras, the orchestra audience had about the same median age as the population as a whole. But now that audience (if I take data I have from a couple of major orchestras to be typical) is about 50% older than the general population, which means that it’s aged faster than the general population has. A lot faster, in fact.

Whilst this might be true, there are more to these numbers than meets the eye plus there are intangibles and tangibles that actually might be encouraging.  For instance with medical breakthroughs, nutrition, technology and health awareness, people are refusing to “succumb” to middle and old age and are staying younger longer, pushing middle age to later in life.  This rising later middle age class is demonstrated clearly on the site NationMaster that has a great color coded population pyramid. I summarize by combining the two largest age groups over the years:

  • 1950 – 25 – 34  (with the exception of 0-4)
  • 1990 – 30 – 39
  • 2000 – 35 – 44
  • 2005 – 40 – 49
  • Prediction for 2010: close race between  age groups 45 – 54 and 15 – 24
  • Prediction for 2020: close race  between age groups  55 – 64 and 25 – 34

These last two numbers is where the hope is because the younger group will in large part be the children of the older group, which means they many are still in school now! (more on that in a bit)  One thing here that is significant is that whilst the age of the audience is rising, so are the amount of people in that age group, so it is unfathomable to me that so much effort and money is put in marketing to attract the “young”when it would be better served to attract the parents of the young and for family concert experiences.

So instead of marketing heavily to the younger set with gimmicks, tricks and nightclub experiments, the hard and very unsexy truth is that what needs changing is the way the arts are introduced and taught to the young in order to attract them in the future, i.e stop teaching music the way over 50 were taught:

  • A revolution needs to happen in education with an integrated arts approach to learning, so that we stop putting the arts on a separate pedestal and instead start using it in general learning.  Then it doesn’t start out as being special but instead as something relevant!  Before people can like it, they need to accept it.  We seem to skip that part!
  • Encourage participation.  The Knight Foundation estimates that 74% percent of our audiences participated in some kind of music program in school.  More students playing now, bigger audiences listening later!
  • In Music Appreciation stop this only learning about Western Classical music BS, and start introducing other music in equal measure so that Classical is not seen as above it all, but with it all.  What, are we worried it doesn’t stand up to Pop?  Boring history lends Classical Music to be despised.  When someone later in life  reads there is pre concert lecture before a Classical concert, we don’t want them to think, oh no not Music Appreciation again!

(As an aside, it isn’t Music Appreciation anyway.  If it were that, the test would be based on how much we liked music, not how much we knew about it!)

Making a connection with Pop, Jazz , Country, Rap etc….might lead to acceptance and even curiosity.  What did no one see Mr. Holland’s Opus? (forward to 8:15 when it loads up enough)

Another incredible statistic about the over 50 set is the astounding percentage increase in entrepreneurship over the past 2 decades (hello money and flexible hours to attend to be on boards and to donate!).  Also the over 50 population will go up by over 31 million by 2020 all reported in this USA Today (pdf) article .  Plus did anyone think that maybe just maybe empty nesters don’t have to worry about finding sitters for their children, so they are more likely to attend since buying tickets is a major expense and the extra  $40 – $50 for a sitter for those in their 30’s can put it out of  their reach.  In other words IT”S NOT THE MUSIC, it’s education, affordability, the overall experience and perceptions that need to be addressed.  I refer again to what Alecia is doing at River Oaks Chamber Orchestra to address this, which is brilliant!

There is also misconception with technology that it’s primarily for the younger generations.  The over 50 set in some statistics are even more reliant on the internet than the young as reported here.  This proves that new media needs to continually be ramped up and not just for the “young”.  The over 50 group are even more likely to use a web-site so we need to gear it to them also.

I think looking at the data that there’s a golden age of ticket sales growth to be had right here right now if we can just stop this obsession with marketing exclusively to the young and lamenting that the audiences are getting older and that it’s all about the music.  The fact is that older people are actually getting younger.  The saying that 40 is the new 30 and so on is not far from the truth!  In 2050 the estimate from NationMaster is that the single largest population group will be 80+!

We feel the burden of the responisbility to “save the music” and so we always ponder the future and how to reach the young.  That primarily needs to be the job of the schools and the educators.  Our “most likely to attend” demographic is exploding in growth right now, and is the largest segment of the population…SO WHY ARE WE IGNORING THEM?…..It is our fault audience numbers are down!

2 thoughts on “The Middle (Golden) Age…..”

  1. Music (especially music educators) continually ignore anyone falling outside of the El-Hi group (10 years to 18 years old) and as such continue to cut off their nose to spike their face. The demographics are clear and this aging baby boomer group wants more than to be donors – they want participation. My colleagues and I at The Dallas School of Music have successfully catered to this group for over 16 years and have seen steady growth and interest in music education from this sector. When music teachers finally realize that more progress can be made from outside of academia than from within, the profession as a whole will be much healthier.

  2. Hi Ron! My first comment here, although I’ve been reading this blog for a while now.
    I wonder how you feel about the “they are retiring by this age, so they can dedicate themselves to other activities” story. Do you think it’s a considerable point? Does it make any difference, related to what you’re talking about?

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