The Way We Experience Music–Times Are a-Changin'

A few weeks ago the NEA published its, “2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.” In it, and most notable for music and musicians, is the reported decline in concert attendance. I won’t argue with their numbers. They sound reasonable to me. But being a professional musician, it doesn’t make me feel good to hear that fewer people are showing up at concerts.

However, the reality to me is that times are a changin’. The manner in which people experience their music is changing, and along with it the definition of a concert, a venue and an audience. According to Bob Johansen, a Distinguished Fellow from the think-tank, The Institute for the Future, a digital generation is now about six years and getting shorter. And true “digital natives” are anyone under the age of 13. This means that typical high school seniors are probably more savvy about technology than graduate students. When these digital natives were asked how many hours a day they access technology, the question made no sense to them—because they are always connected.

I had a recent conversation with an Eastman freshman who has an idea about a product that he thinks he could patent and sell. I asked him if he would be able to do the programming, or would he have to hire someone. He told me that he took a programming course in 10th grade. They learned four computer languages and three of the four are now out of date. In other words he was telling me that his programming knowledge of only three years ago was obsolete.

Last year my wife and I visited our daughter and her husband who live in another state. They aren’t techies by any means, and they aren’t youngsters either, but I was struck by the way in which they watched television. They have their laptops close by and when they see/hear something that interests them, they immediately do an Internet search for more information. Multi-tasking.

The orchestra musician’s dilemma with technology is that we are part of an organization that, by its very nature, celebrates the past. There is no doubt that technology will continue to impact professional musician’s lives, and the challenge for orchestras will be to figure out how to use it. Orchestral music will probably be around 10-20 years from now, but the manner in which it is delivered will be different.

As for the live concert experience, I have never stood up and given my stereo an ovation at the conclusion of a piece. Listening to a CD in your living room or in your car is totally different from a live concert. As musicians we have that “ace-in-the-hole.” It’s the live, human element. Let’s hope we find a way to team with technology to exploit it. Here’s the AP article in full in case you missed, and a link to the full NEA report is at the end of the piece.

By HILLEL ITALIE (AP) – December 10, 2009 

NEW YORK – If you haven’t gone to a movie, jazz concert or an art exhibit in recent years, you are in steadily growing company. A new study from the National Endowment for the Arts finds a notable decline in theater, museum and concert attendance and other “benchmark” cultural activities between 2002 and 2008 for adults 18 and older, and a sharper fall from 25 years ago. The drop was for virtually all art forms and for virtually all age groups and levels of education. The NEA’s senior deputy chair, Joan Shigekawa, listed a few possible reasons: The rise of the Internet; less free time; and cuts in arts classes. “These numbers definitely represent a challenge,” Shigekawa said.

Released Thursday, the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts is the sixth such report to come out since 1982, when 39 percent of adults attended a “benchmark arts activity” at least once in the previous year. The percentage peaked at 41 percent in 1992, just as the Internet was taking off, and dropped to 34.6 percent in 2008. Between 2002 and 2008, percentages fell for moviegoing from 60 to 53.3, for jazz from 10.8 to 7.8, for museums/galleries from 26.5 to 22.7. Other categories with lower attendance include ballet, opera, musical and nonmusical theater, and art/crafts fairs and festivals. The reading of “literature,” defined as “plays/poetry/novels/short stories,” was an exception, rising from 46.7 to 50.2, an increase NEA research director Sunil Iyengar credits, at least in part, to the growth of online reading. But the Internet did not stop a decline, from 56 percent to 54 percent, of reading of any kind that was not required by school or work.

Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, was concerned by the attendance numbers but encouraged by the substantial number of adults, estimated by the NEA at around 40 million, who watched or listened to classical music through electronic media, including online. “There is a fundamental change happening in our lives. There’s a sense that we have an old way of defining participating in the arts and that the public is redefining what participation means,” Rosen said. “The challenge for us is to see where the public is and engage with them and adapt.” Rosen cited interactive concerts, multimedia concerts and shows of varying lengths, at different times of day. “A lot of concerts remain absolutely essential, but it’s not a contradiction to say that the public is showing an interest in new ways of engaging and that we need to a grow our bag of tricks,” said Rosen, who will be among the arts representatives, from about 40 organizations, discussing the report Thursday morning in a live Webcast.

Also in the NEA report: Classic/rock oldies was the most popular form of music, with 48.1 percent of those surveyed saying they liked it. The runner-up was country/Western, at 36 percent. Mysteries were the favorite books, liked by 32.5 percent of respondents, followed by health/fitness/self-improvement and religious works. Visits to parks/monuments/historical buildings fell from 31.6 percent in 2002 to 24.9 percent last year.

See the full NEA report here. It’s report #49:


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Ramon Ricker

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  • Everything you wrote makes sense. Certainly on the large scale. However, I’ve been trying to narrow the focus recently, instead of attacking the broader issues. In fact, I think it is very safe, almost too safe, to talk about the problems/concerns we all share regarding “the state of classical music” in the US. We can talk about it for a long time. I (we in our group) have been trying to attack a longtime problem concerning our/your instrument…the saxophone. You should know that all of those hard working students of classical saxophone have essentially no future as performers. Certainly not like other instruments. Never mind that the “world” of classical music needs to be part of the 21st century. What about all of those talented sax players who want to part of any of it at all. They would be pleased to just get in the door and be included. Instead, the door is locked for them. That’s why we have decided to focus our efforts on the saxophone quartet, what we think to be the ONLY option for serious saxophone players. What do you think Ray? What have your former students reported about their “success” after school. If saxophone quartets can’t achieve critical mass in the future, then there will be NO OPTION for talented saxophonists who want to perform classical music. A lot needs to be done, and we think it can start with colleges/universities and conservatories.
    I would love to get your thoughts about this.
    Thanks. Rich Kleinfeldt, Washington Saxophone Quartet.

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