Rethinking What Orchestra Music Means to Those Under 40

The world has changed over the past 40 years since Don McLean recorded “American Pie” –the day the music died.

I don't think we need to start any riots to get those under 40 into the concert hall. Nor do I think we need to abandon what we have (and the audience that loves it) just to get a younger audience in attendance. However, I do think there are some things we should think about when approaching the problem --mainly, the ways that the changing cultural landscape has created a very different way of thinking about and interacting with the world as a whole for those under 40.

The last four decades have seen a huge shift in the way we think and interact with each other. People who are less than 40 years old were not yet born when Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon (1969). While they may have been old enough to remember when MTV came out (1981), they weren't yet into their teens. The term 'personal computer' was used as early as 1972, and the first IBM PC was sold to the public in August 1981. In 1975 sales of microwave ovens exceed sales of gas ranges. In 1989 the internet was made public and by 1992 Delphi was the first to offer internet connectivity for a fee. Children born 40 years ago would JUST be turning 20 as the internet was exploding. They couldn't legally drink alcohol in the United States.

In the last ten years alone, we have seen the internet move from a luxury item to standard line item on our phone bill. Record companies have shifted from fighting the war against downloaded music, to digital delivery as their primary source of income. Music lovers who are under the age of 40 have a very different view of life than those over 40.

The reason these differences are important lies in the way they shape how we think. People under 40 don't think about whether the frozen dinner they purchase in the store comes in a microwavable dish. It just does! They don't wonder if they're going to be able to call someone when they leave for holiday. They know they'll have their phone, so of course they can call. And music has ALWAYS had video. They may choose to listen without watching the corresponding video, but having video and music together doesn't seem at all incongruous.

There has been a lot of talk about what we need to do to get younger people into the concert hall. We know they like classical music because classical music downloads are a solid share of the music market. We know they like classical music because their video games and films are filled with classical music, albeit modern compositions --not the standard repertoire we typically hear in the concert hall. Still, the youth of today LIKE classical music. Final Fantasy came out in 1987 with a full orchestral score. Zelda came out in 1989 and its score is making the circuit of orchestras around the world. Diablo III just came out this year and the sound track can be purchased separately. The young are NOT people who avoid classical music.

So why aren't they coming into the concert hall?
A potential reason is the atmosphere isn't conducive to their way of enjoying music. They are comfortable with multimedia during performances. They want to feel a connection with the musicians. They want to be able to express themselves, through cheering and applause during a performance.

However, creating an atmosphere of boisterous music and fans, isn't likely to be the kind of experience those over 40 are much interested in. Current orchestra audiences are accustomed to attending concerts solely for the music. There is a power in the music they resonate with which doesn't need any additional trappings to make a connection.

Audiences haven't always been like they are now. In Stravinsky's time there was a shift from noise as common place in the hall, to reserved and reflective audience engagement with the music. Unless you're over 110 years old, you probably don't remember a time when the audience regularly applauded between movements, or broke out in cheers after a particularly good instrumental solo.

It is unlikely we're going to convince the under 40 crowd to accept the current model of performance. It is just as inappropriate to throw out the current model for something else. We need at least two different styles of performances, each engaging a different type of audience.  Just as churches in the 60's and 70's began to use folk music with guitars to 'woo' a younger audience back to church, orchestras need to re-think the way they perform for a younger audience.  And, just as the churches didn't just throw out the organ for folk music, but rather created one folk service for one ‘audience’ appeal and another 'traditional' service to target their existing ‘audience,’ orchestras need to target the different audiences with different styles of concert experiences.

Different concert styles don’t call for different programming. There are plenty over 40 who like adventurous programming, as there are many under 40 who like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.   The key is to create an atmosphere that is comfortable for the crowd you are trying to attract. If the Wednesday night audience is when most of the 'regulars' come to the concert hall, then keep Wednesday night performance just as it is.  Make Tuesday or Thursday night performance something different.

The difference doesn't have to be multimedia either.  But, if there is a way to include video into the budget, visuals are a large part of the current music landscape for those under 40, particularly in the concert setting.  Casual dress for the orchestra is another option.  I'm not talking about ragged jeans and t-shirts, but nice clothes that aren't the standard white tie we see today.  Having a 'happy hour' where the lobby and bar are open an hour (to two) before the performance works. Get some of the musicians to mingle an hour before the performance!

There are many more ideas out there that would work. We do need to do something.  I believe we need to frame the discussion with an understanding of the world the under 40's inhabit, and an acknowledgement that culture is a changing beast. We must acknowledge that or risk becoming culturally irrelevant. 


Anonymous said…
The difference is partly age and partly personal style. I didn't like rock/jazz/Hootenanny-style audience response (interruptions) in classical concerts even when I was 16 and my friends had "turned hippie." I still don't. I'm 57 now and am as adept with current electronics as most any age, use them in teaching and just about everything I do. My preference for uninterrupted listening live is not from a fuddy-duddy (or stuffy or staid) place. It's a preference.

Since there are irreconcilable differences between the 2 audience styles, I agree there need to be 2 styles of presentation. I suggested titles for them a few days ago and Erica Sipes suggested a rating system like for movies. I think either or similar is a good idea. There are probably countless similar ideas out there since this divide was talked about even in hippie days - and a period drama (I think "Lillie") depicts very similar discussions in early 1920s. Even if the dialogue only reflected then-current perspective, it was filmed in 1978, 34 years ago. I can personally attest to such conversations as early as 1972, 40 years ago.

If we try this today and only one style receives enough audience support, so be it. We won't know until it's actually done for long enough to assess.

- RachDminor
Chip Michael said…
Exactly - IF after a period of trial one style obviously gets a lot more support than another, then the 'audience' has spoken. If it proves that the party approach doesn't gain traction, then we need to look at other options for building an audience.

The question of how to take classical music forward isn't new. Brahms and Wagner differed as to where music was headed, as did Mozart and Haydn. I don't think we will necessarily resolve it either. What I'd like to see is a revival in audience attendance so many of these new gorgeous concert halls we have continue to be filled with amazing music for another 100 years. After that, it's up to my grand-kids to determine what the future holds.

As for being different from an early age, I very much resonate with this. I didn't enjoy the same concert experiences as most of my 'generation' either.
Looks like we are moving the conversation here!

I also have been advocating for different performance presentations for different audiences. There have been a few orchestras that are attempting this. Please do take a look at the New World Symphony and their Pulse Nights. It was a club like atmosphere in the hall, later start time, and the music was presented in DJ fashion. As far as I know, it was packed! The audience was younger. This means that there is some hope. Take a look at the program too - varied across the centuries.

There are other examples out there. I'm glad to see some orchestras trying something new. It does prove that if the experience is more to the liking of the younger demographics, they will attend.

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