October 17, 2008

Youth Without Youth

Greg Sandow was back in the age-of-the-audience saddle this week, criticizing a rosy assessment of classical-music health that Leon Botstein recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal. Botstein said that classical music has always played to a largely adult audience, and that hand-wringing over the perceived lack of young people at concerts is a red herring. Sandow replied:
But has the audience always been the same age it is now? (Which in fact means older than middle-aged.) This is a persistent myth. I used to believe it, since music biz veterans repeated it so confidently. Then I started asking for data, and found that there wasn't any. Then I started finding data that exploded the myth.
I won't begrudge Sandow the undeniable joys of contrarian iconoclasm. But his use of terms like "young" and "middle-aged" points up an interesting assumption—that such demographic categories are fixed in their boundaries.

Here's what I mean. I unpacked the audience data Sandow links to (for the 1937 data, I assumed the age distribution was smooth, and averaged the results of the two surveys the report mentions based on their sample sizes), and stuck it in a chart with at-birth life expectancy rates I culled from the CDC. Just for fun, I threw on a couple of right-axis data sets: the average age at first marriage for both males and females, as tabulated by the U.S. Census Bureau. (The Bureau began keeping annual track of those numbers in 1947.) Here's what it all looks like (click to enlarge):


Notice that the linear trendlines for life expectancy and audience age track almost exactly—and that the average first-marriage age has been rising even faster since 1970 or so. (You can find a similar rise in average first-birth age among women over the same period.) Which circles back around to Botstein's point—classical music has historically played to an adult audience, it's just that the passage into adulthood—as indicated by first-marriage age—has been getting later and later, and the length of adulthood—as indicated by life expectancy—has been getting longer and longer.

This intuitively jibes with the NEA's "Audience Participation in the Arts" surveys, which show the median audience age going up for all surveyed forms of performance. In other words, the problem—if it even is a problem—would seem to be more a function of demographic evolution than a lack of cultural wherewithal on the part of classical music specifically. If you look at "young" and "old" not as absolute numbers, but relative places within the average life trajectory, the "aging" of the classical music audience starts to look a lot more equivocal. Think of it this way: if 30 is the new 20, and 60 is the new 40, that audience is right back where it started.

14 comments:

Mark said...

So it seems that we start going to concerts about 30 years before we die. That should give me about another decade.

MICHAEL MONROE said...

This is something I've always suspected about Sandow's assertions. This is the first year that my wife and I have been BSO subscribers, and we're not even in our 30's anymore. It's not as if we never had the interest, but the combination of careers, and cost, and children, etc. have meant we only now felt we had the time and money to schedule those evenings in - and we just have a 7-concert package. After only one concert, we also both feel pretty strongly that we'll continue doing this for a long time.

Of course, it's still a fine idea to build younger audiences and to attract forty-somethings who aren't as naturally predisposed to this kind of music as we are...and it's probably true that the established programming models could use a shake-up, although I'm rooting for a few more years of status quo so I can get my fill of all the big warhorses. That's right. My name in Michael Monroe, I'm in my early 40s, and I'm looking forward to hearing Carmina burana next month.

Bill Blake said...

You're right; there is no problem here. I'm fifty-four, and I started going to the BSO in 1978. My wife and I have subscribed since 1982.
Welcome aboard, Michael. I'm looking forward to the Kirchner, Tchaikovsky, and Schumann tomorrow night.

By the way,how old are you,Matt? Keep up the good work.

Yvonne said...

Yikes mark, I've only got three years left! (Maybe 15 if I specify regular and intensive concert-going, she adds hopefully.)

It does seem as if there are many, at present, in Michael's situation. My big concern is something that he mentions in passing: "building younger audiences". There does seem to be a fairly high correlation between a decent music education (including practical music participation) when young and concert attendance when older, even if there's a gap in between. And music education is in a sad way in many English-speaking countries.

I don't think the increasing numbers of students in conservatories really helps from the audience perspective – everyone knows those kids don't go to concerts(!) and won't necessarily turn into subscribers later on.

Nathan said...

My interpretation of the data is somewhere between yours and Sandow's. If you look around 1960, which is the first time where we have reasonably contemporaneous figures for audience age and life expectancy, it looks like the audience age is around 38, and the life expectancy is about 70, so the audience is, on average, about 54% of the way through their life. (But are the life expectancy figures for people born in that year? That makes the calculation trickier.) Today, with the audience age pushing 50 and the life expectancy at 78, that's about 64% of the life expectancy. And since the median age of first marriage tracks very closely to 1/3 of the life expectancy, the ratio of audience age to first marriage age is also rising.

Put another way, the life expectancy and audience age seem to consistently be about 30 years apart throughout the graph. But with life expectancy going up, that slice takes up a shorter proportion of our lifespan. In 2100, when everyone lives to be 120, the people listening to Stockhausen (I wish!) will be 90 years old on average.

Still not as bad as Sandow puts it -- is anything ever as bad as he puts it? -- but a reasonable cause for concern in the long run.

Matthew said...

Nathan: About the possible extrapolation: since I don't have access to the actual survey data, just the final audience medians, I can't be completely sure about this, but my suspicion is that the rising median age is also a factor of an increased old-geezer cohort in the audience—in other words, there's more people staying in the audience past the age of 70 than thirty years ago because there's more people living past the age of 70. Even if classical organizations are bringing in new, young audience members at the same rate as 30 years ago, because the old audience members are leaving at a slower rate (because of increased life expectancy), the median goes up. (The mean probably goes up even faster.)

I would hazard a guess that audience age (and, probably, life expectancy) will level off somewhat over the next century, although I love the idea of a bunch of 90-year-olds encountering their first Gruppen. (Come to think of it, I might be 90 before I get a chance to see and hear all of Licht.) Note that median age says nothing about the size of the audience—the audience could presumably track younger and younger as it dwindles down to nothing. I tend to pay more attention to aggregate audience numbers for that reason.

Chris Johnson said...

Question: What if those of is in classical music are responsible for the audience that attends our concerts and performances? What if the reason there is a such a heavy concentration of older patrons is because, thanks to a lot of opinions and anecdotal evidence, they are the only ones marketed to?

Matthew said...

Chris: If you ask me, if getting whatever the young demographic happens to be is a priority, cutting ticket prices would do far more than any amount of marketing. But I think one of the points of getting to the bottom of this whole age-of-the-audience thing is determining just how and when people are coming to classical music in the first place. Is marketing to twentysomethings a waste of money? A long-term investment? Is the current marketing fine—just producing delayed results? I mean, this might be just as willfully contrarian itself—but at least based on this snapshot of data, it's a plausible possibility.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I agree that cutting prices would be the quickest step toward attracting a younger audience. I started out in the cheapest seats at the SF Opera and eventually moved down to the more expensive seats as my income rose. Look at the photos of the audience for Doctor Atomic in NYC and you'll see lots of young folks in the orchestra, probably in the rush seats subsidized by a Met board member.

Here's an addition to the discussion. Matthew, you're talking about relative age, Greg is talking about absolute age.

Lastly, I mentioned in comments on his blog that you'd offered an alternative interpretation. I hope he comes by to take a look.

Sator Arepo said...

Lived in Boston for 4 years. I think I went to the BSO 2 times.

One block away from Symphony Hall is Jordan Hall at NEC (New England Conservatory of Music). Multiple free concerts per week. Actually, probably dozens.

(And it's a nicer venue. Just sayin'.)

I wholeheartedly support the arts, and all. Ostracizing the audience is not helping.

silpayamanant said...

Sweet Buddha--glad someone else is noticing (or rather, noticed this)--I'd just made a comment on Lisa Hirsch's facebook page about the so-called "rising median age" issue Greg (is still) bringing up--and Lisa mentioned you had posted something similar. Here's what I said:

Oh, as an aside, the median age of classical music audience is proportionally the same relative to the median age of the US since the Baumol and Bowen Study (1963-1964)--going back to the earlier studies (LA Orchestra 1937; Grand Rapids 1937; Minneapolis Oymphony 1955) isn't particularly helpful since those weren't 1) random samples; 2) were self-reported; 3) were particularly small samples (n= approx 900; 1000; 1900 respectively) relative to the sample size of the later studies Baumol/Bowen, NEA SPPAs, MkKinsey studeis (n= 28,000; 18,000; 25,000 respectively)--and Greg should know better than to take the arithmetic mean of the median age of the two 1937 referenced studies (33 and 27) and refer to that as 'median age' (30) of that study as a whole--just doesn't work that way. Of course the median age of audiences has risen faster than the population--otherwise the latter wouldn't be consistently within a range of 74-76% of the former for all five time points (1963-64, 1982, 1992, 2002, 2008)--the average life-expectancy has maintained a consistent proportion to the median age since 1900 too (range between 46-49%) and that had to rise far faster relative to the median age of the population to remain so. I think the doom and gloom folks make far too much of the median age issue--the actual decline of audience issue is a bit trickier, but I think given how mass media has developed--and how entertainment industries have capitalized on them (or not as the case may be) has far more to do with the decline of population cohorts than anything else.

fireandair said...

I've suspected for some time that a college professor's assertion that teens and twentysomethings are the only people that matter really stems from the fact that, in their own daily lives, those are the vast majority of the people they interact with, and it's very easy to imagine that the world consists of edgy, hip kids with blue hair and ipods, and greybeards who rate themselves exclusively in a parental capacity toward them.

The gloss wore off of the chicken-little proclamations for me partly due to the pervasive, quite insulting classism inherent there, but the ageism is another big turnoff. Not only is it insulting, it's also incorrect.

fireandair said...

Another minor comment ... I've often thought that if older folks start to enjoy classical music that it doesn't speak to any cultural timidity on their part, but could reflect a cultural adventurousness. When you've been on this Earth for six decades, a lot of pop music starts to sound the same. I'm only 46, and I haven't listened to popular music in ages, not because I'm no longer hip, but because I see that that music is anything but. Anything that any techno/emo/alternative rock/pop band sings about anymore is something I've heard a MILLION TIMES and am sick of.

I've found that digging up the Cantigas de Santa Maria has given me a far bigger boost of interesting stuff I haven't encountered before than listening to freaking Katy Perry singing about guys, dating, sex, and the same old garbage that people have been singing pop songs about for six decades. I already got my fill of pop in the 80s, when I was a kid. Listening to more of it now instead of Brahms really WOULD make me an unevolving stick in the mud.

I'm digging into the past for the same reason many people do: I want newness, and the very old is often the newest and most unfamiliar thing you can find.

The old are often stigmatized as stodgy, timid, and conservative, but there are few creatures more afraid of stepping outside of accepted behavior patterns, more fearful of being seen publicly to like the wrong thing, than a teenager.

Old people are the ones who are looking for something different, something they haven't seen before a thousand times. They have time, more freedom since they don't have kids anymore, and more disposable income. And if someone else gives them the side-eye for liking the wrong thing, they don't care.

fireandair said...

Sorry to wake a sleeping post. :-) Jon Silpayamanant linked to it on his FB, and I didn't realize it was four years old. :-)

Still a REALLY cool post, though.