The Great New World of Opportunity: Classical Music in the 21st Century

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival/Yale School of Music about the state of classical music in the 21st century with a focus on the opportunities for today’s musicians to create successful careers.  Yes, my friends, we are living in a world full of possibilities and great opportunities for classical musicians! So let’s look at what the nay-sayers are saying and then view our world through the lens of opportunity.

There is a lot of hand wringing and pessimism about the state of the classical music in our culture.  Yes, classical musicians face challenges today, as the culture around us shifts rapidly.  Demographic studies show that the US population is older and more diverse than it was in the 1950’s.  The communications revolution of the 20th century means that there are many more choices for leisure time and that these choices can be accessed from the privacy of one’s one home.  Thus, it takes something special for people to leave their homes and attend a live event, whether that is a classical music concert, a sporting event, a theatrical production or a movie.

All of this means that classical music-once the preeminent musical genre —has a lot more competition. So no wonder there is a sharp decline in the percentage of adults who attend classical music concerts and a rise in the median age of classical music audiences, as demonstrated by research from the N.E.A. and the League of American Orchestras.  Many performing arts organizations find it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets. They are selling fewer tickets and struggling to raise money. And the financial crisis of 2008 has only exacerbated the sustainability of the funding model under which many non-profit arts organizations operated.

That is the half-empty version of the story.  The other side is that the changes in our culture have created new opportunities for today’s savvy classical musicians.  Let’s focus on what is working today that can help today’s musicians advance in their careers.

1.    Social Media

Take the example of the You Tube Symphony concert on March 20, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.  The live concert was streamed over 33 million times by people in 189 countries, making it the most watched classical music event in history.  You Tube was able to attract this audience through a vigorous and strategic use of social media including on-line calls for auditions, on-line audience voting for the musicians and posting videos of featured artists, as well as enlisting the social media networks of the 101 musicians comprising the orchestra. This experience shows there is a huge potential audience for classical music and that social media a highly effective way to reach that audience. 

Moreover, thanks to technology, musicians can now connect directly with their audiences and fans to build support for their concerts, scores and recordings.  The Internet provides multiple ways to engage with audiences:  blogs, posting quality videos and written content and  frequent and meaningful interaction with fans through websites and social media.  And the barriers to entry are low and the costs of doing so are minimal, making it easy for musicians to take advantage of these tools.

The goal is not to get more hits on a website but rather to bring people to live concerts so that they can share the musical experience.  And presenters, managers and record companies now will consider an artist’s on-line presence, the size of the fan base, the number of views on a website and how actively a musician engages with  fans as an indicator of success.

2.    The New Music Scene

It’s lonely out there on the Internet and people are looking for a place to come together and find the type of transformative experience that music can provide. And composers and performers are eager to share their music and engage the audience as well as collaborate with each other.

There is a thriving new music scene, where performers, composers, and ensembles such as So Percussion, Alarm will Sound, The Knights, and Metropolis offer up exciting music to a younger, hipper crowd. They have expanded to venues other than concert halls, such as Le Poisson Rouge in New York.  And while today’s younger audiences may not be as well versed in the classical tradition as their parents or grandparents, they are passionate about music and can be “invited into” the world of great music when musicians know how to speak effectively to them and otherwise engage them. 

3.    The Orchestra World

How are orchestras responding to these changes?

2008 was a wake-up call for performing arts organizations.  Jesse Rosen, President of the League of American Orchestras, boldly went on record in June 2011 at the League’s annual conference to state that orchestras had to change in order to remain vital.  The League is now leading the charge of discovering what the new sustainable model of orchestra programming, governance and philanthropy looks like.

In order to attract new audiences and be more relevant to today’s culture, orchestras are experimenting with adventurous programming and audience outreach.  Orchestras also want to be viewed as important community assets and are exploring ways to expand their reach and overall impact beyond the concert hall. Los Angeles and other cities are nurturing youth orchestras modeled on Venezuela’s El Sistema.  Under the rubric of “community engagement”, other orchestras are forming partnerships with community groups like hospitals, senior centers, military bases and immigrant communities.  They are also reaching out to amateur musicians, engaging audiences more actively and creatively at live concerts, and fostering educational outreach.

4.    The New Recording Paradigm

The recording industry has been upended and with fewer commercial classical music labels and diminishing support for artists, there is less money to be earned from sales of recorded music.  Yet, musicians are now able release recordings of their music without the necessity of a middleman or a recording contract. Moreover, emerging technologies are creating new revenue streams for performers and composers:

•    Musicians can benefit from sales of downloaded tracks or albums from iTunes, CD Baby, eMusic, Amazon, or off an artists’ own website. 
•    There is also a new emerging market in streamed music on-demand, interactive services such as Rhapsody and Pandora, and non-interactive services that include Pandora, all other webcast stations, and Sirius XM airplay.

While these streams are at present not as lucrative as traditional recording contracts, we are only beginning to sense their potential.  And recordings are another great way for musicians to put themselves in front of the public and connect with their audiences to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

5.    Crowdsourcing

Musicians can also take advantage of crowdsourcing technology in order to fundraise directly from one’s fans through vehicles like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and Rocket Hub.  Thesecrowdsourcing sites enables musicians and other creative professionals to fund their projects by asking fans to contribute and by providing incentives for each level of contribution. In 2011, Kickstarter raised nearly $20 million dollars for over 3600 music projects from over 45,000 backers. So crowdsourced funding is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

So what is the field like for classical musicians today? Along with the traditional opportunities, there is a whole world out there that we are only just beginning to tap into.   In this tumultuous time of change, we may not have all the answers.  What we have is the opportunity to create something new.

Next time, I will provide my thoughjts on what musicians can do to create sustainable careers in this exciting time of change.