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.