Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I was just reading an article in Slate with the title “Classical Music in America is Dead”. The argument boils down to two points:

  1. Classical music listeners are a small portion of the population.
  2. Relatively few young people in the audience.

With regard to (1), I thought it interesting that he writes

Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

What’s interesting is that, while jazz is certainly a minority taste, and its trajectory in American culture has closely paralleled that of classical music in the 20th century, I don’t think anyone would claim that jazz is dead.

He quotes the critic Richard Sandow, who makes a demographic argument that

And the aging audience is also a shrinking one. The NEA, ever since 1982, has reported a smaller and smaller percentage of American adults going to classical music performances. And, as time goes on, those who do go are increasingly concentrated in the older age groups (so that by now, the only group going as often as it did in the past are those over 65).

Which means that the audience is most definitely shrinking. Younger people aren’t coming into it. In the 1980s, the NEA reported, the percentage of people under 30 in the classical music audience fell in half. And older people also aren’t coming into the classical audience. If they were, we’d see a steady percentage of people in their 40s and 50s going to classical events, but we don’t. That percentage is falling.

Of course, this is vastly overstated. “Younger people” are “coming into it”… in smaller numbers than before. It’s an absurd fallacy (not uncommon, and addressed first (to my knowledge) in theoretical ageing research by Yashin et al. in the 1980s) that you can determine the longitudinal dynamics for individuals by looking at the cross-sectional age distribution.

Consider a model where individuals are recruited into classical music at a constant rate over their lifetimes, ending with 10% of the 80-year-olds. (We’ll leave the older population out of it.) Then about 11% of the adult audience would be under 30. Suppose there were now a change, just so that children under 15 were no longer being recruited into classical music, but after that age they continued to be enter at the same rate as before. Then the fraction of the adult audience under 30 would be halved, to about 5.5%. The number of people in their 40s and 50s going to concerts would decline by about 15%.

I’m not arguing that this is what is going on. A lot of the story is probably the general splintering of the music audience, and the fact that people increasingly prefer to stay home for their entertainment. (This is one reason why I have argued that the classical music establishment’s reliance on enormously expensive orchestras and opera companies is a mistake.) Just that you can’t make inferences about individual trajectories over time without data about individual trajectories.

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