Changing the Record – Part I

This, the first of an epic two-part blog post, is a piece I’ve wanted to write for quite some time.  It’s taken a little while to get all my thoughts in order, but it goes to the very heart of what I – and the rest of us at Lelio – think is wrong with the classical music industry today.  More importantly, it offers a few suggestions on how I (and we) think the situation can be improved.

But first, a caveat.  Reliable facts and figures in support of some of the arguments I make below are hard to come by.  I’ve done my best, but it’s entirely possible that someone reading this may have compelling evidence that contradicts (or confirms!) some of my assumptions.  If that’s the case, please let me know.  At the very least, I think we can all agree that this is a debate worth having.


Image used under Creative Commons license.  Author: cubmondo (

A ‘youth’, allegedly

George Bernard Shaw once famously quipped that ‘youth is wasted on the young’.  Well, you know what else is wasted on the young?  Classical music, that’s what.

Now, I know that’s a provocative statement, and that’s because like all provocative statements it’s not especially true.  But (with a few enormous caveats) I believe it contains an important kernel of truth for the classical music industry.

It is no secret that in recent years classical music organisations – by which I mean any organisation whose job it is to promote and ultimately sell some form of classical music – have got very hung up on the question of how to engage young people.  Scarcely a week goes by these days without a classical marketing department coming up with a new and invigorating way to engage this audience on its ‘own terms’.

Hipster classical club nights are the latest fashion: turn up at an unlikely location in East London, grab a beer, and stand around listening to sexy young performers playing cuts from their latest album of stone cold killer classics (by Mozart, obviously).  Meanwhile, Classic FM elevates film and video game soundtracks to its Hall of Fame, whilst giving ever shorter shrift to Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.  BBC Four invites Famous Young Singing Person Connie Fisher to opine about contestants’ dress sense and how ‘amazing’ everyone sounds on BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.  And record labels continue to spend huge swathes of their limited marketing budgets flogging the latest pretty young thing to a crossover audience who will buy absolutely anything if you smear enough Vaseline on the lens and call it ‘classical’.

All of this is done with the very laudable intention of making classical music ‘more accessible’ to a younger audience.  There is, however, a saying about good intentions – and unfortunately I think it is well and truly borne out in this instance.

The hard truth is that none of these initiatives to attract younger audiences is working. Indeed, in the last fifteen years, classical audiences have been getting markedly older.  It’s hard to find data for the UK to back this up (I would welcome any, either way), but in the US the National Endowment for the Arts runs a quadrennial Survey for the Public Participation of the Arts which measures precisely this sort of thing.  Looking back over the survey results, we can see that back in the late 1990s people over the age of 55 comprised 28% of the total US classical audience.  They now account for more like 38%.  During the same period, meanwhile, under-35s have dropped from 28% to less than 23%.

Those are troubling statistics to be sure.  The problem is, some classical organisations will look at those figures and decide that the appropriate response is to redouble their efforts to capture that elusive youth market.  They shouldn’t, and here’s why.

The classical music industry, despite a few encouraging signs to the contrary, remains by and large in fairly poor health.  Recorded classical music in the early 1990s was a $1.7bn business globally.  It is now less than a third of that.  Perhaps even more concerning is that 70% of current recording revenues are generated by catalogue sales rather than by new releases.  That means that seven out of 10 classical purchasers prefer the products of the past to the products of today.

That says something, doesn’t it?  It’s not as though we are living in an era bereft of great singers, conductors, pianists, violinists, orchestras or chamber musicians.  Standards have never been higher, and conservatoires and competitions are constantly churning out exciting new talent.  So why is this not translating into higher front line sales for the record companies shrewd enough to have signed these artists?

Well, consider this.  The average crossover album costs about 50% of its total turnover to market.  The marketing spend for a specialist classical album is more like 2% of turnover.  Yet a specialist classical customer is 6.5 times more likely to buy a classical album than a crossover fan.  In other words, record labels are spending all their time, energy and marketing budget trying to attract the customers least likely to buy their products, whilst neglecting those who account for 93% (!) of their business.

This seems to be a trend throughout the wider classical industry: classical organisations are spending more and more of their energy trying, and failing, to capture new audiences, all too frequently at the expense of their existing ones.  At a time when the classical industry is in trouble, this trend needs to be urgently reversed.

Surely, though, there can’t be any harm in trying to broaden the audience for classical music.  Can there?

Sadly, there can.  I believe that today’s youth-oriented marketing is not merely alienating to the core classical audience – I think it is downright destructive.  By insisting on an ‘alternative vision’ of classical music – one that is free from ‘elitism’, ‘stuffiness’ and ‘tradition’ – classical organisations are by implication painting their existing audience as. . . well, as stuffy, traditional elitists.

Not only that, but by attempting to redefine what classical music can be – by embracing crossover, soundtracks and even out-and-out pop music under the all-encompassing ‘classical’ banner – they are manufacturing a disagreement with their customers about what their product even is.  As a result, customers are left feeling defensive, patronised and/or abandoned by the very organisations they have so loyally supported over the years.

Now, a piece of market research I was involved in conducting a couple of years ago produced the not-terribly-surprising revelation that classical audiences tended to be aged 55 and over, university-educated, and affluent or very affluent.  Most significantly, they were already really passionate about classical music: they didn’t need to be convinced of its merits, nor have it redesigned for them to better fit in with their lifestyle.

The specialist classical audience is older, wealthier and more engaged than the average music fan – and they want to be treated that way.  They don’t want to be treated like second-class citizens.  Indeed, they may well feel a certain sniff of pride at their ability to appreciate classical music, just as those who appreciate fine dining, fine wine, fine art or fine literature might.  In other words, they want to be treated with respect, and they want to see ‘their music’ treated with respect too.

Whatever your product is, whether it be consumer electronics, a breakfast cereal, high art or classical music, there is no better way of marketing that product than to turn your customers into evangelists for it.  Classical audiences are naturally evangelical about the music they love, but right now they need to feel a sense of pride again.  If they are going to stand up and proclaim their love for classical music, then they need to feel the unbending support of the organisations tasked with promoting it.  That means those organisations need to start sticking up for what classical music really is, and stop trying to reinvent it for an audience who simply does not care.  Stop dumbing down.  Stop crossing over.  Just produce boring, old-fashioned, high-quality classical music for the people who love it, and who will love telling people about it.

That’s how classical music will grow again.  It might not be as cool or as sexy a strategy as a DJ set in Shoreditch is, but ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’ have never really been what classical is about.  So classical organisations: go forth and reclaim your core audience.  Make them happy.  Encourage them to spend more money on your product.  Remind them, constantly, that you’re on their side and on the side of great music.

Then, and only then, can you start thinking about the next generation.

(To be continued. . . )

6 thoughts on “Changing the Record – Part I

  1. Gab Thomas

    Hi Tris,

    A quick point on the statistics – the US has an aging population.
    I had a look at the Census data from 2000 vs. 2010, and if you adjust for the changes in the percentages of the whole population who are over 55 or under 35, the change is more like 28% to 32% (not 38%) for the older group and 28% to 24% (pretty close to 23%) for the younger group, in terms of what the split of engaged classical fans would be if the population proportions had stayed steady. What happened in the middle group, btw, and what are the numbers like? Did the number of fans over 55 increase or decrease, independent of the percentage of fans they represent?

    A separate thought about new vs old products – how many of the ‘new’ products we’re talking about here are new works, and how many are new recordings of old works? Because it seems reasonable to expect competition from existing recordings of the same works, which already have a strong reputation. Perhaps new recordings aren’t failing, but rather people don’t feel the need to have multiple recordings of multiple works, and some works may have got to a saturation point over the period that recorded music has become so accessible and increased in quality. Live performances would get away from this effect better, but on the other hand you now have things like being able to watch Met operas at the cinema around the world, or concerts on video, so while it’s not the same thing it is closer competition for live performances than existed before. I’d also be interested in a comparison of people in different age groups paying for music of different genres. Is there a more general change in the market? Are young people less interested in the music or are they participating in a different way (or both)? Are they pirating instead of buying albums? Is this more or less of an effect in the classical realm?

    In terms of the economics of it all, IF younger people really aren’t interested in approaches that work on older audiences (and that’s an if worth debating), then isn’t it a pretty short-term strategy to put all the money in the oldies’ basket, assuming that the lifespan of interest is dependent on the finite lifespan of those older people, and taking advantage of it while it lasts, instead of trying to engage a younger audience, to keep the industry sustainable and the overall number of engaged fans higher in the longer-term. (Apologies for bringing up the sad reality of the baby boomers’ mortality!)

    One final point – there seems like a big difference to me between marketing the pop crap alongside more highbrow classical, and presenting the highbrow material in new, less formal settings. Why lump them together? Couldn’t some of the new approaches be more effective, and less ‘diluting’ than others? Is it wrong for cafes to play classical recordings? If not, then why is it wrong to have live or recorded classical in pubs or bars, if the audience is into it? Not all music would work in a louder pub atmosphere, but what about comparing it to jazz clubs – there are plenty of jazz clubs with a cool atmosphere where people sit quietly and really listen to the music (and get shooshed if they don’t). Is there anything invalid about playing classical in such a setting?

    Love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Pingback: The unsexy middle… | Beethoven? Previn?

  3. Tristan Jakob-Hoff Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Gab!

    You are of course right about the ageing US population. But the way I read the statistics is that even though the wider US population is ageing, the concert-going population is ageing faster. To answer your question, 35-54s have dropped from 44% to 39% between 1997 and 2008.

    The classical recording industry has always thrived on new recordings of old works, and by and large the ‘standard repertory’ hasn’t changed much in the last 60 years. The consumption pattern tends to shift from acquiring new works to acquiring new recordings of old works after a certain amount of time. There has tended to be a bump in sales when a new format – i.e. CD – comes out, but that hasn’t happened with downloads due to lower quality, nor with SACD due to its failure as a format.

    Redirecting your marketing spend towards an older audience doesn’t mean simply waiting for today’s older audience to die. There is a lot of evidence that suggests people often only come to classical music later in life anyway (the time it takes to get to know the repertory is a big inhibiting factor for younger, time-poor audiences). There is a renewable supply of people over the age of 55, and that group has always been the group most likely to spend money on classical music.

    At any rate, I don’t want to suggest that classical organisations should never target younger audiences. Indeed, I’m going to address that topic in Part II. But people in their 20s have already developed their opinions about music, and you will spend a lot trying to reach a very small number of them at a time when budgets are incredibly stretched. My suggestion is that when times are tough we should be nurturing the existing audience into spending more, rather than chasing after an audience which is less engaged, less affluent and harder to reach.

  4. Gab Thomas

    Thanks! And I know I was being cheeky about the aging audience, but if the interest among younger people is dwindling, then I would have thought that would eventually lead to fewer people becoming fans as they get older, even if that is the general pattern, especially if the middle group is dropping too. Does it just come with age or is there a generational difference?

    It makes sense that people start with new works, then new recordings, so that it’s the ‘experienced’ fans who need to be relied on to buy the new material. Fresh young fans will need to work through the canon for a while and older recordings will be a cheaper way for them to do it, so perhaps more likely for broke students as opposed these affluent oldies, although I’m sure the young ones do buy new things too…

  5. Simon HJ

    Hi Tristan, do you know of any data proving whether accessibility does or doesn’t lead to connoisseurship?
    (or both? or neither?)
    This would seem to me to be a very good way of tackling this issue!

    As you know, I agree with your basic arguments. But by way of comment, I’d like to add that some parts of the core classical audience are indeed stuffy elitists in the negative sense of those words. I’m all for elitism and connoisseurship, but I’d want a full understanding of how and why that elitism exists and what its motivations are, before de-emphasising the need for evolution of how classical music is presented. Why? Because from that presentational evolution arises further development of the genre itself (though whether or not people agree with that goes back to the definition of ‘Classical’ – quite a minefield!). I don’t think you’re arguing against this (I’m assuming you’ll make that point in part 2 of your post), however it’s important to make the distinction i think. These are two complimentary approaches that expand the market from different directions; it’s not just a question of choosing one or the other.

    Otherwise there is a risk of falling into the same trap of the 80s-90s – we who love classical music become so inward-looking that the external perception of classical music becomes very detached from mainstream music consumption. Non-aficionados see it as a ‘closed shop’ and become afraid of it. Fearful record execs waste millions on crossover rubbish trying to get them back. That, in the long term, is good for no-one. So some kind of balance between the two approaches is needed IMHO.


  6. Barry

    I’ve suspected for many years that the wrong type of marketing may be worse than doing nothing, particularly if young people feel they are being patronised. However, without any evidence, I do have an impression that classical music has a lower TV profile than it did, say, 30/40 years ago, with the result that it is seen as weird, remote, inaccessible and “not for us”.

    There are occasional documentaries, certainly, but to me many of them seem almost desperate in their need to appeal. Large televised public events are more likely to feature crossover artists than regular classical performers, and news and current affairs programmes are only interested in gimmick and novelty. There is no sense that the music is intrinsically important. Lazy movie stereotypes of frumpy, grey haired musicians and overdressed opera audiences falling asleep mid performance don’t help, either. The toe-curlingly awful audience in the James bond ‘Quantum of Solace’ Tosca scene undermined a very good showcase for Puccini’s music. The non-opera going public is probably more influenced by these stereotyped depictions than any Howard Goodall documentary.

    Classic FM, not all bad my any means, tends to promote the idea of classical music as a substitute for valium. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘relaxing’ will not compete with the latest rock release, whose appeal to younger people relies on risk and excitement, and the damage done by sugar coated ‘operatic’ crossover performances is far worse, in my opinion, than the intrusion of video game music. This at least has the virtue of employing orchestras and demonstrating the variety of colour that those silly old brass and wooden instruments can produce.

    The audience for classical music will always be older, and we shouldn’t panic about it. However, I do feel that more can be done to raise the profile of the real thing, squeezing out the crossover disease, sowing seeds of interest through everyday TV coverage, and getting rid of the otherworldly image that classical music suffers from.

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