2008-10-04

Grey and Black: A Tale of Two Audiences

Diane Haithsman investigates the myth of 'the greying audience' for classic music in America in this weekend's Los Angeles Times. Classic music is thriving. Audiences for classic music have been growing for years. At the same time, she reports, this audience does skew older than the general population. It always has.

"A colleague of mine says the audience isn't graying -- it's always been gray," says Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for American nonprofit theaters.

Marc Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization, grumbles that journalists who pontificate about the graying audience see more gray hair because they've been comped into the most expensive seats, the ones young adults can't afford. "I always encourage photographers and writers to go upstairs and see who's there," Scorca observes.

That said, Scorca is among many who cite two logical reasons for a noticeable lack of young adults in all seats. Quite simply, ticket prices can be steep -- and even if they have the money, young people often don't have the time. People in their 20s, he says, are late-night clubbing or off on ski weekends. The question for them is seldom, "Dude, where's my 'Carmen'?" And people in their 30s may be consumed with toddlers and careers.

More highbrow entertainment doesn't generally get on the agenda "until someone on this trajectory gets to be in their mid-40s, when the kids are old enough to leave on their own and the knees won't take the skiing and they want to be home by 11 o'clock at night," Scorca says.

And, despite all the hand-wringing over youth, performing arts organizations need patrons who have the time and wherewithal to commit to subscription packages instead of the last-minute single-ticket purchases favored by younger audiences. "It's more expensive to sell single tickets," says John Tavenner, director of marketing for Los Angeles Opera, because finding single-ticket buyers often involves display ads or radio or TV promotion instead of mailing or telemarketing to the usual subscription base.

Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, notes that 20 years ago, busy parents were 20 to 40 years old. Now that group is aged 30 to 50 -- suggesting that those who are "too young" to have time for live performance are no spring chickens themselves.

Medak's theater can boast success in attracting the youth audience. She says that for the last several years, 20% of Berkeley Rep's single-ticket buyers have been under 30. Still, she points out that being older can deepen the theater experience. "While pop music and TV is really geared toward a specific generational moment, in theater, the older you get, the more points of entry you have to the material," she says. "You have more life experience, and, frankly, more history of seeing other work that gives you a larger context."

The complete article may be viewed at the Los Angeles Times web site.

Culture is a factor here. As Scorca and others confirm, popular life patterns--characteristic ages at which persons finish their education, get married and raise children--are involved. So are economic issues such as income and the price of tickets.

In Taiwan as elsewhere in Asia the classic music audience is overwhelmingly black-haired. And a high percentage of that audience wears school uniforms. Classic music concerts hold great appeal for children of minor age who are themselves studying piano or violin or voice. They often know someone on stage personally (frequently, their teacher) and enjoy being 'in the know' about everything they see happen during a concert. Obviously, the concerts appeal to their parents as well. Some cultural factors involved? Lack of urban sprawl and the availability of public transportation make it easy for young families to attend a concert and get home by 11. Relatively low ticket prices make concerts an affordable option for families. Arts organizations in Taiwan are generally less dependent than their American counterparts on subscription ticket sales. Widespread availability of music education for elementary age children is, of course, a huge factor. Another ingredient is the high number of professionally performing musicians who are simultaneously active as teachers.

What will the future bring? It will be interesting to see. And hear.

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