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Classical Music

Why Classical Music Is Imperiled—Sort of

Sarah Joy Miller and other cast members during the curtain call after a final performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Anna Nicole" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York on Sept. 28

Photograph by Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times

Sarah Joy Miller and other cast members during the curtain call after a final performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Anna Nicole" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York on Sept. 28

October looks to be a harsh month for classical music lovers. Minnesota Orchestra’s management locked out its musicians a year ago and the musicians rejected management’s latest offer this past weekend: a three-year contract with an annual average salary of $104,500, nearly 23 percent less than the expired contract—a deal sweetened with a one-time signing bonus of $20,000 that’s funded by wealthy benefactors. (As this column is being written, management and labor are meeting to resolve the bitter dispute.) The New York City Opera probably sang its last performance on Sept. 28, unless a sugar daddy with deep pockets shows up unexpectedly.

The Minnesota Orchestra and New York City Opera are simply the latest victims in a long-running classical music recession. The long list of recent orchestral crises includes the San Francisco strike of 2013, the Philadelphia Orchestra bankruptcy filing of 2011 (it emerged from bankruptcy in the final days of summer 2013), and the Detroit Symphony players’ strike of 2010.

The Great Recession exacerbated the already troubled finances of many symphony orchestras, opera houses, chamber groups and other institutions dedicated to playing the classical repertoire with highly-skilled, well-compensated musicians. Attendance is down, with 8.8 percent of adults going to at least one classic music event in 2012, compared to 11.6 percent in 2002, according to the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts. The classical music business seems locked in a state of terminal illness, staggering from crisis to crisis—especially symphony orchestras, the crown jewel of classical music’s ecology.

By other measures, the classical canon seems healthy, if not downright vibrant. The NEA survey notes that 18 percent of adults listened to classical music on TV, radio, and the Internet—more than heard Latin music, Spanish music, Salsa music, or jazz.

While writing this column, I listened to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos playing in the background—the version by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, conducted by Neville Marriner—one of more than 180 such albums available for download on iTunes (AAPL). (A “Brandenburg Concerto” search in the music section of (AMZN) came up with 1,510 possibilities.) Classical music lovers can get their Chopin, Sibelius, and Beethoven on public radio in most markets. Fact is, if the Minnesota Orchestra never plays another note, there will be no shortage of competitive offerings locally. I could cross the Mississippi to listen to the nearby St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (recently back from its own strike), attend any number of concerts in Minneapolis by visiting musicians, or download favorite recordings.

Classical music shares a problem afflicting all entertainment these days: fierce competition for eyes, seats, and dollars. The video-game industry has evolved in recent decades into a multibillion dollar industry far removed from its early Pac-Man days. On Sunday, Americans could choose to spend their evening at a concert, a book reading, a lecture, or watching the much-anticipated final episode of Breaking Bad (let alone Sunday Night Football.) By this light, the take-away is how healthy an historic art form is in the 21st century.

Classical music isn’t in trouble because it’s a dying industry destined to join the buggy-whip in the dustbin of history. No, the state of classical music is troubled because it’s a creative industry caught in the upheaval of an emerging digital economy. The traditional classical music business model, less than half a century old, is a failing economy, even as new, more entrepreneurial experimentation is underway. Classical music is being pushed into an uncertain future by the digital maelstrom sweeping popular music, journalism, book publishing and, increasingly, the lecture halls of colleges and universities. In many respects, the consumption of popular music, media, books, and classical music has never been more widespread and democratic, even while profits elude organizations and wages remain under pressure for skilled professionals.

The classical music business model isn’t working. The dominant model of labor relations in urban symphony orchestras is workers covered by collective bargaining agreements. The signal moment came in 1965, when the Ford Foundation began a significant match grant program for improving the financial lives of professional musicians. The business was growing, management wanted the money, and the effect of the initiative was to turn musician wages and benefits from a variable cost into a fixed one, notes Robert Flanagan, economist at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

Adding to future financial uncertainty is decreased support from government and signs that wealthy private philanthropists are less willing to prop up a failing business model. Still, as in other creative industries, heartening signs lie with the rise of the entrepreneurial musician. Famed soprano Dawn Upshaw is recording popular American songs. Pianist Christopher O’Riley plays classical music concerts and packs venues with solo arrangements of Radiohead songs. Kimball Gallagher, a self-described world-traveling pianist and entrepreneur, is performing in private homes and such concert halls as the Kennedy Center. The legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma adroitly works in a number of musical genres. The musician David Cutler captures the entrepreneurial ethos of music experimentation when he describes himself as balancing “a varied career as a jazz and classical composer, pianist, educator, arranger, conductor, collaborator, concert producer, author, blogger, consultant and speaker.” Artists are not only embracing digital music stores, streaming services, and webcasting stations to reach wider audiences, they’re using all social media tools to connect directly with fans.

Artists such as classical musicians, writers, documentary producers, painters, and dancers are at the forefront of a major shift in the economy. Plenty of creativity and skill flourishes from multimedia hot spots from Austin, Tex., to New York. To encourage a more entrepreneurial business model in many sectors of the economy—including classical music—will require a practical system of universal health care and retirement benefits. Neither is likely to happen soon in a shutdown Washington. But it’s inevitable as the digital economy emerges.

Farrell is contributing economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. You can also hear him on American Public Media's nationally syndicated finance program, Marketplace Money, as well as on public radio's business program Marketplace.

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