Classical Music Set To Boom!

Classical Music Set To Boom!

I read a bombshell at the very end of a recent little LA Times human-interest story about local “hero” Jim Eninger.
(LA Times Article on Jim Eninger)

Jim is a retired engineer whose hobby is to compile and publish a comprehensive weekly email calendar of all the chamber music concerts happening in Southern California. (To subscribe to Jim’s list—it’s worth it—simply email him: )

Near the end of this article by Chris Pasles, Jim makes this “tsunami” proclamation about the future of classical music that goes by without any comment:

In spite of what you hear, classical music is really entering a golden era," he says. "It has to do with the aging of the baby boom generation. The cultural history of the second half of the 20th century is almost defined by what the person of the average age of the baby boom generation likes to do. We saw a real resurgence in the interest in tennis, and then that waned. The next thing you're going to see is that classical music is going to be very strong. Audiences are really going to swell over the next 15 years. As an engineer, I have a very good mathematical background. I can guarantee that will happen.

Have you read anything like this anywhere else? What about the ostinato of stories detailing the plight of classical music—its imminent demise, the lack of young people attending concerts, its lack of culture relevance, etc.? Music organizations bend over backwards now to be hip. We read that we love a dying art. I’ve dedicated a big part of my life responding to this narrative, establishing and conducting the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra to build in students a passion to play, hear, and support classical music.

Doom-and-gloom articles persist. I worry. This fall, for instance, I’ve noticed concert attendance drop significantly. But here is Jim Eninger, in a calm matter-of-fact tone with utter conviction, saying we’ve got it totally wrong. We’re not seeing the big picture of demographics. Classical music is already in the midst of a boom and it’s just going to get stronger: As an engineer, I have a very good mathematical background. I can guarantee that will happen.

When I wrote to Jim, he was thrilled I had noticed this part of the article and he responded—well, what would you expect from an engineer?—by sending me a graph. Actually it was a link to a revealing animated demographic map by Bill McBride. It jumps in increments of 5 years to show the population distribution by age in the U.S. from 1900 to 2060.  

Bill BcBride's Animated U.S. Demographic Map

Graph for Year 2015:

Graph for Year 2015:

As the animation unfolds, you see the swell of the population wave move in 1900 from children under 9 to teenagers in 1930. Then after W.W. II in 1950, it swells back to children, then begins a steady ascent—up to teenagers in 1970, young adults in 1980, 30 year olds in 1990, 40 year olds in 2005, and 50 and 60 year olds in our time today.

Jim wrote to me:
Let’s say the average gray-haired classical-music concert goer is 55 to 60 (what’s your estimate?). Mark “55 to” on the chart with your cursor and watch. Note that between 1995 and 2015 the percentage of the population in this age group jumps from just over 4% to almost 7%. Other things unchanged, this has to be reflected in the classical music audience size.

Jim is saying that the age group most represented at classical concerts is nearly doubling in size. We’re just starting to feel its effect now, but it will continue to grow for quite a while. He cites that as the reason for the explosion of classical concerts in Los Angeles.

I’ve written before that LA is in the midst of the most exciting classical music scene in its history since the golden era of the 1930s and 1940s when so many of the great European composers came here in exile—Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Toch, Castelnovo-Tedesco, etc. Today we have two of the world’s finest orchestras, a world-class opera company, an explosion of chamber music ensembles and concerts, and small but burgeoning ballet companies. Even more important in my opinion, we have an excellent growing, vital contemporary music scene that finally captures attention.  It includes the Jacaranda Series, Piano Spheres, Green Umbrella, Redcat, Hear Now, The Industry, and literally dozens of other groups.

Jim’s conclusion is energizing and will probably be multiplied by other factors. For instance, it’s no secret that our large LA Asian population is drawn to classical music (Why Piano Mania Grips China’s Children ). Increasingly, musicians from the East Coast and Europe come to Los Angeles to live their dreams.

Maybe we in the classical music community should let go of our paranoia to attract younger audiences by turning concerts into pop spectacles. Audience engagement is critical, but that doesn’t mean creating an environment for people to talk, phone, and tweet during a Shostakovich symphony. It doesn’t mean slapping unessential visuals to traditional music to keep audiences from being bored. It shouldn’t mean converting a symphony orchestra into a back-up band for pop musicians or DJs. It took hundreds of years to develop the idea of sitting quietly in a beautiful acoustic environment and listening to a complex, abstract musical narrative unfold. This is what we want to continue.

The impulse to transform classical concerts into pop events is misguided and clumsy. Instead of lamenting our aging audiences, let’s celebrate them. According to Jim Eninger, we just need to let people naturally get older, wiser, and come to us!