View From The East: Critics and the Crisis

View From The East: Critics and the Crisis

Greg Sandow

Classical music may be in trouble. Details below. But if this is true, what should music critics do about it? This month seemed like a good time to ask this question, because it’s the month when the Music Critics Association of North America holds its annual meeting (in San Francisco this year, from June 18 to 21). In my view, they should be asking the question themselves, and in fact might scrap all their other business, because if something isn’t done, they—or rather we (since I’m a critic, too)—might all be out of jobs. To say nothing of the harm to music itself.

So why is classical music in trouble? I used to think things weren’t so bad; I used to think classical music needed to change, but that it wasn’t in any immediate danger, even if change didn’t come quickly. Now I’m not so sure. Over the past decade or so, classical music—or, more precisely, the position of classical music in current American culture—has sagged in three notable ways:

  • The classical record business has all but collapsed.
    Or at least the major labels have. One of them (BMG) is all but gone. Sony and EMI don’t do very well. The three Universal labels—Decca, Philips, Deutsche Grammophon—remain reasonably strong, but they’re owned by Vivendi, a failed, unstable conglomerate, which might sell them at any time, maybe to a new owner who won’t be happy unless they make more money, which they could only do by concentrating more on crossover CDs. (See my piece on Vivendi, which appeared last August in The Wall Street Journal.) But then none of these companies could survive without crossover, not even Universal, even though Sony gets thought of as the crossover king. But in fact it’s Universal that rules crossover, by miles, selling millions of AndrÈ Rieu and Andrea Bocelli discs (while Sony gets the bad reputation, largely because its president, Peter Gelb, has talked more honestly in public than any other label head). A few independent classical record companies still can be frisky, but some are hedging their bets, by moving into pop and world music. Even Nonesuch, for years one of the classiest classical labels, has moved away from classical music, recasting itself in the last decade as a more general (and, in purely musical terms, more interesting) art music label—with a notion of “art music” that now includes Emmylou Harris and Buena Vista Social Club.
  • Classical radio is shrinking, and there aren’t many classical shows on public TV.
    We’ve read lots of complaints about this, which got loudest in New York after WNYC-FM, our public radio station, cut back on classical music last year. Often lost in the outrage, though, are some hard, sad facts: Public radio listeners don’t want classical music. WNYC’s statistics were devastating: When “Morning Edition” ended each day, and classical broadcasts began, 80% of everyone listening tuned out. Of course there’s a hardcore loyal minority, but here’s the biggest blow. This tiny group, vocal as it was, didn’t donate money in proportion to its numbers. That’s right—the 20% or so of listeners who tuned in to classical music programs gave less than 20% of the listener donations the station depends on. And these numbers were typical of public radio stations all over the country. Why should public radio broadcast classical music when most people don’t listen to it, and when those who do listen don’t support the stations? (See my piece on WNYC, again from The Wall Street Journal. And, even more important, see “Public Radio’s Private Guru,” by Samuel G. Freedman, from The New York Times, November 11, 2001.) As for public TV, a recent article in Opera News said, very simply, that PBS doesn’t show opera much any more because people didn’t watch it. Or, as John Goberman, the executive producer of Live from Lincoln Center, was quoted as saying: “There have been some broadcasts over the years where we’d have been better served to have made videocassettes and just sent them to the people who actually wound up watching.” (See “Blackout,” by Barry Singer, Opera News, February 2003.) (And let’s not cry that public broadcasting ought to be noncommercial. No one disputes that. But what kind of noncommercial programs can they afford to broadcast? The number of classical listeners, or classical TV-watchers, may now be so low that many stations can’t survive with programming aimed for them.)

  • There’s much less classical media coverage than there used to be.
    I don’t know any formal studies of this, but I made one myself, informally, in the Time magazine library, early in the ’90s. I went through every issue of Time from 1980 to 1990, counting the pieces on music. In 1980, they were mostly about classical music. In 1990, they were mostly about pop. In the mid-’90s, I wrote a piece for Opera News (never published), for which I interviewed the publicists of opera companies around the country. All said it was harder to place stories than it used to be. One reason, ironically, was the success of all the arts—there are more theatre companies, dance companies, and museums than there used to be, all competing for space in the same part of the newspaper. But it’s also true that popular culture gets a lot of space, and that a new generation of editors just doesn’t have as much use for classical music as the old one did. Nor does a new generation of readers, whose views the editors reflect. In the ’80s, you could read about classical music in Saturday Review, High Fidelity, Stereo Review, and even Vanity Fair (plus, I’m sure, other magazines, which I can’t bring to mind right now). Where can you read about it now?

So these are some big, ominous, overt signs of classical-music trouble. What hasn’t been hurt up to now, or at least not much, are live performances. Orchestras and opera companies still have their audience. It’s true that arts centers now don’t book as many touring classical music acts as they used to, because there’s too large an audience for other kinds of music. And it’s true that some orchestras (though not all) have seen weakness in ticket sales during the past two years, and that all orchestras have to work harder to sell tickets than they used to. They can’t depend on subscription sales, and have to hustle, instead, to sell single tickets. But you can’t point to any great, long-term, and apparently irreversible decline in the live classical audience.

Still, orchestras face huge economic problems, as we’ve been hearing. I used to think that this wasn’t true, that all nonprofit groups were suffering from the bad economy, and that of course some orchestras would be in trouble, simply because in any business we’ll find companies that don’t function well. And it’s true that much of the writing I’ve seen on this subject doesn’t make a crucial distinction—which orchestras are in trouble because they’re badly run and which are trouble because of problems afflicting the orchestra world as a whole? (And, for that matter, what percentage of orchestras are badly run? Is it higher than the percentage of badly run museums or badly run businesses?)

Now, though, I think there may really be a problem—I’m hearing rumbles of major structural deficits, afflicting even the most successful orchestras. Is there an ongoing gap between income and expenses, hidden by the ’90s economic boom, but now getting painfully visible?

And can we assume, for that matter, that the classical live-performance audience won’t start to decline? Why shouldn’t the problems with classical recording, classical radio, and classical media coverage not spread into live performances? All the other problems come about, in the end, because fewer people care about classical music. And if that’s true, why, in the future, won’t fewer people buy tickets to concerts?


So if all this is true—if classical music really might be in trouble—what should critics do about it?

The answer, I think, is pretty simple. They—we—have to go on the offensive. We have to get people interested in classical music; we should, in fact, make that our first priority.

But how do we do that? Well, we can’t be scholars. We can’t only write about things that hard-core classical music fans care about. We can’t simply say (for instance) that somebody played Brahms, and that her tempi were a bit too fast, and her articulation of the inner structure too lax. Or, to put it differently, we can’t afford to take the view of a pop critic I worked with late in the ’80s at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner who’d say he wrote only for the fans of whatever band he reviewed. For him, that was possible; the bands he reviewed really did have fans. For us, it’s not possible, or at least not helpful, because our “bands” (so to speak)—our orchestras, our opera companies, our new music groups—need more attention. (Well, some pop groups do, too, maybe most of them, if you leave out the few with chart-topping hits, but the bands likely to be reviewed—and, of course, pop music as a whole—are doing fine.)

So when we write about Brahms (or Ingram Marshall), we have to ask who we’re writing for. And the answer, if you ask me, is that we’re not writing just for the hardcore. We’re writing for anyone who might be interested, which from one point of view means millions of people—fully one-fourth of the population, according to one study I’ve seen—who like classical music, but mostly don’t buy concert tickets (or, presumably, many classical CDs). Or maybe we’re writing for people a little more sharply defined than that, people who, perhaps, are curious, intelligent, and musical, whether they like classical music or not. Or for anyone with serious tastes in art of any kind (including alternative bands and other forms of non-chart-topping pop). If we take the first approach, maybe we’ll talk about how music feels, trying to lure the Three Tenors crowd into more serious concerts. If we do it the second way, maybe we’ll find connections between classical music and the things our readers already like. (All of which could be tricky, since the Three Tenors fans might find an orchestra concert too highbrow, while serious pop types would—believe it or not—find it too lowbrow, because there’s no sign of any serious engagement with what the music means. But this is another story, for another time. Since no group of people can ever be monolithic, we’re sure to find people of both kinds who’ll pay attention to what we have to say.)

But—no matter who we’re addressing—how do we do this? For a start, we have to be lively. Which doesn’t mean being dumb, phony, absurdly pumped-up, or full of hype. We just have to meet the same standards as everything else in the publications we write for. Read any newspaper, read any magazine, and you’ll see writers trying to be interesting, starting their pieces (to cite just one standard journalistic technique) with something meant to draw their readers in. Do classical critics do that, in their reviews or their features? Not often enough. Sometimes you’d think we simply were exempt from editing, that we’re so lofty and removed—just as classical music is often thought to be—that editors don’t even bother to hold us to the standards applied everywhere else. This, in the present climate, sounds like a recipe for doom. We ought to write in a way that most people can understand, and that—potentially, at least—might interest more people than are interested right now.

And what then happens to all the serious musical points we want to make? We still make them. But we have to put them in a context non-specialists can understand. We still can praise, for instance, musicians in a Baroque music concert for double-dotting their rhythms. But we have to say why that matters, why we think it makes the music sound so much better—so much more natural, more lively, or more forceful, or more likely to entertain us. (Let’s not forget that, before the 19th century, much of what we now call classical music really was written as entertainment.) We might say that the musicians pushed the music into orbit by playing all the dotted rhythms the same way. Or that they did it by playing them differently, each musician giving the rhythm his or her own spin. This shouldn’t be hard to do, and in fact would make our criticism more vivid even for hardcore readers. (Memo to self: Take your own advice!)

Can we use specialized language? Hey, why not? The fishing columnist does; the sportswriters do; the movie critic does. The only difference, of course, is that the fishing columnist doesn’t have to get people to fish, and the sportswriters don’t care who goes to ballgames (they might even happily urge people not to go, if the team is really bad). We, on the other hand, need to get people interested, so we should, as much as possible, define our specialized terms as we go (“the plucked strings in pizzicato passages,” we might write, with “pizzicato” carefully italicized, to mark it as specialized, so that readers will understand why they might not know what it means).

We shouldn’t be boosters. We shouldn’t pretend that everything’s wonderful and glorious, because, first of all, it isn’t, and, even more important, nothing in the world is. I’ll grant that some people idolize classical music, or at least the idea of it, and honestly believe that all classical concerts are wonderful and that there’s no ego or careerism in the classical music world. (Let’s have a moment of silence for that last idea, which I first heard from the bass player in a long-ago metal band, Kingdom Come.) But most of us are more realistic than that, even about things we don’t know much about.

So it’s crucial, at least in my view, that classical critics pull no punches when they talk about bad concerts. I know critics, some of them very prominent, who at least sometimes take the opposite path, blunting their criticism, because they want to support the field as a whole, or to support some unusual programming, even if the music-making reeks. But this makes classical music unreal to many people. (And may also make them feel betrayed, if they go to the concerts we’ve told white lies about, and hear for themselves how bad they are.) In the real world, people disagree, sometimes violently. Some people are frauds; some aren’t good at what they do; some, on the other hand, are marvelous. If we talk as if everything in classical music is good—or if we praise far more than we find fault—readers, even those who don’t know a thing about classical music, will sense that we’re not describing the real world.

So if there are disagreements within classical music, as of course there are, critics should celebrate them, and take sides. If some people are frauds (some conductors, for instance), critics should say so. If people are marvelous, critics should say that, too, in a way that stands out from the routine praise of people who are only routinely good. If we show the world that something’s actually at stake in classical music, that it matters how things are done, that we’re inspired by many concerts, but—like anyone else—variously bored, distracted, or offended when things aren’t as good as they ought to be, we’ll be taking a big step toward showing the rest of the world that there’s something to care about.

(But there’s much more to say on this subject. I’d be curious to hear from readers. What else can critics—and anybody else—do to get people interested in classical music? Feel free to post to the forum below this or to e-mail me directly, at One thing, though—I’d rather not get involved in discussions about music education. Music education is important; I’m not saying it isn’t. But it’s a well-worn subject, and also isn’t really a solution. If we depend on music education to create our audience, we’ll first of all have to wait a generation, which we don’t have time for. And we’re also asking other people—in this case the schools, and by extension the government, since government controls the schools—to solve our problems for us. I’d rather talk about things we ourselves can do, and do right now, to get people interested before it’s too late.)

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