Winners and Losers

Winners and Losers

“Regardless of the hand-wringing about dying audiences, we still live in a country where more people go to the symphony than to professional sporting events. In 2009, according to AFTA’s National Arts Index, more than 25 million attended symphony orchestra concerts in the top 81 metro areas of the U.S. The NFL has 17 million in attendance.”
—Rachel Ciprotti, June 28, 2013 comment posted in response to Jesse Rosen’s article, “Provocative Choices for Orchestras”, Huffington Post, June 27, 2013

“Police say enraged spectators invaded a football field, stoned the referee to death and quartered his body after he stabbed a player to death.”
—Associated Press news wire “Brazilian fans kill, behead referee who killed player”,
as published in Sports Illustrated, July 6, 2013


Like many cities in the United States, St. Louis has a sports stadium smack in the middle of downtown. Visitors to Busch Stadium, home to the St. Louis Cardinals, are greeted with sculptures of the team in action.

I have never followed sports in my life, except for one year when I attempted to completely immerse myself in baseball in order to compose what I hoped would be appropriate wedding music for friends who were huge fans of the game. However, I’ve often thought about the parallels between music and sports—for starters, both realms use the verb “play.” Perhaps more importantly, both are frequently group activities in which people come together to realize a shared goal, and both activities create a sense of community for their audiences. Most major American cities boast having both professional sports teams and an orchestra, and the venues in which those activities occur (the playing of music in a concert hall and the playing of games in a stadium) are often iconic sites that define those places.

Yet this is where the parallels end. The ways in which music and sports differ from one another is perhaps more telling, both about these two activities and about who we are as a society. Team sports are ultimately about one group against another group—in order for one group to win, the other must lose. It’s a perfect behavioral metaphor for a society that values rivalry, competition, and warfare. And sometimes fandom degenerates into the same brutality as armed conflict, as in the tragic aftermath of the soccer game in Brazil this past weekend. I could never imagine a similar episode occurring at a symphony orchestra performance or a rock concert.

Admittedly, rivalries in music exist, especially thanks to the music world’s over-reliance on competitions to determine who is “the best,” as if there could be such a thing as “best” in a subjective art form. And television shows like American Idol have gone a long way toward shaping our popular music culture directly in the image of sports culture. But once a group comes together to actually make music, everyone wins. At the end of the performance, everyone who participated is entitled to receive applause. People coming together and the result being that everyone is a winner seems to be a much better behavioral metaphor for a democratic society that values the input of all of its citizens. Yet it is almost impossible to spend a day anywhere in our society and completely avoid coming into contact with sports (a newspaper headline, a game in progress on a TV screen in a public place). Phys-Ed is a daily requirement in most schools; music in schools is a luxury in the places where it is still taught. While music is arguably everywhere, it is rarely foregrounded; in fact, how music is presented tends to just re-enforce the notion that the performance of music and attentive listening is a specialist’s pursuit. Imagine if news about music was as prominent on television or in newspapers as sports currently is. Imagine if municipalities offered as many tax breaks to people building concert halls as they do to people building stadiums.

At the onset of this essay, I quoted a comment that Rachel Ciprotti made in response to an essay in The Huffington Post by Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. (In that essay, Rosen gives an excellent account of the keynote address from the most recent League conference in St. Louis, a talk by Center for the Future of Museums Director Elizabeth Merritt, which I also described in part on these pages two weeks ago.) Ciprotti’s citation of a claim that more Americans attend orchestra concerts than football games is startling and has huge implications. I wonder how the numbers would match up if we compared attendance at all types of musical performances to attendance at all types of sporting events. I would argue that music would win by an even wider margin than the 25 million symphony attendees vs. 17 million NFL attendees she cites.

A naysayer might question Ciprotti’s data saying that more people by a long shot watch football on television than listen to orchestras, whether live, on radio, or on television. To which I’d say the options for experiencing music in a meaningful way on television are marginal. Every now and then you can catch something on public television but almost never on any of the major networks, which are the de-facto go-to channels for most television viewers. Those same major networks are in a constant state of competition with one another to air sporting events. That naysayer might also say that the media is only reflecting what the public wants. To which I would say that in order for the public to want something they need to know that it is there and it needs to be there in a consistent and easily accessible way.

At the League conference in St. Louis, I learned that there’s a video projected in regular rotation at Busch Stadium (home of the St. Louis Cardinals) of David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony performing an orchestral arrangement of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” (All of the musicians, Robertson included, are wearing Cardinals uniforms.) So one could argue that even people attending a baseball game are listening to an orchestra performance. And I haven’t even addressed half-time shows here. Apparently some attendees are as interested in the invited musical acts as they are in the actual game being played on the field. But these curiosities aside, if more people are actually paying to attend concerts than games, hasn’t the public already made a decision about what it wants that the media is simply refusing to pay attention to?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Winners and Losers

  1. Jude Thomas

    There are more similarities between music & sports that are worth mentioning. The most important is how much alike musicians & athletes train. We both spend many hours practicing a physical skill, and how to appropriately apply that skill within a given context. Eventually the goal is to utilize that foundation of physical practice and transcend it, this is often described as artistry. Another important similarly is how engagement in the moment and the ability to understand a situation that is unfolding quickly are critical to success in either field.

    However, with these things in mind, the potential for consistent excellence is much more accessible in music. As our wits sharpen as we age & gain more experience, we unfortunately move beyond the physical peak of our bodies. In this way, mastery of both physical technique and a deep understanding of the activity (music or sport) is much more common among musicians than it is with athletics.

  2. Pingback: Declining Audiences for Live Performances | Mae Mai

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