Monday, March 19, 2007

Making musical sense by email, part 3

At the end of last week, I posted a link to Greg Sandow's thoughts about the future of classical music and an email I sent him describing my reaction to his thoughts.

Here is Greg's initial response, lightly edited and with his permission:


Thanks so very much for sending me your work. It's
remarkable stuff, much more solid and promising than most of
what I see. And your tentative conclusion is quite
challenging (at least for the classical music business) -
that the model that best predicts the observed decline in
attendance (am I getting this right?) is the one that
predicts no new people join the audience at all.

I'd make one request. I'd much prefer to see the original
graphics. I did look at your e-mail in Courier, but it would
be a lot clearer if you could attach the charts as graphics,
or perhaps send a spreadsheet with the charts generated
inside it.

Also, I mustn't forget to congratulate you on your careful
work with that Knight Foundation tidbit. I've seen that too
often used to support the idea that all we need is music
education in our schools, and classical music attendance
will go up again. As if, in other words, there's a causal
connection between playing an instrument and classical music
attendance. As you rightly point out, the Knight study makes
no such assertion, but people jump to the conclusion
anyway. And the statement, which I believe they make, that
playing an instrument is a predictor of classical music
attendance does muddy the waters, since it rather casually
puts playing an instrument earlier than attendance in some
sort of implied statistical food chain. That helps people to
jump to the causal interpretation.

Anyhow, I think you debunked this all really nicely. My own
predisposition is to believe that there's no causal
connection, but that instrumental playing and classical
music attendance are both characteristics of some yet to be
defined demographic slice, the demographic in question being
the one most likely to attend classical concerts. In other
words, roughly speaking, playing an instrument and going to
classical concerts have a common cause, rather than one
causing the other.

Going back to the analysis you sent me, I do have some
suggestions for refinements.

First, I believe your model posits that people start
attending concerts, and then continue essentially throughout
the rest of their lives. I don't know if that's true. That
is, people might go occasionally when they're young, then
not go (or not go very often) for many years, and then
resume going, much more often, when they're older. This
would be consistent with some of the data, for instance the
preponderance of the audience in older age groups, and also
survey results that show people most likely to attend
regularly when they no longer have children at home. This
may not have been the pattern in past generations, but it
appears to be the pattern now.

When I made so much of the NEA's statistic about the number
of younger people dropping off, I didn't mean to say that
this would lead to any immediate and directly proportional
decrease in total attendance. I was using the data more
impressionistically. Accepting the apparent truth that
people in this era mostly go to classical concerts when
they're older, I surmised that this younger generation, once
it was 50 years old, would go in smaller numbers than
previous generations did. I should stress that this is
nothing more than a surmise - an assumption. It seems
reasonable, according to common sense, but might turn out
not to be true.

Though when I combine it with certain data about people who
are currently 50 and above, the conclusion seems even more
reasonable. One big change during the past generation is
that older people aren't as committed to high art as they
used to be. They now "consume" (if that's the word) both
high and popular art. This makes them less like the
committed classical music audience of the past, and thus, in
my view, less likely to attend classical performances in the
numbers their predecessors did. Now we have younger people
who go to classical performances far less often than their
own predecessors did. That suggests that when these younger
people are in their 50s, they'll be even more culturally
omnivorous than the present older generation is, and thus
less likely to be committed classical music attenders.

Second (returning to my suggestions for you), you might want
to refine your model to reflect the fact that the total
number of orchestral tickets sold includes many tickets sold
to the same relatively few people - the
subscribers. Currently, subscriptions amount to about 60% of
all tickets sold. This number has declined sharply from the
80% or so reported a couple of decades ago, and is
considered likely to decline still further. Still, this
needs to be an important part of any model that predicts
future ticket sales. It's not enough simply to predict the
number of people likely to buy tickets. We need to know how
many tickets these people are likely to buy, in order to get
some idea of what the total ticket sales in the future are
likely to be. Certainly, in the final analysis, orchestras
are more concerned with the total number of ticket sales
than with the number of individual people attending.

I think I'll stop here. But thanks so much again, Bill, for
doing this careful and important work, and for sending it to
me. I'll be eager to see more.



I'm curious: how did that compare with the reaction you thought I would have received? Did your thoughts about what changes you'd like to see me make align with his?

And what did you think of Greg's request to see "original graphics"? (I'll come back to that again later.)

Stay tuned for my response to Greg and to see those requested graphics!

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Blogger Elana said...

This is a fascinating conversation. Until I read this post, the "business" of classical music was not on my radar.

Your observations and predictions were fascinating as was his reaction.

I totally agree with his desire to see the "originals" because I was having a challenging time following the email graphics and kept wondering How long did it take you to do that?

What I am looking forward to in reading the new posts is those environmental factors that are contributing to the decline that are difficult to project.

One of my major interests in business culture are those "businesses" that seem to outlive their time. Not because the quality is changed but because the society is changing...for better or for worse.
With iPods, Bose players and high defintion TV that allow fans to hear really great quality music,
I am curious if the "need" to see it live is as powerful as it once was.
Knowing absolutely nothing about the classical music business I'm interested in learning if fewer people are listening to the music or just that fewer people are going to live concerts.

In my mind that is two very different issues. Looking for the rest of the conversation.


29 March, 2007 03:54  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Welcome, Elana, and thanks for your feedback.

As to how long it took me to do the email graphics, less than it took me to do the others. Gnuplot has a so-called "dumb" terminal mode that produces such graphs as well as publication-ready graphs. I just saved them to a file and inserted them into the email. I didn't do that because it was fast for me, though; I did it in the hopes it would be better for the dialog. As I discovered, it wasn't for dialog with Greg, and it isn't for dialog with you (I've gotten different feedback elsewhere, so tastes do vary).

Even if you don't like the text-mode graphs, if you have graphs to do, Gnuplot is a very nice (and free) tool.

You're raising interesting questions about the classical music business; I'll be curious to see your reaction to the rest of the conversation.

29 March, 2007 08:11  

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