Get on board

It seems like a good time to check in on that alleged Death of Classical Music. But first, let’s talk a little bit about non-functional demand curves.

The what now? Hey, you’re smarter than you think—even if you’ve never cracked an economics textbook, you probably have an intuitive sense for the traditional, functional demand curve: all other things remaining equal, as the price of a good goes down, demand goes up, and vice versa. But there are also non-functional demand curves, when the relationship between price and demand isn’t so well-behaved.

The classic paper on non-functional demand is economist Harvey Liebenstein’s “Bandwagon, Snob, and Veblen Effects in the Theory of Consumer Demand” (JSTOR link), published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in May, 1950. As Liebenstein puts it:

[T]he proposed analysis is designed to take account the desire of people to wear, buy, do, consume, and behave like their fellows; the desire to join the crowd, be “one of the boys,” etc.—phenomena of mob motivations and mass psychology either in their grosser or more delicate aspects. This is the type of behaviour involved in what we shall call the “bandwagon effect.” On the other hand, we shall also attempt to take account of the search for exclusiveness by individuals through the purchase of distinctive clothing, foods, automobiles, houses, or anything else that individuals may believe will in some way set them off from the mass of mankind—or add to their prestige, dignity, and social status.

The bandwagon effect is the most familiar: makers of trendy goods can charge more for them, even if there’s no danger of a supply shortage—demand goes up even though the price doesn’t go down. Liebenstein, as he hints in the above passage, divides the second category in two: a “snob effect,” where a good becomes desirable simply because most people don’t have it; and a “Veblen effect” (named for the originator of the concept of conspicuous consumption), where a decrease in the price of a high-status good decreases its perceived status, and thus its demand.

I’m not trying to argue that classical music falls into one or the other of these categories—one of the great misguided assumptions in most reports of classical music’s “death” is that classical music itself is a single product, rather than an umbrella categorization of a host of varying (and sometimes competing) goods. But I do propose that where one’s opinion falls on the health of classical music has a lot to do with how one imagines its demand curve, and what kind of a curve one would like it to be.

Basically: people who say classical music is dying are doing so, in large part, because they don’t think that classical music generates enough of a bandwagon effect. (Some will often go further, charging classical-music organizations with actively promoting a snob effect in their marketing.) A lot of this arises from a comparison with pop, and is usually follwed by a prescription to present and market classical music more like pop culture. Pop culture dominates the market because it generates lots of bandwagon effect—it’s designed to. (Think of the way Hollywood blockbusters are marketed, and the way they open in thousands of theaters to maximize the return on their short-lived bandwagons.) Unless it can follow suit, it’s claimed, classical music will be left hopelessly in the dust. Not that classical music doesn’t have its own bandwagon effects—Peter Gelb, for example, has shown a fair talent for generating buzz at the Met—but it’s never enough in this kind of analysis.

There’s almost always an accompanying argument that classical music must be dying because it’s lost the competition for mindshare/media attention/cultural relevance. The concept is similar to another economic idea, a close relative of bandwagons. It’s called a network effect. The best example of this is a telephone: the value of a telephone to a potential buyer has a lot to do with how many other people are within the same telephone network. The fanciest phone in the world doesn’t do you a whole lot of good if it’ll only connect you to two or three other numbers. In the same vein, critics will say that classical music doesn’t really matter anymore, because only a small portion of the potential audience listens to it.

So when people ask if classical music is dying, in economic language, what they’re really asking is some combination of these two questions:

1. Are current benefits from non-functional demand sufficient for classical music organizations to remain economically viable?

2. Is the ultimate value of an artistic pursuit necessarily dependent on its ability to generate network effects?

I would answer those questions “yes” and “no”; thus, I do not think that classical music is dying.

I admit that my answer to the first question is based on anecdotal evidence; enough organizations, ensembles, and recording companies seem to be making enough money to be hanging in there, still doing what they’re doing. And enough musicians seem to come along, generation after generation, finding a way to make a living. It might actually be possible to collect enough relevant data to settle this question one way or another. I think that both the non-utilitarian and fragmented natures of the product would make such data pretty slippery; still, at least in theory, it’s a testable hypothesis.

But the second question, in reality, isn’t economic at all. It’s philosophical. And this is why this argument has gone on, and will go on, for so, so long. There’s no way to prove that question one way or another—either you believe that art has an intrinsic value regardless of the size of its audience, or you don’t.

Rudolf Serkin, infamously, once played the entirety of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as an encore. “When I finished,” he remembered, “there were only four people left in the hall—Adolph Busch, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Einstein and myself.” Did the value of Serkin’s recital dwindle along with the number listening? Hardly. My sanguine view of the survival of classical music is reflected in that illustrious trio staying in their seats. There will always be an audience whose demand for the music will remain purely functional, immune to fads, buzz, trends, what have you. Will it be smaller than the audience for this month’s pop sensation? Probably. Does that matter? Nope.


  1. Excellent post – I’m sure to keep on reading your blog from here on out.I haven’t read Lebrecht’s book, but I have heard the sensationalist claims that classical music is going the way of the dodo. Perhaps Lebrecht brings up some more valid points, but I’ve always thought that such concerns are ridiculous.The situation is roughly analogous to the “death of reading.” We have nearly 100% literacy in the United States, and yet many many people choose to watch TV and movies rather than read… but this does not mean that the number of books read, and hence the demand for books, has decreased. And while I don’t have any empirical data to back it up, I’m pretty sure that the people that would read Anna Karenina 100 years ago would still read it today, even if they do watch the TV or movie version. In fact, no one read Anna Karenina 150 years ago.I really liked your use of non-functional demand curves because classical music is something for which preferences do not remain the same: the old folks packing the Met haven’t listened to opera since they were born, but have learned to love it as they grow old. As long as classical music exists at all it will win over new listeners – slowly on an individual basis but rather quickly on a macro basis – and will never die.

  2. Your last point is the one I’ve always considered, and was just reminded of it again over the weekend: Sequenza 21 has been having a rather odd little discussion over whether Conlon Nancarrow can be called important when he is still relatively unknown.It’s funny how the classical/art/whatever music scene is having this debate while rock fans have never had a problem with acknowledging the contributions of obscure artists to an ongoing culture. The Velvet Underground are regularly held up as the textbook example: no bandwagon effect whatsoever, and a tiny audience of latter-day Busches, Schnabels, and Einsteins.

  3. Well, I’ll take the contrary and say ‘of course it matters!’I see classical as analogous to poetry while pop is like a novel. People are busting down doors for Harry Potter, they buy Stephen King in droves. When’s the last time you’ve seen a mad rush for some poetry?Classical music, like poetry, will survive. But since both music and literature are about communication then classical music is not currently getting the job done.

  4. Communication of what? Lots of people read Rowling and King, but they don’t read novels by, say, Ann Quin or Paul Metcalf. Do these latter two writers fail to communicate?Popular poetry was about narrative. This role was taken over by prose fiction. Novels became popular and poetry less so; the role and function of poetry changed. Classical music’s role is changing, but I don’t want to guess what that role might be.

  5. I love poetry myself, and I think the quality of poetry can leave prose in the dust. But I think communicating to 1-2% of readers is a failure, it seems to be the very definition of a communication failure!Classical music is in the same boat, it’s high quality but it communicates mainly to an academic crowd and misses 99% of the population. Fine for what it is, it is definitely not a form of popular communication (again, that’s a failure in my eyes).

  6. Shimmy:<>Classical music is in the same boat, it’s high quality but it communicates mainly to an academic crowd and misses 99% of the population.<>Yeah, those five thousand people I was sitting on the lawn with at Tanglewood the other week—nothing but college professors. 🙂Seriously, I think we need to be careful about using this “communication” term. If you think that artistic worth depends on a large audience, that’s your call. But most composers/performers of modern/avant-garde/”difficult” music (which is what I assume you’re talking about) have no illusions about the size of their potential audience. If they were trying for a wide, pop-sized audience, maybe there’d be a failure of communication—but they’re not. They’re communicating just fine (with this listener, for example). It’s just that their idea of what’s artistically worthwhile is different than yours.

  7. To go a little further in upsetting the “music is communication” theory…Music is a very poor form of communication. If I want to communicate my anger with someone, it would be much more clearly communicated if I simply spoke the words “I’m angry with person X.” I could communicate quite well with a physical gesture or act (I could punch person X in the face). Or as a composer I could write a piece that expresses my anger, but unless I took a great deal of care to use other forms of communication (title, program notes, text with the music) its effectiveness as communication would pale in comparison to speech or action.Thinking of music as communication is a Romantic notion, held over from the mid-1800s. Music CAN communicate, but it doesn’t have to. I really appreciate the description of classical music as really an umbrella term for a great many different things, rather than a single thing. On the topic of Lebrecht’s book, “Who Killed Classical Music,” the title is a bit misleading in the context of this discussion. Lebrecht isn’t arguing that classical music is dead because it has a small audience. He’s arguing that large classical music institutions (the symphony orchestra, opera companies, etc.) are not able to succeed financially because of the over-pricing and over-use of the “superstar” artist. You also must keep in mind the time period of the book. People were paying ungodly amounts to a Pavarotti (or similar) to appear with their symphony in a regular concert hall. The standard thinking among performing groups was that a superstar would pack the hall, selling more tickets than usual, and help the organization financially. But Lebrecht breaks this down by actually analyzing the economic argument, with pretty simple investigative reporting. He showed that given the cost of a superstar artist, there was no way that a group would make money off the performance at anything close to its usual ticket rates. If fact, groups would lose so much money that it would sap funds from other concerts and the season as a whole. Nowadays, you see the Three Tenors as an economic success because they play Dodger Stadium, to 40k people. That’s an economic scale that can work.

  8. Excellent post, MG.<>He’s arguing that large classical music institutions (the symphony orchestra, opera companies, etc.) are not able to succeed financially because of the over-pricing and over-use of the “superstar” artist.<>Ah, the old “classical music is too expensive” whining, a real pet peeve.I went to England and Amsterdam in June for some “culture”. Note: I booked all these tickets in advance. I paid 60 pounds for a crappy seat to see Daniel Radcliffe’s small penis….erm…performance in <>Equus<> the night I arrived. The next night I paid 20 pounds for a perfectly acceptable seat in the balcony at the ENO to attend a searing performance of Britten’s great <>Death in Venice<> with an incredible performance by Ian Bostridge in one of the best opera productions I’ve ever seen (for once, the dance interludes in this piece were excellent). The night after that, I paid 50 pounds to attend a wonderful performance of <>Swan Lake<> at the beautifully renovated Royal Opera House, which served kick-ass gin and tonics.After *that*, I traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the RSC and Sir Ian McKellan reduce me to tears with an amazing performance of <>King Lear<>. Cost: standing room for 11 pounds.My point is simply, I paid less for the “serious” culture than I did the pop culture item and in every case, I walked out of the venue far more satisfied. I suspect where the real problem lies is an attitude of “I can’t sit in the 5th row at Severance Hall for the price of a movie ticket, popcorn, a soda and parking”. Which reminds me, doing that can easily add up to $25 per person these days these days.I’m sick of the whining about ticket prices to the symphony and opera, EVERYTHING is expensive these days: plays, live musicals, museums and don’t even get me started on how expensive attending a rock concert in anything but a club is: I paid $8 ($28 in today’s money) to see ELP in 1977 and I ended up paying $135 to sit at the opposite end of a basketball arena to see U2 a few years ago and they were as boring as watching paint dry (I like their music too). There’s simply no need to pay $75 to sit in the 5th row at the symphony, concert halls are designed to have good sound everywhere (they don’t sometimes, of course). Pay the $25, sit in the balcony and suck it up that you’re not hanging out with the corporate people there on comp tickets or the well-off who have had those seats for 42 years.

  9. Everyone is talking about listening to and paying for Classical music. No one is really talking about people that still compose. Know why? No one cares. Thousands of people sitting around listening to something that was written 50, 100 or 500 years ago is fine. Doesn’t mean that ‘Classical music is alive and kicking’ just because we still like the sound of Nessun Dorma and Beethoven’s fifth. Contemporary ‘Classical’ composers (though i don’t like the term – perhaps orchestral is better?) are by and large academics – products of academies, music schools and university departments. They compose and they regard what they are doing as ‘art’, and no doubt at least 3 other people do also. So what? They are almost all movement-arians of some sort who are all burdened, like Glass or Stockhausen or Reich, with the question of ‘where is Classical music ‘going’ next?’ Minimalist, Modernist, Serialist, Experimentalist, New Minimalist…what can we call ourselves??!?!? Back when ‘Classical Music’ was ACTUALLY alive (as opposed to ‘not dead because someone somewhere still cares’) no one cared a damn about this sort of nonsense. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven – they just wrote and didn’t even consider the possibility that what they were doing was in any way ‘dead’. That’s cause it wasn’t. It was just ‘music’ and it floated their’s and lot of other people’s boats. Remember Schoenberg? He was of the first generation that really started to wonder where the hell music was going and how it could be changed or revolutionised? Serialism was his answer – it was crap though and now nobody wants to hear anything by him but his early Neo-Romantic stuff – Gurrelieder and that. Most people have never heard of Webern and Berg. Schoenberg asked the question because it occurred to him that ‘music’ was getting a bit tired and needed a serious kick in the backside. So he abandoned tonality. Should have abandoned the Orchestra. Luckily ‘music’ didn’t get stale, the revolution in music did happen – remember Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan? Stupid question – of course you do. My point is – Classical music is dead. Why is that so horrifying to everyone? Just because it’s dead doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy it or pay for it. Latin is also dead – so what? It is still invaluable for students of history, theology, English, Classics etc.. (and i know at least one woman who gets very excited when spouting her Latin verbs in front of a class of indifferent students). Epic Poetry is dead – so what? We still like Milton’s Paradise Lost don’t we? Popular music is ACTUALLY alive. Enjoy it – it is YOUR music – it is part of the lifeblood of YOUR culture. So don’t waste your time moaning because not enough people ‘get’ Stravinsky. Death is nothing to be worried about. Or ashamed of. It will happen to all art someday. And all of you.

  10. First of all sorry for my English.
    Is classical music dead? Of course it is!
    The question affirms the answer.
    Want to do a casual experiment?
    Go to YouTube and watch any classical performance and read the commentaries.
    What people say is things like:
    “Slow tempo, he is playing that piece too fast”,or “something is wrong with his technique”,etcetera. What I mean is the reaction of the “public” is rational,intellectual where feelings are banned.
    Even more, there are thousands of “classical competitions”, wow!, now classical music is like sports, but not an art form anymore.
    Now go to a video of pop or jazz music, and read the posts. Most of them related with feelings, abstract internal atmospheres triggered by the music.
    I think that the difference has ontological meaning for a form of a expressive art. Which is MUSIC at the end.
    P.S. I love classical music, but not only the European expression. Classical from India, classical from Latin America, classical from Africa, China and the contemporary american composers. Unfortunately, our symphonic musicians are not able to play that type of music. So is the European Classical Music dying? Yes, long time ago. The evolutionary trend is in charge.

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