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.