Shortening attention span threatens classical music

As I was back home in Kansas City for Thanksgiving break, my parents took me to see the Kansas City Symphony at a local performing arts center. Immediately, I was struck by the homogeneity of the audience; almost every attendee was elderly and white. There couldn’t have been more than 20 audience members under 30. Needless to say, such a limited demographic bodes poorly for the future of the market of classical arts. A waning popular interest in live performances of ballet, orchestral music, opera or whatever other means of expression is not simply an issue in Kansas City, but rather the country at large.

In the last decade, classical music organizations based in San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago and too many other metropolitan centers to mention have faltered financially, forcing artist strikes, layoffs and pay cuts. These fiscal issues have been reflected in plummeting attendance and ticket sales.

The accessibility of other outings such as sporting events or popular music concerts makes it easy to distract the average American, and keep them from going out to see the orchestra. The American attention span has shortened, and many now lack the patience for the slow burn of classical music.

America’s consumption habits have changed drastically from even as recently as 1990. The options offered to the modern consumer are hardly comparable to what would be available before the Internet. Netflix, HBOGo, Amazon and the myriad of other video streaming services offer movies and shows instantly. If you want any music it is at your fingertips via Spotify, Youtube or Pandora.

Unlike those online options, live performances take a certain amount of premeditation and effort.

At these events you are generally compelled to do more than throw on your sweatpants and hoodie, as well as deciding days in advance to be at a venue at a certain time. With so many forms of entertainment available immediately and without any sort of commitment, these traditional forms are struggling.

However, there are few tales of professional sports teams and major pop artists going bankrupt due to lagging ticket sales, yet viewers still have to decide often months in advance to attend, often spending as much money. Still, almost all sporting events and songs are easily and often freely available from home, the same way classical music recordings are.

The real difference comes through attention span required to enjoy attending classical music events.

Whether humans are naturally predisposed to prefer bite-sized media or whether this has been merely reinforced by current entertainment trends, the status quo is clear. Most pop songs are less than five minutes in length and social media is condensed to a photo, six second video or a certain number of characters.

By contrast, symphonies can last hours, if all movements are performed. In a live performance, the viewer must sit silently for an hour without checking their phone, truly a horrible prospect for many of us. With the focus required to enjoy these mediums, entertainment in this case can come to feel more like a chore than an escape to the short attention span of the modern mind.

Regardless of how popular symphonic music, opera and ballet may be, they are invaluable in the preservation of Western cultural heritage. Live performances are invaluable to this mission in a way that online recordings can never be. The key to solving the financial insolvency of the fine arts will have to come through public subsidies, rather than a reliance on the private market.

Among the most beloved platforms of American media such as NPR and PBS Frontline would not be possible without such funding, and classical music should be treated the same way. It would be tragic to allow such an important part of our culture to fade away.

Scott Johnson ’18 (johnso16@stolaf.edu) is from Gladstone, MO. He majors in economics.

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