How do we know what the audience wants?
Just the other day, a friend asked me a question that many others had asked before: How do we in radio-land know how many people are listening?
For a split-second there, I dreamt of being transported back to a creepy old black-and-white horror flick, where I, the mad scientist, would turn to my questioner, stroke my beard (how'd that get there?), cue the eerie theremin music and say in a clipped accent, "vee...have vays!" But I quickly snapped out of my reverie, and dryly gave the one-word answer, "Arbitron."
For those not in the biz, Arbitron is one of the most prominent of the companies that survey radio audiences to determine how many people are listening to which program on what station. Commercial radio stations purchase these data to set advertising rates. But many non-commercial stations also want to know how much impact our programs —the ones you help pay for — are having. While Arbitron is phasing in a new, supposedly more accurate methodology, the listener data it provides are only estimates at best, and are way too broad, for instance, to track audience response to individual musical selections. So while we might see an overall trend in our classical audience (and we're doing quite well, thanks), we have no way of knowing from these data whether our listeners prefer piano to violin, symphonies to concertos, or baroque to contemporary. There are other tools that could help us answer these questions, but again, only with a fair level of accuracy. And then, there's the issue of what we would do with this information if we had it, an issue that I'm going to duck at present.
So if my friend were to ask how many people liked the last piece I played, the honest answer would have to be "I have no idea." Sure, I could make an educated guess, but it would be no more than that. Even if several listeners phoned or emailed to deliver their verdict, pro or con, they would represent such a tiny, self-selected portion of the thousands of people listening that, while valuable in other ways (please keep it coming!), this feedback would be statistically meaningless. This came to mind as I re-read "Why do we hate modern classical music," a 2010 article by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, and the basis of Monday's blog post. For while making the point that audiences should stop hating modernist 20th-century music, Ross triggers and supports his argument with real-world examples into which he invests much more meaning than they really support.
Right at the beginning, Ross reports on two New York symphonic concerts during which "several dozen people" (his estimation) walked out during or before works by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. All right, so what? After all, several dozen people represent maybe one or two percent of the overall audience. Ross may wish they hadn't, and it's indeed rude to walk out during the music, but by 2010, he should not have been surprised that a tiny fraction of the audience for a mainstream symphonic concert would rather leave than hear challenging, dissonant music. But how about the 98-99% who remained? How did they like the pieces? That strikes me as a far more relevant question to ask, if only there were a way of getting an accurate answer. Until and unless that happens, no one, including Alex Ross, has any idea.
Then, Ross claims that "the mildest 20th-century fare can cause audible gnashing of teeth." What mild 20th-century fare, and how many sets of gnashing teeth? Well, Ross gives us one (one!) example of how someone sitting behind him made a snide comment after Benjamin Britten's lovely Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (one of my all-time favorites). Again — so what? Haven't we all heard snide comments about things we like? Why does this comment say more to Ross than the "bravo" he heard shouted elsewhere in the hall? And does that mean that based on these two "votes," the audience of a thousand or more was split fifty-fifty on the Britten? It means no such thing. No conclusion whatsoever about the audience reaction to Britten's work should be drawn from this incident. There may be good ways to track the relative popularity of a particular subset of classical music, from focus groups to basic box office. But to get at the question of how audiences react to 20th century works, the above incidents are useless.
Elsewhere in his piece, I find Ross's doubts about the inherent preference we humans have to tonal rather than atonal music to be unpersuasive. I would be more persuaded if he or anyone could provide me an example of any other music from any time or anywhere in the world, other than a tiny slice of 20th-21st century western classical music (and the film scores, rock bands, etc. under the western classical influence), that does not feature some kind of tonal center. Why then does Ross continue to treat atonality as if it were a natural, inevitable equivalent to tonality? Hey, if some composers want to employ atonality, and some listeners want to hear it, fine by me. If peformers want to program atonal music in mainstream (i.e., non-new music) concerts, I would suggest they do it sparingly, and that they be prepared for at least the kind of minority evacuation Ross reports above — but sure, go ahead. I'm just tired of atonality and other aspects of musical modernism being accorded a unique status, protected by classical insiders from the normal vicissitudes of audience taste. Why should it? And I would humbly request its adherents to knock off considering themselves purer and better than its non-fans, as if atonality were a sort of musical veganism, with the same combination of legitimate purpose, ennobling asceticism, and smug moralizing.
Finally, I take exception to Ross's final cri de coeur: "What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty – a kind of spa treatment for tired souls." Never mind how he knows how prevalent this notion really is. It may be his perception, but that hardly makes it reality. No, what really irks me is his snobbish disdain for the paying customers and their priorities. If a large segment of the people shelling out big bucks for a symphony concert want "consoling beauty" (like we already have too much of that in our lives, right?), what's wrong with that, and who is Alex Ross to tell look down on them for doing so, and to decree "what must" happen?
What really saddens me is that this comes from the same Alex Ross who wrote one of the most stirringly populist articles on music I've ever read, with a pair of final paragraphs that left me in tears. That's the Alex Ross I continue to read, and to value.