Is History Repeating Itself?

dynamic-graphics-classical-music-montageA generation ago the classical-music industry in America saw its audience begin to drift away, and industry leaders asked themselves what they could do about it. Some of the current discussions in American Jewish life remind me of what they tried and what ultimately happened.

It may seem counterintuitive to compare Jewish affiliation with involvement in a form of cultural expression. But there are a lot of similarities. Both of them, in the United States, count only two or three percent of the total population among their numbers. Each is a specialized pursuit that can best be appreciated with a range of background knowledge including history, foreign languages, and special customs. And each has a communal culture, or multiple communal cultures.

Both Jewish life and classical music conflict in some ways with mainstream lifestyles, whether it’s fasting on Yom Kippur or following the 19th-century decorum of public concerts. That marginality can be both a source of pride and discomfort. Classical-music lovers may feel that their favorite music is more enduring and more precious than some pop music, and Jews may feel proud of the disproportionate contribution by Jews to the world. At the same time, both groups may be uncomfortable with the expectation that they know things about the remote past, or master a foreign-language vocabulary to participate fully in the experience.

One reaction to the drop in sales of classical-music recordings was to reflect on the barriers that might be keeping potential consumers away from the music. A widespread view held that classical music was turning off younger consumers by being presented as “good for you” rather than being fun. Another was that classical-music insiders placed unnecessary obstacles between the mass audience and the music, essentially excluding people by using a rarified vocabulary and special customs that were the opposite of welcoming. A third line of reasoning suggested that concert halls were inherently forbidding destinations for younger people, and that younger audiences would love to hear classical music if only it were presented in clubs and other informal locations.

Sound familiar? As we know, in Jewish life there has been recently a strong movement to open up participation by expressing Jewish values in nontraditional places, through bike rides and social action and independent prayer groups (not to mention Jewish culture in clubs). It springs from much the same concerns: that traditional Jewish institutions are too exclusive, that they make too many demands, and that they are out of touch with contemporary values and lifestyles.

The classical-music media industry in the 1980s responded with CDs promising “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits” and chamber-music ensembles made up of sexy women. Old-fashioned, opaque album titles like “Gli Uccelli” and “Das Lied von der Erde” and “Ma Mère l’Oye” were downplayed. Classical radio stations played short bits of lively music more often than long symphonies. Even symphony orchestras tried to sell tickets by giving concerts titles like “Tempestuous Tchaikowsky.”

The result? The major music companies have virtually abandoned classical recording because there’s so little demand. Similarly, commercial classical-music radio is virtually a thing of the past. In the 1980s there were over 40 for-profit commercial radio stations devoted to classical music across the country; now there are virtually none. In short, the strategy of shedding exclusivity and being welcoming and accessible had no discernible effect. It completely failed to achieve its goals.

There may be important differences between the evolution of American Jewish communal life and the viability classical-music industry, and the apparent parallels may not play out. Then again, people often say that about news they don’t want to hear. What’s inescapable is that classical music’s problem was deeper than the appearance of being elite or unapproachable. Its weakness is that the classical-music experience itself has little appeal to younger music-lovers. What’s the lesson for the Jewish community? Draw your own conclusions.

Bob Goldfarb, a long-time executive and consultant in classical-music radio and recordings, is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. A regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, Bob lives in Jerusalem.