(Technically Beethoven is very dead)
Does Classical Music Have a Future?
Anecdotally, it doesn’t look great. It has next to no presence on TikTok. The Grammy for the best classical album is presented at like 3 PM. The film industry, once a sanctuary for classical music, is increasingly turning to more mainstream pop artists for original scores. So, where is there left to go?
Well, as it turns out, my anecdotes are dramatic and unrealistically bleak. According to the numbers, classical music is doing just fine. Sales and streams jumped by 10% in 2018 compared to the previous year, making it the fastest-growing genre that year. Not only did classical grow in popularity, but the sales are directed largely towards contemporary classical artists, like Hans Zimmer and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and they’re coming from younger listeners, with 30% being under the age of 35.
So there’s no need for a funeral. But, there’s still merit to my earlier points- classical has next to no impact in pop culture. It’s tempting to say that classical isn’t the problem, pop culture is the problem. Or our collectively corrupt attention span, or our need for instant gratification, or this generation doesn’t appreciate real art, etc, etc. Sure, maybe there’s something there. There’s a reason classical isn’t popular on TikTok. But statistics don’t lie- young people are still listening to classical, and young-ish (or at least living) people are still writing exceptional classical music. So maybe it’s not that there’s no foothold. It’s just that classical has a weak grip.
The problem clearly isn’t the music. People are listening. The problem is the brand. Classical is still the stuffy, square, anti-rock-and-roll dad of the free love generation. It never shook the image of being the antagonist from that movie where Phillip Seymour Hoffman has to take his radio station to the high seas just to play The Beatles. Part of the reason is that so many classical composers and fans are still clinging to the embalmed corpses of the legendary composers that defined the genre, afraid that any sudden movement (pun intended) could expose the level of decomposition (this one was a happy accident) that’s occurred over the past centuries. Genres like hip-hop and rap, that have commanded the spotlight in recent decades, are at the forefront of progress and experimentation. Meanwhile, classical has hinged itself on its alleged purity, as if stagnation indicates perfect preservation.
Before you break out the pitchforks, know that this call for self-reflection comes from a place of love. Yes, Beethoven was a genius and no, there will probably never be another like him. But the dude died like a zillion years ago and now we have subwoofers that could topple a structurally sound building. Things change. It’s time classical music changed too. After all, how much promise is there, in a genre that’s only defined retroactively?