Graduate Student Viewpoint: The State (Or Death?) of the Art

To say that art music in the United States today is experiencing a period of stagnation would be a gross understatement -- for in fact, if it is not already dead, it is most certainly dying. As the musics of America's popular/commercial culture thrive, and those of the jazz, ethnic, and non-western variety remain static, art music crumbles. Due to a lack of funds, several American orchestras have had to fold within the last ten years. Moreover, the American Symphony Orchestra League reports the orchestra industry is now in its worst financial shape ever. A recent Harris Poll indicates there has been a loss of general attendance at arts events of 12 percent since 1984, including 9 percent at classical music concerts and 23 percent at opera and musical theater events.

Statistics provided by the Recording Industry Association of America further demonstrate the waning state of classical music. According to this association, in 1987 only five percent of the records purchased were classical. And in 1988, though world sale of records increased by 21 percent, classical recording sales dropped to 3.5 percent, and the following year was not much better at 4.3 percent.

But perhaps the most significant information on the state of art music comes from the 1992Broadcasting/Cablecasting Yearbook, which informs us that just 3 percent of the radio stations in the United States have a classical music format; and of these classical stations 86 percent are non-commercial. In other words, there are only a handful of classical stations in this country, and most of them have so few listeners that they can not survive as marketable enterprises and must rely on private and public contributions simply to subsist.

Jazz does not fare much better than classical music, with 80 percent of jazz stations being noncommercial, but only 2 percent of all United States stations have a jazz format. Ethnic and non-western musics do survive mostly on commercial stations; however, they encompass just 3 percent of the radio stations, and if one excludes those with a Spanish format, less than one-half percent of all United States radio stations have a non-western or ethnic format.

The importance of United States radio programming cannot be stressed enough, for the radio is where many Americans acquire their musical tastes and education. Currently the majority of the musics on the airwaves are those of the commercial/popular form (today the two terms have, become almost synonymous), and therefore it is understandable that these are the musics the public most likes. These types, such as pop/rock/country/rap and others in the same milieu, dominate radio, television, and film not because they are superior to classical, jazz, and ethnic musics but because they are much more marketable.

Though there are many fine compositions in the popular music realm, most are of the MTV variety, offering quick, catchy entertainment fixes, and occurring at such an overwhelming rate that there is not enough time to question the content. Entertainment executives, in their search to attract a wide audience, discourage true distinctiveness or "creativity"; the result is music that tends to be predictable and indistinguishable. This popular music is structured to appeal to a mass audience, which by its very nature is conformist and which by its very mass guarantees large revenues from music sales. The ultimate value of the music relies on the 1980s philosophy that "if it makes money, it must be good." Because of the nature and the wide exposure of popular music, it is exceedingly marketable, and as the cycle goes, because it is marketable, it receives exposure. The result is, the money-making musics gain the most air time and hence have the greatest influence on the musical tastes of Americans.

Granted, it would be nice if the "monopoly" of pop music ended and the airwaves were divided more evenly among a variety of musics. But because the goals of the present music industry are so completely monetary, it seems unlikely that radio and television moguls will relinquish lucrative airtime for altruistic reasons in the near future. Yet it would be interesting to see, if a spectrum of fine musics were dispersed equally over the airwaves for an extensive period of time, would the majority of the American public choose as their favorite the type that now dominates our mass media?

If, through the mass media, we cannot have a significant impact in exposing American society to art music and other non-commercial musics, then the next viable place we can go is to the school systems. A National Coalition for Music Education led by The Music Educators National Conference, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and The National Association of Music Merchants was formed in 1990. This organization, which is undertaking a "grass roots" campaign, is attempting to revitalize music education in our schools and in doing so provides much important information on the present declining state of music in the school systems. For example, in their pamphlet Growing Up Complete, they inform us that:

  • only 29 states have graduation requirements involving the arts;
  • the percentage of junior- and senior-high students taking music has declined by almost a third since 1950;
  • the federal government spends 29 times more on science than on arts education;
  • 55 percent of the nation's school districts are either unserved by a music specialist or served only part-time.

Though the National Coalition for Music Education deserves to be commended as the only major musical organization to confront the present crisis seriously, their attempts and those of the many concerned K-12 music educators are not enough, for the state of art music is such that it cannot be revived without major, widespread support in the music community.

If there is to be the slightest chance that this music can be revitalized, action must be taken now. Societies such as The College Music Society need to bring concern for the state of art music and the stagnation of other fine musics to the forefront at conventions and in publications. Performers must expose the general public to live performances of unfamiliar musics whenever possible. And above all, those involved in higher education must make their students aware of the seriousness of the present music situation. Their students will be the future teachers, composers, scholars, and performers who will go on to affect many musical lives themselves. This form of "trickle-down" education may perhaps be the only way that we will be able to loosen the stranglehold that so many musics are currently experiencing in our present society.

It is our responsibility to salvage the musics which we deem worthy and on which our livelihoods depend. The fact remains that the future of art music and other non-commercial musics depends upon us. If we do not try to educate the public and elevate the place of fine culture in our society, who will? The entertainment executives? The MTV generation? Or perhaps the vast majority of the population who are unaware that a noncommercial culture exists? Every musician and scholar who survives or wishes to survive in a music career must take responsibility for the continuing existence of the fine musics of the world. If we do not recognize the current situation of the state of our art soon, many musics will die an untimely death, and it will be no one's fault but our own.

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Last modified on Friday, 03/05/2013

Lisa A. Urkevich, General Editor

Lisa Urkevich, PhD is Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology and former founding Division Head (Dean) of Arts and Humanities and founding Chair of the Department of Music and Drama at the American University of Kuwait (AUK). She also regularly serves as an advisor for a myriad of international government and private sector initiatives in the performing arts and education. She specializes in the music of the Arabian Peninsula as well as Renaissance music and is the author of several publications, including Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula (Routledge 2015), and Anne Boleyn’s French Motet Book: A Childhood Gift” (Paris-Sorbonne 2011). Before joining AUK, she was a fulltime professor at Boston University where she held a joint position in the College of Fine Arts, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She has taught at several institutions including Bucknell University and the University of Maryland. She is a former editor of the International CPE Bach Edition and for seven years was the Film/Video Reviews Editor of the Yearbook for Traditional Music (UNESCO). She is recipient of the Alumna of the Year Award at the University of Maryland and is 2015 Harvard University Fellow. She holds four degrees: PhD University of Maryland; MM Florida State University; BS Towson University; BA University of Maryland Baltimore County.


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