The Myth of Unpopularity

I have been invited to join a discussion at the forthcoming Live!Singapore event (see link – this is an event not to be missed). A proposed topic put forward by one of the panel members is how to get classical music back to the people; the assertion being that it’s become unpopular.

A comment posted on this blog by Vincent4wang in response to my piece about Audience Behaviour suggests that a requirement for audience to dress decently accounts for the reason that “classical music is not as popular as before”.

And you’ll often hear people telling you that classical music is “no longer” popular, or that “people now don’t go to concerts like they used to”. There are horror stories of audience figures falling, CD sales tumbling, orchestras losing funding, and so on, and so on.


When was this golden time when everyone loved classical music, concert halls were full, CDs, LPs, 78s were grabbed off the shelves as quickly as they were put on them, orchestras were flush with cash? It never existed. The “popularity” of classical music occurred only in the imagination of those who find its perceived lack of popularity today a useful tool to support their unuttered conviction that they are members of an elite which takes vicarious pleasure in going against the flow. Not for them the lure of popular culture, the attraction of being part of the masses; they want to stand out, they want to show that they have the taste, discernment and courage to eschew popular fashion. If you can prove that your favourite activity is eschewed by the masses, then you can rightly consider yourself one of the elite.

I love to go against the crowd, myself. When the immigration officer or taxi driver asks me which football team I support I proudly boast of my utter disinterest in the “sport” and regale them with my views that football is a loathsome activity, that footballers are, without exception, overpaid, undereducated morons and that those who follow it (not least that curious Asian phenomenon, the Manchester United supporter who has little idea of the precise location of Manchester and even less understanding of the curious mangled, chewing-gum distorted noises which emanate from “Sir” Alex Ferguson’s gob) are poor, maladjusted folk who have empty lives. When a stranger comes up to me and wants to discuss “movies”, I relish the opportunity to declare that I haven’t been inside a cinema since 1972 and that I don’t subscribe to any of the TV movie channels. I can’t name any current film stars and love feigning surprise when I learn that the Lord of the Rings exists in a version other than the fat book or the classic radio adaptation starring Ian Holmes and John Le Mesurier. And that, in itself, is another example of my own misguided elitism; I still happily believe that people don’t listen to radio anymore; but in the UK, at least, listening figures are on the rise and radio can no longer be regarded as a refuge from the great press of unwashed, uneducated and uncultured humanity.

Yes, if there’s any chance to stand out from the crowd by going against the tide of popular fashion, I’m out there, far in front. But, in all honesty, when it comes to Classical music, I regret to say I am not part of an elite, I am not one going against the crowd. Sadly for my ego, in my love of classical music I am just one of the crowd, one who goes with the tide – albeit a neap rather than a spring (let’s see how many of you get that reference!!).

My assertion is that Classical music is today MORE popular than it has ever been in the past. When was this “golden age” to which these misty-eyed prophets of classical music doom refer? Was it 20, 50, 100, 300, 500 years ago? When do they honestly believe that classical music was more popular than it is today?

Let’s look at some facts.

20 years ago. What was the average audience for live classical music in Malaysia? Answer – zilch! Why? Because there wasn’t very much. So why is there a lot now? Answer. Because it has grown a hundredfold in popularity and is certainly now infinitely more popular there than it was 20 years ago.

50 years ago. What was the audience in Singapore for live classical music? Answer. Infinitesimal. Why? I refer you to my previous paragraph with the added rider that the Singapore government decided that the people might enjoy classical music, so made it available for them with the result that the number of classical music concerts of one sort or another in Singapore runs well into double figures each week. Who, 50 years ago, could have ever imagined that classical music would be so popular in Singapore that a concert hall seating almost 2000 and a world-class music conservatory would exist here?

100 years ago. What was the average audience for classical music in Britain?. Answer. Several thousand. What is it now? Answer. Several tens of thousands. Why? There are more concert halls, more orchestras, more broadcasts and more major events than the Edwardians could ever have dreamed of. Audiences cross the entire social spectrum and orchestras and musicians regard the performance of music at schools, hospitals, hospices and the like as part of everyday life. That didn’t happen in my youth, and was inconceivable 100 years ago. And why are so many of them so chronically short of money? Answer. Because the popularity of classical music has grown to such an extent that they are stretched to their very limits to feed the mass appetite for it.

And when we go back beyond that to the days of Beethoven, Haydn, Bach and Monteverdi, how many attended classical music concerts? Answer. A tiny aristocratic elite who probably didn’t enjoy it but regarded it as a symbol of their social stature. If Bach looked down from the organ loft at St Thomas’s Leipzig and saw a full church, he probably thought he was lucky to have such a massive audience. What would he say to the 3000 which heard Simon Preston play one of his Trio Sonatas at a London Prom a few years back, or the vast numbers who have a CD of his music at home? He would be aghast at just how popular classical music has become.

As, if we stop to think about it, so should we. We are living in an age when classical music is more popular than it has ever been and we should celebrate the fact, not constantly be sending out messages that it is an art form facing the death throes.


1 Response to “The Myth of Unpopularity”

  1. 1 vincent4wang
    March 17, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Very insightful post!

    Just to clarify that
    “A comment posted on this blog by Vincent4wang in response to my piece about Audience Behaviour suggests that a requirement for audience to dress decently accounts for the reason that “classical music is not as popular as before”.

    I think this only applies to DFP/KL. The other concert halls I been to, do not implement such a strict dress code. Even for the case of DFP/KL, you can loan a jacket.

    Unpopularity is compared to popular music (most of which fade with time fast). Classical is a niche market where the CD sale counts in thousands, while the pop counts in millions. Most concert hall with capacity of less than two thousands, while pop concert are most in stadium(horrible acoustics).

    “how to get classical music back to the people?”
    I’d say proper outreach programme and MORE exposure for all age groups. The more you listen the more you may like it. Given that the first impression is positive. (Definitely, no atonal for the newcomers.) If I wasn’t wrong, “Four Season” is the best selling classical music.
    I’d love to attend the Live!Singapore, but I have to miss it due to the ticket price(S$500). I admit I prefer to spend that on my concert tickets and CDs.

    Btw, I’ve been serious in listening to music for ten years since entering university. Same for sports, I used to play football and still run marathons: P
    To say all footballer are under-educated morons is not fair, there are exceptions. Think it this way, footballer are educated to perform the physical competation on the pitch. While musicians are educated to perform the art of music in a concert hall. Both are entertainments. One is more on physical, the other on artistic. To me, they are complementary, not conflicting.
    Apologize for my poor English, for which I’m under-educated as a foreign language.

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