Classical music isn’t dead, but we need to ensure its future

While critics bicker over whether classical music is dying, Paul Bräuer says we should be focusing our attention on developing the genre’s future

Recently mainstream media have been caught up in debates as to whether or not classical music is dying. But it’s a discussion that’s almost as old as the genre itself. In fact, as William Robin of The New Yorker illustrated, classical music has been regularly pronounced dead since the Middle Ages. The forces behind its perceived demise were listed as ‘popular music’ in 1324, ‘lascivious musicians’ in 1530, ‘the piano’ in 1843, the gramophone in the early 20th century, and more recently CDs, YouTube and ageing audiences. It seems the condemned actually live longer.

Looking at the enormous number of audiences who enjoy classical music around the globe every day, nobody could seriously think this beautiful art form is dead. On the other hand, no one could argue objectively that classical music enjoys the same dominance and reach it previously has.

At least in Europe and North America, classical music does not play the same role nor impact the lives of as many people as it once did. Especially problematic is the fact that classical music is less attractive to young urban intellectuals who are earmarked as taste-makers and define the bulk of what is en vogue, what sets trends and what everybody will be talking about.

Yet discussing the issue at length takes away precious attention and energy that could be used on actually building the future of classical music. The authors of these articles are calling for a renewal of the genre. But talk is cheap and this is all lip service as long as we don’t address the real question: what should this renewal look like? Answering this question is where we should be directing our energy.

We established Classical:NEXT to bring together everyone who is seriously interested in or has already started working on that renewal, and to provide a forum for all professionals of classical and art music. We’ve discovered that there are many, many innovators and harbingers of change. Across two years, 1,500 music professionals from 40 countries came to the Classical:NEXT events to exhibit, discuss and learn.

Read: 4 ways to revive classical music

So what are these new paths leading towards the future of classical? As with all other art forms and musical genres – and all of society for that matter – the last few decades have bore witness to an ever-evolving diversification. Classical and art music has split into subscenes and even sub-subscenes.

Opening the genre up to new audiences and even playing off this subscene trend is key. A recent study by the German Körber Foundation illustrated yet again how young people are turned off by classical due to its perceived strict standards and elite character. Classical music needs to open up.

Classical:NEXT will implement an idea that we developed at the Art of Music Education conference in Hamburg this month. We pair up heavy metal fans, for instance, with classical fans, have the heavy metal fans go to classical concerts and vice versa and record their reactions and opinions to see how preconceived perceptions stack up against reality.

We in the classical sphere need to be aware that there are plenty of genres whose audiences listen carefully and passionately, whom we could exchange with.

Once we accept that there is not just one definition of the genre, just as there is not one typical classical music listener, we can hoist ourselves out of this quicksand and embrace new possibilities. An art music professional, be it an artist or a manager, be it in the live, recorded or the media sector, should constantly learn about new possibilities.

If we can draw all the innovators out there together, map out a blueprint for the future and unite behind common goals, we can renew classical music and keep the buzzards at bay for a few more centuries.

Musicologist and journalist Paul Bräuer is head of communications at Classical:NEXT, which takes place in Vienna from 14-17 May.