The Future of Classical Music: A Talk21 with Greg Sandow

Classical music is not the only artistic discipline that must strike a balance between its rich cultural past and its dizzying – sometimes exciting, sometimes controversial – future. When imagining what this balance might look like, Greg Sandow turns to the visual art world, where museums of historical treasures draw crowds on one street corner, while on the next the hottest new exhibition lures collectors, curators and tomorrow’s next gaggle of fans.

Can this be our reality, too? Sandow, who spent years as both a classical and pop music critic, now focuses most of his writing on addressing this very question: What is the future of classical music? In his talk given at DePauw University’s 21CMposium, Sandow shares his observations and solutions, proposing that the way forward may lie in changes like embracing for-profit business models while loosening our grip on the classical masterworks. Most importantly, he argues, we must prize a liberated mindset: We must free ourselves to imagine what has never been done before – and then do it.


On what the music world can learn from the art world …

What’s sweeping the [visual] art world is contemporary art. That’s what draws people to museums – contemporary art shows. Contemporary art is what collectors are overwhelmingly buying, and it’s what students who are future museum curators are overwhelmingly studying. … When the Museum of Modern Art did its first retrospective of a seminal musical artist, no surprise it was Björk who reached past music into the larger cultural world. Some day, couldn’t somebody from classical music do that? When a major musical artist died and the New York Times did more than 20 stories tracing his influence on our culture and on people’s lives, well, of course it was David Bowie. Couldn’t it someday be someone from classical music?

On why a business model might be the best way forward …

I want [classical music’s] measure of success to be ticket sales. I want us out in the commercial arena telling people in a powerful way that we have something they’d love to hear. … I don’t think anything would shout success so much as concert halls filled with eager new audiences. That would show that we matter; no one could argue with it. And if we don’t believe it could happen as we know it happened in the past, aren’t we saying that we believe classical music really can never matter again?

… [To contrast, with] outreach there might sometimes be something a little like arrogance, some sense that we have something superior that we’re going to bring to “you people” out there. To me, a market approach is cleaner, more honest, far more confident and far more likely to succeed.

On why entrepreneurship should emphasize freedom to invent …

[I had a] thought about how we teach [entrepreneurship], which I get from Jeffrey Nytch, who [runs] the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Entrepreneurship does not simply mean learning business skills. … Not that we shouldn’t teach those skills, but entrepreneurship is most crucially about doing things that have never been done before. So that should be our guiding star. We have to encourage it, inspire students with examples of it, showing them how people did unprecedented things in music and in other fields.

… We have to be free. Free, all of us – students included – to follow our hearts and go where our best instincts take us. … If we open the doors, that’s how we’ll liberate classical music and bring it back to the place in our culture it so much again ought to have.

Greg Sandow

Greg Sandow spent many years as a pop and classical music critic, and now is a composer and specialist in the future of classical music. …more 

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