Your Niche or Mine?


Clarke Bustard
Photo by Eric Dobbs

The tastemakers of the entertainment industry and mass media long ago decided that classical or art music is a “niche” interest. Its fans are fervent and free-spending, but they represent a small fraction of the population. Most listeners are indifferent or averse to it.

Estimates of the size of the classical niche hover around 5 percent of the population of music consumers. That’s roughly the classical share of the retail market for recorded music. About 5 percent of a city’s residents are inclined to buy symphony and opera tickets. A classical radio station in an affluent, educated community might reasonably aspire to a 5 percent share.

“Mainstream” musics—the pop, rock, urban, country, and gospel played on commercial radio—appeal to much larger audiences and generate much higher record sales. They get most of the music industry’s resources and draw more notice from mass media. Numerical clout rules the marketplace.

But that clout is diminishing.

The highest-rated television show of 2006 was the Super Bowl. The Nielsen ratings service estimated the telecast’s audience at 90.7 million. The next-highest rating of the year was for the Academy Awards, seen by an estimated 41.5 million. Impressive numbers, until you recall that there are 300 million Americans. Less than one-third of them watched the Super Bowl. Fewer than one in six saw the Oscars handed out.

The best-selling recording of 2006 was Carrie Underwood’s “Some Hearts.” According to Billboard, it sold 3.75 million copies. The disc topped the chart thanks to slightly more than 1 percent of the population.

Those statistics point to an American cultural marketplace that’s turning into an assortment of niches.

*

The art music audience is still vastly outnumbered by the audiences for commercial radio music. But for how long?

Subscribers to the XM Satellite Radio service are offered 14 rock channels: adult album rock, deep classic rock, early classic rock, later classic rock, hard rock/hairbands, heavy metal, new hard rock, punk/hardcore/ska, classic alternative, ’90s alternative, new alternative, indie/college unsigned, emerging artists. (“Hairbands” as a listening criterion? Classic alternative? Who knew?)

That menu reflects many fissures, and several chasms, now separating the audiences for sub-genres of rock. People who like classic rock generally dislike punk, and vice versa (with a vengeance). People who favor indie/college bands hear classic alternative as a vestige of the previous generation and adult album rock as elevator music.

Comparable generational, ethnic, and stylistic divides are reflected in XM’s seven kinds of country, seven varieties of urban/R&B, three options for Christian music, five for jazz/blues, four for Latin music, and so on. Surf the web, especially on upload-your-own sites such as YouTube and MySpace, and you’ll find even more musical sub-categorization.

As mainstream styles divide into sub-genres, listener-preference shares sink into mostly single digits. In this environment, classical music’s 5 percent no longer seems so miniscule.

Except, of course, that classical music is the proto-chasmic genre. Think of the opera fans who can’t sit still through a Bartók quartet, or new music aficionados who won’t willingly endure Rachmaninoff. We can safely surmise that people who consider Yanni a composer of contemporary art music are disinclined to explore the canons of Steve Reich or Joan Tower.

*

One can no longer describe any musical style, let alone a stylistic subset, as mainstream and support that assertion with hard data. The audience for music is fragmenting as listeners spin off in dozens (soon to be hundreds?) of directions. Demographers call this phenomenon “atomization.” It is at work not just in music and other artistic fields, but in food, fashion, home decor, recreation, hobbies, travel—anything that people devote time to and spend money on.

Cultural atomization is enabled, and propelled, by niche-friendly media—satellite radio and cable television channels by the dozens, online booksellers offering every title from Stephen King’s latest to academic monographs—and by new media, such as music downloads, that bypass the old gatekeepers of commercial culture.

Ever since radio stations first signed on in the 1920s, we’ve heard dire talk of the rise of a homogenized mass culture, straining out regional, group, and individual identities and imposing a lowest-common-denominator aesthetic. That worry may have been valid in 1970, or even 1990. Today, you can laugh it off—assuming you can tear yourself away from the music videos on YouTube.

My niche is a minority interest. So is yours. Each listener’s preferences differ, at least incrementally, from everyone else’s. Each of us is a subatomic particle, darting between dissimilar and often distant points in an expanding universe of musical ideas. Now, finally, the dissemination and commerce of music are developing the velocity and range to keep up with us.

***

Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog and writes for Style Weekly in Richmond, VA.