If there was a prize for the best description of the state of the classical music industry in the 21st century, the title of a 2015 Guardian article would surely win it: “Classical music in 2014 – still dominated by dead white men’s music performed by living white men.” Indeed, classical music ranks among the most homogenous music genres with respect to gender, race, class and ableism. Women, people of Color and working-class individuals face various intersecting challenges in this industry, ranging from lack of representation, cost inequalities and gendered, racialised and classed constructions of what it means to be an “ideal” musician.
The #MeToo movement has helped women across different countries and professional fields to raise their voices for women’s rights. Women composers, however, are still struggling to be heard (no pun intended). Classical music has been dominated by men for centuries and the industry continues to sideline women and people of other genders to this day. A 2019 study by the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy (WPA) found that among the 21 orchestras with the highest budgets in the US for the 2019-2020 season, only 19% of the composers featured were women. Additionally, only 8% of the works performed throughout the season were composed by women. Not only are women underrepresented in the classical music world, but they are also subject to sexist remarks by fellow colleagues. Conductor Vasily Petrenko remarked in 2013 that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things” and “when women have families, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as is demanded in the business.”
The world of classical music is not only a world of men, it is a world of white men. Despite the wide influence musicians of Colour have had on almost every music genre, Black musicians are largely excluded from classical music. The ranks of Black musicians playing in American orchestras have increased by only 3% between 1996 and 2020, according to findings by the League of American Orchestras. What’s more, people of Colour occupy only 1% of orchestra executive director positions. As a consequence, musicians of Colour aspiring to join the world of classical music are often affected by implicit biases when auditioning.
The lack of diversity in the classical music industry is perpetuated by entry barriers due to high costs, such as the soaring costs of music lessons and instruments. Musicians who professionally perform classical music tend to be individuals from wealthy backgrounds who had access to expensive lessons offered at high-end conservatories. Precarious labour and dependence on unpaid work further exclude people from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds from joining the classic music industry. When gender, race and class identities intersect, the classical music scene becomes even more inaccessible.
Is it time to let classical music die? We are not sure. But for it to survive in the current day and age, the industry needs to rethink and restructure itself in a way that it does not discriminate against anyone category of people and creates opportunities for women, musicians of Colour and those who are less well-off, amongst others, to join the world of classical music.
Are you a fan of classical music and want to expand your repertoire of artists? Check out the Databases of Repertoire by Underrepresented Composers, or this list of Black women “classical” composers to discover composers from the underrepresented categories discussed above. Want to help in making classical music more diverse and inclusive? Start the conversation by promoting their work on social media or talking to your friends about it. The classical music revolution needs you!