The Journey of Antiquing — 9: Can the Antiques Industry Learn from the Classical Music Industry?

Synopses:  The antiques industry’s biggest crisis is not the shrinking patrons or a depressed economy, it is the industry’s own resistance to any change, in particular, the business is turning down the next generation while lamenting they don’t grow up fast enough. Perhaps, it is time to look at how the classic music industry that is suffering from similar symptoms tackles the problem from content, format and marketing perspectives.

How can the antiques business get to Carnegie Hall?

Until recent years, it had been taken for granted that the median age of the classical music audience had always been at least somewhere past gray-haired. Such a belief had a profound impact on community outreach efforts. Many activities were centered at the either end of the demographic population: the senior and youth. For those who just stepped out of school and started their professional career, they were lost in the vacuum till their hair turned gray.

Does it sound familiar? There has been some theory that people don’t start collecting antiques until they have grown old enough to appreciate them. In other words, antique collectors have always been old, like Classical music fans. It is not the antiques business that turns young collectors down; it is their own age that is the animosity of antiques business.

Unfortunately, studies from past generations have shown that the median age of classic music fans was not always as high as it is today.  Greg Sandow pointed out that in one example, a survey done in the 1950’s showed that half the audience for orchestra concerts in one leading city was under 35. The figure below clearly shows that from 1982 to 2008, the biggest decline in classical music listeners is found at the demographic group between 25 and 44. In other words, there is no such a magic age number that tunes one’s ears to to Beethoven or Bach. If you don’t bring young generations in, you lose them.

Demographic Change in Classical Music Audience
Demographic Change in Classical Music Audience

The crisis facing the classical music industry is not new for antiques business owners. In a recent interview, Jon Jenkins of the Music Valley Antiques Show and the Tailgate Antiques Show in Nashville, said dealers got excited to see some tattoos on visitors (as if it was the rarest thing) in the show. Antiques industry may not have the luxury of having funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct such surveys. But I suspect a similar pattern can be identified in the demographic change in antiques business patrons –i.e. the core (elder) patrons can’t be replaced and young patrons aren’t coming in.

Given the fact that the classical music audience is not any younger, the next legitimate questions are why this happened and how to reverse such a trend.

Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, wrote in 2008 that “it isn’t so much that misogyny runs rampant in the music world; it’s that the classical business is temperamentally resistant to novelty, whether in the form of female conductors, American conductors, younger conductors, new music, post 1900 concert dress or concert-hall color schemes that aren’t corporate beige”.


Betty White by By David Shankbone 2010, Lang Lang by Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland Wiki Commons
Lang Lang or Betty White?

In recent years, the classical music industry has taken a series of fierce measures to focus on the lost demographic group (25 – 44). In the nation’s two largest metropolitan areas, both New York Philharmonic and LA Philharmonic have chosen conductors in the same age group category. Boston seems to follow the same route with Levine finally stepping down from the podium.

Change in the faces alone won’t do. Some changes happen inside concert halls.

I attended a concert of Dallas Symphony Orchestra last Friday with Mozart and Stravinsky. It was the first “Casual Friday” series that I have attended in Dallas. The program had been shortened to within one and half hours (without intermission) with an early start (7:30 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.). The concert hall was surprisingly full with many young-looking faces, perhaps due to some special marketing campaign (this Friday some symphony goers will have a arrived via Groupon, so that should be interesting).  Competing with so many social events in town, a concert which ended at 9 p.m. essentially made it easy for a young audience to arrange concert-going as one of their many events of the weekend and perhaps added another table topic in their next gathering on the same night.

The confluence of two types of audience (well-dressed elder and casually dressed younger) are blended in with the orchestra players who were just wearing black shirts, a step down from bow-tied tuxedo formality.

And the dress code was not the only convention that was meant to be broken down. The new faces are evident in their non-refrained applause between the movements of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 25. For a light piece with contrasting moods, the applause didn’t feel anything out of place even though I could not recall other concerts with a similar phenomenon. In fact, it gave much of the communal experience and presence of other passionate fellow music lovers.

Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is a perfect choice for a declamatory statement that classical music can rock hard. Dallas Symphony Orchestra was at the top with that raw, uninhibited energy, pushing everyone on the edge of the chairs, at least those I saw who sat on the back rows behind the orchestra.

There was also a post-concert social event with the conductor and some orchestra members mingling with patrons. With a line waiting for wine and drink after the concert, it was certainly a night more of entertaining than high-brow.

In fact, such casual Friday concerts have been gaining popularity through some major orchestras in the country. (Half of Mostly Mozart concerts started early last year with shorter programs.) In these concerts, both the format and the content have been tailored to cater the taste and needs of the younger generation. Whether eventually these measures will bring young audience in has to be determined in the future; but the industry-wide gesture and efforts to bridge the gap between the fortified image of classic music and the social culture of the young generation leaves the antiques industry behind, in dust.

Too often the antiques business people are lamenting that young collectors are not there without seeking fundamental changes in themselves. There is already a fortified image associated with the word antiques (think of grandma’s attic and aisles of dim -it booths in  malls). If future antiques shows are going to be cooked with the same recipe, with the same presentation/format and marketing strategy (newspapers and trade magazines), we are only going to see fewer young patrons and harder sales.

Sporadic changes have been seen in some of the antiques shows which I attended in the past. Much of the efforts in shows or stores have been focused on the merchandising itself. From the content perspective, the Dolly-Johnson Antiques and Art Show has embraced mid-century modern, industrial modern into the floor. In the Heart of the Country show, which is traditionally Americana, there was a special booth called “Under 200” this year to cater to entry-level collectors. The Pier Show at the Pier 92 in NYC has a huge section of vintage clothing. Brooklyn Flea has never emphasized on antiques from the start. Instead, food vendors are much of central attractions. (That makes those high-end antiques shows viewed lame in this regard as visitors are quite often left without any choice but to pay exorbitant amount of money for terrible convention-center hot dogs.)

There aren’t many evolutionary approaches in antiques business format-wise, not to mention revolutional changes. Lectures and round-table talks are great assets for some bigger shows with more foot coverage. But these tend to attract more seasoned collectors, just like those per-concert talks have mere success in beyond hard-core music lovers. What a few programmed “Antiques for Dummies” courses in some shows do is dig immense trenches between young patrons and dealers by defining the to-be-educated and the knowledgeable.  There is no need to further remind those who bravely step into the doors that they are entering an unfamiliar territory and to emphasize proactive learning is to deprive them from enjoying the fun of purveying something new and old at the same time.

Perhaps, the courses should be given in the opposite direction. The fact that Magazine Antiques commented that celebrity like Betty White could be invited to help promotion indicates how narrow-mindedly the industry has been thinking with regard to outreach and promotion efforts.  (In comparison, the hottest super-star in the classic music world now is a young fashion-forward spike-haired 29 year-old Chinese pianist.)  Any celebrity may pose hefty fee and even if they do come voluntarily, the shows may not get the notices in advance. But celebrity or not, the antiques business needs make the word antiques less of obsession of enclosed cliques than of fun with utilitarian advantages.

Lastly, unlike the music season, in which the marketing department can easily create different packages suitable for different audience (such as Casual Friday series), most antiques shows usually happen only once or twice a year.  The intrinsic infrequent nature requires the kind of marketing strategy that builds up momentum locally and culminates at the opening. Individual shows have little voice against a sea of activities that compete to attract some same patrons over the weekends. There is no secret about the successful formula: Make people feel it is an event that they can’t miss! This is another area that antiques business can learn from the music industry. There is no shortage in jazz, classical music or opera festivals with many concurring events in major cities. However, except the established New York antiques week in the freezing January (with individual shows happen to overlap with each other), there has been little in the way of collaborative efforts between different show owners to coordinate events to bring the shopping spree out of a single venue. There’s even evidence of resistance to any sort of coordinated marketing- mostly coming from the high-end shows.  Whether the reason was about worrying the prestige being tarnished by other non-vetted shows, or about losing customers of limited budget who would spend somewhere else, opportunity is lost to reach a broader demographic group, who either may not read The Magazine Antiques or simply suspect such high-end shows are nothing but a room full of experts ready to tell them what looks good and is worthy of collecting. Pfft.

It is, however, the small high-end antiques shows (especially in a lesser populated metropolis) which are the most endangered species in the future. In maintaining the high-brow elite status by distinguishing themselves from the rest of the “low-end” business world, this type of show, which relies heavily on affluent elder patrons, would hardly satisfy either end of the supply chain.

In an interview with PBS, Alex Ross commented that anyone at any age can suddenly feel the power of music coming out of nowhere. It’s just a question of creating the right circumstances where they can have that experience, and sometimes it just takes a little nudge, not just sort of putting the music in front of them but explaining it to them it a little bit and showing how it really can connect to their lives. With all the buzz about “Antiques for Dummies” programs, Betty White promotions or high-brow exclusiveness, it’s time for the industry to connect to wide audience with their own “Rite of Spring”.

One thought on “The Journey of Antiquing — 9: Can the Antiques Industry Learn from the Classical Music Industry?

  1. The actual antiques are not going to change (like classical music) but the way we have conversations about them HAS to. In this age of mass production and technology people are comforted by the vintage, traditional and beautiful but they do have to be reached out to in very modern ways. The can’t miss aspect of events is important and so is a great user friendly experience.


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