This seems to be such a simple question with a simple answer – of course, there is always an opportunity for an audience for live music! For a performer, this question then becomes “How do I find enough people to support my music/my career?” Ah, now that’s where the answer is not so simple.
Coming from a varied musical background where I grew up with my mother in the symphony orchestra, church organist and choir director, and keyboardist in local rock and jazz bands (many times in the same day), I learned how to be versatile before I was even born. My grandmother and mother were both professional musicians who also taught private lessons. My grandfather played a multitude of instruments, too. Since I grew up living in the same house with my grandparents, there was always music happening somewhere in the house. From Gospel to Broadway, Jazz to Opera, Classical to Classic Rock, my sister and I learned how to play and sing just about anything. “Variety is the spice of life!” – my grandmother used to tell me.
This variety has allowed me to make a decent living by performing and teaching music. I simply hide the extreme number of gray hairs and wrinkles this career choice has caused under tons of hair color and makeup.
Back to the original question, we must first define the audience. According to Webster’s, an audience is “the assembled spectators or listeners at a public event.” Great definition, but that’s not the intent of the question. The real question is “Who is my audience?” If you are wanting to play chamber music, then the audience is usually older people who just want a peaceful place to escape the doldrums of the retirement community where their only excitement is when they have chocolate cream pies with the wheelchair races. It could also be a group of other musicians who are there to hear a piece that they could only dream of performing, but then their actual purpose is to criticize you and how you play it by discussing it with musicians other than the actual performers. For those wanting to play the same 7 pieces of chamber music over and over, there are always the multitude of weddings hiring trios and quartets. It’s a steady paycheck with an audience, if you’re willing to work for it. Of course, the brides don’t realize that the group they have hired will have to deal with singers who are the third cousin of the brother-in-law, twice-removed by marriage who once sang “One Hand, One Heart” in his high school musical before he started smoking 3 packs a day and now only serenades his dog while in the shower.
If you want to play “real” classical music, then you must join a symphony orchestra. Symphony orchestras are folding faster than Phil Ivey with an off-suit 3/10. Many communities are not only offering volunteer orchestras, but also now “Pay to Play” orchestras where musicians are paying to be in the group! Ummm, isn’t that backwards? Jobs are where the musicians are paid, not the other way around. With a symphony, performers get the opportunity to play the Master Works from most of the DWEMs (Dead White European Males). Oh how exciting to be able to play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with a 100 piece orchestra and 200 voice choir! Yes, this is fun for me, but the question is then “Who’s going to pay to see this?” If the ticket price reflected the actual cost of paying all these people and the crew to produce this spectacle, tickets would be easily $100 and up per person. Not many people want to pay that amount for a community orchestra production where everyone has a day job and do music “on the side.” If I’m going to pay that much for a ticket, I will travel to where there is a professional symphony that believes in paying its musicians proper wages so they can have time to continue to practice and rehearse regularly. Running a professional symphony is expensive, and I just don’t think there is much of an audience for it anymore.
Today’s public wants to be entertained! They don’t usually want to go see music just for the sake of hearing music. They want to see and hear something that they cannot get at home. They want to be a part of the performance by feeling the energy from the performers and giving it right back them! Don’t believe me? Then why is it that every time a band’s lead singer says “Hello, _(insert city here)_!” that the fans go wild? If they were watching that concert on television, and the singer called another city than the one where the viewer lives, that viewer may not be as receptive. Worse than this is when the lead singer calls the WRONG city. Oooo, the boos and hatred. He just lost his audience (and fans, and that venue ever booking him again, not to mention the possibility of beer bottles flying onto the stage.) Maybe that’s why they only allow plastic cups in most venues. Hmmm.
Back to comparing the audiences. There will always be some audience for classical music and symphony orchestras, but I think it will continue to be a dividing line where the people that want to see it will pay top dollar to see it done live and not pay smaller amounts to see it done poorly. For other genres, it will again depend on where you live and what that region dictates is important to them based on the population choices. This is why even big name acts focus on the larger cities when touring to ensure a sell-out crowd at every concert. Promoters know that fans will pay to travel to that larger city to hear their favorite performers. I know I have done that many times as a fan, including paying upwards of $200 a ticket for the cheap seats, plus hotel and gas and food and souvenir T-shirts.
The audience is there. You simply have to find them and go TO them. Appeal to their wants/needs by giving them what THEY want, not just what you want to do. There is a balance of giving the audience something new that they did not know they actually needed or liked, and appealing to their tastes of why they are there to see you in the first place. For many groups, this may be a complete shift of thinking and having to redo the business model. As my grandmother also said, “Get off that sinking ship!”