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How Classical Music Listening Could Double in the US

Classical music does not have a popularity problem (it has an access problem)


Although Americans know very little about classical music, they like to listen to it. Yet, more than half of those who listen do not do so regularly. These new insights have led to a new perspective on the decline of classical music in the US.


High interest in classical music

Much has been written about the declining popularity of classical music, and as live concert audiences grow older and participation in music class in schools decreases, this has become an increasing concern. However, when asked, 31% of Americans say that they like to listen to classical music, a surprisingly high number. Equally surprising is that the popularity of classical music does not seem to significantly differ across age, state and ethnicity. According to our survey: 

1. Young audiences like to listen to classical music almost as much as older demographics. 27% of Americans between 18 and 34 like to listen to classical, 32% of Americans between 35 and 55 and 34% of Americans older than 55.  See Figure 1.

Figure 1 

Who said younger Americans do not like classical music?

I enjoy listening to classical music:

enjoy listening age


2. Regional differences are also very limited. In the Northeast, 31% of Americans like to listen to classical music, in the South and West 32%,  and in the Midwest 29%. Despite growing regional socio-economic and political differences in the US, it is remarkable to see how consistent interest in classical music remains.

3. Americans of Asian, Latino and Caucasian descent appear to enjoy classical music alike. The common myth that classical music is a Caucasian genre is debunked. 34% of Caucasian Americans, 27% of Latino Americans and 37% of ‘other’ Americans like to listen to classical music. Popularity among African Americans appears a bit lower, but is still quite sizeable at 21%. See Figure 2

Figure 2

Classical music is a multicultural genre

I enjoy listening to classical music:

enjoy listening race


4. Men and women have a similar interest in classical music, at 31% and 32% respectively. This is not a surprising finding as earlier studies have shown that among music students, orchestra members and independent music practitioners there is a near perfect gender balance.

5. Classical music is often believed to be a rich person’s hobby. The reality is that appreciation of classical music across income levels is not that different. 25% of Americans with an annual income below 40k like to listen to classical music, 33% with an annual income of 40-80k, and 39% with an annual income above 80k.

6. If there is one driver of classical music appreciation, it is education. The higher the education level, the more likely one is to like to listen to classical music. Among Americans with a high school diploma or some high school education, only 19% like to listen to classical music. For Americans who have had some college education the number rises to 35% and for those with a college degree the number rises further to 43%. The highest appreciation for classical music is among Americans with a postgraduate degree, with almost half (48%) liking to listen to classical music. It is interesting that education level, more than income, drives appreciation for classical music. Furthermore, it appears that self-made wealthier Americans like classical music less than better educated Americans with a lower income.


Limited classical music knowledge

When asked to name a composer they know, 46% of Americans could not name even one classical composer. Among younger Americans (18-34), more than half (52%) could not name a single composer. Perhaps less surprising is the difference across education levels: 64% of Americans with a high school diploma could not name a composter while only 25% of college graduates could not name one.


Half of Americans who like classical music do not listen to it regularly

As mentioned above, 31% of American adults like to listen to classical music. However, actual listening is much lower: only 14% of Americans listen to classical music regularly. In other words, more than half of those Americans who enjoy listening to classical music do not listen to it regularly (53%). The number of Americans who listen to classical music has the potential to double if the genre were to reach all of those who like to listen to classical music. See Figure 3.


Figure 3

The popularity of classical music could double if it better reaches its target group.

% of American adults listening to classical music:

actually listen


Future research needs to show what factors explain this large decline from interest to actual listening behavior. Limited accessibility to classical music is most likely one of these factors. CDs and downloads used to be the most successful channels for classical music distribution. However, most physical record stores have gone out of business and many download stores are unlikely to survive into the future (recall Apple’s announcement on iTunes a few months ago).

Streaming has become the dominant way to listen to music in the US: it is now more popular than listening via CD, download or radio. However, since most streaming services are designed for pop music, the classical music streaming experience is generally flawed. Classical music fans frequently complain about the inadequate results provided by most streaming search engines, predictable and uninspiring recommendations, low audio quality, and missing album information. These pain points probably explain the unpopularity of classical music on streaming services. Classical music represents 4% of worldwide music consumption, but only 0.7% of music streaming. Classical music is underrepresented on streaming services by a factor of 5 to 6.

To fill this gap, Primephonic entered the streaming market in 2018. It is a streaming service designed for classical music that was built from scratch. Primephonic’s CEO: “The underlying interest in classical music among Americans is still rather positive. The real problem of classical music is therefore not low interest, but its inability to reach millions of consumers that have an interest in the genre. We are moving towards a streaming only world. Classical music cannot afford to be underrepresented and underserved on streaming as it currently is. It is therefore critical that classical music fixes its streaming problem. Therefore we have developed a streaming service with much better classical search, much more inspiring recommendations, and higher audio quality.”

In conclusion, classical music is more beloved than often assumed. However, many who like to listen to classical music are not actually listening. This is at least partially due to classical music’s distribution problem. CD and download stores are disappearing. Streaming as a channel is the future, but classical music is massively underrepresented on it. If classical music can fix its streaming problem, its audience may well be larger than it has ever been.

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Research Methodology 

Primephonic commissioned YouGov PLC – a third party, professional research and consulting organization – to poll the views of 1,000 individuals who agreed to take part. Field work was undertaken online between May 24-27, 2019 and June 10-11, 2019. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).

About Primephonic

Primephonic is a streaming service built for classical music, offering listeners premium-quality audio, optimal search functionality, hand-picked recommendations, and detailed song and artist information.

The streaming revolution saved the mainstream music industry, but it left niche genres like classical behind due to the existing one-platform-fits-all-genres approach applied by the major streaming services. Primephonic is the antithesis of this, designed to support classical music’s complexities to provide fans with an optimal listening experience, and artists and labels with fair compensation through their unique pay-per-second-listened payout model.

Headquartered in Amsterdam with an office in New York City, Primephonic is reigniting passion for classical music by bringing it into the digital age.  

For more information visit www.primephonic.com