Social Division and Aesthetic Specialization: the Middle Class and Musical Events

ABSTRACT - To illustrate variations in preferences for musical events among middle class music lovers, a sample of twenty-five fans was examined in case study fashion. The paper describes and interprets motivations to attend live events and typical behaviors and attitudes that accompany the process of selecting and going to musical events. Comparisons are made among the rationales and satisfactions of high culture, musical comedy, and rock music.


Sidney J. Levy, John A. Czepiel, and Dennis W. Rook (1981) ,"Social Division and Aesthetic Specialization: the Middle Class and Musical Events", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 38-45.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 38-45


Sidney J. Levy, Northwestern University

John A. Czepiel, New York University

Dennis W. Rook (student), Northwestern University


To illustrate variations in preferences for musical events among middle class music lovers, a sample of twenty-five fans was examined in case study fashion. The paper describes and interprets motivations to attend live events and typical behaviors and attitudes that accompany the process of selecting and going to musical events. Comparisons are made among the rationales and satisfactions of high culture, musical comedy, and rock music.


It is easy to notice that the audience for high culture in the U. S. has grown greatly in recent years. in the fifteen years since the establishment of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, hundreds of millions of dollars have been pumped into the arts industry to support its growth. With the encouragement of concerts in the park, numerous local theaters, movies about ballet dancers, television broadcasts of operas, symphonies, dance groups, and plays, it has become possible to say that "more people are attending opera in the U.S. than the games of the National Football League." it seems that the opera audience grew from 1,7000,000 in 1963-64 to 9, 760,000 in 1977-78 (Lipman, 1979).

These results are pleasing to those who believe that the market for the arts may be and should be constantly extended. Other people are more skeptical. First, it may be said that the figures are quite misleading if they are taken to imply that high culture has displaced sports in the affections of the general public. Second, the emphasis on quantity is regarded by some to have adverse artistic consequences. An eloquent spokesman for this viewpoint is Samual Lipman. He refers to the use of "techniques of direct-mail advertising, so noxous when they are used to sell a commercial product ... being brought to bear on the consumer ... What kind of audience can be found through this undignified, vulgar, and half-crazed search?" (Lipman, 1979, p. 59). The issues he raises--the "millions without intellectual training, background, or even any clear idea of what they are being either forced or gulled into attending," and the interferences with artistic integrity that come from trying to please and retain a mass audience--may certainly be debated. But they reinforce the issue of elitism, with aesthetic appreciation of high culture as something that distinguishes the qualified audience from the vulgar one, many of whose members are, in Lipman's words, "for all artistic purposes, dead."

Such broad characterizations of market segments tend to lack content. it would seem useful to focus more closely on what the nature of the arts product is for those who seek high culture and how it varies among segments. In an earlier paper (Levy, 1980), some report was made of attitudes toward high cultural experiences, and aesthetic factors were identified. These factors (aesthetic attributes labeled Excitement, Realism, Sex-Identity, the Arts, Social Status, Seriousness) differed in their appeal to audience segments by age, sex, social class. Different parts of the population have different motives in their seeking for aesthetic satisfactions: for example, upper middle class people were much more likely to say they prefer something dramatic over something pretty, while lower middle class and upper lower class people tended to choose the pretty. From the previous work, and from participant observation in the cultural scene, the following assumptions and reasoning are set out as a basis for the present project.

The cultural elite is the small minority of the population that is relatively devoted to such arts as opera, ballet, symphony, chamber music, classical literature, legitimate theater, and the fine plastic arts. The adherents are primarily traditionalist (especially with regard to music), but include a subgroup that is receptive to modern and avant-garde productions. The high culture elite is mainly a portion of the higher status people in the society--upper middle class professionals and managers, especially--but also draws from the middle majority (lower middle class and upper lower class), especially the upwardly mobile youth with college education. The elevated socioeconomic characteristics of the elite audience may have been modified since they were described in the 1966 econometric study, Performing Arts--The Economic Dilemma (Baumol and Bowen, 1966), but probably not very much. The League of New York Theaters and Producers recent study indicates that 41% of the audience for the Broadway legitimate theater has household income over $25,000 a year, and 31% has incomes between $15,000 and $25,000.

In general, the high arts product is what the elite (including the artists, critics, and consumers) define it to be. They argue about criteria, specific content, relative merits of performers and works, but there tends to be a consensus that the arts product is creative, distinctive, serious, worthwhile, somehow humanly elevated and penetrating in its insight or impact--and perhaps ultimately indescribable, ineffable, beyond words. The society tends to agree to all this in a broad fashion, but the matter is also controversial, inter-woven with contending values and preferences. Some people below the elite give it assent and admiration from the outside, accepting their own inability to share the proper cognitive and emotional responses, but granting the existence of high art, occasionally buying it to show their good intentions. Others disparage the elite and its interests, regarding them as frauds who pretend to find meaning and merit in obscure language, absurd daubings, and boring music.

The large social divisions set off high culture from popular culture, with considerable fuzziness created by subtle gradations in the two realms (including the fact that "elitism" does not always operate: some culture the elite regards as high has been popular (Macdonald, 1961, p. 7). Also, there is probably a "general factor" of interest in cultural experiences that cuts across social class boundaries; and those who appreciate high culture may also enjoy popular culture. More germane to interest in marketing segmentation are the differential preferences within the elite, who sort themselves out as having specialized tastes. Some like opera but not ballet, some go only to the symphony, etc. Some concentrate on collecting modern art.


These aesthetic specializations were explored with a sample of 25 middle class people (12 men, 13 women; 14 under 30 years of age, 11 over 30; 8 under $20,000 per year, 9 between $20,000 and $39,000, 8 over $40,000). They were interviewed about their preferences and attendance at live musical performances, evaluating various kinds of musical events for whether or not they wanted to attend them. The events included offerings from opera, symphony, musical comedy, pop musicians, "show lounge" entertainers, and rock performers. Respondents were asked to discuss their reasons for choosing the events they said they preferred, how at-home listening compared with live attendance, how they came "to like this kind of musical performance," how their interest was fostered and developed. They then discussed in a detailed manner their most recent attendance at a live musical performance. They talked about how they learned about the event and obtained tickets; their participation in activities prior to the performance and after arrival at the performance site. They commented about experiences during the performance, described the audience members and their behavior; and summed up the meaningfulness of the event. In the following analysis, reactions to attending high cultural events (opera and symphony) will be compared with going to musicals and rock concerts, to highlight the segmentation aspects, as well as commonalities in consumer behavior. The results will be summed up and interpreted in four main sections: (1) Shopping for events, (2) At the event, (3) Learning one's preferences, and (4) Characterizing the musical arts product.

Shopping for Events

Attitudes toward going grow out of wanting to attend live events; and reflect both basic interest in the general type of event and specific knowledge and curiosity about the particular show. Respondents were repeat customers who defined themselves as people who attend the kind of performance being discussed. Especially important to them is the motivation to experience a live show. The sense of immediacy is compelling, there is the feeling of being "present at the Creation" that is lacking with recorded or broadcast performances. Listening at home has its own assets, but mainly as an acceptable substitute for, or complement to, the real thing. Being at the theater enlarges the event and the self, it is exciting, absorbing--interacting with the performers, one becomes part of the performance, as if in a Berkeleyesque sense one divinely conjures it up by being there to see and hear it. As with all real (sporting, entertainment) events, there is the risk and tension of newly unfolding events, the spontaneity of mistakes, the reassurance of professionalism.

Because there is electricity when the soloist sings-the experience of creating the song then and there ... it's more of an experience when you participate in it.

It's more of an intimate experience, sharing it with audience and with performers.

I like the excitement of live contact and the atmosphere of audience response.

It's different to go and see it; it's a whole event.

You are able to react with all your senses and absorb so much more of the performance; you're close to it, it's real, you can spend time examining all the aspects of the production.

These ideas are common to theatergoers regardless of the level of culture-involved. The live event seems like a focusing glass in generating a lot of energy, compared to listening at home where the passive listening stance and ready distractibility scatter energy.

You can actually feel the power of the group.

The sound is special, especially in Wagner--maybe it's the energy, with a recording I never just sit and listen at home, usually knit, do things.

At home I get too easily distracted. At the concert hall your attention is held ... I like the sense of grandness you find in the theater.

With live performance so clearly superior, it may be wondered why there is not more attendance. The present data do not throw much light on that, being focused on attenders and their attending. But there are some hints. The usual objections to the time and money required are raised. Several went because they used twofers, were given tickets, were invited, or were otherwise strongly motivated to overcome problems of scheduling, buying tickets, babysitters, transportation, adverse weather, parking, etc.

It also seems evident that a main obstacle to more frequent attendance at live musical performance is its very special character--that which makes it so desirable to begin with.

I like getting dressed up for a high art form--it's a certain amount of respect for the artist ... I'll listen to records because sometimes I don't have time or money to go to the opera.

A live performance is a rich diet, it is not part of everyday life; and particularly so in the case of high cultural events. The ticket outlay, the dress up, the exalted nature of the occasion including the strong demand for homage to the great performers, all require an emotional charging up that seems sensibly to occur at relatively infrequent intervals. This is true at all levels of the cultural hierarchy, so that records, FM, and TV may be acceptable most of the time, with a rush for tickets when a great event occurs and sells out in a couple of hours, whether it features Horowitz or The Who. All this raises the interesting general question of how much energy consumers are willing to put forth to attend musical Performances. Typical attendees of rock concerts, for example, may spend several hours waiting in line to purchase tickets, an hour or more in transit to the concert, three or four hours at the concert site, and two or three hours exiting the event and returning home. In contrast, a season ticket holder for a symphony orchestra or opera expends on the average much less time shopping for and consuming the arts product. Then again, some go to London or Bayreuth for the season.

Respondents were asked about the circumstances leading to their most recent attendance, how they learned about the event, got tickets, etc. These are people who keep up with what is on the market of musical performances. They hear about them on the radio, see articles and advertisements in the newspaper, in mail pieces, on bus cards; they read critics' reviews and hear word-of-mouth communications. Getting tickets for rock concerts and musicals is more spontaneous than getting them for symphony and opera. The latter events have a season and a series and rely heavily on subscriptions. The burdensome aspect of going compared to the pleasure of being there is highlighted by the way subscribers talk about needing this commitment.

I buy annual seats to "force" myself to go--that way I am committed in advance, have prearranged dates.

We've gotten into the routine of subscription series --when you're busy that's the way to do it.

I would have liked to be a subscriber, but couldn't afford it, and since non-subscribers get poor seats I wasn't tempted to go too often.

The ardent goer does not always complain about making the arrangements.

It's not burdensome to make arrangements; I'm glad for the opportunity to go and hear music.

As for plans, arrangements, etc., half the fun of the (rock) show is the anticipation, the making of travelIng plans with companions, and obtaining various stimulants.

Another interesting aspect of the shopping situation is the role of personal influence. As mentioned, word of mouth is especially important as a way in which members of the various segments share and reinforce their mutual interests, air their opinions, instruct on what's in and what's out, and authenticate themselves as valid members of the group who love that kind of music. The two-step flow of communication process is generally notable in this market. Because people so commonly attend musical events in groups, someone may act as the "sparkplug." The sparkplug takes the initiative in selecting the event, recruiting partners, and obtaining tickets, or these duties may be delegated.

A friend had tickets.

We represent a foundation, where the president of the foundation invited us.

I called friends to see if they wanted to go; several didn't want to go due to having heard bad things about the show, or had seen it.

I was asked to go out on a date and the guy got the tickets. I don't think I've ever gone out and gotten tickets myself.

one of my friends did most of the work coordinating the people going, ticket money, etc.

Lots of times we use theater for entertaining, we take people or are invited.

Frequently, also, it happens that tickets are sold or given away among friends or acquaintances. in the world of high culture recitals and concert series, there often seems to be available a greater supply of tickets than people are willing or able to use, after all.

This was last minute plans, I took the tickets from someone else.

I was given these tickets by someone who knows about my interest. I took a friend.

I called to see who could use a ticket. I just didn't--oh, it's hard to go to an opera every week.

Attending musical performances is part of leisure and recreational life. There are various references to "after work" and weekends. The plan to attend becomes a marked point on the calendar, and the date is looked toward with curiosity, anticipation, and excitement. Ticket holders want to see and hear for themselves, to judge if the Chicago Symphony is greater than the Berlin, if Evita is as good as the London reviews or as awful as the Los Angeles reviews, to get to the show before Lausbury leaves Sweeney Todd or before Lucy Arnaz leaves They're Playing Our Song, etc. A degree of advance preparation may take place--listening to relevant records, getting critics' views ("I have Friday night tickets to the Philharmonic and have the luxury of reading about the opening"), reading the libretto, discussing the program with others, etc. Some attenders are specially motivated by the urge to have close contact with the performers. In high status circles this may take the form of stage parties for opera stars, and among the rock crowd the "groupie" phenomenon is well known.

The Evening Arrives

The evening of the event, the "consumption system" gets under way. The main stages involve food and drink, transportation, social and psychological characteristics of the convening, the performance, and its aftermath. All these aspects may be either elaborate or casual. Elaborate preparation highlights the social aspects of attending musical performances. in some cases, high status is stressed, with champagne dinners and formal dress or elaborate summer versions on the Ravinia lawn. "Going out" may include dinner and the show or something after the show; or it may be just trying to get there on time, with problems of sitters, traveling, parking, bad weather, sometimes trying to get last minute tickets.

The social aspects of attending are evident with most people, but are given different kinds of emphasis in the interviews. Those who are interested in the high cultural events of opera, symphony, or recital tend to see the social situation somewhat abstractly, as a formal necessity that the performance have an audience to interact with, as an occasion for various kinds of "proper" social behavior. There is a noticeable kind of self-consciousness about one's exaltation, spiritual elevation, and civility in being part of the well-behaved group.

Had drinks and buffet before the recital. Didn't know anyone but the host and hostess at first. I thought this was a very civilized, unusual experience I was about to Participate in.

Everyone stands around the lobby and talks, sees other friends, it's a big social, it's buzzing ... the social element disappears once you get to your seat.

Audiences are very important, but need to be educated.

Respondents who spoke about attending musicals were in some respects the most casual about preparations and arrivals, especially in New York. Attending was likely to be part of a date, to involve hitting box offices to see about getting in, taking tourist friends, going right from work, etc.

Two couples went, no pre- or post-theater activity. Ran over from work, just sort of hoped that it was good.

Had friends in from out of town--just went around to box office to see who had tickets. Usually recommend a musical if they're seeing just one when in town.

He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, "Annie." Worked all day, went to theater.

The immediate social excitement of going out to a musical event was most explicitly vigorous among young rock conc~rt goers. They emphasized the specific interpersonal aspects of dating, grouping, of getting together for social interaction around and at the musical event, including sharing of alcohol arid other drugs, and the expectation--even the fear--of lively crowd behavior. The intensity is pronounced.

We drove all over the area picking up the people in my van, t hen partied all the way to Providence, RE, where the concert was.

I felt an overriding desire to see the band--mailed for tickets, and while waiting for the show the drummer died, so I was disappointed. I couldn't wait for the show, it was the event of the year. I went with old, good friends, all really into it, four close friends. We went to dinner before and bought T-shirts before the performance.

I was Looking forward to the concert very much due to my fondness for her music and also due to the fact that I had a hot date for the show. Before the show we partied at a friend's house who lived near the club, partaking mostly of beer and scotch, marijuana, and due to my temporary possession of a couple hundred dollars, cocaine.

I was looking forward to seeing a good concert and plenty of good looking ladies.

It was kind of spooky. I never like the idea of being around all those people at one time. I felt kind of stiff, but loosened up once the music started.

Rock concert goers seem to worry more about whether the performers will show up; whether their seats will be taken, with some resulting hassle; the pushing of the crowd being dangerous; and, as one respondent said, "with me possessing enough stimulants for a felony conviction didn't help."

During the performance many respondents, regardless of type of musical event, tend to describe a kind of communion with the performance, a kind of deep, essential yielding of the self to the experience.

(Don Pasquale at the Metropolitan) During the performance, I have no sense of myself, I feel at one with the music, the conducting, a feeling of "at one-ment . "

(Patti Smith) During the performance, due to the intensity of Patti Smith, I found myself connecting mentally with tier, and I Let myself go.

(The King and I) The whole thing is upbeat, just keeps flowing. You can Lose yourself in musicals compared to psychological dramas.

(Bob Marley and the Wailers) I was feeling especially good. Very at peace, but charged up. Very uplifted.

Those who prefer rock concerts tend to experience the involvement as a kind of catharsis, as total unification of the performers and the audience, with a vivid sense of participation.

You interact with others as though you've known them all your life.

The strong music soon had everyone up and dancing and shouting.

Everyone was swept up in the music.

We were all taken up in the spirit of the event.

Everyone in the show almost acts as one.

Those who prefer high cultural events do not expect such a group phenomenon to be so noticeable. They may emphasize their own individual emotional reactions ("I ended up crying and enjoyed it thoroughly"; "I can be completely mesmerized"); and they often specifically discriminate themselves from the rest of the audience. Regardless of their inner emotions, they expect to be rather seif-controlled.

"I was not so aware of the audience. They reacted to the opera with mild enthusiasm and responsiveness. They came to hear the music, people don't go to the opera unless they like music."

In most cases, a process of evaluation also is operating; audience members have to decide whether the performance is good or not. They distinguish between the best part and the worst, and how this performance compares with others. Attenders at all kinds of events exercise these kinds of judgments, and easily distinguish between the most and the least compelling parts of the performance, according to their standards.

The most exciting part was the second half of the show which went from medium intensity to an almost orgasmic climax in the encores. By far the dullest part was the 45-minute wait in our seats for the show to begin, and the back up band, who were depressingly bad.

It was exciting to see a young woman play the violin very expertly. I wished her well. She played with more gusto than talent.

I hated it--weak, half-assed music, tired jokes, was disappointed, bored, and angry that the show was so successful. The piano song was the most exciting. For once, there was a surprise and cleverness in the show.

It was Tosca. I was watching for the differences between City and the Met.

The first piece was not complicated enough musically.

The London Symphony wasn't too good, but I was surprised and pleased by Davis's performance.

Bad playing in general--attacks are off, horns are breaking, audience talking, tempo bad--wanting to leave before completion.

[he behavior of the audience gets a lot of attention: their clothes, talking, movements, age, sex, race; their applause, coughing, closeness of attention, etc.-all are noteworthy, and are used as bases for judging where the respondent stands relative to the rest. Each kind of event is regarded as having a typical audience, and respondents are often sensitive to the symbolic appeals that select audience segments. The rock audience is described in the interviews as young, sixty-five percent males, and might be "mostly college types," or "about 75% , black because it was Earth wind and Fire." There are various uniforms, with jeans almost everywhere, and mixed degrees of dress-up or costumes.

Jeans, leather, T-shirts, boots and sneakers were de rigeur. 1 wore my ripped jeans, T-shirt, and black skinny tie punk uniform.

Dressed to kill, all jazzy, lots of blacks, few whites. I was like them all dressed up, all fancy dress, unreal for me, big heels, shawl/poncho kind of thing.

The audience at musicals is described in more middling terms, a sort of mixed bag of all sorts of people, reflecting the wide "class-Less" appeal of musicals. Middle class respondents tend to feel superior to the average audience, thinking themselves more knowledgeable and being regretful that the audience has deteriorated.

The audience loved it. They seemed to be touristy, out-of-town ... my tastes are more developed and cultivated, I'm probably better educated than most of them.

I feel I'm smarter than the rest of the audience, but similar in mutual enjoyment of musicals.

More and more I'm disappointed, they're just sitting there in jeans.

Nice cross-section of middle class Angelenos. Dress varied from neat matrons in cocktail dresses to hippies...Most were subscribers. I'm far superior, much better judgment and taste.

The audience for high culture also shows variety in dress and knowledgeability, especially as some events attract younger segments who approach more casually. The presence of ingroup members adds a special fillip to high cultural events, whether music students, a connection to the composer, or a select group of some sort. "Europeans" lend a special ambiance and luster, as does the presence of patrician money, jewels, furs; providing an imprimatur that helps to locate the event.

Interesting mixture of Europeans, stuffed shirts--on the whole a fairly stiff crowd of wealthy types ... Someone kissed the mother of the performer. I looked at ourselves as sort of peeking through a curtain at a rarified environment.

Older, definitely, upscale, evening clothes, lots of minks, very classy. One thing I don't Like is the chi-chi element--women who are there strictly for social reasons--Great Gatsby-like.

There were variations--minks and diamonds and ski clothes.

The audience came to see a Menotti opera, probably most of them were subscribers, young opera enthusiasts, similar to me. I was different, being there from having friends who were close to the composer and having been in works by Menotti.

The behavior of the audience is commonly said to be usual, or what is expected from the occasion. The higher the status of the culture, the event, and the audience, the more restrained the audience is apt to be. With status and maturity, people are expected to sit quietly, to know when to applaud and when not. They are not supposed to disturb each other with whispering, rattling papers, or coughing, and often show their fussiness with annoyed expressions and reprimands when these behaviors do occur. The contrast with the rock scene is marked, given the shouting, dancing, jumping, wandering about, cheering, smoking, drinking, and eating that go on there. American audiences (unlike Bayreuth) for high culture are supposed to be polite and well-behaved. Even disapproval is not expected to be vigorously shown.

Sit quietly, expected behavior, applaud when it is over.

You get reprimanded if you say one or two phrases even during the overture.

At Bayreuth there are contests between the proponents and opponents, who will boo and yell bravo for a half hour or so after the performance.

Can you imagine an American audience rioting over Stravinsky?

Learning One's Preferences

Respondents usually explain their musical preferences as having been learned in childhood or young adulthood. Both high culture and musicals are especially talked about as part of early family life. Often, musical parents, music lessons, and participating in shows are mentioned. Not infrequently, the child was "dragged along" until the finer things of life somehow took hold. These interviews do not illuminate the reasons why opera and symphony devotees continued to accept and attend these art forms, compared to others who did not. It is probably significant that middle class rock music fans almost never attribute their learning about rock to their parents; on the contrary, rock is recognized as an anti-parent choice.

It was also very much of a status thing in my social circle to be hip on the latest groups, and more importantly, to be "into" the higher status groups, that is, the more radical ones who parents disliked the most, the flashiest.

The implication is that childhood high culture consumers tend to conform to parental standards; then again, some enjoy both high culture and rock, while others rebel and prefer rock but later return to the parental model. it is evident that the process of Learning preferences is a complex one that may go on through life, and more study is needed of the social and psychological factors affecting it.

My parents used to take me--Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma, South Pacific. It was fun, an outing. Especially living in Brooklyn and going into the city.

Mom always liked opera and dragged me against my will. I ended up crying at the performance and enjoying it thoroughly.

I was not brought up going to things like Musica Sacra. I was influenced by my wife with a strong musical background. I went to Bach's B Minor Mass with her before we were married.

After initial exposure, the development of interest in musical performance takes many forms. Records, newspaper reviews, magazine stories, and attendance all play a part in the process. While generally a social process, it sometimes is pursued individually, with active and inactive periods, fits, starts, and hiatuses.

I bought records of musicals for a while, a kind of a hobby in high school.

Ran out to buy albums, I would attend concerts when I heard of them--but I would have had to have heard a song of theirs on the radio and liked it.

I try to dig up every review I can find because I don't know as much as most opera goers.

After my first symphony (performance) I kept pursuing it by attending and listening to classical radio. I read about it.

This activity sometimes became a solitary pleasure in addition to its social character.

I usually went alone--actively pursued it, exposed myself to different kinds of music. I went to opera to try it, but I don't like it now.

I did everything on my own, I didn't do any formal study. I have no in-depth knowledge but just being in a concert hall is a great pleasure.

I went to live performances at clubs like "Cafe Society" up in Harlem. I didn't buy many records. Frequently went alone.

For many, records, reviews, and attendance are not sufficient. Music increasingly becomes something that has to be mastered and created at first hand. The consumer becomes the performer. Passive consumption is not enough for those who demand greater depth of knowledge, understanding, and experience. They "consume" printed music and instruments.

I began taking singing lessons at night. Then at about 20, 1 began singing professionally, for weddings, etc.

Learned to play show music on the piano, studied it in school and college. Both parents promoted interest, were supportive and encouraging. No friends were involved.

In high school bought show records, did musicals in high school and summer camp.

The Musical Arts Product

The large general purpose is to explore the consumption of aesthetic experiences and to increase understanding of the arts product. The topic is a grand one and has not been neglected by artists, Philosophers, critics, art historians, psychologists, and others. Ihe views are also diverse, with such intimidating predecessors as Aristotle on the nature of tragedy, Tolstoy explicating "What is Art"', Dewey on Art As Experience, Sir Joshua Reynolds's Royal Academy lectures on the nature of masterpieces, Tom Wolfe on The Painted Word, and Igor Stravinsky's witty essays, to mention but a few.

The task is made harder by definitional disputes and hairsplitting, and the different issues posed by capital "Art," art objects, art forms, and what distinguishes the high from the low. A broad perspective is helpful. in his rich and absorbing analysis of the Balinese Cockfight, Clifford Geertz says that it is Like any art form in the way it renders ordinary experience comprehensible by highlighting a particular view of the essential nature of themes important in the society. At one point he says, "An image, fiction, a model, a metaphor, the cockfight is a means of expression; its function is neither to assuage social passions nor to heighten them (though, in its playing-with-fire way it does a bit of both), but, in a medium of feathers, blood, crowds, and money, to display them." (Geertz, 1973, p. 444). Something of the same might be said of the rock concert, as the British beat poet Michael Horowitz did recently, in commenting on the way punk rock abstracts the rage of desperate youngsters.

In the present instance, the more modest aim is particularly to notice some of the ways middle class consumers regard and gravitate toward the musical experiences they prefer. They were not asked to define the musical arts products. But from their discussions of their experiences, and their explanations of what these mean to them, some inferences may be made about the molar character of the product.

In fact, such an endeavor is not universally encouraged; some chafe at the very idea of viewing aesthetic artifacts as marketplace products. Such a metaphor is, however, essential if we are to think about the providing and acquiring of these experiences. For such purposes the musical arts product can be assigned to the economy's service sector; yet this economic classification should not mask the fact that some musical arts products are distinctively uneconomic, and the bond between performer and audience is usually secondarily commercial. The fiscal structure and the participants' pecuniary motives may vary from one musical form to the next, but musical arts products are characterized by varied distribution systems that involve in the aggregate millions of sellers and buyers--performing artists, skilled craftsmen, designers, technicians, agents, lawyers, entrepreneurs, financiers, students, teachers, parents, fans, hangers on, subscribers, and so on. Few would argue that no exchanges are transacted here, no services "delivered." Whether for profit or not, art products are undeniably amenable to the strategems of market research. Acknowledgment of marketing's emerging role in arts management should include a note of caution against premature statistical analysis of narrowly conceived audience attributes. Rather, emphasis be directed toward explicating the central behavioral dimensions that characterize performing arts consumption.

The preference within marketing for the usual variables of price, quality, and convenience is ultimately an inadequate perspective from which to examine the symbolically Laden musical arts products. Through examining consumers' views, the issues they raise can be given greater centrality.

First, it may be noted that whatever the musical arts product may be--Helen Gardner (1936) says the essence art is mysterious, intangible, indefinable--the high culture consumers tend to look upon it as experience necessary to their ways of life.

It's extremely important, part of what keeps me going, keeps me happy; I wouldn't survive without it. Music can get into my soul, is a highly emotional experience.

I need music in my life, it's an integral part.

It does the soul good. It's important that I have the opportunity to do this, even if we don't go that often.

Very important because it gives me pleasure, and I find it spiritually renewing.

Part of the significance of the high arts product, and its strength, seems to derive from this union of pleasure and virtue, the absorbing of a beauty that is also spiritually beneficial. In rather striking contrast, consumers of lower musical art forms tend to deny the necessary character of their affiliation.

I wouldn't die if 1 couldn't go.

Hey, this is no religious experience. It's just nice to see a live show once in a while for a nice night out.

They're not as important now because I do not have that much time or money to check out good concerts ... It doesn't affect me that much, except that I'll be singing a particular song for a while.

I really enjoy them and think about going to them (musicals) a Lot, but there's a lot more things that take precedence.

Perhaps a larger sample or a sample of lower status devotees would bring out more intense expressions of need.

The high arts product has about it a quality of endurance, in itself and in its effects. The contrast with the ephemeral character of popular art is mentioned repeatedly. Low art is said to be more sheerly sensational, assaulting the senses.

When I come home I'm so wound up in a wonderful way. It's a lasting experience for me, not like going to a musical comedy, which is forgettable.

These are the tried and true.

The experience of the show (Evita) is not really significant--it is an escapist moment. I don't feel very strongly.

We heard Jonathan Schwartz at Michael's Pub. It was distraction, excitement ... I feel elation when it's over, for a short time. I'm very spoiled, I dismiss pleasures readily.

The idea that mass culture is ephemeral recurs. Rick Kogan in the Chicago Sun-Times recently commented on this.

Sensations come and go frequently in the rock 'n roll business. Today's star is tomorrow's nobody, today's catchiest tune is tomorrow's forgotten melody, today's rabid fans are tomorrow's missing persons.

Respondents similarly note this.

Most rock is not lasting. Tasteless and pure ephemeral vogue. None of these people will be remembered in a few years.

The relativity of some of these views is also apparent as this same last respondent seeks to justify his own superior preference for a popular singer by remarking, "What I prefer is tasteful and apparently of lasting value. Fifty years from now they'll still be playing Mel Torme." Perhaps low art facilitates only an existential catharsis. But then again, perhaps to deny the intensity of the role of low art in the lives of its fans and its lasting effects on their emotions or personalities is part of the snobbism that often accompanies elitist attitudes.

The "directional" character of musical experiences is of interest. All of these experiences may give one a greater sense of oneself or a removal from oneself. High culture is seen to elevate the listener to spiritual realms; middle culture entertains, distracts, and diverts; and in the minds of some, low culture (e.g., punk rock) degrades the participants (some of whom use the expression "to get down"). Good music soothes the savage breast, while bad arouses it; status differences in art indicate the ways people use it to assert their degrees of refinement as human beings, distancing from their animal nature.

Among the various issues that occur in the recounting and evaluating of the arts product may be distinguished those relating to (1) the work of art itself, (2) the performing artists, and (3) the musical performance. in actuality, of course, these elements occur as an integrated experience, and greatness is achieved when they are all optimal. But they can be evaluated separately, and they may be conceived as having differential importance for different levels of arts products. The high cultural partisan tends to give the strongest appreciation to the work of art itself. The music itself is the fundamental creation, even if it is sometimes hard to separate it from its composer and the performances that embody it. The purist may try to be rid of the reliance on the artist, as in these remarks recently in the Chicago Tribune, by Gerald M. Tein, protesting the cult of Sir Georg Solti.

I am rather unhappy at the news of Solti's intention to continue leading our band. But then, I usually go to concerts to hear music, not performers. And I'm afraid those of us who do so make up a minority of the Chicago Symphony's audience ... Those of us who feel this way realize Solti's rightfully praised skills as an interpreter of a limited repertoire do not compensate for his inadequacies as the arbiter of musical taste in our community... Let us hope the audience has not been persuaded to value Solti more than it values music itself. if it has, the worst possible outcome is already at hand.

Respondents often emphasize their relationship to the material.

If I go to Puccini, I know I'm going to cry. if I'm going to hear Wagner, I'm so moved that I'm lost.

I love German opera because it has some transcendent meaning.

Audiences for popular culture performances, of course, make distinctions between different performers' versions of the same material; and have preferred materials, also. But they seem likely to respond more directly and aggressively to the particular performer and experience of performance.

Best thing that can happen is that everyone attending the performance and also the musicians playing the music can almost meld into one.

Everyone enjoys the music Without distraction.

They really get into their performance, the second performance is better because they're warmed up. They make you feel the music.

Linda Ronstadt) drives me wild.

At all levels the performing artists are appreciated because they bring the music to life, and because they vary in artistry among them and from one ' performance to another. Mr. Stein might get rid of Solti, but presumably he still needs the orchestra. The different artists and their performances are also essential to the critical faculty, enabling exploration of nuances in execution and interpretation, and the display of one's aesthetic sensitivity and judgment. A riot so subtle aspect of the arts situation is where it goes on. Becker (1974) has recently described a work of art as a social network of collective cooperation. The collection of organizations and persons linked together for the product on and distribution of a musical arts product speaks symbolically about the nature of the product and prescribes conventions that delineate the domain of the arts product and guide performing arts consumer etiquette.

There has been some discussion in the service marketing literature that it is difficult to conceptualize or even describe a service sector product independently of its system of distribution. Performing arts products exemplify this concept. The often simultaneous and inseparable nature of service production, distribution, and consumption fosters an interaction between product and retail image. For example, the splendor of the Chicago Opera House symbolically distinguishes its musical products from the rock extravaganzas housed in the utilitarian Amphitheater or Stadium, the more sophisticated productions at the Park West in Lincoln Park or the disreputable-seeming musical products offered in the proliferating New Wave outlets. From the perspective of market segmentation, this variance in distribution systems informs one not only of the existence of different types of musical arts products; it depicts a market "atmosphere" that varies from one product to the next; and it throws light upon the cast of characters who populate an art world and even suggests their motivations for participating.

From a marketing point of view, the arts product as a saleable entity comes into being particularly with the performance. While the musical arts product may be intangible, if one excludes the T-shirt and orange drinks sold in the lobby, it is produced and consumed live at a particular time and a retail place, and becomes tangible in the persons of the performers, their instruments, costumes, and actions, all of which are sensorily "consumed" through visual, auditory, and vibratory means. The experience may be a service, and sometimes ineffable, but the consumers are not insensate. And it is ultimately their expression and categorization of these experiences that determines the segmentation of the performing arts audience.


This paper has described some elements evident in the behavior of consumers of musical events. The behavior is seen as a component in the larger pattern of arts consumption. The present part of the pattern is one in which social status is expressed by attendance at events that are symbolically hierarchical, with accompanying attitudes of deference and disdain toward the different musical levels.

Opera is not unhealthy, blasting loud, it's based on literature, has some substance to it ... it is more highly developed.

I don't consider rock music to be music.

By concentrating on preferences among middle class consumers, only a portion of the status hierarchy is examined. Some interclass comparisons can be made as both lower middle class and upper middle class people are included. The consumers of opera, symphony, and chamber music tend to be more mature and established members of the upper middle class. By staying within the middle class it is possible to observe specialization of preferences, and recognize that age makes an important difference, given the devotion to rock by young middle class consumers; and the general affection for musicals.

The analysis proceeds mainly at a low level of abstraction, partly because some of this description is a useful groundwork and sketching it may help to foster discussion and theorizing. Probably an obstacle to objective analysis is the strongly evaluative views that pervade attitudes toward the arts. It is illuminating that some of the emotional responsiveness to various art forms is talked about in similar terms, so that in certain respects popular culture seems to elicit semantics comparable to that of high culture. At the same time, the differences are also present and generally acknowledged, especially the importance attributed to peer dynamics among popular musical arts, and the more private, intellectualized, and virtuous complexities attributed to high culture.


Howard S. Becker, "Art as Collective Action," American Sociological Review, 39, No. 6 (December, 1974~, -67-776.

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

Sidney J. Levy, "Aesthetic Attributes and Arts Consumers," Marketing the Arts (New York, Praeger, 1980).

Samuel Lipman, "Funding the Piper," Commentary, 67 (January, 1979), 54-60.

Dwight Macdonald, Masscult and Midcult (New York: Partisan Review, 1961).



Sidney J. Levy, Northwestern University
John A. Czepiel, New York University
Dennis W. Rook, (student), Northwestern University


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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