Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Building New Audiences for Our Classical Music Institutions

(I recently had the privilege of attending my first ever live performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, one of the all time greatest compositions, courtesy of Music of the Baroque. This company is one of Chicago’s great cultural institutions. I remember the first time I went to see one of their performances at a local church. I was expecting a “rag-tag fugitive fleet” of an ensemble. When I got there and saw them up on stage in full white tie ready for action, the message was very clear: we’re serious about what we do and ready to deliver. And do they. But while they are excellent musically, their shows also depress me in a way, since at 39 I’m usually one of the few “younger” people in attendance. I’d estimate only around 15% of their attendees are under the age of 55. What does this mean for the future of MOB and others like them? It’s hugely concerning to me personally. So while I’m sure no one wants to read yet another post on this topic, their recent show inspired me to weave together a couple of pieces I wrote a while back on building new audiences for classical music. Keep in mind, this is an older piece, though the recommendations at the end are new).

Drew McManus, who runs a blog called Adaptistration, is publicizing Take a Friend to the Orchestra Week (TAFTO). The idea is that an existing patron, by sponsoring someone new to orchestra attendance, will create another classical music fan. It’s an excellent idea and one I heartily support, though one I think is likely to bear only limited fruit in building sustainable audiences for the long term.

The premise if TAFTO seems to be that if we expose people to classical music, they will like it. This is based on two assumptions that I think are both flawed:

1. Gaining an appreciation for classical music requires no work or effort, merely exposure. (There is some debate on this point, granted. Guest blogger Marc Geelhoed suggests having your guests listen to a recording several times casually before attending, suggesting at least some effort. I certainly support this. Alex Shapiro suggests that a raw, unmediated experience, where the music does the talking for itself, will do the trick).

2. Large numbers of people, probably a majority of people, are likely to enjoy classical music and even become big fans if they can only be introduced to it.

The easiest refutation of these is merely to look at what existing classical music fans listen to. It’s a largely static core repertoire of the major symphonic composers. There is little music frequently programmed prior to the time of Handel and Bach. Very little contemporary music is programmed. Even when these items are programmed, they are not nearly as popular as the traditional pieces.

The logic of TAFTO would suggest that we should have a classical music fan base that enjoys the full spectrum of Western art music. Home CD collections should be equally as full of Josquin and Palestrina as they are of Beethoven and Brahms. Modern compositions should be widely listened to and appreciated. Yet neither of these are the case. Why might that be? Some possibilities:

– Concert goers are not familiar with this work. That seems dubious. It is unlikely that regular symphony patrons have never encountered any works in these styles before. Remember, the logic is that attending once can hook you.

– Early and contemporary music are of lower quality and desirability than the Classical and Romantic eras. This is a defensible position, but I’ve yet to hear anyone seriously advocate it.

– Early and contemporary music is far more difficult to appreciate than the core repertoire. Again, defensible, but anyone making this argument has some explaining to do to convince us.

If seasoned classical music fans won’t try something new, or don’t like substantial amounts of music outside the core repertoire (which is, IMO, the real crisis facing classical music today), why would we think someone with no background at all in classical music will attend a symphony concert and get hooked? I wouldn’t take that bet.

I suppose one could argue that existing concert goers are more conservative or set in their ways than total newbies, but this suggests that the public at large is actually more musically discerning than the existing classical music patron base, and somehow perhaps represent a better audience. (If that’s the case, then don’t start them with Beethoven, go straight to Boulez and let your audience for new music be made up of total newcomers to the field). Again, this is a position one can argue, but I’d like to see someone explicitly make it.

I for one believe that gaining an appreciation of classical music takes time and effort. Not a Ph.D. in musicology, but at least some level of desire and investment of time to make it happen. We live in an era that is divorced from the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and social context of the time that music was created. That creates a chasm that has to be crossed in order to access the riches beyond. Remember how people reacted to Beethoven’s works when they were expecting Classical era compositions. And even then the public had the advantage of familiarity with much of Beethoven’s musical language. For someone who’s never really listened to a classical piece before, there are some things it would be helpful to get up to speed on first.

Try to image someone whose musical background consists entirely of classical music. Now drop that person into a hip hop show cold. How likely is it that person is going to come away a fan? Not likely. That doesn’t mean this person can’t gain an appreciation for hip hop. But dropping him into an Eminem show with no prep probably isn’t going to do it.

I also don’t believe that, due to reasons of taste and inclination, the majority of the public will ever have any serious interest in classical music. Yes, they might enjoy hearing the William Tell Overture, or attend an outdoor summer performance of Beethoven’s 9th every now and again. But they are unlikely to be your core, engaged audience going forward. The sad fact is that with limited exception, the high arts have always largely appealed to a fairly select audience, usually those whose social position gave them the impetus (or obligation) and freedom to indulge it.

Let’s put this aside for now and just say that everyone can learn to appreciate classical music at some level. If they won’t be your regularly masterworks series subscriber, maybe they will at least come once or twice a year. The key is, given that there is no longer a social expectation of familiarity with classical music as part of being a generally cultured person, how do we build the interest?

I’ll use my own person path to exhibit this. I grew up with almost no exposure to classical music and never played an instrument, not even in high school band. In college, I ended up working for over two years at a classical music radio station, a position I pursued only because of my interest in audio engineering.

My favorite time to work was during the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday. You see, the opera was a continuous three hour chunk of network time, and I could just turn the monitor down to a low level to make sure we were still on air and read a book or study. In my entire time working at the station, I never gained an appreciation for classical music, even though I was exposed to countless hours of it. I was not only surrounded by it, I was surrounded by people from the music school who were obviously passionate about it. But it made no impact.

How did I learn to like classical music? Well, later in my 20’s I dated someone who loved opera and had a subscription. I went with her for two seasons. Later, after breaking up, I subscribed myself. Why I don’t know, because I didn’t like it all that much, truthfully. But by my fourth season, I finally “got it”. Part of this is because I got a course on tape (courtesy of new girlfriend who was now attending with me!) about opera that explained to me what was really going on and gave me my bearings. It was almost as if I had a zen-like flash of insight. It was like flipping a switch and somehow it all made sense. From there I branched out into other areas of classical music.

I think to really make a classical music fan, you need to get someone to the point where their switch flips, and this requires both a guide and some willingness to study and keep at it until you get it. I don’t think mere exposure is the answer. (Perhaps learning to play music will take you there – as a non-musician, I don’t know). I do think it takes some amount of desire and work on the part of someone to learn to appreciate classical music. Even to this day, when going to see an opera for the first time, I buy a CD and listen to it three times: one to just put the music in my head, another with the libretto in hand to follow along with, and a third to drive it all home.

Most people, I suspect, aren’t willing to make that investment. So I believe the classical music base will continue to be made up of a relatively small segment of any given community. Naturally arts groups will never say that, because without a mandate for serving the broader community, a lot of their funding would be in jeopardy, but it is the truth just the same. So these orchestras will duly spend time and money on outreach and putting on mini-operas for the kids. While this is good PR, I doubt it will have much long term impact on attendance. They are soil fertilizing techniques that I approve of, they set the stage later for possibly tuning in, but they won’t be sufficient by themselves.

What else is needed?

I do think there is something to this notion of an apprenticeship, of being guided to it by someone who is already “in the club” so to speak. This is both to get over the intimidation factor (e.g., understanding the protocol of concerts) and to explain what the heck is going on (e.g., a bit about who Mozart was, the classical era, and the basis of the symphonic form). But contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe that accessibility is all that important and may in fact be harmful. Rather, we should try to play up the idea of exclusivity, albeit an exclusivity that is available to anyone who wants to put in the effort. Look at almost any activity or interest that appeals to a limited group: pens, high end bespoke tailoring, modern furnishings, raw denim, mechanical watches, wine, skateboarding, you name it. All of them rely on a sort of insider knowledge to render them the province of a self-selected elite. But they are reasonably approachable. They create the idea of this exclusive club, use that aspiration to attract you, then slowly guide you in, letting the committed through the door while weeding out the pretenders.

In short, classical music should sell itself as a luxury lifestyle product. That doesn’t mean superficial consumption for the rich, it means appealing to the connoisseur in a spirit of genuine connoisseurship. And the great news is that if someone is a connoisseur of one thing, they are much more likely to become a connoisseur of another. So you’ve got a ready made audience out there of people who enjoy all the things I listed above and way more I didn’t. And what’s more, once people like this get into something, they really get into it and really do want to understand the ins and outs in a deep and rich way. In fact, they often become obsessive. (Sound familiar to any classical music folks out there???)

You might also notice that luxury brands apart from the ultra-elite usually have a few products that are accessible financially to the masses to get people interested and hooked. Then people can move up the food chain as their wallets and inclination allows. Similarly, classical music has to be able to find some entry level membership that lets people get in the door and gives them a path to move up. But you can’t lose site of the exclusivity factor. Positioning classical music as a totally mass market product “for everyone” only diminishes its appeal. You need exclusivity, the entry point, the “guide” to help you in, and the upwards path. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is an almost universal template.

I should also note that this approach is very in line with the trend that hit in earnest in the mid-90’s of the fragmentation of the great American common culture in favor of a multiverse of niche cultures.

As always I can’t promise this is the answer, but the way I figure it, it can’t work any worse than what we’ve got now. And by the way, the same logic applies to getting existing classical fans to try new things as well – though I suspect that really is an even harder journey given the number of years current listening habits have been “burned in” for many of them.

(At a future date I’ll add another installment with some additional thoughts. But to cap this off, I thought I would tout one other Chicago institution whose season is upcoming. This is the Chicago Opera Theater. The COT is arguably America’s most important opera company. I feel that strongly about the work they are doing. Brian Dickie and company accomplish miracles on a shoe string budget. They’ve pulled off what others have only dreamed of doing – creating opera that is fresh, new, and of the now, attracting a new, younger audience without turning off the existing one, and doing it with largely contemporary and baroque works. If I had to choose between keeping my Lyric tickets or my COT tickets, the COT would win hands down. Like all arts institutions, they are getting hit by the economy, so our support is doubly needed at this time. That goes for all our arts organizations in all our cities).

Topics: Arts and Culture

5 Responses to “Building New Audiences for Our Classical Music Institutions”

  1. thundermutt says:

    Learning to play an instrument is one of the gateways to music appreciation. One can certainly “just play” for a couple of years and never “get it”. But it all comes together once the connection is established between work (learning a piece, practicing your part) and reward (hearing it all come together around you).

    And then there’s this: the experience of being in the middle of an orchestra or concert band (or standing in the middle of a marching band) as part of the performance is completely different than sitting in the audience. Making music is an active pursuit.

    But like other interests, it can wane and fade over time as spouses, houses and kids enter the picture. I think the primary audience for classical music has almost always been “older”.

    As the peak of the baby boom hits 55-60 in the next few years (and as the economy recovers) this conjecture will be tested.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am an occasional reader of your blog and enjoy your work. Up until this point I never felt the need to participate in the discussion. But I believe that there are different ways to appreciate music and we shouldn’t shut the door on the ideas of familiarity and exposure as paths to classical music appreciation.

    The familiarity part can be summed up in three words, Bugs Bunny cartoons. I watched Bugs Bunny as a child and had no idea I was absorbing the music until my sister took up the cello as a performer. In high school she would be practicing a piece and I would recognize the music but not the name of the piece or the composer. When I asked why I recognized the piece the answer was always “Bugs Bunny cartoon.” As I began to listen to more classical music there was always that thrill of realizing that I already knew the piece even if I didn’t realize what it was. If I am going to a performance where I am not familiar with the music, I never listen to it in advance because I love the adventure of letting the beauty of the music unfold without knowing where it is going. To this day “Bugs Bunny cartoon” is an inside joke between my sister and I.

    I came to opera in an entirely different way. In collage I lived next door to a voice major who begged me to go to an opera recital she was in because she and her fellow performers were afraid no one would come. I had not been exposed to opera before, well, not counting that one Bugs Bunny cartoon anyway. I was instantly in love with the opera and got goose bumps during that very first performance. When I go to a new opera, I do no more the read a summary of the story because the experience itself is what I enjoy.

    I think many more people would like classical music if they were exposed to it without thinking it had to be worked at. I think that is why Pops series exist and Conner Prairie series is so popular. People believe the music at these series is familiar and doesn’t have to be studied to be enjoyed.

    I do like your apprentice idea. In part, because I think that approach is important. Many of those school trips are enjoyed by the students if only because they get out of class but that experience is never followed up on. No one expands their experience to allow for familiarity or grants them greater exposure.

    And unfortunately, no one watches Bugs Bunny cartoons any more.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 2:33, thanks so much for the comment and the personal story.

    I agree completely that there are multiple paths to entry. I know one person, the wife of one my long time clients, who attended a rather obtuse production of Parisfal, a difficult and lengthy opera by Wagner, and was transfixed by it. Turned into a huge fan overnight.

    So I’m definitely supportive of keeping on doing what we are doing to maximize exposure. Other than repositioning classical music away from being a mass market product, I think we can go full speed ahead with what we are doing.

    Unfortunately, that does not seem to be getting the job done. If you have suggestions on the right kinds of follow-up and such we could do for some of these enrichment activities, I’m sure plenty of people would ready to listen.

  4. Yao Wang says:

    After reading this post, I am very happy that some people start to worry about the future of classical music, because when people start to have a fear to something, the solution of the fear will follow up from people’s mind. Through this entire post I start to know that how people who are not in the profession of classical music think about the current situation of classical music and the way they have suggested to approach the classical music.In order to encourage more people to attend in classical music concert, the first important thing is the program choice of concert. The reason is that classical music since its beginning to twenty first century has existed long time. During such long period development, those classical music composers, such as Bach, Beethoven etc, were using various methods from various angles to approach the composition of the classical music. So it is not easy to understand their music in a short time, even to our music students or professional musicians. Therefore, a proper program choice may easily turn on people’s interest to the music. This is same as an example that when we play a disco music in public, some people may naturally start to dance by following the stylistic rhythm.

    The second important thing for an effective concert to audience is by using lecture to help people to understand what music they are listening to. I think this point has explained meaning of “I finally got it” on this post. Because when people start to be clear what they are hearing, they will have more confident to hear more. The more they are hearing, the more interests from them will be increased. I think that this analysis has well matched one of descriptions from this post, “once people like this get into something, they really get into it and really do want to understand the ins and outs in a deep and rich way.” Therefore, a lecture in a concert is like the function of bridge to allow people really access in the world of classical music. When people really get into world of classical music, they will start to benefit what classical music may gift to them.

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Yao, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment – I appreciate it.

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