Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Replay: Building New Audiences for Our Classical Music Institutions

[ I had a discussion with some folks this afternoon about, among other things, how to build new audiences for classical music. That reminded me I’d written this post, so I decided to resurrect it from the archives – Aaron. ]

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, 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.

This post originally ran on February 25, 2009.

Topics: Arts and Culture

16 Responses to “Replay: Building New Audiences for Our Classical Music Institutions”

  1. Top Scientist says:

    How about discounted admission for those who arrive by bicycle?

  2. Gary Koehl says:

    The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is trying to get younger listeners in the door in a couple of ways that meet newbies halfway. The first is programming “Happy Hour” performances geared towards downtown office workers. The most recent was a mashup of Radiohead and Brahms by the ISO with guest performers:

    Another is to pair up current acts from the artier fringes of the rock world or current classical composers with the ISO. The most recent example of this Son Lux and Shara Worden:

    This latest was under the auspices of a collaboration between the ISO and New Amsterdam Presents:

    I’m not sure if this will lead to increased interest in and/or attendance at performances of the ISO proper, but it at least gets people in the door of the Circle Theatre who might not have otherwise gone.

  3. Quimbob says:

    First of all, learn to play something. You can get a Midi device & software pretty cheap & commence writing symphonies. heck, Danzig did it….
    What got me going was Stanley Kubrick marrying popular pieces with images of spaceships & futuristic teen gangs. That & a lot of free performances at the local school of music (Wittenberg U) and free student admission to the local symphony.
    I don’t know if this impacts orchestral music but chamber groups seem to be going to the masses more and more – playing at bars, etc.
    As far as the entrenched classical fan branching out? It’s been awhile but I remember a steady stream of people walking out on a Kronos Quartet performance at the U of Cincinnati.
    Altho, when they started their Hendrix piece, the little old lady squealed with glee, “oh! Purple Haze!”
    A true love of music will take you anywhere.

  4. urbanleftbehind says:

    ^^that just reminds me of how I dread Matinee Days at the Civic Opera house and its blocking of my typical path back to my downtown commuter rail station.

  5. James says:

    A few notes:

    – last time I priced the CSO admission for nose bleed seats was far more than good seats at an average rock concert. It is cost prohibitive for a young person to go. It is also not an engaging environment. Is the sound really that much better than a high fidelity recording and a good home sound system? And you can lounge about in your pajamas and drink coffee. So I don’t believe that young people need an introduction to the orchestra.

    – “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.”

    Allow me to explain. 20th century “classical” music went quickly to the altar of atonality. It is pretty much unlistenable. The average person doesn’t like Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, later Stravinsky, and the other big names like Penderecki. This was done on purpose to make the music more difficult. The people who conceived this idea did so on purpose. They were the products of academia. They wanted to make the most challenging and complicated music they could. They had a take it or leave it attitude with the average music listener and guess what? They left.

    Older music suffers greatly from a number of technical challenges. One of which is tuning. Music before Bach had vastly different tuning systems that changes the way an orchestra should approach music. Or even tune the instruments themselves. This, along with a desire for many orchestras to interpret music as slowly and dispassionately as possible makes so many performances of Palestrina and others quite bad.

    So yes I would say early or contemporary music won’t fill the seats for good reason. Look at it this way: Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies but the bulk of his writing was for very small groups like solo piano or string quartet. As performance art it is dead with the general public and can only really be consumed in special venues like college campuses. But marrying classical music to big orchestras playing all your favorite hits is like a golden oldies radio station worrying as the audience slowly dies.

  6. Civis Romanus Sum says:

    James states that “20th century “classical” music went quickly to the altar of atonality. It is pretty much unlistenable. The average person doesn’t like Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, later Stravinsky, and the other big names like Penderecki.”

    I’m the proverbial eclectic listener described above – I listen to everything from Josquin Desprez to Magnus Lindberg – and in my experience, some of the youngest and most enthusiastic classical audiences I have seen were at concerts of modern and contemporary music.

    What’s more, even though I like all the “unlistenable” composers you list, most modern composers never made the shift to complete atonality. What about Shostakovich, Ravel, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Copland, Martinu, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Adams, and dozens of others? All 20th century composers, and none of them scary atonalists. Schoenberg and crew were just one tendency among many.

    Beethoven and Brahms are great, but playing the same old stuff without varying the diet is not a great recipe for success.

  7. James says:


    I think that the atonal school really helped to cement “classical” music into the public consciousness as music for the dead. It was even a joke on the Simpsons. After the fist measure of Beethoven’s fifth the audience gets up to leave. Marge chides them to stay and informs them that the rest of the program will feature an atonal piece by Phillip Glass, causing the audience to flee.

    Shostakovich is great but kept out of the public realm by politics. By the time the BBC made Gorecki a platinum hit it was too late in America. Sibelius and Vaughn Williams may have lived in the 20th century but they sound of the Romantic era.

    It would require something extraordinary for a piece of new classical music to resonate with the youth of America.

  8. Civis Romanus Sum says:


    “an atonal piece by Phillip Glass” – that’s funny, because Glass doesn’t write atonal music. He is a minimalist, i.e. about as tonal as you can get.

    The youngest and scruffiest audience I’ve seen was for a concert of Messiaen, Ligeti and Nancarrow. This was in Prague, but I’ve had similar experiences here in the US.

    BTW, despite your earlier comment about cost-prohibitive CSO concerts, I’ve seen plenty of young people at them (having a student ID cuts prices in half), and also at Ravinia, which is much cheaper in general.

  9. James says:

    Well I guess you must be right then. Atonal music is really tearing up the billboard charts! Silly me I forgot about that time Wozzack went viral.

  10. Civis Romanus Sum says:

    James, serious art music (whether classical, jazz, or something else) is never going to “tear up the Billboard charts.” Your sarcasm is unwarranted, as is your focus on atonality, which is a dead issue. You did make a worthwhile point here: “But marrying classical music to big orchestras playing all your favorite hits is like a golden oldies radio station worrying as the audience slowly dies.”

    Which has been recognized by conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas in SF and Esa-Pekka Salonen in LA. By focusing on innovative programming, the former lowered the average age of the SFSO audience from 55 to 44 within a few years. The latter has brought in a whole new audience with special concerts devoted to contemporary music.

    Also, I guess you missed the hugely successful Elliott Carter festival a few years back:

    Point: there’s a huge range of stuff outside the “golden oldies” that can be successfully mined – many examples prove that.

  11. Jacob says:

    It’s sad that music is the only art form in which a supposedly educated person can talk the way James does. Who in 2013 would suggest that we throw out Kandinsky, Pollock, Rothko? How about Eisenstein, Takorvsky, and Brakhage? Stein, Beckett, and Calvino? Those folks are titans in their respective art forms that taught us to experience the world differently. But apparently no one told organizations like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cannes Film Festival, or the Nobel Prize Committee that “the average person doesn’t like them” and that they are “products of academia.”

    In fact, it’s easy to argue that the names I just mentioned were far more revolutionary and extreme in their fields than Schoenberg, Webern, or even Ligeti and Stockhausen were for music. It will not be possible to build new audiences for classical music until we encourage folks to eschew received wisdom, open their minds and ears, and expect the same challenges and transcendent experiences from music that they do from the other arts.

  12. James says:


    My sarcasm is unwarranted? No no, it is especially warranted. You see I have considerably low tolerance for a rejection of objective reality. I would argue that this attitude that “serious art music (whether classical, jazz, or something else) is never going to “tear up the Billboard charts.”” is a symptom of the same malaise I described. For you see Beethoven and Mozart were pretty popular guys in their days. Old Ludwig had between 10,000 and 30,000 mourners at his funeral. Quite a showing for 1827.

    Consider that Alsergrund today has about 40,000 people.

    It is hard to quantify their success due to lack of records, but let us for a second consider your mention of jazz. Once upon a time jazz was enormously popular. Lee Morgan had a huge hit with Sidewinder, it became a commerical success. And hardly the first, jazz had been a popular medium since the early days of recording.

    Oh but once jazz was locked in the same ossuary as classical music it too died a sad death in the popular consciousness. But it did not have to be this way.

    Every composition has an audience. If your audience is music professors is it surprising that the music is unplayed, unrecorded, unlistened, unloved? Rotting away in some basement library somewhere? Everything I’ve read about Mozart suggests he wrote for whatever audience payed him the most whether it was the penny opera or the emperor.

    100 performances in about a year…maybe there were a lot of music professors?

    I understand that you are angry and upset because I called atonal music unlistenable and you took that personally and got hurt feelings so now you have to give me anecdotes about how mad the young kids are for the new classical music. But it is true. I don’t drop these names like Wozzeck and Schoenberg lightly. I’ve listened to them and I like some of them. But most people don’t. Why do you try and argue against that simple truth? And it isn’t due to lack of exposure. I’ve played it for people. Most charitably people will say Threnody sounds like a horror movie soundtrack. And the numbers back me up! The dirty secret about billboard “classical” music is the shamefully low numbers you need to chart.

    “So it came as no surprise that Hahn’s new album, “Bach: Violin and Voice,” debuted that week at No. 1 on the Billboard classical charts.

    No. 1 on the charts: It doesn’t get any better than that. Or does it?

    The dirty secret of the Billboard classical charts is that album sales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless. Sales of 200 or 300 units are enough to land an album in the top 10. Hahn’s No. 1 recording, after the sales spike resulting from her appearance on Conan, bolstered by blogs and press, sold 1,000 copies.”

    And really, why does the world need another CD of Mozart or Bach? How many hundreds of times have the same old pieces been recorded? Most people seem to like Beethoven but the 5th has been so ingrained into peoples consciousness since youth that the first measure is now a farce. A victim of its own success.

    Can you imagine a young composer writing in a new style like dubstep at a conservatory? Can you imagine a symphony actually playing it? How many decades did it take before symphonies started inviting the electric guitar?

    I think the minimalists could have been popular with regular people if there wasn’t this demographic donut hole with classical music where atonal music is. But hey this happened before I was born, don’t be angry with me for just telling it like it is.

    “When I was young, I came to realize that twelve-tone music, or for that matter, all contemporary music, was so far divorced from communal experience that it didn’t appear on the national radar screen. It would be nice to hear someone say, ‘Look at that gas station in the moonlight. It’s pure John Adams.’””

    Right now classical music doesn’t resonate with young people because it doesn’t try. People at concerts don’t talk. They don’t dance. They wear suits. But once upon a time a Polonaise was a dance. What was the purpose of a gavotte? Should we divorce the the origins of musical totally so that we can dress it up and call ourselves smart for having listened? Some of the smartest people I know listen to Jay Z.

    I’m sure Aaron was trying to draw an analogy between the structure of classical music trying to get a new audience and the structure of old cities trying to get a new generation to move back in, but I think the parallels are quite different as you can see.

    And as for you, Jacob, how do you “suppose” I am educated? Did I say I was? No. What are you some sort of sick stalker? What do you know of me? Nothing you shameful little shit. You know nothing of me. Yes how dare I use a bit of sarcasm! How unbearably “sad”.

  13. Civis Romanus Sum says:

    James, your argument is unclear. On the one hand, you condemn modern classical for being “atonal” (even though most of it isn’t). On the other hand, you portray traditional classics (Mozart, Beethoven, etc) as dead or dying, unable to attract new listeners.

    So are you just trying to say that classical music as a whole is dead and we should stop trying to attract new people to it because it’s a hopeless cause? If so, you could have said that a lot more concisely.

    To some specific points: ” If your audience is music professors is it surprising that the music is unplayed, unrecorded, unlistened, unloved?”

    I’m not a music professor, and neither is anyone I know who listens to this stuff. This is straw-man argumentation.

    ” you took that personally and got hurt feelings so now you have to give me anecdotes about how mad the young kids are for the new classical music”

    This isn’t about my feelings. Are you able to refute the examples I cited above? Were the SFSO and LAPO in fact unsuccessful at attracting new, younger listeners? Did I hallucinate that Carter festival with its sold-out audiences?

    “Right now classical music doesn’t resonate with young people because it doesn’t try. People at concerts don’t talk. They don’t dance. They wear suits.”

    So what are you proposing here? Should we make classical concerts more like rock concerts? Isn’t the virtue of classical music that you actually sit there and listen to it, as if you’re watching a film or a play? Do you really expect people to get up and boogie during a performance of a Mahler symphony? (By the way, I never wear a suit at a concert.)

  14. Civis Romanus Sum says:

    An interesting perspective – here are a couple of posts by a onetime rock music journalist, Greg Mitchell, discussing his sudden late-midlife obsession with Beethoven:

  15. Top Scientist says:

    Civis and James,
    Thanks for the juicy dialogue! It does prive one theory on the decline of classical attendance — fans can’t stand to be in the same room with each other.

  16. david vartanoff says:

    Entertaining read after listening to Das Rheingold earlier today. After Wagner I listened to a Dead recording from ’73. Not sure how to “sell” any particular kind of music other than gentle exposure. Kinda like getting folks to watch serious film–it takes work, but then even 3 chords and the truth country is more enjoyable if you grok the musical structure. Later tonight I will be checking out a very wide ranging show called Tangents on public radio–you never can be sure what you will hear but lots will be interesting.

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