The 10 Commandments of Classical Music Audience-Building

hhtwitter4Holly Hickman of Up Tempo Marketing delivers “Spirited Marketing for Music Organizations.”  We have been friends for several years and I have deep respect for her accomplishments in the field. 

A few months ago, we started a fascinating conversation about the practical challenges of audience-building specifically for classical music organizations, which I’m grateful she has allowed me to continue here.

I absolutely ADORE her 10 commandments of Classical Music Audience-Building!  Thou SHALT read on…    

  • A lot of arts & cultural organizations are focused these days on finding ways to be more “relevant” to their audiences.  What does that challenge mean specifically to a classical music organization?  Any great examples to cite?   

I look at relevance for classical music organizations as understanding your community and different audience segments and being able to connect with them where they are.  This involves knowing them well enough to know what they want (through research and opening the channels of communication), and being flexible enough to not only reflect where they are now but also to anticipate where they’re going. It should be a collaborative journey, rather than a one-way street.

I think the LA Phil has done an incredible job at becoming more relevant to its audiences, with their commitment to diverse programming, paying attention to the unique culture they have in Los Angeles, and reaching out to underserved communities. I view them as an organization that has responded well to art form, industry and societal changes, all the while maintaining a strong artistic profile.  

Another example I’ve been directly involved with is the Boulder Phil, the professional regional orchestra in Boulder, where I live. For its upcoming season, the Boulder Phil is reflecting its artsy and outdoorsy town with a theme of “Nature & Music: The Spirit of Boulder.” The goal of the season is to connect a wider segment of the community to orchestral music inspired by nature though a series of unique partnerships, including the City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks, the Geological Society of America (based in Boulder), the University of Colorado, local filmmakers, local composers, local dance ensembles, and others.

This Nature & Music initiative is not a “one-off” idea, but rather part of the mission and vision, which is focused on developing community-centric programming that reflects the unique qualities of the Boulder area.  Subscriptions are now at a decade high, up 70% since 2008; the number of single ticket buyers increased 10% just last year; and the org has now seen three consecutive years of increasing fundraising results. The Phil is programming specifically to appeal to its community’s interests, and the community is responding-a good example of being more relevant.

  • One imagines that there’s a natural tension in classical music organizations between a desire to present the work in a “traditional” way – versus pressures to attract & engage audiences in new ways?   Might you share an example or two of how an organization successfully reconciled that challenge?

I think many classical organizations are successfully creating a balance between honoring and continuing treasured traditions, while exploring new territory.

One example is The Knights, a NY-based orchestra founded by musicians and brothers Colin Jacobsen and Eric Jacobsen, who are also a part of Brooklyn Rider, an equally adventurous string quartet.

I’ll share The Knights’ mission here, as it illustrates the ensemble’s commitment to both tradition and innovation:

The Knights are an orchestra of friends from a broad spectrum of the New York music world who are deeply committed to creating original, engaging musical experiences. Led by an open-minded spirit of camaraderie and collaboration, we seek to engage with contemporary culture through vibrant performances that honor the classical tradition and our passion for musical discovery. We believe in artistic excellence and exploration. We surprise audiences by constantly seeking new approaches to music-making and new exponents of the art form. We strive to play old music like it was written yesterday and inhabit new music in a way that’s familiar and natural. We are serious about having fun. We thrive on camaraderie and friendship. We cultivate a collaborative environment that honors a multiplicity of voices.

Kate Nordstrum Projects, a Twin Cities-based arts management agency, specializes in “independent music curation and communication strategies for adventurous artists, ensembles and institutions.”  The org’s Facebook page lists current co-presentations and partnerships with the Walker Art Center, New Amsterdam Records, American Composers Forum, Minnesota Public Radio, Northrop Concerts & Lectures, The Schubert Club and others.

Kate’s vision for expanding classical music experiences is described in this article entitled, “Kate Nordstrum’s brave new music,” published last year in the MinnPost:

 Looking in one direction, Nordstrum admired the orchestral and chamber music she found in formal concert settings. Turning another way, she felt attracted to the indie music scene at First Avenue and other clubs. “The music I was interested in presenting was between those worlds,” she says.

…The audience Nordstrum has in mind is one that takes music seriously but may not be comfortable with the formality of a concert hall or the noise of a rock club. Because of that, she emphasizes the importance of the venue in “creating a space for art and creativity and imagination.”

  • ten_commandments_5 (1)Here, allow me to offer you these two tablets…  how would YOU write the 10 Commandments of classical music audience engagement?
  1. Thou shalt not ignore the different interests and needs of your community and/or audience segments.

  2. Thou shalt not assume that your internal likes, dislikes, habits, traditions and expectations are better than those of the patrons you serve.

  3. Thou shalt not assume that everyone in your community knows about classical music and that your masterworks will sell themselves.

  4. Thou shalt not alienate your patrons through poor customer service tactics and rigid, inflexible, outdated, non-patron-friendly policies.

  5. Thou shalt not try to cut your way to success. (Thank you, Michael Kaiser.)

  6. Thou shalt reflect your community’s unique culture in your programming, collaborations and outreach programs.

  7. Thou shalt be open-minded, experimental and brave when making programming decisions. Marketing is a lot more effective when the product is fantastic.

  8. Thou shalt believe in soliciting input from others and looking outside of the bubble.

  9. Thou shalt participate in transparent communication, planning and decision-making processes.

  10. Thou shalt commit to what is presented on stage by investing in a unified vision, your artistic product, your marketing engine and your musicians.

  •  What do you recommend reading for arts & cultural leaders who wish to keep an eye on the advancement of the cause of audience-building in the area of classical music?

Only a few of the recommended books and articles below are directly related to classical music, but I think they’re important reading for those involved in audience development/engagement and arts marketing.

Recommended Books

Recommended Articles

Recommended Blogs related to audience development/engagement topics

Recommended Classical Music blogs, because they are excellent

Recommended Email Subscriptions

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  1. says

    Love these 10 commandments! And two that I would add…

    11. Thou shalt fearlessly commission works designed to celebrate the musical and social cultures of your community.

    We have to be leading artistically by investing in composers that can help us surprise audiences and lead them to discover something new about themselves and their community.

    12. Thou shalt create artistic and community engagement plans in unison, so they grow organically from each other for the greatest impact on your community.

    Community engagement plans need to be hand in hand with artistic planning so each of these pillars of our work can inform each other, rather than one responding to the other.

    I’m involved in a project called the Orchestra Engagement Lab , and it’s been inspiring to see how participating orchestras are embracing these commandments in different ways.

    Thanks, Holly (and Matt)! It’s great to see the guideposts so clearly laid out and with a powerful list of resources.

    • says

      Thanks Paul! I especially like your #12… artistic plans and community engagement plans are NECESSARILY intertwined. It seems so obvious. Why is that such a significant failing for so many organizations?

  2. says

    Thank you Holly, Paul and Matt for the clear articulation of stances I find instinctive from my position in my organization. All 12 are applicable to buidling a truly engaged arts education community as well, both within community music schools and in our partnerships with local school systems and other partners we serve with teaching artist programming.


  3. Philip Sabransky says

    Great job making excellent guidelines succinct and enjoyable. I love the way you focus on breaking down underlying assumptions held by many in classical music organizations. And don’t forget, thou shalt embrace social media. There is no better way to get instantaneous feedback and have ongoing conversations with your audience and other constituents.

  4. FCM says

    So what exactly is the “new territory” that the Knights are exploring?

    Everybody loves to cite this group as an indicator of “innovative young health” in classical music.

    But tell me what is the “new territory” of the Knights? Why cite them over Orpheus, another group of friends that bonded together a couple decades ago? It frustrates me, because I read articles like this over and over again with the same lack of accountability to the claims stated.

    I know many members of the Knights. They play great music. I like them personally. I hope they do well. But then I read these arts blogs which cite them (invariably with ICE) as the neue bahnen, without a single substantial explanation or example of true innovation.

    Fundraising? Marketing? Artistic leadership? Operations? Repertoire? Audience engagement? What’s new?

    How can we have a serious conversation based on these unsubstantiated platitudes?

  5. says

    Thanks for the feedback, all.

    Paul, thanks for your additional 2 Commandments. I completely agree with the goals of fearlessly commissioning new works and coordinating community engagement plans as part of effective audience-building efforts. Thanks for adding to my thoughts!

    Philip, yes, social media is crucial! I see that as a required tool, amongst others, to open lines of communication and look outside of the bubble.

    FCM, well, I don’t know if I would say unsubstantiated…more that we obviously have a difference of opinion about The Knights! I love what they do, and I love what Orpheus does, too. I’ve donated to Orpheus’s creative projects in the past, and most probably will again. The Knights have always intrigued me. I love their branding, and I love the people involved. I think the ensemble’s programming is creative. One specific example is that The Knights participated in the Detroit Symphony’s Mix @ The Max concert series (another project I like) last year. You can read more about it here:

    I see The Knights as a group that performs traditional and contemporary music and does it in a way that attracts new audiences.

  6. FCM says


    The two examples you have given are:
    -the Knights’ mission statement and
    -a plug of a concert before it happened (some DSO history with bits from their press release)

    I’m sorry, but that’s *very* unsubstantiated. It’s positive, it’s inspirational, and it’s hopeful. But it’s the very definition of unsubstantiated: it’s their own PR.

    That’s not a dig at you, or the Knights, or the possibility of new trends in classical music.

    It’s just a call for explanation and analysis.


    • Holly Hickman says

      It’s my opinion that The Knights present interesting repertoire and are attempting to engage new audiences with their programs and style. I just linked to one example program above in Detroit, featuring works by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Gabriela Lena Frank, Osvaldo Golijov and Lisa Bielawa — all works that were performed in a casual cabaret setting, targeted to new audiences. I could provide other examples of other programs they’ve done. Feel free to provide explanation and analysis to the contrary, as I think we are debating a difference of opinion about a particular ensemble here.

      • FCM says


        It has nothing to do with aesthetic opinion. We’re not here to talk about whether we like/dislike GroupX on a personal level.

        The Question:
        “One imagines that there’s a natural tension in classical music organizations between a desire to present the work in a “traditional” way – versus pressures to attract & engage audiences in new ways?”

        This is an arts management question, and I’m looking for a substantiated arts management answer.

        “Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Gabriela Lena Frank, Osvaldo Golijov and Lisa Bielawa — all works that were performed in a casual cabaret setting, targeted to new audiences.”

        -All those composers are well known (maybe GLF, and Bielawa less so?) and played by major institutions.

        -LPR has been doing classical caberet for 5 years.

        -“targeted to new audiences” is banal marketing gobbledegook. What arts organization doesn’t claim to target new audiences? Show me a grant application or mission statement which targets “old audiences”?

        This is not nitpicking. These are all very well known situations in classical music. So it’s not convincing to list them as innovations without some explanation.

        We don’t need an echo chamber of rising successful groups, we already know from major press that the Knights are a success story. But if we want to something MORE about WHY they are so, and HOW they are so, then some explanation is in order.

        Here’s an article which makes a “lofty claim” (somewhat tongue-in-cheek), but the author backs it up with a sober and methodical accounting of his position:

        I might not agree with everything, but there is some attempt to shed light on how or why they succeed.

        • Holly Hickman says

          I do hear what you’re saying, FCM. I read the question at hand as “Share an example or two of organizations that are successfully reconciling the challenge of presenting works in a ‘traditional’ way – versus pressures to attract & engage audiences in new ways.” I wasn’t trying to hold a particular group up as the most innovative as compared to others…

          In order to be more on the same page, I feel like we would need to agree to a definition of what the definition of “new” is. I see LPR as a “new-ish” type of venue (especially when you look outside of NYC!), while you think it’s not new because it’s been around for 5 years. I think that particular combination of pieces/composers performed by The Knights is “new” and not something that you hear that often (again, especially not outside of NYC). And we also would have to agree on a definition of “success.” I think The Knights, and Orpheus, and other groups that Bob lists below (ICE, Alarm Will Sound) are successful in that they are trying to shake things up and do things in “new” ways.

          I’m sure these groups have hits and misses like everyone else. I don’t know the earned income to contributed income ratios or exact audience demographic numbers, or how many repeat patrons vs. new patrons they have, etc. So I am looking more broadly at branding, programming, structure, style, mission, target audience, etc.

          You are welcome to share some examples of organizations that YOU think are more successfully balancing “traditional” vs. “new” to attract new audiences. I thought of The Knights and Kate Nordstrum Projects. I would have also listed, if Matt had asked me for more names: eighth blackbird and New World Symphony.

          • FCM says

            So, because they claim to target younger audiences, we can now say they are successfully innovating by targeting younger audiences?

            Just about every classical group/institution in the world wants to attract new audiences, and they claim to make efforts to do so. This is why I said nobody claims to seek “old audiences.” Sorry if I wasn’t clear: everybody is seeking new audiences, therefore, “seeking new audiences” is not a point of distinction.

            Where is the critical thinking, here? We don’t need paraphrased press releases.

            An ensemble funded by grants, with programming by contemporaries (or members) of the ensemble, which plays in new venues, which expects audiences to sit and observe for 1-2 hours, could describe most of the current crop of ensembles as well as groups from the 70’s.

            I don’t see how someone can laud the attempts of a new group WITHOUT putting some historical context on it, especially if we’re going to avoid actual numbers on audience data (at the least). I’m open to the idea that these groups might be doing something new. But not on blind faith. I don’t see why explanation is so hard.

            How about this, I’ll pose this to the community, Matt L, and Bob S.:
            How is ICE different than Speculum Musicae?
            How is Orpheus different than the Knights?

            (No cheating on wikipedia or “About” sections of ensemble websites! Answering this question will require actual knowledge of the ensembles involved. And it’s an honest question.)

    • Bob Smythe says

      to FCM:
      Why cite Orpheus over The Knights or ICE or Alarm Will Sound or DeCoda or any other group that is planting their own flag and daring to challenge conventions of repertoire, venue, perception and PR?
      Despite your obvious bias toward Orpheus, anyone who reads arts news knows that groups like Orpheus and St. Luke’s have been scrambling to catch up with these brave young ensembles and engage with new audiences.
      And, about 2 minutes on Google will find you plenty of “substantive proof” that The Knights, ICE, Alarm Will Sound, and DeCoda are on the cutting edge of programming, fundraising (crowdsourced fuding, private and public grants, not to mention USArts grants for The Knights co-directors and a MacArthur Grant for ICE’s Claire Chase), and operations (100% artist-led groups with a minimal corporate structure based around the artistic quality). All of these groups have penetrated traditional and social media outlets with at least as much exposure as Orpheus or even larger, more traditional ensembles. A little competition never hurt anyone, right? In this instance, these young groups may free classical music from the antiquated, broken-down paradigm it has existed in for so long in this country.
      In the future, dear FCM, before snarking at hard-working young musicians, please get a handle on the facts and the field at large.

      • FCM says


        You’re getting personal. I was asking for substantiation. That’s shouldn’t ruffle any feathers. Why don’t we stick to the topics at hand?

        First of all – I’m a performing artist in NYC and I actually play with members of all the above groups in the freelance world. They are terrific, I enjoy their friendship and our working relationships. Not sure where your assumptions come from. But this shouldn’t matter. My concerns are valid (ad hominem attacks aside) and have yet to be addressed in any meaningful way.

        Second of all – I brought up Orpheus because they used to be a young, exciting band. Exactly the same thing as the Knights. A bunch of very talented ‘friends’ who came together to form an ensemble that broke all the rules, including a “flat” organizational structure. And now they are considered fairly institutional and part of the “old guard,” fair or not. My point, apparently lost (due to “obvious bias”), is that they did not significantly change the course of our “antiquated, broken-down paradigm” despite the promise of their new model. I’ve played with members of Orpheus, too, by the way. They are terrific, just like ACJW/AWS/ICE/ETC.

        There is a difference between rising to the top of the pyramid versus changing the shape of the pyramid. There’s no doubt that Claire Chase’s MacArthur grant puts her at the top of a pyramid, and well deservedly. But will someone please show some substantial evidence of *changing the pyramid*? For God’s sake, it doesn’t have to be all quantitative, but numbers sure wouldn’t hurt.

        “minimal corporate structure based around the artistic quality”
        Oh, now we are in rich territory. The young NYC groups are filled with young, mostly single, mostly upper class musicians. Many of them are still significantly supported by their families. This is not a judgement, this is what it takes to build a career in NYC. But 20 years from now, when they want — when *we all* want — health insurance, retirement, and are trying to raise a family on their own income, will this “minimal corporate structure” be so useful?

        “Every generation thinks they invented sex,” the old saying goes. I’m just asking you or Holly to show some evidence to back up the lofty claims.

        This is a public debate which needs to happen, which is why I’m responding to your unfortunately worded response. If you want to make this useful for the reading public, please stick to the issues in a professional manner.

  7. says

    There are great points made in this article, the commandments, and the comments, but the only way to truly engage audiences in classical music is to reach people when they are young. Provide people with positive experiences creating music when they are young and they will be the audiences of the future. If you haven’t heard of El Sistema you should look it up- and support your local El Sistema program- it might very well be the key to sustaining classical music in our culture.

    • says

      Sylvia, I absolutely agree that reaching young people is a vital way to engage audiences for the long run. But I have to say that the word “truly” in your note is troublesome. It sets the unfortunate expectation that there exists some “right” path to discovering & engaging in arts & cultural experiences.

      Holly’s comments are all about the need for artists & organizations to extend a VARIETY of “on-ramps” to meaningful engagement and I think she’s 100% right. Surely, a substantial portion of that effort can & should be aimed at young audiences – but any notion of what it takes to “truly” engage audiences reflects an outmoded view of the way the world works.

      Respectfully, I hope that readers of this post come away with an appreciation for the imperative of audience building IN EVERY POSSIBLE WAY.