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July 25, 2006

You Get (or Perceive That You're Getting) What You Pay For

by Allan Kozinn

The question of ticket prices is interesting. Concert tickets are very clearly way overpriced -- I don't think anyone who doesn't work at an arts organization would argue that point, and the argument that arts organizations make (that the ticket prices represent only a fraction of what it costs to put on the performance) is, while true, not terribly persuasive to the people digging into their pockets. Their response, not surprisingly, is that someone is, or perhaps several hundred someones are, extremely overpaid. Which is a point that Klaus raised, and Klaus works (more or less) within the music world, so it's easy to understand the view of people outside it, who are being asked to fork over a hefty chunk of change for a ticket to a concert that stands a good chance of being indifferently played.

But I don't think free concerts work terribly well. The concerts in Central Park -- sure, lots of people go. It's Central Park. I'm not sure the audiences are as huge as organizations claim. We have to give an "official" crowd estimate, for which we must ask the police. Once, when the Great Lawn was being reseeded and the Met's concerts were
moved uptown a bit, there was a paltry showing of maybe 4,000 people. The Met's publicist told me that the official estimate was 40,000. I told him he was insane, but I quickly discovered -- well, not so quickly, it took the entire second act, and conversations with a great many representatives of the police, the park police, etc. -- that the police give us the estimate that the Met tells them to give us. The last policeman I asked while still identifying myself as a Times guy said "40,000." I said, "You're trained to deal with crowds. Does this look like 40,000 people to you?" And he just gave me a sheepish smile and repeated the official estimate. So I asked the next policeman I saw, without identifying myself, just as if I were a passerby, and he said, "I'd guess around 4,000." So much for that. I wrote all those details in my review, by the way, and the next day the Met's publicist told me that a low number would be bad for fundraising. "That's not my problem," I told him. "I'm supposed to report the reality." "But Allan," he said -- having worked for the UN before coming to the Met -- "there IS no reality."

That said, the Met and Philharmonic audiences in the parks are reasonably well-behaved, but that is not universally true of audiences for free events, which is one reason I think people should be asked to pay SOMETHING, just so that the performance carries at least some small value for them. The Free for All concerts at Town Hall that Barbara mentioned are a perfect example. They tend to draw an inordinate number of people who have clearly turned up not so much because they want to hear the music or the performers, but because it's a free seat indoors for a couple of hours. Tourists bring children and let them make noise and eat and drink. There are other distractions as well, and I can't help but think that if the concerts cost even as little as $5, a lot of that would disappear. I know I sound like an elitist. I'm not. I just want to hear the concert. And by the way, Barbara is correct in saying that they don't draw full houses, which has to be embarrasing when an event is free. I prefer to sit in the balcony when I'm covering them, and up there, I can pretty much have my choice of seats -- there are dozens of empty ones, and there are usually more than a few empty seats downstairs too.

Posted by akozinn at July 25, 2006 12:48 PM


I'm impressed to hear about the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's success and that of the various Seattle groups Douglas noted. There's a lot of effort (and plenty of gimmicks) devoted to luring audiences to classical music performances. I think we need to focus on the product: the most important ingredient in sustaining classical music institutions is programming contemporary music in a way that draws new audiences. In recent Leisure & Arts columns in the Wall Street Journal, I wrote about a couple of orchestras that are doing that and experiencing a gratifying response from their audiences.

I covered the LA Philharmonic's Minimalist Jukebox concerts back in March. Even though most concerts presented post-1960 orchestral music, the series sold at about 95% of the rate of the LAPO's subscription concerts. Some of the strong sales can be attributed to canny marketing to "alternative music" audiences as well as classical fans; most shows were available on iTunes within a few days. But I think the big reason is that, rather than presenting contemporary music reluctantly, as a kind of obligation, the LA Phil and its partner groups and venues embraced it as a selling point: this music is cool, hip, and relevant to our times. The audience age seemed well below that of standard classical concerts, with several shows attracting a good share of 30-, 40- and even 20 somethings. The LAPO supplied abundant contextual material, too -- lecture demos, program notes, an informative program. They made it seem like a special event, and listeners responded.

Last month, I covered (for the Journal) the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and its composers series, which this year was devoted to Lou Harrison. Previous installments have featured Chinese-American composers (Zhou Long and Chen Yi), Bill Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and Experience, and more, and the orchestra has embarked on a relatively ambitious commissioning program. The PSO does even more contextual programming, including discussions onstage during re-sets, even more detailed program books, film and video presentations, etc. Again: they show why contemporary music is relevant, and present it in a way that makes it a special event everyone wants to attend.

Last year I wrote for the WSJ about Portland's Time Based Arts festival, which does the same thing for dance, performance art and other edgy art forms and draws strong audiences for performers few in the audience have ever heard of. I'd love to hear from Joshua how well the SFSO's Mavericks festivals have worked; I thoroughly enjoyed the concerts I drove down from Oregon to hear, and the turnout seemed pretty good.

These experience bear out what Tom Morris, who runs the Ojai Festival and used to run Tanglewood and the Cleveland Orchestra, told me when I wrote about Ojai (which has built a community around new music for decades) in the WSJ last month: if you're going to present contemporary music, don't do it half-assed (well, he didn't use that term); do it proudly and enthusiastically, and audiences will respond. Maybe not exactly the same audiences that come to the stodgy classical concerts, though, and there's the rub -- you have to build a new audience while not alienating (or at least minimizing the alienation) of the old one.

In California, the music directors (Salonen, MTT, Carl St. Clair at the PSO) seem to have built up enough trust (often though various education and other communithy programs) that audiences will follow their orchestras into new territory.

A crucial ingredient is media coverage, as noted earlier in this discussion. I've written about classical music and arts for the Journal for a decade, and the pitches my editors accept generally tend to be those that involve such special events (e.g. Tan Dun's Water Passion , Golijov's Passion after St. Matthew). In my regular music column here in Oregon, I tend to devote a lot more coverage to the symphony when it presents a new or at least unusual work, simply because it's more interesting to write about and more interesting for my readers. I write for an alternative weekly, and the readers care very much about music, but don't subscribe to the pieties associated with the classical world. Neither do I; I choose to write about world music, some jazz and rock, and a lot of contemporary chamber music (often performed at universities) as well as the major classical groups, and I'll write about what's new and interesting regardless of genre. I'm sure it irritated the symphony that I devoted much more space in a recent column to a student performance of music by John Adams and other contemporary and local composers than to its all-Tchaikovsky concert that week, but I thought my readers would (and should) be more interested in the former. I hope that encourages our local institutions to present more contemporary work.

So the lessons here seem pretty clear: if you want new audiences, try programming new music, or at least relatively contemporary music. Market it as something special, as new and exciting, and provide potential listeners with enough information to help them understand its relevance. The media are more likely to pick up on it because it's, like, news. For one thing, you can interview living composers and tell interesting stories about their inspiration. That said, I'm certainly not going to devote a lot of space to new music just because it's new; it has to be something I think our readers will (or should) find at least interesting and preferably enjoyable, too. But now that contemporary composers are writing more accessible music than in the bad old modernist days, we don't have to apologize for recommending contemporary music. It's no accident that I've chosen to write stories involving composers like Harrison, Adams, Golijov and Zhou Long rather than [fill in name of thorny modernist of your choice here].

Oh, and I agree with Klaus (whom I regard as one of the great advocates of classical and, increasingly, contemporary art music) and the others about ticket prices. As John Rockwell noted in a speech at the Oregon Bach Festival a few years ago: there's nothing wrong with audiences for new music that lower ticket prices won't solve. If that means we need to re-examine the whole business model to lower costs, then let's get on with it. Clinging to the old model seems short sighted; in a generation, there'll be a whole lot fewer jobs in this business if we don't build new audiences. And a number of institutions here on the West Coast seem to be figuing out ways to do that. .

I also think the whole stuffy way classical music is usually presented needs to be junked and re-thought, but that's another subject.... Thanks to Douglas and all the participants for providing this forum and last year's.

Posted by: brett campbell at July 25, 2006 03:47 PM

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