What follows comes from conversations with several organizations, and a consulting job with one of them.

Suppose you’re a classical music group, musically terrific, reasonably well known, and with a reasonably long history of success. But now your audience seems to be shrinking. You’re not alone in this, since the same thing seems be happening everywhere. But still you need to do something about it.

What do you do? Immediately, as far as I can see, you have a dilemma. On one hand, you’ve got all the stuff you’ve always done to sell tickets. And it works! You might, for instance, send out a letter from your executive director to your subscribers. They’re so loyal that they quickly respond, and renew their subscriptions. You also send out flyers, brochures, and postcards, listing the pieces you’re going to play, because you’ve learned your audience picks concerts above all for their programs.

You have to keep doing these things, because they do work. And if ticket sales are shrinking, you need every sale you can get. You can’t neglect your established audience.

But at the same time, sales are shrinking, so you have to find a new audience. And for that, you need to do things differently. Very likely you can’t just send out listings of your programs. (Or print them in your advertising.) Now you’re reaching toward people who haven’t been inclined to go to your concerts, or may not know your group, or may not even know classical music very well. For this last segment of your possible new audience, a program listing will be meaningless. And for the people who know classical music but don’t know your group, or for whatever reason don’t usually go to your concerts, the program listing won’t be enough. They have to know why your group is worth hearing.

All that points to a different kind of communication. A postcard with detailed concert listings is full of fine print. Maybe now you need something warmer, something that — in words, design, and images — tells people why you’re distinctive. Maybe your performances are intimate, maybe they’re passionate and joyful, maybe the musicians feel deeply and happily involved. These are all things you should communicate, and you’ll have to figure out how to do it.

But now you’re doing two kinds of marketing. You’re reaching your established audience one way, and your hoped-for new audience another way. That will cost more money. It might require new and different kinds of expertise. It will take more time, and demand more work from your staff. Are you ready for all of this?

And what happens if the new forms of marketing don’t work? If you were a large organization (and especially if you were a large, profit-making business), you could experiment with different approaches. Magazines do this; they’ll send out mailings, offering subscriptions at several prices, to see what works. Food companies can test-market new products in just one region of the country.

Classical music groups (even big ones) don’t have that kind of flexibility. They’re more or less forced to decide on one approach, and see how it works. Worse still, they need to stick to that approach for at least a couple of years, to give it a chance. The newer the approach is, the more time it may need to make an effect.

But can a music group wait two or three years for results? And what happens if the new approach turns out not to work? Now the group has lost two precious years? Ticket sales may now have fallen further. Now what does the group do?

You can’t try new approaches without taking risks. But you also can’t afford to fail, so how can you take any risks? Classical music groups usually don’t even have the money — or the determination, or, sometimes, even the knowledge that this would be a good idea — to try out their new marketing plans ahead of time, with doing surveys and focus groups with the people they’re trying to reach.

This is a serious dilemma, one which explains some, at least, of the reasons why the classical music world is so slow to change. I’d suggest that groups just jump in, and take the risks anyway. But then that’s easy for me to say. I don’t have to find the money for the new approaches, or take responsibility if they fail. It would also help gigantically if groups could learn from each other, if new approaches that someone tries were quickly and widely shared. That way, if I’m in New York and somebody in Chicago sold a chamber music series to a new audience with some new kind of marketing, I at least can know that if I decide to try it, at least it worked for somebody.

My conversations lead me to believe we’re not moving fast enough. I’d love to hear some new ideas.

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