Here’s the start of a breathless piece in the Wall Street Journal, linked from ArtsJournal today:
HERE’S A TEST for symphony orchestra lovers. True or false:
1) To woo younger audiences, which are bored by Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, orchestras must play more contemporary works, even at the risk of alienating their aging core audience.
2) By offering free concerts, orchestras will expose more people to classical music and generate new ticket-buyers.
3) Orchestras can create new audiences by designing and offering educational programs for the vast numbers of Americans who know little about classical music.
4) To ensure the survival of orchestras over the long-term, schoolchildren must be exposed to classical-music concerts.
The answers are false, false, false and false.
From there the article goes on to summarize, more or less incoherently, a report from the Knight Foundation that I haven’t yet read. The nub of it all is that alternative attempts to pull in new audiences haven’t worked, because ticket sales continue to decline. But how well have orchestras done those alternative attempts? Not so well, on the whole, and especially without much followthrough. That is, new kinds of concerts are given, and do in fact (in some cases) draw in new audiences. But how long are these concerts continued? And what’s the standard for success? That the new people eventually go to the old-line core subscription concerts?
That may never happen. How many orchestras have taken this bull by the horns, and established entire new product lines, which is to say new kinds of concerts that they give equal priority to, and heavily promote? Not very many. I’ll be interested to read the full report. What it ought to look at, in my opinion, is specific stories of success and failure. Success: Red, an Orchestra, in Cleveland, attracting large numbers of young people to its concerts. Failures: the Baltimore Symphony, which did one “Dance Mix” concert in a club, attracting a young audience to hear new dance-oriented classical pieces. But then the orchestra never tried to go back to that audience, though I’ve heard their “Symphony with a Twist” series, aimed at people who don’t usually go to classical concerts, has been a great success.
But the main point would be: If orchestras keep focusing on their core classical concerts, and ticket sales for them keep declining, then doing a few alternative events won’t make any difference. You have to make the alternative events a larger, more visible, higher-priority part of your product mix. (As I already said.)
One point in the Journal story deserves further comment:
The research showed that predicting who will buy tickets is difficult, except for one variable: 74% of ticket-buyers had played an instrument or sung in a chorus somewhere, sometime, in their lives. Rather than large-scale concert programs for schoolchildren, it seems to be the active, participatory educational efforts that produce concertgoers.
This is very old news, known for a very long time. And I’m not sure it means very much in the current climate. Buried inside it is one crucial assumption, that the future classical music audience will be much like the current one. And unexamined is one crucial piece of data. If someone’s going to go to classical concerts, they have to like (or at least accept) the ambience of the concert hall. So all that instrumental study won’t mean a thing if somebody doesn’t like how the concert hall feels when they get there. Nobody asks about this, because we take it for granted. Of course people who go to classical concerts like them. The statistic in question here, in fact, may be tautological. Maybe the people who studied classical instruments or sang in choirs already were the ones more likely to enjoy a classical concert.
And what happens when someone likes classical music and doesn’t like the feeling of a concert hall? Current indications are that there are many people who feel this way, no matter how they feel about classical music. It’s possible, these days, even to be a professional classical musician and (if you’re younger) not enjoy classical concerts. The Journal story actually ends up saying that, in fact, all kinds of people like classical music but don’t like the concerts, which is why I call it incoherent. It spends all its time saying that the Knight Foundation debunks alternative concerts, and then seems to end up saying that these in fact are necessary.
God, do we need some clear thinking on these subjects. My guess is that nothing that attracted or prepared in audience in the past — including playing an instrument or singing in a chorus — is going attract many people from any new generation.
I’m going to read the Knight study, by the way. I’m sure it’s better than the Journal article.