How not to think

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Rob Gold says

    Premise: the “culturally-aware non-attender” we seek, A) likes classical music, mostly by exposure via radio, and B) they are not attracted to the formal concert hall experience. That, and all of your comments on the WSJ article are, as you note, all old news. What we have not yet had is the real experiment — a non-traditional venue suited to serving these prospective audiences. The clubs and other venues pressed into occasional service are inadequate tests. Inadequate in terms of being sufficiently established and supported to succeed (the one shot concert, without followup, is destined to fail). We need a discussion about the architecture — in jargon terms “the building’s program” — needed to serve the role of a welcoming, inclusive venue. Without this, the entire discussion is a non-starter, never getting beyond the vague “something different” conversation.

    The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has come the closest to truly testing this, with their longstanding neighborhood concerts and other initiatives. Other — also smaller, more portable — orchestras like Red and St. Lukes — are also equipped for such experimentation. But we know what traditional concert venues require to succeed (regular presentations of a wide variety of genres, a long-term commitment to building audiences, etc.), so why wouldn’t our now well-planned new style venue require a similar commitment? What are our current models? Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Auditorium?

    Thanks for this Rob. I’m not sure we have a current model. Red might be the cloest, from what I’ve heard, followed maybe by Present Music in Milwaukee, a new music group that has learned how to attract large crowds, and another new music group in Charleston, SC, which I’ve heard about, but whose name I don’t know. I’m told it also attracts large crowds, the way Present Music does.

    I think that Carnegie Hall might want to brand Zankel so that it, too, becomes a destination simply for itself. Which would be interesting, because it offers many kinds of music. I don’t think they’ve succeeded with that, though.

  2. says

    Unless I missed it, there was nothing in the article about the first point listed; the one about new music.

    I agree with the writer that giving away the music is a bad idea. People get used to getting something for nothing and they quickly come to expect it.

    That said, I do think high ticket prices are a serious concern.

  3. says

    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.

    Well, I totally disagree with that. As someone who’s part of that younger generation, the vast majority of the people I know who are into classical music are practitioners of it themselves, or were at one time. And if you think about it, that makes perfect sense. One of the things that the WSJ article said was that even when one-time events were successful, these initiatives usually didn’t translate into core subscribers. There’s a big difference between getting somebody to check out one concert, once, for free, and getting them to go to a whole season of concerts at $25 and up a pop. The latter involves commitment–the same kind of commitment that’s involved in, hmm, playing an instrument!

    I have to say, though, I’m not sold on classical music in clubs. And I say this as someone who has both performed and seen a lot of music in clubs. Most clubs have terrible acoustics, bad lighting, equipment that’s 1000 years old and constantly breaking down or getting stolen, and are either too clueless or too cheap to get large crowds of people out to their shows. You have to remember that the size of your average club is far, far smaller than the size of your average concert hall, so you can “sell out” the house while actually drawing much worse than you realize. To be completely honest, I find it a little laughable that so many people in the classical world look to clubs as some sort of positive business role model. They’re a disaster! They’re almost as bad as restaurants, you just never hear about them closing because nobody really cared that they were there in the first place and their finances aren’t public the way that tax-exempt non-profit organizations like symphonies are. Meanwhile, I for one am always amazed at how well the “traditional” classical concerts I’m involved in draw. I bet if you totaled the attendance at all of the classical events in New York City and compared it with the attendance at all rock concerts over the same period of time, the per-concert turnout for classical concerts would be MUCH higher. People in the classical world have this idea that rock music is somehow, you know, popular, and I’m telling you right now that it’s just a myth. Yes, the total audience is bigger, and yes, the groups at the very top draw extremely well, but you have to remember that there are a LOT more groups fighting for that slice of pie than are fighting for ours. Anyway, this is all to say that I don’t necessarily agree that steps to make classical music (especially old classical music) more like popular music are the panacea to its troubles. There’s a fallacy going on here, and it’s a fallacy I like to call “coolness by association.” The theory is that other things are cool and you’re not, so if you form alliances with cool things, you’ll become cool too. This works up to a point, but it’s problematic for several reasons, namely: (1) your coolness is then utterly dependent on the coolness of the proxy you’ve attached yourself to, and (2) one of the hallmarks of uncoolness is trying too hard to be cool, which means that if your efforts smack of overcompensation you will just be shooting yourself in the foot even more. Why do you think string band music is suddenly popular among the hipsters? It’s not because it connects with contemporary life, it’s precisely because it’s different, and therefore cool. Why do you think the Democrats did so well in the elections last night? A big part of it was that a bunch of them decided to grow a spine and start differentiating themselves from the Republicans, offering voters a recognizable choice instead of Republican-lite. I do not believe classical will succeed by trying to be pop music-lite. It will succeed by defining its own identity and being PROUD of it — by saying, “what’s up people, this is who we are, AND THAT’S COOL.” That doesn’t mean that orchestras should have websites that look like they were designed in 1997 or marketing materials that were photocopied on colored construction paper. But I don’t think that they should just start throwing core aspects of their identity to the wind because they think it might bring in a couple extra 20-somethings who really are never going to give a crap about classical music when it comes down to it.

    As a final footnote on this, recently I went to the Reich @ 70 concert at Carnegie Hall, the one with Pat Matheney, Kronos Quartet, and Steve Reich and Musicians playing Music for 18. This was pretty much the concert to end all concerts as far as I was concerned, and it was no surprise to see Stern Auditorium packed with shaggy-haired people around my age (especially up in the nosebleed section where I was). Imagine my surprise, then, when two nights later I performed in the very same hall as part of the chorus for a concert with the NHK Symphony (Ashkenazy cond.) playing Bartok, Ravel, and Takemitsu, and if anything the place was more sold out than for the Reich (and on a Monday night no less!). I just think we underestimate at our peril the power of classical music to draw a crowd in all its tuxedoed, pomp & circumstantial glory. That’s not to minimize the real problems that the industry faces, but all I’m saying is let’s be careful about what we wish for.

    Very thoughtful comments, Ian, thanks.

    I think that classical music looks toward clubs simply because it’s a way to reach out a little, and experiment with a change in attitude. I don’t think anyone looks toward clubs as any kind of business model. I could go even further — I don’t think anyone has proposed even speculatively any business model much different from the current way of doing things. Which is a big problem, but also illustrates the difficulty of bringing in any significant revenue from small-scale concerts. This is something I’ve pointed out repeatedly to people like Allan Kozinn who think it’s OK if all the major institutions go out of business.

    But the big problem is that the major institutions could very well go out of business! Not this year, not next, but — if present trends continue — during the next decade. These present trends aren’t widely publicized, but they exist, and are carefully tracked by some (if not all) of the major classical institutions. One very famous organization I know of — in a document from three or four years ago, whose findings they reiterated within the past year — privately has preidcted its demise in the 2010-11 season. Of course they’ve taken steps to try to prevent that, but we shouldn’t minimize the extent to which numbers for things like ticket sales and donations have been headed downward. It seems clear that the present audience is dwindling, and that a new audience isn’t taking its place. (The NEA figures on the age of the audience are very definite about that.)

    This would mean that a new audience is needed. It’s not an audience that’s presently coming to classical concerts, or at least not large mainstream ones. And it’s surely very different, in most measurable respects, from the existing audience.

    That’s why the statistic on the number of present classical ticket-buyers who’ve actually participated in classical music is depressing. If that’s what’s necessary before somebody buys tickets to classical events, we’re doomed. You say that the only people you know who are interested in classical music are people who’ve participated. I don’t doubt that this is true, but — how many people is that, nationwide? Not enough to keep classical music afloat. In past generations, far more people studied classical instruments, sang in choruses, etc., than do now, as far as I know. So it’s no surprise to see that those who most earnestly like classical music — from these past generations — are the people who’d taken part in it. The future is apt to look very different.

    One last word about that packed house at the concert where you sang in the chorus. I don’t doubt that the event was just as you described it, but it’s dangerous — if I may put it this strongly — to generalize from individual events. Of course there are still sold-out classical concerts, with excited audiences and a festive atmosphere. But these are also far more half-empty halls than there used to be (especially outside New York, though the Metropolitan Opera hasn’t had happy ticket sales over the past few years). And the overall trend is strongly downward.

  4. says

    As someone who has the rare job of seeking out and setting up classical concerts in non-traditional settings (bars and such) for Concert Artists Guild, I disagree with the poster’s comments on seeking some ‘coolness by association’. I do not think ‘coolness’ is what we are after, in fact a conservatory trained classical musician is usually given a large amount of respect and awe in these situations precisely from the ‘cool’ indie rockers. Whenever I tell someone that I work in classical music, the inevitable reaction is ‘that’s cool’. I imagine it’s the same for any classical performer as well.

    What I think these concerts point to is a need for a diversity of performance opportunities. The concert hall should not be our only option when it comes to listening to classical music. Yes acoustics, background noise etc. can all be worse in clubs than the controlled atmosphere of the concert hall; but clubs afford spontaneity, intimacy and a chance for personal connection between audience and listener without the trappings of ushers or Byzantine program notes detailing modulations, birth dates and other irrelevancies. As a listener, I respond to the music in a different way in such settings, the music sounds fresh and often shocking when you do not know what is coming next. I don’t see it as better or worse than a concert setting, but simply different. I for one like having these performances as an outlet, in addition to standard concerts. My friends, mostly non-musicians, seem to agree through their attendance patterns.

    These concerts do not make us cool, they simply afford more opportunities for people to experience it. Greg is certainly correct when he writes about it not being a sustainable venture unto itself, but it should be an integral part of the overall performance culture. When a string quartet is performing at a chamber music series, inevitably it will also have some outreach activity at a local school. Why cant it also play a local music club the night before? The hotel rooms and plane tickets would have already been purchased; there is nothing to lose. Its simply another performance experience that appeals to some and perhaps not to others, but shouldn’t it be available?

    I do not think we are blindly fishing for the stray ‘twenty-something’ (of which I am one) or some level of ‘coolness,’ but what we are doing is building a rich and diverse performance culture that has the potential to reach more people. If the music is worth it, people will respond to it. For all the concerts I have set up in bars, I have yet to have a group launch into Mozart or Bartok or Ligeti and not have the entire room, classical buffs and the uninitiated alike, stop in awed silence.

    Once we have a musical landscape (creation, performance and appreciation) that is as vibrant as the music itself, we will have a sustainable audience.

    On a side note, if, as the report suggests, attendance is high at specials concerts and festivals, but that it does not translate into subscription event buyers. I would suggest that this means the problem is with the subscription events, and not the other way around.

  5. Peter says

    It is not just potential audience members who are repelled by the ambience of mainstream classical music concerts. I chose NOT to be an orchestral performer because I could not stand the fancy dress, the penguin suit and the po-faced formality.

    I attend numerous concerts, often twice or 3 times a week, and do my best to sit as close to the stage as possible. I always dress casually, and stare down the people looking askance at me. Over the years, as I have done this, I notice more and more people dressing casually. One day, our generation will win this battle against the puritanical old-fogeys who wish to remove all the pleasure from listening to music, and we will win it wearing our t-shirts and our sneakers.

    Good for you, Peter. You’re completely right.

    It amazes me that orchestras haven’t given up formal dress. What can they possibly gain from it at this late date, except possibly the comfort of a few long-time subscribers, who don’t like seeing any change?

    There’s one explanation for why they haven’t started wearing other clothes. Somebody would have to decide what those other clothes would be. And this would then become an issue between musicians and management. Maybe a bitterly contested issue — “Management wants to tell us what to wear!” the musicians might say. And, in fact, management might want to do exactly that.

    Somehow they’d all have to decide, not just what to wear, but how the decision would be reached. And that might be more than they can handle, just now, absurd as that might seem.

  6. Yvonne says


    This comment assumes that there is no pleasure to be had in dressing up, and that only old people find the formality attractive.

    About five years ago I spoke to a pair of seriously cool girls in their 20s who regularly came to the concerts of an Australian orchestra I was working for. They said one of the reasons they loved coming to concerts was that they enjoyed the opportunity to dress up (which they really did!) and enjoy a night out in a relatively formal environment. (And they loved the music, too.)

    Yvonne, there definitely are people like that. My impression, for whatever it’s worth (possibly not much — this isn’t very solid data) is that there are fewer of them than there used to be.

    I also think that many people in the mainstream classical audience like the formality. They’re used to it, and they may also feel it shows respect for the music.

    The important question, though — if we want to figure out how musicians ought to dress — would be how many people like the formality, and how many dislike it. We have to make sure to count people who never go to classical concerts because the formality turns them off.

    Probably we’ll find that a large number of people are turned off by the formality, however many people might like it. And we might then have to put on two kinds of concerts, some with formal dress and some without.

  7. says

    Patrick, thanks for your response. I saw the recent article on and it sounds like you guys have some interesting stuff going on. Admittedly, I haven’t been to one of your concerts yet (though one of your artists, Svet Stoyanov, is a friend and has performed my music), so I am not in a position to judge. The majority of the times I’ve seen classical music in clubs, there have been serious issues with the sound or environment. For example, Feldman was mostly swallowed up in the clinking of glasses and chatter. Kurtag was at the mercy of a substandard, upright, badly amplified piano. A George Crumb piece for piano and violin was brilliantly played and sounded fantastic, only to be absolutely crushed by the punk band playing downstairs. A lot of this depends on the venue and some are better at handling it than others. For sure, I’ve had positive experiences as well.

    I’m in total agreement with you about seeing clubs as an auxiliary outlet, essentially playing the role of practice gigs or outreach concerts. That only works if everybody’s on board with it, though. The economics of club gigs don’t allow for the kind of compensation that classical musicians are used to, especially if groups larger than 2-3 people are involved. When you say that “this means the problem is with subscription events, and not the other way around,” that’s where we disagree. Those subscription events are what make things like club gigs for classical musicians possible. I think subscription events are an incredible success, in fact. That they are now somewhat less successful than they used to be does not automatically mean that they are no longer the best option. Don’t you think I would kill to have people subscribed to see a whole year of shows by my rock band? Those are your rabid, screaming fans right there. The fact that they don’t actually foam at the mouth or ululate audibly (content instead with merely coughing and shushing other patrons) doesn’t mean you should treat them any less nicely. I’m all for reaching out to new audiences as long as it doesn’t involve tossing aside the existing ones. Those people are there for a reason. To bring it back to politics for a second, it’s fine to court the independents but you can’t forget your base.