How to attract a young audience (for real)

Not a theory — instead, a way that really works. I’ve heard about it working, and I’ve also seen it myself, twice. You combine classical music with alternative pop (an umbrella term that may not really exist, but which I’m using here to mean all kinds of pop music that isn’t on the pop charts, including alternative rock and electronica). The London Sinfonietta (as I’ve written here before) has done this several times, and (or so I’ve been told) has gotten 1000 people in their 20s cheering for Xenakis.

There’s a double CD set on Warp Records (Warp is the Sinfonietta’s pop collaborator) documenting some of these events. There’s no Xenakis on it, but you can hear people screaming for Ligeti, Steve Reich, and the John Cage Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. (Aphex Twin, a Warp artist, uses prepared piano on his album Drukqs.)

And in New York, Ronen Givony, a grant writer with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, has staged two events of this kind in a church. I just came from one. A band called A Hawk and a Hacksaw — with two people in it, playing violin and accordion — opened the show, to cheers from the crowd. The church was packed with people who seemed to be in their 20s.

Then Steven Beck, a very good pianist (who took one of my Juilliard courses some years ago), played the Bach B flat Partita, to more cheers. And in fact the crowd cheered him twice, breaking into spontaneous applause after the Courante, and then cheering even more after the Gigue.

At the first of Ronen’s concerts, last month (if my tired mind remembers the date correctly), members of Wilco played some free jazz improvisations, not by any means easy listening, joined from the classical side by Jenny Lin, another very fine pianist, and Elliott Sharp, who’s been an out on the edge guitarist and composer for many, many years. Jenny also played some Shostakovich, which the crowd (even larger than the one tonight) seemed to love.

This really works. And the best part is that this audience is serious. You don’t need to shorten, sugarcoat, or simplify the classical pieces. The people hear them just as easily as they hear the pop stuff. It really works. And, maybe best of all, it takes classical music off its pedestal, and makes it nothing more (but also nothing less) than something terrific to listen to.

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  1. Richard Voorhaar says

    It seems that even straight nonpop new music concerts draw a younger crowd than standard rep concerts. My wife and I are heartened when we are among the “oldsters” at conteporary concerts.

  2. David Cavlovic says

    Wouldn’t it be cool to present Bach’s Brandenburg No. 5 in a jazz club or modern day coffee shop the way it was probably done at Silberman’s? I bet a double mocha that the crowd would start cheering right after the harpsichord cadenza. And I bet they did the same in Bach’s time. How are the stuffy one’s now, eh???

  3. Craig Smith, music critic, The Santa Fe New Mexican says

    This issue is one of concern all over, and this approach seems to be one of the most thoughtful and successful yet. It seems that these younger audiences are more than happy to listen to serious, tough music in all genres. Any evidence as to whether they prefer shorter works or selections? Has it been tried with a whole half of Bach, then Coltrane, for example? Sure beats Montserrat Caballé and Freddie Mercury, anyway.

    Good question. At the concert last night, Steve Beck played an entire Bach partita, followed by the Italian Concerto, as a sort of encore .That amounts to a half a program of Bach. (Actually it was one-third of the concert; there was another non-classical act after that, but I couldn’t stay to hear it. I was fried from traveling, and had to drive somewhere that night. I did stay long enough to hear Steve get cheered.)

    I don’t know how the London Sinfonietta arranged their programs. I’ll try to find out.

  4. Melanie Fensome says

    I’m 22….so not quite over-the-hill (!)….and the thought of having to listen to some prog rock alongside a Parry cantata really doesn’t seem too inspiring.

    Reich, Glass and the rest of “that” bunch are all not so very far removed from rock, pop and blues for it to work ok but I just can’t see a heavy weight Mahler symphony or something sitting comfortably in such a


    I’m always booked for the Chilli’s when they’re on tour and have as big an indie record collection as anybody but whenenever I’ve been to cross-over’s like you suggest it seems to slightly trivialise weightier material. The Kronos Quartet are among the more successful in this area, maybe because of the intimacy of the ensemble.

    Oh….and the thought of people jabbering away during a Haydn symphony……forget it. That’d piss me off big time!.

    I get what you’re saying and I’ve really enjoyed reading your book but I really wouldn’t like to have to sit through cross-over concerts all the time. I actually do like sitting in a concert hall or church and soaking up the heavy stuff!…..there’s something I find inspiring about it all.

    Just my 2….maybe 3 cents!!

    (Oh, BTW Greg, I’m a writer/researcher not a musician)

    Hi, Melanie. Thanks for your three or maybe four cents!

    Not every classical piece is going to work in the formats I described. Or maybe even Mahler will — who knows? We have a lot to learn about how all this works. I can only say that, from my experience last night, Bach isn’t trrivialized at all by being put in those surroundings.

    And of course you should hear music the way you want to hear it.

  5. Christopher Davis says

    See “The Music, Not the Video” —

    Meet the audience halfway with something they already know. Simple.

    I was nodding to myself, agreeing with you — and then I thought of something else. If we stop worrying about attracting people to classical music, we might think of these events as just another kind of concert, but a very interesting kind. A kind of concert that interests many serious people, whatever kind of music they’d say they normally like. Among other things, it’s a chance to hear music you don’t already know (classical or not), And a chance to make musical connections among many genres.

  6. Gene Barnes says

    Sure, knock yerselves out with these concerts — whatever. But frankly I don’t give a rip if young people come to classical music. Fact is, most people show up when they’re older anyway, so wuts the prob?

    To put it bluntly, there is no classical music crisis, except in your own imagination.

    Clearly this guy hasn’t seen any of the data. Falling ticket sales, to a disastrous extent. Financial crises. And an aging audience. In 1937 (when a study was done of American audiences) the average age of orchestral concertgoers was around 30. In 1962 (when another study was done) it was 38. Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has been monitoring the age of the classical music audience, and it’s been steadily rising. Young people are absolutely not replacing the people who grow too old to go to classical concerts.

    There’s much more to be said on all this, for instance about the penetration of classical music into our culture. In the ’50s, to cite just one thing, there were classical music shows on network TV. Not now, obviously. Younger people don’t see classical music as a normal part of their cultural landscape. When I was in college, in the early 60s, any smart student who cared about music had classical records. No longer.

    Since the current audience is disappearing, and a younger one isn’t taking its place, we clearly have to do something. Gene Barnes might want to check the facts before he posts any more comments.

  7. says

    Interesting that you posted this, Greg. My first-year seminar class at DePauw is putting on a concert along these lines as a class project on Dec. 5. They are doing a mix of classical and non-classical music, including pop, Broadway, some African music, and some improvisation. After some informal field research, they discovered that the word “classical” is a big turn-off for their peers. So they are calling the event “A Musical Buffet” and somewhere on the posters it will say ” . . . punch and pie,” which is a reference to the South Park movie.

    Instead of having the event in a concert hall in the School of Music, they are holding it in the Ballroom in the Student Union. And serving punch and pie, among other things.

    Interestingly, when some of them suggested they were trying to create a coffee-house atmosphere, some of them didn’t know what a coffee house is; they don’t associate live music with Starbucks, the only coffee house most of them know.

    I’ll be sure to let you know how it turns out.

  8. says

    Classic + alternative pop? I agree — a month ago I had the (great) pleasure of leading the orchestral collaboration with Europe’s leading accordion trio, the “Motion Trio” from Krakau, Poland. These guys are reinventing the instrument with an extraordinary blend of techno, folk, free jazz, minimalism and comedy — unplugged, of course.

    Take a look:

  9. Anonymous says

    Liverpool, UK, a city of only 400,000 people can sell-out its Philharmonic Hall (2000 seats) with a concert of electronica – a mix of varese, cage and dj remixers. I don’t see that there’s any problem in attracting audiences to new music.

    Of course, Liverpool has a musical tradition lacking in most larger British cities.

  10. Gene Barnes says

    Oh, I’ve heard and seen all the dire predictions.

    I like the Liverpool model (mentioned above).

    Too often we try to soften the blow of modern music by combining it with the old warhorses in the same concert. The trouble is, it takes a different part of the brain for each style of music, so the cognitive dissonance in one night is considerable. So let’s just make concerts of all new music. IRCAM in Paris does it, to great success — always a young, hip audience, and people there don’t squirm when the new music is playing.

  11. Christopher Davis says

    There are only two kinds of music. Good and bad.

    Everything else can be traced to older folks taking comfort in the familiar, younger ones eager for the new, and confused programmers who think that the two are mutually exclusive.

    Integrate. Don’t segregate.

  12. Gene Barnes says

    Remember the part in Ken Burns’ “Jazz” series where we were told that Miles Davis was watching Sly and the Family Stone tear up the place while his own band received polite applause, and Miles decided to change his style to get that same Sly-like enthusiasm? Putting Bach on the same program as alt rock will, I think, eventually have the same effect — polite response, except for the fast stuff. You’d need to keep all the music at about the same level (of intellectual interest? I dunno). Whatever, I think this gambit will have a short shelf life.

    Integrate, Chris? The kids don’t show up for the conventional Beethoven, and the old farts hate the Xenakis, so that leaves only a blessed few who will appreciate the whole concert, dontcha think?

    Gene, in your first paragraph here, you seem to be making the unspoken assumption that all alt rock is fast and rhythmic. This isn’t even remotely true. It’s not even true of established rock. (Joni Mitchell, anyone? “Michelle”? “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands”? Power ballads?) But it’s especially untrue of alternative stuff, in genres ranging from folk to electronica. You could put, for instance, Josephine Foster on a pop/classical program, singing her Schubert versions in her ghostly wisp of a voice, as she did on her last album. You then could pair that with normal Schubert, and in every case the Schubert songs as normally performed would be far more rhythmic than the Foster versions.

    Or you could make up other programs, with slow pop, and rhythmic classical. And if it went the other way round — fast pop and slow classical — why assume that people won’t like it? Since they already love slow pop stuff…they could easily love the slow classical pieces (Morton Feldman?) as exactly the kind of contrast they already take for granted in pop.

    As for integration, it’s a cliché these days that a lot of smart younger people like a wild variety of music. Playlists on iTunes demonstrate this. The new audience it’s possible to find for classical music isn’t going to be much like the old audience, and all the standard bromides won’t apply to it.

  13. says

    Earlier in your book, you spoke to the issue of pairing very “modern” sounding new works with warhorses, and pointed out (I think correctly) that rather than providing “something for everyone” on every concert, it more effectively provides something for everyone to hate about each and every concert. I believe you essesntially advocated (or implied that you would later in the book) that there be separate warhorse concerts and modern concerts so that everyone can have what they want without the baggage. Have you suddenly changed your mind?

    Hi, Stefan. I’d say that different rules (assuming that there can be any rules here) apply to different audiences. For the established classical audience, there seems to be a problem in pairing established and new works. This audience often doesn’t do much more than tolerate the new works, and may (though they rarely speak up about this) resent having to hear them. Then there’s a small percentage of this new audience (one marketer I know in the biz estimates it as 6%) that likes new music, and would probably appreciate concerts that featured more of it.

    For a new (and probably younger) audience, none of this applies. Much, maybe all, of classical music is new to them, and they don’t mind new classical works at all. So they’ll listen with great interest to anything on any concert they attend.

  14. Anonymousteenager says

    If this is done, it should only be artists that are fairly obscure and “harsh” enough towhere the boundaries separating them from classical is blurred anyway.

    To elaborate, I am speaking of musicians like late “Autechre”, which blur with Xenakis and Stockhausen. “Behold… the Arctopus”, “Meshuggah”, “Gorguts” and “Spiral Architect” often have fans that are classical musicians. Paganini and Vivaldi would not need any introduction, they are usually the musicians of choice when one who normally listens to metal chooses to listen to classical. When you are at that edge of the “popular” music spectrum, the audience is mainly composed of people who are willing to expand their listening to very “harsh” music, because they’ve already heard everything else that popular music can offer.

  15. says

    Nice post Greg, but there seems to be a misrepresentation developing in the comments here. Although to some ears the Warp/London Sinfonietta concerts might seem like ‘crossover’ experiments, they weren’t really promoted that way and certainly weren’t received as such. Many of the Warp artists (Aphex Twin in particular) have a long-acknowledged love for the classical avant garde; this in turn sparked, some time in the 1990s, a huge hipster interest in Xenakis, Stockhausen, Ferrari, etc (Ligeti’s also been cool on and off since Space Odyssey). Visit eBay and see how much 60s avant garde LPs are selling for: there’s a sizable, knowledgable, devoted market for this music, and it’s largely the same constituency that listens to Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, etc. So the Warp concerts were less a crossover than (finally) an acknowledgement of this constituency and a focussed attempt to put on music for them. There was some crossover (not everyone in the hall had heard Ives, or Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, eg), but the gap was much narrower than some of the suggestions made in comments here – certainly nothing on the scale of, eg, prog rock next to Parry. (Although, come to think of it ….)

    Thanks, Tim. These are important points, to put it mildly. I think they reinforce what I said in a later post, about how these cross-genre concerts are art in their own right, and have to be thought of that way, not as some attempt to accomplish any external goal.

    As for prog rock and Parry — I’ve listened to Parry, and suffered through a concert featuring some reunited version of Yes. I think they deserve each other! (forgive me, Yes fans.)

  16. says

    The mention above of Behold…the Arctopus! reminded me of an amusing event on the avant-progressive mailing list. One of the more prolific posters listened to some Wuorinen because Rich Woodson claims him as an influence, but decided that Wuorinen was “too bland and MOR to justify my attention”! It’s not just the IDM fans who’re into the knotty modernism stuff.

    As for the various comments about prog rock, it’s easy and uninteresting to rag on Yes or ELP, but (I think) somewhat harder to do so with many other bands that are either more obscure (possibly because harder to mock) or not thought of as prog (because then you’d have to admit that some prog is good)—say, Blast, Henry Cow, Tortoise, some of Nels Cline’s projects (it’s kind of funny to me to see Cline referred to as “a member of Wilco”), Orthrelm, James Grigsby, The Dirty Projectors (that last is tendentious)…I could keep this up forever. Knocking progressive rock on the basis of Yes is like saying you don’t like classical music on the basis of half an hour’s worth of unimaginative programming on a lackluster classical radio station. (Anyway, what do you do with band/collectives like Zs or Normal Love?)

    Criticism accepted. Thanks. My Yes comment was a cheap shot, and I should have known better.

  17. says

    I feel like one very important point is being ignored here, namely, that different musics are conceived for different venues, different contexts, different audiences. While it may be a novelty for the singer-songwriter to share the stage with the avant garde classical ensemble, I think ultimately it’s a conceit, an exercise to show an equality between the two that doesn’t exist. Rather than a value judgement, I think of it more as a recognition that different musics do different things. Even within the realm of classical music this consideration is often ignored. For example, I continue to make the mistake of buying tickets to chamber music events in the main hall at Carnegie. I’ll probably continue to make that mistake because I’m kind of a fool in that way, but The Uninitiated who buy a student ticket and sit in the back row of the top balcony for one of these concerts will never be back, I can assure you.

    I happen to be someone who will go to an indie rock show in some dark sweaty pit of a venue or a gamba recital at a museum and be happy either way, but in no way does this mean that I want to see Jordi Savall at the Knitting Factory or Joanna Newsom at the Cloisters. Even less so if they’re sharing the stage. If you’re a music-lover of any variety, you go to a concert to try and soak up some of that Aura of Authenticity that listening to the recording on your iPod doesn’t give you. The concerts being proposed here don’t seem authentic, in fact they seem like a desperate maneuver by a marketing team with no faith in their product.

    Eli, I think it’s clear that you don’t want to go to the concerts I’m describing. That doesn’t mean that others won’t. I notice that you talk about concerts I’m “proposing,” and there’s an important distinction here. I’m not proposing these concerts; they’ve already taken place, so we can say pretty definitely that they work.

    Of course, part of the deal is to find musics that work well together. But there are lots of surprises down that road, I’ve found, and your joking example of a singer-songwriter and an edgy classical group might not always be so crazy. If James Taylor is the singer-songwriter, then, sure, it’s a stretch. But if it’s Feist? That might work very well.

    And is this a cynical marketing ploy? Certainly I don’t think of it that way. And I know the producers of the two concert series I talked about (the one in New York, and the series the London Sinfonietta has done). They aren’t cynical people, and they’re certainly not doing this for cynical reasons.

    And, still, after all that — if you don’t want to go to these concerts, you shouldn’t go to them! Nobody’s forcing this on anyone.

  18. says

    Hi Greg,

    Perhaps my post came off as more of an attack than I intended. My attitude in all things is “whatever works,” despite the strong language that tends to come out of me when I get rolling. My last sentence in particular was a bit overstated. I did not mean to imply that the concert promoters were cynical, I was trying to make a comment about perception rather than intention. Might it not come across as “a spoonful of sugar” where the classical music is the medicine? Probably not to those who already listen to classical, but maybe to those coming from another direction. Any idea what the makeup of the audience was in this regard at the concerts you attended?

    Hi, Eli,

    Welcome back, and I guess I could echo what you’re saying — I hope my reply to you wasn’t too truculent.

    The people at these concerts are visibly young, mostly in their 20s, if my judgment of age is any good. And from everything I’ve heard, they’re not people who normally go to classical concerts. The same was true, from what I’ve heard, at the events the London Sinfonietta presented.

    But smart, younger people today listen to a great variety of music. They may well be downloading classical music from iTunes, even if they don’t go to classical concerts. So the idea of a concert with a variety of music on it (classical included) wouldn’t be foreign to them.

    What you’re saying, though, is very important. These concerts have to be put on with real sincerity, by people who genuinely like all the music that’s played. The minute the concerts exist mainly to promote the classical music, the phoniness of the enterprise will shine through, and people will head for the exits. Or at least never come back again. Maybe one reason the London Sinfonietta has such success is that it co-produces the concerts with a leading electronica label. And the guy who produces the concerts I’ve heard in New York really likes all the music he puts on them.