The Apple Store
A month or so ago I went to the Apple Store in New York to buy a new iPod. (I dropped mine in the toilet. Don’t ask!) And the store was a revelation. It’s not just a store. It’s a destination. It’s packed with people. Some are shopping. Some are just trying out computers and iPods, which are available in great numbers for people to play with. And some people are just hanging out. Some bring their computers, and seem to be sitting on comfortable padded benches, working. When I bought my iPod, I didn’t have to wait on a checkout line. The sales guy who brought me the iPod (80 gig video iPod, black) took my payment on a handheld device. (Which, I noticed, was actually an adaptation of a Pocket PC — a Windows gadget, deployed in the Apple Store! But Apple doesn’t make any handheld device for the sales staff to use.)
So what are the lessons here for classical music? How could we make our institutions, and even our concerts, places people would willingly go, just to be there? (Above and beyond their interest in hearing the music, that is.)
Well, suppose an orchestra or an opera company (or even a chamber group, or a presenting organization) defined itself as the musical center of its city? Then they could open a space for all kinds of music. There could be headphones everywhere, so you could listen to recordings of local groups, in every musical genre. There could be a café, with live performances, again featuring every genre of music, including chamber groups from the orchestra. You could buy recordings, either on CD, or downloadable on the spot to your MP3 player. (Maybe some software questions would have to be solved for that, but at the very least you’d know you could download the music from a website.) And you could buy tickets to every musical event going on in that town. Not to mention music books, posters, you name it. In the evening, the café would turn into a club, and offer headline concerts. Coolest of all, of course, would be if the concert hall itself became this space. Imagine an orchestra rehearsing in a space that people could at least look into — and sometimes go in and out of, if a way could be found to keep them quiet enough. Thus the orchestra (or opera company, or chamber group, or presenting organization) makes itself accessible. No, more than accessible — enticing. And it says, “We’re part of all the music going on in this town.” Which is how people in the town think of it, in any case, since a lot of them would go to both classical and non-classical performances. Why not acknowledge that, and make everyone feel more welcome?
And, if you have a chamber group…you could open the house an hour before your concert (or however early might be practical), and let people come and hang out with you onstage. You can talk with them, answer questions, play a little to demonstrate. You might (like the Apple Store) have things around for them to play with. Maybe listening stations (aka CD or MP3 players, with headphones). They could listen to all kinds of music that you and the group like, especially including things that aren’t on the program, and things that aren’t classical. Just to give your performance a nice, broad context.
A piece last Sunday in the New York Times Magazine described in some detail how Toyota has been so successful. Some tidbits:
They do extensive research. For a redesign of their Sienna minivan, someone drove the Sienna and other minivans all over the US, Canada, and Mexico — including very remote places — just to see what driving a minivan was really like. For the redesign of their Tundra pickup truck, they began visiting different regions of the U.S.; they went to logging camps, horse farms, factories and construction sites to meet with truck owners. By asking them face to face about their needs, Obu and Schrage sought to understand preferences for towing capacity and power; by silently observing them at work, they learned things about the ideal placement of the gear shifter, for instance, or that the door handle and radio knobs should be extra large, because pickup owners often wear work gloves all day. When the team discerned that the pickup has now evolved into a kind of mobile office for many contractors, the engineers sought to create a space for a laptop and hanging files next to the driver. Finally, they made archaeological visits to truck graveyards in Michigan, where they poked around the rusting hulks of pickups and saw what parts had lasted. With so many retired trucks in one place, they also gained a better sense of how trucks had evolved over the past 30 years — becoming larger, more varied, more luxurious — and where they might go next.
Toyota also plans years ahead. They began working on their Prius hybrid 10 years before they launched it, figuring that this was going to be a product that was needed, environmentally, and that people would want. To help launch the redesigned Tundra, they approached influential people who use trucks (influential, anyway, in the world of pickup trucks). They also sponsored NASCAR events, and country music concerts, thinking they could get closer to pickup drivers that way.
So, again, what’s the moral for classical music? Well, how many classical music institutions — even the largest orchestras — take time to get to know opinion leaders in their cities? Years ago, when Warner Records launched the Nonesuch recording of the Gorecki Third Symphony in Britain, a smart marketing guy sent advance copies to all kinds of opinion leaders with an interest in classical music (Elvis Costello was one of them, for example, and so was a former prime minister). The idea was to get the record talked about, before it was released. And this worked.
How many classical music institutions of any size take the time to find out how people in their areas listen to classical music?
The answer, of course, is that these things don’t normally happen. Many organizations don’t even do basic market research. Very few will test ad campaigns, for instance, before these campaigns are launched. So they really have no way of knowing whether their advertisements have even a ghost of a chance of working. This is true, even when they’re trying some new marketing concept. I’ll be told — as I’ve been told in the past — that nobody can afford to do all these things.
But can we afford not to?