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?

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  1. says

    Greg, there’s a very very obvious place to create all those “space(s) for all kinds of music”. Just what do record stores think they’re going to sell when the CD eventually dies in a decade or so’s time?

    If Branson et all haven’t already thought of it, all those Virgin Megastores (and HMVs and indie stores etc) need to go back to what they were originally – great places to go and check out music – but become 21st century ‘lifestyle zones’. Think Starbucks meets Arts Centre Cafe meets Concert Hall foyer, but full of box offices, bean bags and music download machines!!!

    That might have saved Tower Records! For what it’s worth, the Virgin Megastore near me seems to be doing very well, with DVDs and books for sale. But CDs do seem to be their backbone, and in the future…

  2. says

    I imagine that there are inexpensive ways to test advertising ideas. Aren’t there? Couldn’t an orchestra set up a blog and discuss ideas on that medium? Couldn’t they get someone to go to college campuses and ask students with free time what they thought of their ads? Or maybe they could have some sort of contest in which they solicit creative devotees to design ads. Or maybe just encourage devotees to design ads that they can post at will online, etc.; I imagine some people would run with it.

    It seems that many universities have, among other resources, music programs that feature classical training. I wonder if orchestras could tap those resources in order to generate publicity. One idea to throw out there: get film students to make music videos for classical music works. They could post them on their blogs, YouTube, etc.

  3. says

    I’m working on doing just this, in a sense, at the CD shop where I work. I hope to be starting a Monday Night Classical performance series in our event space. (The biggest challenge right now is trying to arrange for a piano or acceptable digital equivalent to be kept permanently in the space.)

    As it is, I try to eagerly help people find things, even if it’s stuff we can’t get for them. It’s the classic Miracle on 34th Street principle, as often exemplified on the Web, pointing people outwards to keep them coming back.

    And at our store we do have music and books and a cafe and the like. We don’t officially have free Net access yet, though we have T-Mobile, and you can get at the municipal free services if you sit near the windows. The workers actually can’t get at the Net ourselves, other than a very few selected sites such as NPR — but I’ve got tentative approval to start using the handheld Palm device that I just got to help people get info on what they need.

  4. says

    I’ve always thought a great model that classical music should investigate is the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, an improv theater school and performance space, on W. 26th St. [in Manhattan — GS]This place is a model of how education, amateur performance and professional performance can all coexist to create a thriving community.

    The primary income ticket for the UCB is their intro classes; they run about 16 a semester. They also offer many higher levels of classes up to the point that regular amateur groups perform unpaid on the UCB stage some nights. They have several of these amateur troupes and they all have an investment in each other. They turn out for each other’s events and bring their friends from work etc to theirs, keeping the hall regularly full. On top of the pyramid are people who are really top-notch in comedy, like regular players on Saturday Night Live and in Will Ferrell movies, lending buzz and cred to the place. And of course they bring in guest comedians and performers too. The place is a wild success, very hip, and every now and then someone who comes up through the ranks ends up with a six figure ad deal or writing for Conan or something, creating a tantalizing grey area. But the biggest asset is their ability to create this community with all these levels of people. Your best bet for a good show is “The Stepfathers” on a Friday night.

  5. says

    These musical spaces should not just be for consumption and passive activities such as listening. Include instruments, computers, turntables, etc. for people to interact with each other and create, like Joseph said above how he’s trying to get a piano into his space.

    Also, great work here Mr. Sandow. This is my new favorite music blog (replacing On an Overgrown Path and The Rest is Noise). I find your righting to be much more relevant to the current state of (classical) music in American society/culture.

    Thanks, Bodie. And that’s a good point about putting ways for poeple to create their own music in the space. I’m glad you thought of that!

  6. Paul H. Muller says

    Saw a PBS Special on New Orleans last nite and this may relate. Music in N.O. is mostly to be found in the streets and bars, and not so much the concert hall. Obviously they have a unique tradition there, but the point is that the music comes into the neighborhood by way of processions and spontaneous parades. Steet music seems a bit downscale from what you can hear in a concert hall, and there are obvious acoustic and weather issues, but the idea of music being offered in primarily public space is worth thinking about.

  7. Paul A. Alter says

    You hit the nail on the head.

    And the comments also make lots of sense, and please me.

    Orchestras need to reach out to the community. They also need to establish themselves as upbeat places, far removed from the gloom, doom, and keep your distances organizations they are now.

    As for the comments, I have reservations — ranging from minor to major — about most. But that doesn’t matter. What matters most is that we are thinking along constructive lines and we can work out the bugs — few or many — later.

    Thank you, Greg.

    PS: If you make a DVD-Video of the premiere of your symphony, I promise to buy it.

    Hi, Paul. Thanks, as always.
    But about the DVD — you wouldn’t buy a CD? That might be more practical for me! In any case, with the permission of the orchestra, I’d love to offer a free download of the performance. My new symphony, for those who don’t know, will be premiered in mid-April by the South Dakota Symphony, a really good orchestra with a really fine conductor, Delta David Gier. It’s an echo of 18th century symphonies, and like them, it’s designed as entertainment. Go here to hear a computer demo of the music.

  8. says

    Some fantastic ideas, Greg! It’s interesting when you think about it–Bach participated in regular concerts at a coffee house in Leipzig (in an era before the “concert hall” was invented. Informality and interaction were the norm for music-making, especially secular music-making, for most of Western history, and always have been in most other cultures.

    Informality and interactivity can also be very respectful of the music. So I love the idea of “music center.” But think of the architectual changes that would have to be made at many old concert halls, designed in an era in which a formal concert was the ideal, and which have limited lobby space (Carnegie Hall, for example).

    The most fascinating book I’ve read on the sociology of classical concerts is Linda Goehr’s “The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works”–it’s a great compliment to Small’s “Musicking”.

    Meanwhile, your need to buy a new Ipod reminds me of why I insisted my daughter get hers at best Buy, where you can purchase a multiyear replacement plan. Her’s didn’t go in toilet but through a full cycle in the washing machine (as have three cell phones in the family over the past two years, two of them mine). We just took her non-functioning 4 gig Ipod Nano back, and now that the 30 gig Ipod Video is the same prices that her Nano was last summer, she came home with a brand-new Ipod Video. I paid about $30 to make up the difference between the prorated remainder of her original 2-year replacement plan and the cost of the 3-year plan for the new one (the only one they offer for the Video version).


  9. Yvonne says

    Of course, there’s one thing about an Apple store that’s different from what you’re describing. An Apple Store is exclusively “Apple” (even allowing for the use of rival technology by the sales staff!). You go to an Apple store knowing that you won’t have to look at or see a single PC or Windows OS. (In the way that many music-lovers, even those with catholic tastes, like to go to classical concerts without fear that they’ll be bombarded with competing styles before, during or after.) The atmosphere in an Apple store is everything that a regular computer store isn’t. In some respects it’s almost a retreat.

    This aspect of the Apple culture is even more obvious in stores such as MicroCentre, in which Apple has a niche/boutique presence in what is effectively a glassed-in sub-store. Am I the only one who has noticed the startling similarity between the “classical rooms” in big CD stores (remember the big CD stores?) and the “Apple rooms” in big technology stores? And the odd way these two “niches” have a similarly small-but-passionate market share in their respective fields.

    If there’s a learning to be drawn from that, it’s not that Apple has diluted their stores or their presence or tried to cater to all tastes, but that they’ve simply given consumers an additional (and cheaper and platform agnostic and irresistible) entry to the brand in the form of the iPod.

    What is the classical music equivalent to that?

    Hi, Yvonne. Thanks for all this. It’s very good to refine these thoughts.

    Maybe this will sound like a paradox, but I think the classical music equivalent of what Apple does is to do the opposite. Apple, knowing that it has a delightful brand, opens a store that becomes a hangout, all based on how delightful people think the brand is. I didn’t check, but I’d imagine everyone hanging out there, working on their own computers, are working on Macs. Would anyone take a Windows machine there?

    But of course this works because Apple is a delightful brand. Classical music isn’t. So I’m not sure any classical music institution could attract people with anything like an Apple store, if all they did in it was classical music. Thus my idea for opening it up. Music itself is something that attracts people, and, these days, more and more people have diverse musical tastes. So open something that’s fun to be at, centered around music, and people might come. Especially if the local orchestra opened it! Because then there’s the surprise factor — local orchestra turns out to be hip. Who knew? Let’s go check it out.

    Might work!

  10. hugo says

    I hear so much of this business r/e how to update the concert-going experience. And I’ve seen at fairly close quarters how the Chicago Symphony’s efforts to create an “audience-friendly” space have worked out. I can’t help but feel that a lot of this hand-holding and modernization are misguided. It seems somehow ridiculous to me that we’re going to make the experience of attending an orchestral concert “cool” or “relevant”. Western art music requires at least a basic grounding in music theory, a historical context in which to place the music, and an attention span which must be achieved with some effort such that an hour of abstract music can be processed and evaluated. How can this be achieved by trying to misrepresent the experience as a hip, user-friendly night out?

    But the existing classical audience really doesn’t have a grounding in music theory, a historical context in which to place the music, and maybe not even the attention span we think the music requires! In one focus group I attended, involving long-time subscribers to a very large orchestra, some of the people said they couldn’t even recognize which instrument was playing.

    About the last thing I want is hand-holding for a new audience. I think that’s patronizing, among other things. I just want a really vivid experience — which might well involve more challenging music than the present audience would tolerate.

    It strikes me, too, that the notion that classical music is abstract is a relatively recent one. Nobody thought any such thing before the mid-20th century (or at least no large number of influential people thought it). Not the composers, not the musicians, not critics and theorists. Not even in the early 1800s, when instrumental music started to be admired because it seemed to transcend any specific content, did anyone think classical music was abstract, Instead, people thought it expressed transcendent things, which were always described in highly emotional terms. Our present notion that classical music is abstract may well be one of the things that keeps people away. (And keeps the present audience — who are constantly told about the abstractions, but can’t t follow them at all — somewhat cowed.