Problem: How to attract a young audience
I’ve written about this before, here and here. You can almost infallibly attract a younger audience if you combine classical music with indie rock. (I’m assuming, of course, that you do this well — that you choose the right indie bands, and produce the concert in the right way.) The London Sinfonietta proved this years ago, and (in the first link, above) I’ve talked about Wordless Music, a concert series in New York that also offers proof. Last year, their first, they offered just a few events in a 400-seat space, selling out all of them. This year they have 10 concerts in Manhattan, in spaces that hold 800 people, and they’ve sold these out, too, with extra performances in Brooklyn and Minneapolis.
And then last week they presented their first orchestral concerts, two performances of the same program, in a church near Lincoln Center. I went to the first of them. It was packed, completely sold out, without any advertising, promoted almost entirely by e-mail. More than a thousand people were there, and more than 90 percent bought tickets in advance. The second one, I’m told, was sold out, too. This was a young audience, and they came early, most by 7:30, clearly knowing that the shows would be crowded.
The program? All new music, by Gavin Bryars, John Adams, and Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist of Radiohead. And I could say lots about it — especially about the Greenwood piece, which wasn’t the usual hesitant, not quite original or competent rock-guy-writes-classical attempt, but a sharp and original essay in absorbing, biting sound — but instead I’ll cut right to the larger chase.
First, the orchestra, all young, mostly (or so I’m told) students from Eastman and Juilliard.They played with radiant focus. Clearly they loved doing this.
And next the impact of the event on seasoned people from the classical music world. This seemed to be the Wordless Music event that brought out the mainstream. I talked to — well, I shouldn’t name names. But the people I talked to play central roles in the mainstream classical biz. And both were saying that they’d never seen anything like these concerts, that this was something new, that this was a doorway into the future (my words, but that’s what they were saying). Here was the young audience everybody wants to attract, out in force, attracted to a genuine classical concert, with no advertising.
Well, OK, Jonny Greenwood’s name was an attraction, and there had been an advance piece in the New York Times the day of the first performance. But Wordless Music itself attracts people, and studies (here, for example) show that younger people won’t go to something because they read about it in a newspaper. Word of mouth is far more important. So what happened at these Wordless orchestral concerts was a surge of something new — a new audience, reacting to something new in ways that the classical music world hasn’t seen before. (Though New York saw something similar when Sufjan Stevens did his multimedia piece – featuring 30 minutes of orchestral music — back in November at BAM. The large BAM Opera House was sold out three times, again with no advertising.)
And note one important — maybe to some people devastating – twist. Normally when we talk about attracting young audiences, we mean (whether we’ve thought this through or not) attracting young people to standard classical concerts, the concerts that already exist. But maybe that’s not possible! Or at least that the classical music world, in its present state, can attract a few young people, but not very many. To attract a large young audience, you have to do something new.
Or let me put this much more strongly. The young audience won’t come to the concerts we want them to go to. (“We” being all of us in the mainstream classical music world.) They’ll come to the concerts they want to hear. So to draw the young audience it needs, the classical music world will have to change, It’ll have to reflect current culture.
And that change, I fear, will come as a shock to people who want the classical music world to stay the way it is. One of my friends put it very strongly. He’s a leading manager of classical artists, who of course has worked a lot with major orchestras. And at the concert, as we talked about these issues, he said (I’m paraphrasing, but these were more or less his words): “I told one orchestra I’ve worked with: If you really do get a younger audience, watch out. It won’t be an audience you like.” Meaning, of course, that it won’t be an audience that wants what orchestras normally offer.
There’s lots to think about here.
Starting with this: Since our culture, over the past generation, has so drastically changed, why should we expect the future of classical music to be anything like the past?
[Note: in an earlier version of this post, I said the church held 800 people, and had been 80% sold out in advance. But the true figures, I've learned, were even more impressive than that, and they're given above. Thanks to Ronen Givony, who runs Wordless Music, for setting me straight.]