A larger audience?

Thursday night I heard a wonderful concert by eighth blackbird, in Zankel Hall. There was a new Steve Reich piece, Double Sextet, and then an extravaganza — music plus exuberant staging —  from the three Bang on a Can composers, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon. Among much else, this was a real New York event, highlighting music by two generations of composers whose sound just about screams “New York.” Steve Reich was New York in the 1970s and early 1980s, and Bang on a Can — not that they don’t have other influences — come in a direct line from him. That was especially clear at the start of their piece, with a rippling pattern of repeated things that wouldn’t have been possible without Reich showing the path.

This was a happy concert, too — pulsing music, music full of ideas and surprises, exuberant music (though it could be quiet and lyrical, too). One great (repeated moment) — big happy chords, bright major triads, in the Bang on a Can piece, played on percussion and accordion, with eighth blackbird’s enthusiastically grinning pianist handling the accordion.

But the audience could have been much bigger. Thousands of people in New York would have loved this concert, and might well have turned out for them, if they’d only known. I’ve seen those people, at the Bang on a Can marathon a year ago, at the Wordless music orchestra concert, at Sufjan Stevens’s show at BAM, and maybe at the Red Buill orchestra concert a couple of years ago, who filled Carnegie Hall, though that crowd was more club-glamorous than the people at the other three events. This also is at least in part the audience the new “Evening Music” show on WNYC means to attract.

And of course these people weren’t at Zankel because nobody tried to attract them. This wonderful concert took place under the old classical paradigm, in which new music concerts have a minority place, and get presented in small, restricted circumstances, on the assumption that not many people will come. Zankel is a terrific, stylish space, but still it’s part of that old paradigm and the audience for eighth blackbird was to some extent the familiar new-music in crowd.

So what could be done? Get the Wordless Music e-mail list, and promote the concert to everyone on it. That’s a start. But then you have to get viral marketing started. I think you have to start working early, to get consciousness of this event circulating. One place to start would be music schools, not just because students who want to play new music would love working with eighth blackbird, but because even students — a lot of them, anyway — who don’t take much interest in new music would have loved this event. So get eighth blackbird a residency at one of New York’s music schools, have them work there over the course of a year, have students play these two pieces.

That last would be natural. The Reich involves two sextets, which at this concert were both eighth blackbird twice, live and on tape. So have students be the other sextet. And singing in the dead of night is modular, divided into sections that could easily be alternated by various ensembles. Or, since the piece is so exuberantly staged, players could even replace each other in the middle of a section.

Get this into music schools, get students talking about it, and hordes of them might show up for the concert.

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  1. says

    I’m curious. I completely believe that the concert could have attracted more people to a larger venue. But you don’t say anything about how many people were there. Was Zankel half-empty? Mostly full? Sold out?

    Good question, Lisa — I should have specified this. Zankel was mostly full. But not with the audience that would really love this concert. There were many people from the new music in-crowd, as I said (that includes me, I guess). And a number of subscribers to whatever series this was on. But the audience I’m talking about has a distinctive look and feel. And they make a lot of noise when they like something. They weren’t there.

  2. says

    Hi Greg,

    The audience you are talking about doesn’t pay $28-$40 for a show, and doesn’t go to Zankel Hall. If it had been $15-$20 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg or the HIghline Ballroom, you would have seen more of that crowd. But those venues are smaller than Zankel, as are most of the Wordless Music venues (smaller in terms of seating capacity, at least). Lowering the ticket price and moving the show to these venues would encourage a younger demographic, although quite possibly at the expense of some of the “new music in-crowd” people.

  3. says

    Also, Greg, according to the eighth blackbird website, their Zankel hit was sold out. I actually didn’t notice a lot of empty seats, but I wasn’t really paying attention — it’s possible some of the subscription types stayed home. But I get the sense this isn’t really about the size of the audience, but rather the composition of the audience. I would contend that if you want the Wordless Music crowd to turn out, you need to charge Wordless Music prices, not Zankel Hall prices. But why would you do that if you can sell out the place even when charging Zankel Hall prices?

    I was on the left aisle, in row M, and there were empty seats around me. The talk after the show, backstage and elsewhere, was that some of the subscribers might not have shown.

    Wordless Music charged at least $25, I think, for its orchestra concerts, which sold out a 1000-seat church twice. But I agree — Zankel Hall isn’t going to attract that audience, for price and other reasons. Why go elsewhere? Not simply to sell X tickets at $X per, but to expand your audience. And to get a crowd that really loves you, and audibly, visibly shows it. If someone promotes this right, I can imagine eighth blackbird doing four shows a year in NY, building an enthusiastic following. Or maybe it’s not simply eighth blackbird, but a number of new music groups, who play separately and together on a series which itself becomes the brand. (Like Wordless.)

    The longterm gains could be fabulous. And there are artistic gains, too. For instance: there was some talk, privately, about whether the Bang on a Can piece was too long. I know some people who thought so. One way to find out might be to play it for a real audience — not an in-crowd, who hear music through filters of knowledge, experience, friendship, and politics, but a crowd of people who just want to hear something that turns them on, and might lose patience if some piece of music wasn’t quite working. Yes, I know, there are pieces of music (and books, and movies — Proust and Antonioni) that are just too long for most people, and thus appeal to a more specialized crowd. But we don’t know at this point where Steve Reich and Bang on a Can fit — whether, in the new world that might be coming, they’re Proust or something more popular, though still art. The larger, non-initiative audience might help us discover that.

  4. says


    Thanks for your positive comments – really glad you enjoyed the show!

    The folks at Carnegie told me it was sold out on the morning of the concert. We could see spare seats from the stage – I just assumed they were subscribers that didn’t turn up.

    My personal feeling is that the show was not expensive given the “value”: Carnegie co-commissioned the work, ensuring 90 brand new minutes of music by very prominent composers; we worked on the show for 3 months; it included specially designed sound design and lighting plots; the Reich work was performed with a high quality recording, which…well, had to be recorded.

    To me it seems enough like an “event” to warrant an “event” pricing, and given that we only play in New York once or twice a season, the pricing seemed reasonable to me.

    We feel that the work will have very broad appeal, and we already have a bunch of tour dates next season, but the number of presenters that will potentially go out on a limb for an expensive “new classical music” show will always be limited.

    Hi, Tim. Nice to see you here, as always.

    I see two paradigms at work here. (Oi, such fancy language!) The old paradigm sees your concert as a new music event, within the classical ballpark, appealing to the new music audience (again within the classical ballpark). For this audience, I agree, it’s a big event, and could justify event pricing. Though I’m not sure Zankel actually charged that much. Weren’t the ticket prices what they more or less always are for Zankel?

    The new paradigm would say that there’s a larger audience out there, that’s not in the classical ballpark, and only overlaps slightly with the classical new music audience. I’ve seen this audience at other New York events, and i assume it exists in other cities, too, though maybe in smaller numbers. (Not that I have any idea how large it is, other than that it’s larger than the classical new music audience.)
    I don’t think that most people presenting and promoting classical new music events in New York and elsewhere know that this new audience exists, or potentially exists. I’m sure your non-New York presenters don’t.

    And I can see how it would be risky for them to try to reach this audience. How would they do it? How much would it cost? What if they failed? Much safer to do it the tried and true way, and appeal to the new music in-crowd, though of course that in itself seems risky, and few presenters are willing to try it.

    Though there’s something larger at stake here, larger than merely booking and selling a concert. What’s at stake is the future, which — both for a group like yours and for classical music in general — is bound to be very different from the present. I’d bet that the people who take on the risk, and start heading in that direction, will be the first to reap the rewards.

  5. says

    Hi Greg,

    I stand corrected. Almost all of the Wordless Music shows are $15-20 (and they are currently promoting a series of free concerts), but the Greenwood-Adams-Briars show was more expensive — $30, in fact. But that one is an outlier for several reasons — it came long after they’d already established a loyal following with the less expensive shows, it had the benefit of the massive built-in audience for all things Radiohead, and there was considerably synergy with with the movie There Will Be Blood, since the Greenwood work being performed was used on the soundtrack.

    My “why go elsewhere” question was largely rhetorical, although I am certainly sympathetic to your answer. Demographics matter, clearly.

    Thanks, DJA. Your comments, I want to say, are very helpful, as we start to explore all this in more depth than my post had.

    One way to summarize your thoughts on the orchestra show would be — Wordless Music knew what it was doing. And clearly not every show they might contemplate would have that appeal. But as they build their brand, they might be able to get people to come to things they don’t know about, just because the Wordless imprint seems to guarantee a good evening.

    In any case, I think we’re only beginning to find out what this new audience will come to.

  6. Eric Lin says

    “I know some people who thought so. One way to find out might be to play it for a real audience — not an in-crowd, who hear music through filters of knowledge, experience, friendship, and politics, but a crowd of people who just want to hear something that turns them on, and might lose patience if some piece of music wasn’t quite working. Yes, I know, there are pieces of music (and books, and movies — Proust and Antonioni) that are just too long for most people, and thus appeal to a more specialized crowd.”

    I’m usually very supportive of any experimentations with Classical programming, publicity etc.

    But don’t you find your suggestion of market-testing a bit too much like those of corporations? (Cola Cola flavor tests before launching a new drink) Won’t such activity possibility lead to even more pandering? Is there a danger there? Would such activity cause music to be pushed to its lowest common denominator? Where would Feldman’s second string quartet be if someone said “six hours is too long!”

    I’m not sure what the answers are…I’m just playing devil’s advocate.
    And I’m glad you’re doing that! And of course you’re right. Some things — the Morton Feldman quartet is a perfect example — are wonderfully long, but not everyone will feel the “wonderful” part. And since I’m often immersed in things that don’t have a wide audience, I should be the first to protect the art I love from market testing.

    So I think I should refine what I wrote. I wasn’t talking about market testing, the way it’s done for movies. Screen the film, and if the audience doesn’t like the ending, change the ending. I had something more exploratory in mind. The music at the eighth blackbird concert isn’t familiar to a wide audience. (Though, parenthetically — when I first heard Steve Reich, back in the early ’70s, the audience was larger than it seems to be now for his work.) So what happens when we bring a wider audience in? We don’t know! Maybe it’ll turn out that this audience is sympathetic to the music, and is willing to follow pieces that are very long. But some very long pieces just might not work at their initial length, so if the audience gets restless, that’ll tell us something important. With Morton Feldman’s long pieces (or, for that matter, Einstein on the Beach) a restless audience is the wrong audience. But that’s not always the case.

    I’m thinking also of a wonderful line in Greil Marcus’s book Mystery Train. He’s talking about the moment when Elvis signed with RCA, and for the first time was going to have a national audience, instead of an audience largely in the south and southwest. Greil wrote (though I’m paraphrasing): “He now would meet an audience as new to him as he was to it.” Meaning that both sides might have a new experience, and change. This sort of thinking seems sadly missing when we talk about classical music, where the model of artist/audience connection goes only one way. The artists, in their purity, do what they want to do, and the audience sits passively, either accepting the work or not. The idea that there’s a two-way relationship, that artists and audience together are working out their destiny (and the destiny of their culture), that an audience might have something to teach an artist — these thoughts seem just unknown in the classical music world.

  7. says

    [revised – please use this one instead!]

    Hi Greg–

    Just to disagree respectfully with my friend Darcy, I don’t think it’s true at all that the audience you’re talking about doesn’t pay $28-40 to see shows. Come to think of it, every time Radiohead or Bjork or Sigur Ros comes through town, they routinely charge upwards of $60-70 for tickets, and sell out thousands of tickets in seconds. The same true is for considerably less experimental acts: these days, everyone from Pearl Jam to Jay-Z to Madonna charges between $50 and $100 for tickets, and they seem to have no shortage of smart, sophisticated young people lining up to fork their money over. Nor is it true to say that this crowd doesn’t go to Zankel, Stern, Lincoln Center, etc., as anyone who went to David Byrne’s shows with Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, et al at Stern or Sufjan’s and The National’s shows at BAM could tell you. I know what Darcy is getting at (I think) but frankly I find the idea that intellectually curious young people won’t go to this concert or that based on where the performance is held to be a little condescending and (I would have thought) obsolete.

    Hi, Ronen. Good to see you here, and thanks for your thoughts, Since you produce the Wordless Music concerts, clearly you have some authority for what you’re saying. I do think that in other situations there can be loyalty to particular venues, or else a sense that some venues aren’t attractive. But that might not be true for the audience you’re talking about, which you know better than I do. Maybe then the question should be how Zankel could attract this audience, for events the people in the audience don’t normally respond to, but which they’d enjoy

  8. says

    Hi Ronen,

    Good to see you show up here! Your comments made me realize I wasn’t being very clear. You are, of course, right that lots of people will gladly pay $60-70 for a show featuring Radiohead or Bjork or Sigur Ros. But those artists are all known quantities, and the fans paying that kind of money know exactly what they will be getting.

    But the question Greg is asking is, how does eighth blackbird attract a young demographic that is not previously familiar with their group, and is not already immersed in the ‘classical new music’ scene. So I think the relevant followup questions is: at what price point will such people be willing to take a chance on unfamiliar new music? My guess is that very, very few people are willing to spend more than $20 to take that chance.

    Similarly with the venue thing — of course young people who don’t generally go to concerts at Carnegie or Lincoln Center are willing to check out people like David Byrne or Sufjan Stevens when they play shows in concert halls (although I also think BAM feels considerably different from Carnegie or Lincoln Center). But I would guess that if you are trying to attract those same people to an eighth blackbird show, they would be more likely to go — and it’s more likely the show would be on their radar in the first place — if the concert were held in a space that doesn’t scream “Temple of High Art.”

    Perhaps I am a cynic (okay, fine, I am a cynic), but I don’t think the idea of certain types of regular audiences “owning” certain venues in a way that makes outsiders feel uncomfortable is necessarily obsolete. I suspect that most of the audience that came to 8bb at Zankel would feel at least a little bit weird about turning up at a Todd P. show in Bushwick. I think the same is true in reverse.

    But also, I should say that without the benefit of hindsight, it wasn’t at all obvious that so many people would be so psyched to see Wordless Music shows in (literal) houses of worship. So your point about not prejudging the audience is very well taken.

  9. says

    The situation was much the same in San Francisco. Even the usual new music audience was not there. The venue (Herbst) is on the stodgy side and the concert was the token new music outlier on the subcription series (SF Perfomances). The hall was maybe 85% full at best, and it was the usual older classical audience. I was not aware of any effort to promote it outside of the subscription series. The audience reaction seemed to range from tepid to quite enthusiastic.