On Twitter I met Josh Newton, a composition student (older than most) at the University of Southern Maine. Josh has many interesting things to say, and gave a talk not long ago to a group of non-music students at his school.
I started by asking how many of the 15-20 students had been to a concert at all within the last few years, how many of those were art music (after translating for them), and then how many would attend concerts that were free. Surprisingly, at least to my face, more people would be willing to attend free concerts than I thought. When I told them that there were 8-10 concerts every week at the School of Music that were free to students, or cheap ($3-5), the gasp was audible. They got angry, they wanted to know why they didn’t know about them.
After talking a little about how the campus newspaper doesn’t really pay us any attention, I went into sort of the institutional issues that the modern art music movement has – orchestras don’t reach out to youth unless it is in an effort to educate, they don’t reach out to college students because they have no money, the classical and rock elitists still think they are better than each other, and don’t reach across the aisle for the common ground.
The kicker here comes in the first paragraph. Some of the students Josh talked to would be happy to go to classical concerts, as long as they didn’t have to pay too much. (Some of my Juilliard students feel the same way.) And when these students were told that free or very cheap concerts were available — now I’m just repeating Josh — they were angry!
What a missed opportunity. A missed opportunity to find an audience. A missed opportunity to involve a new audience in classical music. A missed opportunity to teach students how to market themselves, by exploring ways that they could reach out toward a student audience on their own.
Just imagine what could be done. A music school could, to begin with, put a video stream of every concert it presents — every student recital, every faculty performance — out on the Web. They could archive these streams on their website. [ADDED LATER: But of course there are rights issues here. A school might not be able to stream performances of copyrighted works, or even performances of older music in the public domain, if the musicians used a copyrighted critical edition. Of course, you could get permission to stream these pieces, but then you have two problems. First, it'll cost you. Second, the paperwork involved can be killer (as I've heard firsthand from a school administrator who deals with these questions.
[So does that kill any thought of streaming? I don't think so. For one thing, these problems may work themselves out (just as orchestras have worked out with their musicians ways to make recordings, which for decades were impossibly expensive because the musicians had to be paid extra to make them). Once the idea -- even the necessity -- of streaming starts to spread, we might get momentum towards making streaming easier to do. Certainly composers and publishers of new works stand to benefit here. What composer wouldn't want archived videos of performances of her music?
[And then I don't see why partial streaming wouldn't work now. Stream and archive everything in the public domain, while you only do short excerpts -- allowable, I'd think, under the standard concept of fair use -- of copyrighted works. Thus my idea could, I'd think, be put into motion right now, just as I've said, even while the rights issues still remain difficult.]
Schools could also
They could encourage students with a recital coming up to record introductory videos. Who are you? What music are you going to perform? Why do you love that music? These videos could go on the school’s website, highlighted on the home page, so anyone going to the site would know what concerts were coming up that week — and could easily get a taste of what the concert might be like.
Having done all this, the school could now publicize all of it. Send releases to the campus newspaper, to local media, or at the very least to the local public radio station and of course (if we’re talking about a large university) the college station. Send releases every couple of days. In any marketing effort, persistence is key. The releases could be very simple. Here are our upcoming concerts. Here’s who’s involved with them. Here’s what they have to say about their involvement. Here’s a link to watch them saying it, and, by the way, to see and hear the recital one of them gave last year.
If all of this was done well — and, again, persistently — it would start to get attention. The school could find new ways to publicize the concerts. Guerrilla performances around campus? A barrage of truly enticing flyers (produced by graphic design students at the university)? Music students standing in the middle of the campus, talking to people passing by, handing out postcards (again enticingly designed), with links to the student’s video introduction to the concert, and links to archived performances?
These are basic, dull, obvious ideas. Someone can think of better ones. Another obvious idea would be an e-mailing list of people on campus interested in classical concerts. Each week, they’d get a message much like the release I described. Who, what, when, and most of all, why. Why the concert takes the shape it does, and why it’s going to be worth hearing.
The students would add their own efforts, starting with their Facebook pages, but moving on from there. The campaign could become a school-wide project. Who knows what ideas might emerge?
And what would life be like at a music school, if the students (or at least some of them) began to develop enthusiastic audiences, even if those audiences were small?