My brother in arms

The following — a terrific classical music manifesto — comes from Ken Nielsen, one of the founders of the wonderful Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, Australia. This is a company so happy, internally, that its chorus volunteered to raise money for a production they didn’t sing in. And don’t be misled because they call themselves a chamber opera company. They currently perform in — and sell out — a thousand-seat house.

Ken reads my blog, and posts comments. He and I have emailed for a number of years, and it was a treat to meet him — along with his wife, Liz, the Chair of the company, and Anna Cerneaz, the Managing Director — during my Australia visit.

For years, Ken did marketing for the Mars company, makers of M&Ms. His corporate background helps make him — as you’ll see — impatient with solutions for classical music that aren’t entrepreneurial.

That’s enough introduction. When Ken and I had lunch, he gave me this manifesto, and said I could put it in my blog. I love every word of it.

1. The classical music industry is in decline, with an aging audience base and a
low rate of new audience entry.

2. Governments, compulsory music education or any other external action will not
solve the problem.

3. To reverse this, the industry should change to make its product more attractive
and accessible. Currently, there are elements that make concerts forbidding and
inaccessible to new entrants.

4. These changes need not be (and in my opinion should not be) to the music, with
one exception, mentioned next.

5. More new music should be introduced to concerts. Any art form that does not
renew itself will become moribund. Because elements of the current audience are
so conservative, a greater variety of concerts and formats, aimed at different
audiences, is probably necessary. Stick with the current stuff for the olds, offer
innovation to those excited by it.

6. Changes to the format and style of concerts should be tried – everything from
getting players out of penguin suits to the length of concerts. Concert models that
have worked elsewhere should be tried.

In this area, as in most areas of business, change comes about not from strategy
meetings but from innovation – new things being tried, some fai ling, some
succeeding. Such innovation, and the risks that come with it would probably be
itself attractive to a different audience. “Are you game to come and hear this just composed

7. I believe that greater engagement with and involvement of the audience is an
important part of the puzzle. A concert should be more like communication than a
one-sided speech. .

8. Such changes as I am suggesting must be tried at the level of the organisation –
the orchestra, opera company or whatever – others can watch and steal the ideas if
they work but an industry wide approach is doomed.

Can you imagine the rock industry calling a summit meeting to decide how to solve
its problems?

Funny — I forgot to ask Ken if that last paragraph was his reaction to the classical music summit I raved about in my last post. I share his suspicion of industry-wide approaches, but even so I think there’s a point to the summit. If, that is, it prods individuals into action. The classical music sector (as they’d say in Australia) has been so stuck that many people in it won’t quite dare to act on their own. Giving them a push — permission from the top, so to speak — might help. I saw that happen at the summit, as I’ll describe in my next post.

But even if Ken and I disagree on this, his manifesto — including doubts about collective action — is far healthier than anything I’ve yet seen the industry come up with.

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  1. says

    Hi Greg,

    I agree, and can speak to #7, especially.

    For the past 2 or 3 yrs., I’ve been speaking to audiences to introduce a piece if it’s unusual. They love it! Contemporary music and Bach fugues both qualify.

    First, they immediately feel like they’re welcome participants, not cabbages who are expected to just sit there.

    Second, when something is introduced in friendly, not dry, terms, they are able to listen and understand some of what they hear.

    How do I know this? They make a point of talking to me afterwards! When I’ve played Messiaen, people tell me about the pictures they saw in their heads.

    One of my favorite scenarios is to introduce some Messiaen preludes, then let the audience know that Gershwin is next! That way they know that even if they don’t like 7 or 8 minutes of the program, they’ll be able to go home happy.

    Take care,


  2. says

    Can you imagine the rock industry calling a summit meeting to decide how to solve

    its problems?

    *snickers* This is exactly what the Middle East did with the series of Cairo Congresses on Arabic music during the 30’s. Mostly in response to Westernization. I think at some point most non-Western countries had some sort of summit as a response to the influence of the Westernization of music (either classical or pop).