Shrink or diversify?

Continuing from two days ago (and apologies for not delivering the post I advertised for yesterday)…

The Tully Scope festival lasted from February 22 to March 18, and offered 13 concerts, ranging from mainstream classical events (Emmanuel Ax playing Schubert, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlighenment, with Roger Norrington conducting C.P.E. Bach). And early music (Jordi Savall and Les Arts Florissants). And six events featuring new music (sliding over into alt-classical, in one case featuring a star from a hot local indie band). Which is a lot more new music than you’d get on most classical festivals. (Follow the link for programming details.)

The event I went to  — the final concert, featuring new music, two big works by Heiner Goebbels) — seemed to attract an audience from outside the classical world. As emblems of hipness, so to speak, I spotted Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson (though of course they’re substantial artists, to say the least). Plus many people from what looked like, pick one, the “creative class” audience that Richard Florida describes in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, or else the “intellectual audience” that Virgil Thomson used to spot at classical concerts in New York in the 1940s and ’50s. It was made up of people with a general interest in art, who went to very few classical performances, but could be attracted to some that seemed more than usually thoughtful. 

So suppose the Tully Scope festival, all of it, attracted an audience like this? (As I think might be true.) Not the usual classical audience, but instead the people we’d like to attract, “culturally aware nonattenders,” as one buzzphrase has it, people who demographically (except for their age) resemble the classical audience, but don’t go to classical concerts. 

What would this mean? Well, first it’s a triumph. It’s the future of classical music. We did it! We’ve started to find the new audience we’ve been looking for, for so many years.

Second — and very important, I think — Lincoln Center did it in a new way, or at least new for classical music institutions. They didn’t advertise programming or stars, didn’t stress the names of the performers or the composers whose music they were going to play. They marketed the festival. Which for me is crucial. People normally go out at night to have an experience. They want to do something that’ll be fun, or meaningful, something they think they’ll enjoy, that will mean something to them. 

Classical concerts don’t seem to offer that, unless you’re into the conductors or soloists or composers they advertise. But a festival might, one whose marketing seems to say, “this is interesting, this will get to you.” Of course, there are variants of that — “this is hip,” “this is happening,” “this is weird and offbeat,” whatever. And the Next Wave, at BAM, has been marketing that for years. Or at least they certainly started that way. If you got on their wavelength, you could trust the events they programmed, and might go to see Pina Bausch, let’s say, even if you didn’t normally go to see dance.

(Hope I’m not being overoptimistic with that!)

So maybe, just maybe, Lincoln Center, with Tully Scope, did something like that with classical music. If so, it’s a lesson to other classical music institutions (the NY Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, so many more). Don’t tell people you’re playing Beethoven. Tell them you’re creating events. And then make them look, feel, and sound like events, whatever their content might be.

But there’s a third point to make, which — for mainstream classical music — might not be so happy. The new audience you generate, at events like Tully Scope, won’t go to classical concerts as often as the old audience did. And for big orchestras, let’s say, or big opera companies, that’s very bad news. They depend on people going several times each season. And if the new audience won’t do that — well, what will the NY Philharmonic become? You’d think it’d either have to shrink, or diversify.

And that, I think, is the key question facing mainstream classical institutions in the years coming up. Shrink or diversify. 

And what would the new diversity be? (And when you ponder that question, are you excited — or worried?)

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  1. says

    This is the way concerts should be. It’s not always ‘who’ and ‘what is played. Rather, music. It is trust. Trust that the event will leave you with something special–something special that will instill a desire within to go to another event–somewhere else perhaps. Isn’t that what a restaurant is supposed to do? Do you always know who is cooking in the back?

  2. says

    This is what “The Experience Economy” is all about. People (especially in the sought after 25-40 age group) want to buy into a complete experience, preferably one in which they can interact with other people, rather than be passive “receivers.”

    (PS. I enjoyed meeting you at Southwestern)

    Hi, Linda! Thanks for putting my comments in a larger context, and putting a name to the phenomenon I’m talking about. (Probably a name I should have known, so I’m doubly grateful to you.)

    I enjoyed meeting you at Southwestern, too. So nice to see you commenting on my blog. Thanks again!

    ADDED LATER: “The Experience Economy” is a book I should have known about. I’ve ordered it. Thanks for letting me know about it, Linda.

  3. says

    Great post. One small disagreement–my experiences was that Tully did market the parts (the individual performers, groups, and composers) as well as the whole (the festival/series itself), in emails, Google ads, etc. (No question there was much emphasis on the festival as a whole.) And, as I write about here, I think that created an important synergy in which the followings for the individuals mixed and made new discoveries. Linda is right on about the “experience” economy/culture aspect. The free post-concert sparkling wine and the different stage/lighting designs for each concert were key elements to Tully Scope’s success as well.

  4. Grant Barnes says

    Opera is always an event, because of the hundreds of people working on any given performance at the large opera houses like the Met. New opera is an event where the staging and subject matter are intriguing, speak to our culture, and is spoken about by your friends. The NYCO VOX project introduced several new works, and Yuval Sharon, a real visionary as well as entrepreneur, has moved from New York to start a new performance company, The Industry, which will perform new operas by Anne LeBaron and Gordon Beeferman in their first fully staged productions. Having attended his Launch Event in L.A. this month, the buzz around it meant an overflowing house for scenes from LeBaron’s opera “Crescent City.” Music venues similarly need to allow us to experience music with the openness, receptivity and joy children can and not as jaded concert goers, comparing one performance with its gold standard one was lucky to have seen but years ago.

  5. says

    @eric, yes! Lighting can do so much to elevate concerts. Creative lighting should be used, immediately, at all symphony orchestras concerts. It not only makes the concerts better, it can also solve the applause issue much more effectively than the current system of dirty looks.

  6. says

    @eric, yes! Lighting can do a lot to elevate concerts. Creative lighting Is used in nearly every other artistic and musical event of any kind, and it should be used at all symphony orchestras concerts. Few will miss the symphonic convention center lighting. Lighting can not only make concerts better, it can also solve the applause issue much more effectively than the current system of dirty looks.