Thinking bigger — Grammy post followup


Our audience can grow, explosively.I’m all for growing our niche audiences incrementally, using the Grammy awards for whatever they can get us. But we shouldn’t be satisfied with incremental growth. We’re ready to explode. Let’s go for it!

I’m surprised — but happy — about how much comment my Grammy post got, the post in which I said the classical Grammys didn’t matter much.

And I got a lot of pushback. Yes, the Grammys matter. They’re recognition for recordings that might not otherwise get it (or at least not so prominently). The Grammys help with promotion — if you’re selling a record, or booking tours for a group whose record won, saying “Grammy winner” is a selling point.

All true. I thought I’d acknowledged all that in my post, but maybe I didn’t do it strongly enough. And what I now feel I should have done is made much more clear why I was making my point in the first place.

And here’s the reason. We — those of us who work professionally in classical music — don’t think big enough. We accept realities we ought to try to change. We operate within limited parameters. This, we say, is the classical music audience. And this is the new music audience.

So when we have music to promote, that’s where we go. To the people who’ve bought music like that before.

Which is natural. Who could blame us? That’s how the world works. Most of us do what we’ve always done, what’s worked in the past. No blame for that.

But now we’re in a new era! The old classical music ways are changing. People are doing new things. And in the outside world, there’s more interest in music of all kinds — more experimentation, more curiosity, more creativity — than I’ve ever seen.

And that extends to classical music. For instance, in the striking crossover between new classical music and indie rock, but also in a heightened openness to old classical music, as long as it’s performed with spirit and presented with contemporary attitude.

So why, then, do we accept so many limits? Some things about the classical music world just don’t make sense. We have — and this was what I was getting at in my post — an audience that doesn’t participate very much in what, as professionals, we think classical music is about.

Forget the Grammys for a moment, and just imagine asking people at a Boston Symphony concert (or substitute any orchestra) what the best orchestral recording of the past year might be. They wouldn’t know. And if you asked them to name what the best new orchestral piece of the year had been — or even to name three or four orchestral pieces new this year — of course they couldn’t do it. What chance would they have to hear — or even hear about — these pieces? Any new work their local orchestra didn’t play would almost surely be unknown to them.

Some people responding to my post think this also happens in pop music. Not a chance. Sure, there are obscure bands, some of which might get awards. But the big awards go to people who are much discussed, outside their genres, as well as by their genres’ fans. And even for the more obscure stuff, there’s an active community discussing, comparing, evaluating, accepting or rejecting it.

(To see just a little of how this works, go to the NPR music site. quite a wonderful spot on the web, and the best window I know into how the educated public thinks about music.)

So if in classical music, recordings get nominated for the Grammys that hardly anyone in the classical music audience knows about — that’s an anomaly. And it’s due, I think, to our small, niche audience, and also to some ossification that’s occurred over time, as classical music began to turn in on itself, and not engage the outside world. A consequence of that, a very sad one, was that even people inside classical music didn’t engage, in any full sense, with our art form.

Which is why I want us to think bigger! I want us to find an engaged new audience. I want us to think beyond the relatively few people we speak to so far, and expand our reach. For me, that means music students finding fans in the cities their music schools are in, and getting 50, 100, 200, 400 people at their graduation recitals, instead of the 20 or so I’ve routinely seen at Juilliard.

It means that new music records — the ones inhabiting a sonic landscape that they share with indie rock — should sell 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 copies (CDs, downloads, paid streams, whatever).

And for established classical music institutions, it means an influx of new, younger listeners — active, lively, curious, engaged, smart people.

When we have these things, our field will start to grow. And will start to have a normal audience, of the kind we find in popular culture, an audience that knows what’s out there, discusses it, and actively chooses what it likes and doesn’t like.

Then the classical Grammy awards will start to mean something not just to me, but to the classical music audience. Because they already knew the records nominated.

That’s the goal I’d like to see us shoot for. So as I said at the start:

I’m all for growing our niche audiences incrementally, using the Grammy awards for whatever they can get us. But we shouldn’t be satisfied with incremental growth. We’re ready to explode. Let’s go for it!


So that’s

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  1. says

    Yes! Now this is what we should be talking about.

    I was just reading about the Chicago Sinfonietta in a book from 2008 (Entering Cultural Communities) and apparently as of the printing of their book fully 55% of its audience are ethnic minorities. The group (in 2006) included 21 African Americans, 4 Latinos, 2 Asians, and one Native American. 50 percent of the board is comprised of African Americans (as is the Conductor) and four to five works per year are written by composers of color and performed by guest artists of color.

    How has this translated into th audience figures–as well as the racial demographic composition of the audiences, these are some of the numbers given:

    * Its subscriber base of eleven hundred has been augmented by five thousand to ten thousand single-ticket sales annually, a number that is likely to increase dramatically as the organization expands its repertoire to reach a broader audience
    * Its subscriber base has grown 24 percent from 2004-2006, and the goal is to keep that base growing by 8 to 12 percent every year.
    * Creative collaborations like the one with Chicago-based Rock group in 2005 in original and remixed performances of Dvorak’s new world symphony attracted a significantly younger audience of rock fans or the collaborative performance with Fareed Haque and Zakir Hussein which melded Jazz, CLassical Indian Music, and Classical music which brought in a new audience of South Asians, “99 percent [of whom] had never been to a Sinfionetta concert before” (Hirsh interview 2005)

    Executive Director, Jim Hirsh, says their goal has been:

    to stretch how people perceive orchestral [music]: what orchestra music is and [what it] can be, and trying, hopefully, to open some doors so it becomes relevant for a broader range of people…We have one foot in the traditional orchestral world–we did Tchaikovsky’s Fifth [but we had] the first half of the concert with [Chicago’s Mexican folk band] Sones de Mexico and this young, African American cellist, Patrice Jackson, who kind of blew the doors off the place….We just want to explore [new musical combinations]. (Hirsh interview 2005)

    And ironically, given the recent NY Phil incident with the nokia ring tone, the Chicago Sinfonietta commissioned a Concertino for Cell Phone and Orchestra for the 2007 season–which required audience cello phone participation!

    I think they’ve earned their self-description as “The nation’s most diverse symphony orchestra [that] shatters traditional boundaries through its collaborations, creating synergies between classical, dance, theater and other musical styles including jazz, rock, and world music.”

  2. says

    I’m with YOU Greg!
    The more we impose demands on the audience “for the sake of the music”, the more I believe we shoot our audiences in the foot because the younger audiences are increasingly eclectic and smart about what they won’t accept. And what they won’t accept is directionless, sterile, cold music and performances. Get past those and we can all look forward to increasing buzz to attract curious music lovers!

  3. says

    Good thinking! I especially like the idea of uni students aiming to get hundreds of people to their graduation recital. Maybe even some of their mark should be based on how many people come to hear them play? The whole point of music is that you engage with people. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down, or playing the music people ‘want’ to hear. It means being passionate about what you do!

    • says

      Thanks so much, Lamorna. I remember you from my visit to Australia. Weren’t you part of the small group I sat in with at the classical music summit, the one Nicole Canham chaired?

      • says

        Yes, that’s me! It would be very nice to see you back in Australia some time. Any plans to return and shake up the old classical teachers community?

        The new music group I play with, Ensemble Offspring is trying out lots of the kind of ideas mentioned in these posts and are slowly developing a following. We now regularly get over 200 people to our gigs but that has taken such a huge amount of time and effort to get past the standard 30 people in the audience for a contemporary classical gig.

        Really glad to have worked out how this blog thing works!!!

        • says

          Hi, Lamorna. Glad to meet you again. And is James Nightingale in your household?

          I’d love to come back to Australia. Had so much fun when I came, met so many good people. My budget won’t let me initiate a trip by myself, but if anyone in Australia could make it possible, I’d more than love to return.

          Not that I’m hitting you up to do this! But I’m happy that you’d like to see me shake things up again.

  4. says

    I’m going to try to expand and (to some extent) push back on some of your ideas here. (I apologize in advance for the length of this.)

    First, in my opinion you’re correct on the nature of the pop music universe. Its vitality can be explained I think by a combination of vibrant communities and Darwinian competition: Artists compete within subgenres to win the favor of the communities associated with those subgenres, and subgenres compete within the overall pop music universe to win listeners among the subset of those open to listening outside their favorite genres. (For example, the types of people who read Pitchfork or the NPR music site.) Since the total listener base is very large, even a relatively minor subgenre can grow to attain critical mass in both community size and number of competing artists, and generate truly excellent artists with outside-subgenre appeal. (Behind Bon Iver there are likely hundreds of artists working in that general vein, enough to eventually produce a break-out star.)

    The question is, how could this dynamic operate in the context of classical, and contemporary classical in particular (since that’s my main interest)? I see at least three possible ways to go (not necessarily exclusive). The first is the crossover/outreach approach, basically a deliberate attempt to expose fans of existing genres to contemporary classical artists and music: stuff like the Wordless Music series, projects with indie artists (e.g., the recent yMusic album), or contemporary classical takes on non-classical genres (e.g., Alarm Will Sound’s Aphex Twin cover album). People have done a lot of good things here, but I’m not sure how much of a difference it’s making yet in terms of actually drawing listeners. For example, yMusic did a piece by Annie Clark on its album, but looking at Amazon’s “people who bought this also bought this” data I don’t see much evidence that the communities of St. Vincent fans and yMusic fans overlap that much.

    The second possibility is promoting organic growth of the contemporary classical scene — basically treating it as just another subgenre of popular music that has to work to gain critical mass to the point where the dynamic of community and competition can produce artists of interest to the wider world. I think the key there may be growing the artist base first, with the fan base then following; this seems to be what often happens in popular music subgenres — artists themselves form the core of the initial community, with the boundary between artist and listener being somewhat blurry early on in the growth of the subgenre. One issue I see is that there seem to be fairly high barriers to actively participating in the contemporary classical scene as player or composer: There are only so many people with the necessary training and virtuosity, and classical isn’t like rock where it’s possible for people who can barely play their instruments to nonetheless achieve popularity based on other factors like songwriting, or stage presence. To overcome this handicap I think will require attracting more of the existing pool of conservatory grads to contemporary classical performance and composition, and aggressively pursuing a global audience through online artist discovery and community building (since most of the potential fans are not going to be local to places like NYC where there’s a concentration of artists).

    The third and most radical strategy would be assimilation followed by subversion from within–basically writing off “contemporary classical” as a viable category and having artists compete head-to-head in popular music subgenres to which they have affinities and in which they could achieve success and/or a reputation for musical innovation. For example, if you’re a conservatory grad with a taste for post-rock, don’t form a contemporary classical ensemble that dabbles in post-rockish composition, form a real post-rock band and put yourself in direct competition with the leaders in that subgenre. You can always do side projects in a more classical vein, and if you’re successful you’ll have a better chance of bringing your fan base over. Of course, this is a really tough road for someone with conservatory student loans to pay off, far more risky than trying to find a position in a orchestra or ensemble, but that’s just the reality for anyone trying to make popular music today.

    • says

      Good thinking, Frank. Thanks for it.

      I think that classical musicians — soloists, ensembles — should try to build their audience the way bands do, playing in small venues (clubs and the like, but also small concert spaces), and working to build their fan base, and move to bigger venues. Until, maybe, they can sell out 500-seat venues for two- or three-performance runs. Not all soloists and ensembles will be able to do this, of course. Very few will, in fact. But that’s true in pop, too. Very few bands have any notable commercial success. Some classical musicians will do a lot better, too. Maybe some can fill 2000-seat theaters, or even 20,000-seat arenas.

      There are many signs that the audience is beginning to grow. Signs, in other words, that we’re further along than you’re saying. I’ve seen this in New York, and heard and read about it in London. I’ll be posting about that shortly.

    • richard says

      I recently had a work of mine for “rock band” (guitar, bass, drums, synth and tenor sax) played in a club setting. It was commissioned by a former band student who played in the group. They are a sort of avant- rock/jazz group. They also are all great readers and have “classical” chops. It was kind of funny when they had to set up their music stands (this was definitely not a “head chart”). Some in the audience really liked it, and some seemed “dazed and confused” (reminded me of the time when Zappa had as his openinig band a couple of piano players playing the four-hand transciption of Le Sacre). Interestingly, it was rock musicians in the audience who found the piece to be the most transgressive. One guy came up to the drummer and chided him for playing with music rather than “playing from his soul” ie improvising. Also the whole concept of multiple simultaneous tempos and metric modulation seemed to elude them.

      • says

        Fascinating, the prejudices most of us harbor (including me). I remember watching a recording session for what I guess would be called a crossover piece, using a top classical musician, and some people from the nonclassical world.

        The skillsets they all had varied. The classical musician couldn’t keep a groove with anything close to the precision the nonclassical people could. But one of the nonclassical people had trouble doing a classical-style thing. There was a lovely piece in ABA form. In the big section, the composer asked one of the nonclassical musicians to improvise an accompaniment to the melody, using the theme of the A section. This nonclassical musician, if you just asked him to improvise an accompaniment, could have done it easily. But asked to use a particular motif in his improvisation — that stopped him in his tracks, at least for a bit. He wasn’t used to thinking of musical construction that way.

        • richard says

          I do believe that many musicians are just not trained well enough. The rock band I wrote for has very broadly trained musicians. The tenor sax player is majoring in sax and minoring in clarinet (I believe all sax players need to play clarnet and vice versa) The bass player plays a fretless bass and is also an orch player. The guitar player is also a classical player and plays lute in an early music group, the drummer is a percussionist with awesome mallet chops, and the keyboard player is a church organist. Julliard, and other schools of music, need to produce more kids like these.

  5. says

    I’m happy to stumble upon this blog. There’s certainly a lot of traditionalism that gets in the way of classical music, and there are some self-defeating attitudes out there. I’d really love to see more forward-thinking ideas beyond recording the same pieces over and over, or writing new music that only appeals to academics, other composers, or avant-garde communities. I’d love to talk about classical music the same way DJs and pop musicians talk about theirs. I’ve written an article about a similar topic here, as some more food for thought:

    • says

      Hi Simon,

      I read your interesting blogpost and appreciate your questions and have a few responses I hope will help.

      I believe you are pointing at the paradox of classical music we all have to reconcile. The one-sidedness of Western thought is that we must believe something very firmly in order to do what we do (“rid the world of evil”). Eastern philosophy (and Carl Jung) allow that opposites are always present and we can embrace them without spontaneously bursting into flames.

      As such the performance of classical music is both relevant and irrelevant at the same time. It all depends on which side of the coin we’re currently staring at. When I look thru the eyes of my friends who wouldn’t consider coming to a symphony concert, I understand their disconnect. When I’m playing in my orchestra I can’t understand how they could resist. The paradox begins to reconcile my dilemma. Both are absolutely real because we live in the world of our own perceptions as freedom-obsessed American individuals.

      Most of us musicians will bury our heads in isolation with sympathetic individuals. My way out of the frustration has been to work to recognize and acknowledge each side of the coin to the other. I started a chapter of Classical Revolution (.org) in Detroit (of all places) to play in bars, coffeehouses and clubs. Here I find curious music fans respond positively when they have a personal connection to me and I can demystify the traditions and briefly reset the context for them. An example is to play a famous piece of Mozart, then talk about how I tried to write a work of similar beauty and timelessness, then play my music. This endeavor gives me AS MUCH satisfaction as playing in the DSO like I have for 22 years.

      So I suggest you seek a new audience outside and approach them with your dilemma and passion. Find ways to explain it simply and honestly. Perhaps start by acknowledging non-accusingly why people don’t enjoy classical. Show them boths sides of the coin! Good luck!

  6. says

    Writing from Australia we’ve just seen the Sydney Symphony play three weeks solid without a seat unsold – including a week when they were performing in different venues on the same nights – effectively two orchestras. The fare on offer was West Side Story (with film), Natalie Cole, Tim Minchin (an Australian comedian) and this week Beethoven 9 – a total of thirteen performances. Great concerts all but not hitting the contemporary classical music buttons (although composer Ian Grandage who wrote a lot of music for Tim Minchin will quibble with me). (It’s not all rosy for classical music here, the opera company is apparently struggling to sell tickets to a season of Mozart operas – contrasted with standing room only for Turandot).

    As a musician who works occasionally with Sydney’s orchestras and also being involved in the new music scene, I’ve often wondered why it’s so rare for the orchestral sector to collaborate with new music ensembles and specialist contemporary classical musicians (composers included) – but I think that to ask them to invest in risky projects is almost futile, at least for the moment. The major institutions of classical music will be interested in contemporary classical – i.e. newly created works and the musicians who specialise in that – when those involved in its production have done the hard yards building a substantial audience that will travel into the concert hall.

    I’ve been to plenty of concerts that the Sydney Symphony has not sold out, and so I think that its safe to say that their audience reach isn’t limitless and that in working with Tim Minchin and Natalie Cole they are capitalising on audiences that already exist. When contemporary classical ensembles and artists are able to command the kind of reach (audience and media) that these performers have then we can expect the major institutions of classical music to engage with contemporary classical music.

    Getting to that stage is, as Greg points out, both very difficult and, as in all musical genres, also requires good fortune. I agree that we all need to work on making incremental audience growth a reality for our art form and there are definitely lessons to be learned from niche popular music. I believe that new audiences for contemporary classical will be found outside of the concert hall, amongst people such as Frank who have a love for adventurous and challenging music of all kinds. In the future could it be that contemporary classical music is a major reason for the existence of the orchestral sector? Or will the orchestras be condemned to being souped up backing bands and museums of 18-19th century European art-music?

    Let’s not ignore the many contemporary classical musicians who understand these problems and are working to build audiences for themselves and others as we speak and the many forums for contemporary classical that already exist. We shouldn’t forget where Philip Glass and Steve Reich started, either. That no one who has emerged in our field in the 80s-90s-2000s has emulated the global fame of Glass or Reich is bewildering but I’m sure that such artists will emerge and sooner rather than later. Maybe Eighth Blackbird will manage it (with help from their Grammy award perhaps), but the potential is that it could be lots of people. Whatever it holds, the future won’t be boring.

  7. says

    Thanks Greg!
    I couldn’t agree more that thinking big is the thing. Classical music needs more chutzpah.

    Two thoughts I had, watching the Grammys:
    1) The reality that so many of the biggest pop stars are being discovered through their homemade (ish) videos on Youtube, Myspace (back in the day) says something tremendous about the potential for artist-direct connection with the public, and I don’t think most of us in the realm of concert music are taking advantage of that – not even close. With the exception of violin-prodigy toddlers, I don’t see a whole lot of artists using Youtube to put out stuff that’s meant to speak directly to the wide audience out there. Instead, the classical presence generally stays very specialized and staid. Granted, the talent scouts out there sourcing Youtube for the next Justin Bieber or Adele are probably not salivating for the next big piano quartet, but we could still be using this platform to expand our audiences in a significant way, from the ground up, changing the way the general public receives and perceives our music.

    2) The worlds of indie rock and indie classical have converged so much that they should absolutely be sharing an audience, as you point out. Watching the acts at the Grammys – Bon Iver, Decemberists – I was thinking that fans of this music would really get behind the work that great new classical bands are putting out. Case in point, my friend Matt McBane’s indie-classical band Build (, or yMusic ( I think that crossover is happening, and I think it’s going to be a pivotal move in bringing concert music to a younger, bigger audience.

    So, yes, time to rock and roll!

  8. says

    Greg, I continue to appreciate your efforts in trying to understand the contemporary situation and seek avenues to the future for classical musicians. I think that part of the problem is that the progressive artists of the 20th century made some choices that put us in this situation. We are losing audiences to pop music because the Deuteronomy of the avant-garde, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, et al, decided to attack both the traditional means of organizing music and the traditional audiences. Given that, it is not too surprising where we ended up. An additional problem is that a genuine grasp of aesthetic quality, which was also attacked by the avant-garde, has been the target of progressive thinkers like Pierre Bourdieu and echoed by every thinker in academia. A foreseeable consequence of denigrating all the things that have led to quality in music is that appreciation of quality is replaced by fascination with novelty, flashy performance and ‘transgressive’ art. Voila, pop music video!

    I blogged about this here: