Concerts as events

Conversation with a friend who works for a big orchestra. We’re talking about attracting a new audience. He says they’re identifying classically-inclined nonattenders. I say they ought to push beyond that, to attract non-classically inclined nonattenders.

That’s arguable, of course. Nobody would try to get people who don’t now listen to country music to try it. But then country music doesn’t need more listeners, as classical music does. Or more people buying tickets to concerts. And the world is full of smart people who are inclined toward art, who don’t listen to classical music. So — unlike country music, and other nonclassical genres — we’re not reaching people who should be in our audience.

How to reach them? Make concerts events, I say. (As opposed to hoping programming or conductors or soloists will attract new people.) My friend says — very reasonably —  that that’s hard to do when you give more than 100 concerts each year.

At which point I realize that I haven’t been clear with him, or with myself, or with all of you who read this blog, when I’ve made this point in the past. My friend, again reasonably, thought I meant that each concert should be a distinct event, different from all the others. I might have thought I meant that, too.

But no. That wouldn’t work for a large institution, and in fact might be a strain on almost anyone who tried it. And when I thought a little harder, I realized it wasn’t what I meant. What lay deeper inside me was the thought that, if you’re giving classical performances, each performance should feel like an event because you’ve found a way of performing — encompassing both how you make music, and how you present your performances — that draws people in.

It’s like stores. This is, to put it mildly, a familiar example, but whenever I walk into an Apple store, I’m happy. I like the products, like the bright, happy look, like the people who work there. But when I walk into a Best Buy, forget it. I’m a little down from the moment I step through the door.

Or Target. I’m happy there. I expect to find unexpected things I’ll like — vivid designer plastic dishes, for instance. There’s a tremendous stock of baby things. And groceries!

So I want to be happy from the moment I walk into a classical performance space, an opera house or concert hall. Design plays a big part in that, but so do expectations, built up from past visits. And also the attitude of people, both staff and performers. What are the ushers like? If I’m seeing a chamber group, or an orchestra, what’s my first thought, the moment the musicians walk onstage? Do they interest me immediately, or leave me feeling blah?

In one of my branding workshops, someone who promotes a concert series wanted to brand it as lively. One thought we came up with, in discussing that: Encourage ushers to wear bright clothes (or dress in some other way that pleases them), and show some personality.

Every institution, every performing group, should reexamine the way its performances feel. Soloists, too. And create a concert template (which of course can be varied for special occurances) that makes every performance feel like an event.

Footnote: to do that, I think we’ll have to get out of the classical music business. In our minds, I mean. We’re not going to stop offering classical music. But if we think that’s the business we’re in, we strangle ourselves, as I’ll explain in another post. If you think you’re in the performance business, or the creativity business, or simply (but powerfully) in the you business, you’ll blow the doors open, and let some energy in. 

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  1. says

    Perfect timing, Greg! My first-year seminar class at DePauw is producing a mixed-genre “event” next week and we’ve been talking about this very subject. I will say that while I’m OK with Target, I HATE the Apple Store, especially the one in Indianapolis, which is about the tenth of the size of the ones I’ve seen in NY, and is often uncomfortably overcrowded. Even when there is little business, it feels more and more cultish to me each time I visit. BestBuy, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly turn me on, but neither does it turn me off. I like the variety of brands, and at least in Indiana, the stores are much more spacious (I can say I don’t care for the Union Square BestBuy).

    How a symphony orchestra or a classical venue can make each of its performances have a true event feel to them still seems a big challenge. How many people would go to the Apple Store 30 or 50 or more times a year? Especially if they had to buy a ticket?

    • says

      For some inspiring thoughts about how to make all concerts feel like events, see Anne Fennell’s powerful comment. We need to rethink the whole experience. Once any institution finds a template that works, they can use it for all their concerts.

      There’s a very small Apple store in the Pentagon City mall near Washington. Not nearly as much fun as the big ones in NY, so I only go there when I need something, as opposed to just popping in for a few minutes for fun. But still I like it a lot. Right nest it is a Sony store, designed to the hilt. And deadly. I read a provocative comparison of an Apple Store and a Microsoft store directly opposite it, somewhere. Marketing experts watched both for a couple of hours. Result? Apple store thronged, M’soft not. People bought things at the Apple Store, not at the M’soft one.

      The original Apple store in NY became a hangout. People went there with their laptops, used the free wifi, stayed a long time.

  2. Philip says

    Thanks for sharing, Greg! An important topic indeed.

    Anyone working toward the goal of expanding classical music’s listening base must begin with an assumption that the desire to enjoy classical music as an art form is a common denominator shared by most (regardless of their “inclined” status). As Benjamin Zander said in his TED talk – “Everyone Loves Classical Music–They Just Haven’t Found Out About It Yet”.

    Perhaps the classical music industry’s dictated homogeneous “feel” for the enjoyment of its art denies itself the ability to connect with new audiences. You mentioned specific brands and stores above. What effect does the concept of “belonging to a community” have on your experiences with these (or any) brands, and how could that translate to classical music?

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    • says

      Thanks, Catherine. And thanks for the Baltimore Symphony link! What they’re doing is just brilliant. Partnering with a big design school to evolve new concert dress. I’ll have to blog about that.

      • says

        I’m happy to share this with you and I think it’s a great idea as well! It reminds me of our discussion a while back about symphony orchestras and classical music performance maintaining relevance and engaging audiences in the 21st century. Perfect example!

        Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving!

          • says

            Thanks for your message. That does sound like quite the trip! Mine was busy as well, although my four stops were within one state. It was a wonderful holiday though. I’m looking forward to Christmas!

  3. MWnyc says

    Thanks for clarifying this, Greg – it really does make a difference in understanding, as a practical matter, what you’ve been getting at. And thank goodness you had that conversation!

  4. Anne Fennell says

    I truly believe that the performers/cast, audience members, and all people associated with any performance are a part of an actual living system, in that everything is truly connected and what we see in any shape or form as a part of a performance will influence us on both a cognitive and emotional level. These aspects, combined as a whole, create the entire performance experience, though many might not really be aware of it, as traditionally many of us grew up thinking that the people on stage were the only reason to attend a concert. A real living system will interact reciprocally with its environment and this is the very experience that we want an audience member to have as a part of the whole performance. This is the feeling tone that is also created in the physical space and the human connection and interaction at every point of a performance experience. And this begins when the human walks through the lobby….this is where the performance begins…and to think otherwise would be to put all of the creative experience only on the stage – as if the performer is the omnipotent one which we all come to worship, disregarding the multitude of visual and aural input that surrounds us up until the concert begins. I do believe our audiences are changing and young people today experience performances on a deeper emotional level because they are or want to be actively engaged in the process of the performance. This is the event – this is the complete visceral moment that will not only hold an audience, but will call them back, concert after concert. After all, it is about expression of human emotion. Let us create Design Thinking experiences for our concerts!

  5. says

    What a great posting, Greg! This resonates for me i so many ways… I am working as a volunteer with three different arts organizations here in Cincinnati — grassroots all three — and one of their biggest challenges is to change the very culture of classical music. I mean, of course, not how it is played or studied or loved by the inner circle but how it is perceived and approached by the outer circle — that “undiscovered” audience out there that would come but don’t quite know how or don’t decide. And yes, stuff as seemingly simple as the way ushers dress, the way one is greeted at the door, and the “vibes” one gets from the organization even before one buys the ticket all play a part in the experience. The easier one makes it the more they will come. I look forward to read your next thoughts on this.

    • says

      Thanks, Rafael. Nice to hear from you again. Your comment ties in nicely with Anne Fennell’s. People want an engaging human experience. Which, after all, is what music is supposed to be.

  6. says

    Hello Greg. Thanks for your great post, which makes a lot of sense. I do take issue with the idea, however, that “Nobody would try to get people who don’t now listen to country music to try it.” Actually, I wasn’t listening to country music aside from one or two crossover hits like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” until a friend of mine, from Texas no less, started encouraging me to listen to lots of country earlier this year. I learned a lot and am now an avid consumer of several artists who work in that space. I’m sure my friend isn’t the only country fan out there who’s excited about sharing his songs beyond country music fan circles. Also, from what I gather, there are many people in the country music world who are as worried about the future of country music (which after all isn’t exactly mainstream stuff on the whole). Classical music isn’t the only art form to suffer from the challenges of competing entertainment forms, economic realities and other issues.

  7. Doug says

    Seems to me that you’re all chasing your tails here.

    In spite of the proliferation of classical music through means accessible to nearly anyone on the planet (the Internet), numbers appreciating art music continue to go down, not up. On top of this a decline in birthrates of affluent nations stack the numbers against us long term. Rather than attempt to transform classical music by shifting resources towards expensive (sexy) packaging–always and I mean ALWAYS at the expense of art–we should be exploring serious ways to preserve the tradition. Perhaps some means of pooling resources might be worthwhile to consider. That may actually happen by default as we discover that in the future only the most affluent places will have professional symphony orchestras. But we continue to look at today’s world through yesterday’s lens, and that includes trying to achieve pop music’s results through futile attempts at mimicry. It comes down to simple supply and demand, baby.

    Sorry to break the news to you boys and girls, but all the ‘log-rolling’ and flattery one reads here on this blog doesn’t serve to advance or preserve art, but the short term goal of personal enrichment, the overarching theme of this self-centered and self-indulgent age. Enjoy the conference.

    /asbestos suit on.

  8. says

    Greg, I sure like the concept. I’m struggling to visualize it, though. For example, opera (a subset of classical music) seems to already do this pretty well, doesn’t it (assuming that the ushers are brightly dressed and personable)? Certainly every performance is an event and is engaging from the moment the orchestra begins to play. But it has the same problems and limitations luring new patrons as most other classical music organizations.

    • says

      Hi, Lindy, and that’s an interesting thought. I’d say, in reply, that opera, in my very long experience, is drab, drab, drab. It shouldn’t be, given the power of a terrific operatic voice, the power of the music, the intense drama, and, not least, the resources a big (or even a resourceful small) company can put into the visual presentation.

      But after going to opera in many US houses, and repeatedly to the Met, City Opera, and more recently the Washington Opera, I have to say I find it uninvolving — and I love opera. I’ve been to every Met opening since Peter Gelb took over, and most of them have been dull. You can even sense that the audience as a whole feels this. Applause is perfunctory, lasting (most of the time) just a few seconds. Very different from what I remember in the past!

      This is a complex question. I don’t think there’s any doubt — if you listen to recordings and watch videos — that performances of the Italian repertoire were far more sizzling a generation or more ago. Now the voices don’t ring out (by comparison), the singers don’t sing with the same either deep or instinctive projection of the words.

      So there’s a generational change. We think we’ve replaced pure gut instinct with theatrical finesse, but you’d be hard-pressed to believe that’s true, if you watch some of the old videos (L’elisir with Cesare Valletti, Rigoletto excerpts with Gobbi, Chenier with Del Monaco, La Rondine in a strong and subtle performance from — I think — Napes in the 1950s), that we do theater any better than they did in the ’50s. And a lot of what we do wouldn’t pass muster in film or theater. My wife, Anne Midgette, did a piece in the Washington Post about two opera singers who found themselves doing straight acting in films, and were blown away by how much on a higher level that kind of acting work had to be, compared to what they’d been used to in opera.

      Something I’ve noticed for all the years I’ve been going to opera (many decades now). Theatrical moments generally don’t come alive. If Don Giovanni assaults Zerlina offstage, and she screams…if the gun in the first scene of Forza goes off by mistake, and kills Leonara’s father…if Siegmund pulls the sword out of the tree in the first act of Die Walküre, well, if these things happend on a TV show, or in a movie, or on Broadway, they’d be BIG. Nobody in the theater or at home on the couch could miss that something major just happened. But in opera those moments tend to be half-hearted, by comparison. Not fully realized. (With the exception of any Walküre performance in the old days with Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde: Her scream, when whoever sang Siegmund pulled out the sword, was enough to send you leaping out of your seat.)

      Of course there are exceptions, either entire productions, or individual singers. I’ll never forget how Tatiana Troyanos died in the last act of Parsifal, when she sang Kundry. The life force simply was removed from her body, which sank to the floor like a sac of inorganic stuff. I’ve rarely seen anything like it, in or outside of opera. Or the Washington National Opera’s production of Siegfried a couple of years ago, which after all those hours in the theater — with rapt, total involvement — led to an hour-long discussion over a late-night dinner of what the opera meant. I’ll never forget Wotan (or the Wanderer, as he’s called in Siegfried) and Alberich both looking homeless — ragged, unsure of themselves, out of place, unfulfilled — making a scene riveting that usually passes with some impatience on the audience’s part. Such an image of time passing, eras changing, and old adversaries being left behind! So that their dispute now means very little. The initiative has passed into other hands.

      I’ve had, over the years, other moments like that in opera. Any moment, for instance, that Carlo Bergonzi was on stage, even though by conventional standards he couldn’t act at all. His emotional truth transcended that. But, over those same years, I’ve found movies, TV, and theater to be far more reliable in giving me something real and powerful — or simply adequate and entertaining. Opera performances, on the whole, I’d rank as realizing about 30% of what the pieces are supposed to be about. So no wonder they have trouble drawing people in. At least in the old days, the voices and vocal acting would stop you dead in your tracks, on a good night. Now, not nearly as much.

        • says

          Thanks, George.

          Rysanek sang at the Met late in her career. One of the moves James Levine made, to bring the last people from the great tradition before the public in the 1980s. Rysanek, Carlo Bergonzi, Renata Scotto, Giuseppe Taddei (who sang Falstaff at the Met in his 70s, I believe, with a not exactly young Fiorenza Cossotto as Quickly) — it was inspiring to see and hear these people, even at the end of their careers. Even Scotto, who was criticized for singing roles too heavy for her fach. Her performances, when I see them again, are stunning.

          • Jonathan Rigg says

            Yes, Greg, I am Aat LEAST as ancient as you are :) :) and I remember well those now famous stars of the 60’s and 70’s. But audiences at the Met are 99% people our age. I think about the times I’ve been there recently and HI FI has done us in. I go to the Met and the voices sound like they’re coming from a block away. You and I can appreciate the voices, but non opera goers are not going to have an experience that thrills them like the amplified pop artists of today do, with music (so-called) and singing (so-called) that they can FEEL and SEE. It’s far easier, as you know, in a smaller theater than the Met…..

          • says

            Hi, Jonathan,

            I like those HD streams better than the live performances. One reason, speaking realistically (I don’t mean to be cynical), is that they pump up the voices. So people who don’t make a vocal impact in the house (like the Loge at the Rheingold premiere) sound fine in the movie theater.

            Those movie audiences, though, seem to bel oh well, our age. As for the audience in the house, I was at the opening this year with Anne, and we had a lot of fun talking at one point with a member of the Met staff. Somebody we’d both known for years, so we could relax with each other. I found myself talking about the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston, which has childcare at its concerts (and has the kids come out and sing after intermission). The Met staff member heard that, and started laughing. “Well, we couldn’t do that here! Just look at our audience!” Meaning that they’re far too old to have young kids at home.

  9. says

    Great post, Greg, on a critical topic.

    I recently attended a concert and master class at Yale by the Igudesman & Joo violin/piano duo who use comedy, theatre, improvisation, heaps of hilarious antics and running commentary to get audiences to enjoy music. It got me thinking that when concerts become memorable experiences, people will come out of their homes and participate in the experience of live music. Today’s musicians have an opportunity to make concerts come alive by coming out of hiding and sharing themselves with the audience, as well as learning how to use body language appropriately and making the public feel that they are part of the experience. Here’s my latests blog post on the topic:

  10. says

    This is a good start to a discussion we must be having, but I do think we are missing 1/2 of the point. If our goal is to bring new people into the hall, brightening the image and overall experience within is only going to affect those who we’ve already reached – those for which a successful marketing message has *already* attracted. We walk into Target and Apple stores because their marketing message has already done a stellar job of setting up positive expectations. Once people are in the door, it’s a matter of retention – not attracting new people.

    So it must be for the classical concert experience. For example: The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has done an uncommonly great job at this. Their marketing (print, commercial, website, etc.) is all beautiful, kinetic, and vibrant, and suggests that their concerts are uncommon, unique events (no small feat, given the very high number of annual concerts). They have coupled this marketing message with an equally vibrant, modern, and communicative experience in the concert hall. Outside the hall, as ticket holders arrive and during intermission, it’s like a bazaar! There’s always good food of some sort, items for sale, and live music. And as each concert begins, there is always a brief, well-produced introductory video about what they’ll perform. This video is consistently produced via short interviews with key members of the orchestra and the conductor — which effectively breaks down the invisible wall between the audience and the musicians on stage. Audience members are allowed, in this way, to feel like they too are integral to this whole experience.

    • says

      Great point, Michael. Though really — at least in my view — the changes inside and outside the hall are linked. You can market all you want, with whatever panache, and if the concerts are the same old same old, then people won’t keep coming. And if you change the vibe inside the concert hall, word will get around, whether you market or not.

      Interesting about the Cincinnati Symphony. Thanks for letting us know. I want to know more about that.

  11. Jonathan Rigg says

    Hi Greg – GREAT discussion that you’re having, and I will add my two cents after I’ve given it a few hours more of thought. I have for the last few years been thinking about making symphony concerts more “interesting” and emotionally grabbing, and I have some ideas. But reading the above, I will try to relate it to opera. More anon…..

  12. says

    One way to redesign events is to enlist members of the target audience to help. Brooklyn Philharmonic does this, and so has Pasadena Conservatory of Music. We professionals have no idea how ordinary civilians experience our events, so we need their assistance.
    In response to a couple of comments: the goal is neither to compete with pop events nor to dumb down the music. This is about creating inviting occasions for vivid experience of the particular pleasures that this art form offers—it’s not about imitating some other kind of music.
    Beware of disdain for non-attenders, all that complaining about waning attention spans and other shortcomings of the people who don’t show up. No wonder they stay away.

    • says

      Good point about the people who don’t come, John. They’re paying full, focused, long attention to other things. We, in our arrogance, imagine that they no longer know how to pay attention to anything, while the truth is that they just don’t want to pay attention to the things *we* care about.