s4m 2 blogSo who is Spring for Music for?

If you go to the concerts, the answer seems obvious. This festival — which finished its third season at Carnegie Hall last week — features orchestras from around the US, some of which haven’t played in New York before, or haven’t done so for years. Their hometown fans (sometimes more than a thousand at a time) flood Carnegie Hall, waving colored banners.

So that’s who the festival in practice is for, the people who most visibly come to it, the ones who most clearly care. The hometown fans.

But I don’t think that was the original plan. The founders of the festival talked about programming. Unusual programming. Programs that orchestras couldn’t normally do, or could only do by taking big risks, because they might not please the normal audience.

And that’s what’s stressed in the Spring for Music mission statement:

Spring For Music provides an idealized laboratory, free of the normal marketing and financial constraints, for an orchestra to be truly creative with programs that are interesting, provocative and stimulating, and that reflect its beliefs, its standards, and vision. Spring For Music believes that an orchestra’s fundamental obligation is to lead and not follow taste. As such, programming needs to advance, and not just satisfy, expectations.

So this year the Detroit Symphony played all four Ives symphonies. The Albany (NY) Symphony played Gershwin’s not so well known Second Rhapsody, and a symphony by Morton Gould. The Buffalo Philharmonic played a Giya Kancheli piece, and a symphony by Glière.

Clearly this isn’t mainstream stuff. But it’s not what’s bringing people to the concerts, despite a low, low ticket price — all seats are $25. What brings people to the concerts is hometown pride.

I wonder if the founders of Spring for Music expected that. And I wonder if they asked themselves whether the programming — the heart of their concept — would itself have an audience.

My sense is that it doesn’t, that there isn’t any established audience, even in New York, for adventurous classical programming. There’s a young new music audience, but that’s a different thing. It’s not showing up for Glière.

There’s an audience that’ll come to mixed classical/indie rock events. There’s an event audience — people who’ll go to classical programs at Lincoln Center festivals that include all kinds of performances, not just music (and where not all the music is classical). Performances that in the context of the larger festival seem like events. Or people who for 30 years have been going to the Next Wave Festival at BAM.

And there’s an audience for free or inexpensive classical performances, the audience that goes to hear the Met and the New York Philharmonic when they play in city parks, or who show up when ticket prices drop. But these people, from everything I’ve seen about them, would look at Spring for Music’s programming, and say, “But I don’t know this music!” They want the familiar masterworks.

Without the hometown crowds at S4M’s concerts, Carnegie Hall would look pretty empty. Of course, the orchestras can buy tickets for their hometown fans in advance, so maybe the seats, if they’d been available, would have been filled by New Yorkers.

But I’ve heard that S4M tickest are hard to sell in the NY market, and I’m not surprised. Because, again, I’ve never seen or heard of any large NY audience drawn by the kind of programs S4M does. Someone I know who’s involved with classical programming in New York used to complain — sometimes wryly, but also sometimes bitterly — about how few people would come to unusual programs. 

And I think of someone in her 30s whom I met at a birthday party years ago. She’d just moved from San Francisco to NY. When, as we talked, I told her what I do for a living, she responded with great excitement. She’d heard MTT conduct the Ives Fourth Symphony at one of the San Francisco Symphony’s “Mavericks” concerts, and been thrilled. But she wasn’t an Ives fan. Before the concert, she hadn’t known who Ives was. It was the Mavericks brand that drew her, the sense of event, the buzz around those concerts that told people they’d have a great time no matter what was played.

And this is what Spring for Music seems to miss. Look at their website. Utterly blah. Routine graphics (like the one at the start of this post) — standard shots of conductors and orchestras, signifying nothing, offering not even interest, let alone excitement.

And on the home page there’s not one word about the programming mission! Nothing that says, “These are special concerts! Not like anything else. Pick one at random. You’ll be intrigued, absorbed, captivated, thrilled. Go to several, to multiply that. No two of these concerts are alike.” I’m just improvising these words. S4M, if it wanted to, could do much better.

And of course I’m looking only at the website. Maybe, in other marketing, other PR, S4M did do what I’m suggesting. But not doing it on the website is — not to mince words here — an amazing omission. Why aren’t they selling what they most care about? Why aren’t they offering (at least in my opinion) any selling points at all? When someone goes to the site, what’s there to make her care?

One last thought. Back to those exuberant, whooping hometown fans. I loved seeing them at the Detroit Symphony concert I went to. But if S4M did draw a NY-based event audience, would there be two not wholly compatible groups at the concert? The event audience would be an arts audience. The hometown fans come off simply as fans. I don’t mean to say they don’t love classical music, and might not know lots about it. But what comes across is their not arts-based enthusiasm. They’re cheering, in the end, for the home team, much more than for the programming.

The event crowd, from what I’ve seen of it, is an entirely different group, hipper, more clearly urban, edgier, more visibly interested things that are new and advanced. What would they think of the hometown fans? Maybe they’d love them! But on the other hand, I’m not sure anyone would deliberately go out to create an event meant to appeal to both groups at once. An unlikely marketing strategy, I’d think

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  1. says

    One thing I wonder about: the “home team” draw is very powerful, and it’s one thing that really affects the impacts and success of arts organizations in smaller communities. Trey McIntyre Project in Boise comes to mind – and several important chamber music festivals/concert series that I talk about in my next post for Greg! I think the audiences that develop around these regional projects are loyal, supportive, and committed in ways that some big NYC institutions would covet.
    But I’ve always thought that NYC is the most neighborhood-centric city I know, and that New Yorkers live in their neighborhoods, not their city! I wonder if a communication and marketing approach to the arts that speaks to small circles and personal connection can work, even in the biggest urban environment, by tapping into the appeal of the home team following.

    • says

      I wonder why they stopped having that contest. Which you modestly don’t mention that you won! I might suspect that the open-door feeling the contest creates would conflict with the traditional top-down attitude toward classical programming, in which the audience gets no input at all. Except, of course, the power of the veto, by not buying tickets to things they don’t want to see. Which might to some extent be avoided if they’d been brought into the programming process in the first place.

  2. says

    This is an excellent example of an mind-set that is still far too prevalent in all classical programming, whether for concert, radio, CDs, you name it. The programmers put into action ideas that seem exciting to them, the “insiders,” rather than asking what would excite the “outsiders,” i.e., the audience. Or they make assumptions about what the audience wants without asking the audience — or, worse yet, by listening to the tiny subset of the audience that offers feedback, assuming incorrectly that this self-selected subset speaks for the whole. It has taken years to reverse this mindset in my profession, public radio, and the job still isn’t done. The time for concert presenters to start listening with the ears of the audience, not the musicians, administrators, critics, et al., is long past, so had better start now.

    • says

      There’s another side to that coin: the programmer’s responsibility to seek out things that are – yes – exciting to them, and bring them to the ears of the audience.

      One senior concert programmer I know talks about “leading taste” and cites historical examples of how certain conductors and programmers helped raise the popularity of composers such as Mahler and Sibelius among audiences who at the time were dismissive or uninterested. Those composers became concert hall staples in part because there were programmers who found their music personally exciting and insisted on performing it when that was perhaps a bold thing to do.

      It may not seem very democratic, but the arts world would be a poorer place without the kind of advocacy that comes through impassioned and committed – as well as canny – programming.

      Since I’m in the music business, I’m going to take theatre as my example. I’ve attended many plays ever since childhood, but there’s no way I have time to follow what’s happening and really get to know new plays and playwrights and emerging actors in the way a theatre artistic planner would. So if one of my local theatre companies asked me what I’d like to see them produce, chances are I’d mostly name plays I already know well, or have recently heard of. Nothing new there. We’d end up in great canon territory and repeatville. When I subscribe to a season of theatre I am expecting the artistic directors to put into action ideas that seem exciting to them. Good theatre comes from personal passion and artistic vision not audience surveys. Good concerts are no different.

      No, we don’t want programmers who arrogantly ignore the reactions and interests of their audiences, or who pretend it’s the audience’s fault if a concert fails to sell. We also don’t want programmers who pander to a narrowly defined perception of popular taste. But there is definitely a place for the attuned programmer who has ideas, who gets excited by them and who has the skill and judgement to realise that excitement for an audience.

      Having written way too much, as I tend to whenever I comment on Greg’s blog, I guess I’d sum up my thoughts this way:
      I want to see more programmers who are putting into action ideas (bold ideas) that seem exciting (truly exciting) to them. And those programmers should be highly attuned to their audiences. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

      • says

        I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion, Yvonne. But before we can lead our audience into exciting new areas, we also have to know who they are and where they’re willing to be led. Sometimes, I’ve come upon resistance from colleagues, peers and musicians to taking these things into account. I recall a time at a radio conference when I questioned the keynote speaker, a well-known conductor and academic (whose name I will withhold to protect the guilty) by citing radio audience data that cast doubt on one of his assertions, and he scolded me for even wanting to know such data. I play something new on my show every day, but use everything I know, from hard data to professional judgment to intuition, to decide whether or not to include something.

        • says

          I’ve run into this, too, people in classical music who disdain any data on what the audience likes. Too bad for them. They’re passing up good news as well as news they might think is bad. And they’re disparaging the very people their own survival depends on. Not a good way to behave in the world, either artistically, commercially, or as a decent human being.

      • says

        Very nicely said, Yvonne. And very important. The audience isn’t the arbiter, even in the long run, though its taste is important, and has a major role in keeping organizations alive. No orchestra, for instance, that needs a large audience for its concerts will get far playing marvelous music the audience hates.

        Sibelius is an interesting case. More popular with audiences, at least in the US, than with connoisseurs, back in the mid-20th century.

        I often think of two quotes, which I fear I’ll mangle in paraphrasing. Steve Jobs famously said it was _not_ Apple’s job to give its customers what they wanted. Instead the company should give them things they’d never dreamed of.

        And when Diana Vreeland moved from being the editor of Vogue to running the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was told that the first show she curated wasn’t what people wanted to see. I don’t want to give people what they want, she said, or words to that effect. I want to give them things they don’t yet know they need.

        I think that’s the true role of programmers and the like. And I think it’s about what you’re saying.

    • says

      Thank you, John, for saying it. Can’t be said enough. If we spent as much time talking TO audiences as we do takling about them, none of this would be an issue.

  3. bgn says

    ” But if S4M did draw a NY-based event audience, would there be two not wholly compatible groups at the concert? … I’m not sure anyone would deliberately go out to create an event meant to appeal to both groups at once. An unlikely marketing strategy, I’d think.”

    But why should we expect an audience to be perfectly homogenous? It strikes me that many classical events are in fact intended to appeal to several audiences at once. If nothing else, you have a part of the audience that is mainly interested in the socializing that accompanies a performance, and a part of the audience that is mainly interested in the music being played.

    • says

      No need for an audience to be homogenous. I worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony on a concert series that was meant to appeal to networking business people in their thirties. Turned out to attract very few of those, but was interesting for other younger people, as well as for normal Symphony subscribers, and even families with children.

      But was this a success? The orchestra cancelled the series after a couple of years. Possibly it would have done better if it had been more carefully targeted at one audience or another. Obviously it wasn’t carefully aimed at the people it was originally meant for!

      So that’s one potential problem. Drawing many audiences means you might not be clear enough about what you’re doing, and would draw more people with more careful marketing. It’s also tricky to market to many audiences at once. Remember the days when Pepsi went for younger people, and Coke rested on its status as a classic drink? Neither company would have done very well if it had tried to appeal to both demographics. How, exactly, would you do that? Who would you show in your ads? Yes, you could show people of all kinds drinking your drink, but that might end up alienating as many people as it attracted.

      And finally you might have the problem I cited in my post — that your audiences might be uncomfortable with each other. Don’t underestimate how strong the appeal is of an event that people like you attend. One of the big complaints about classical concerts, from younger people, is “there’s nobody like me there.” And imagine what would happen if someone from the regular classical audience went to a hiphop show. They’d feel out of place, no matter how much they liked the music. (When I was a pop music critic, I’d go to Metallica shows — I loved the band — and be asked why I was there. Wasn’t I too old for something like that?)