From Lara Downes: Walking the walk

When I walked onstage at Yoshi’s San Francisco last Wednesday night, it was with a LD Artist Sessionscompletely new version of butterflies in the stomach. This time, after a lifetime of going onstage as a concert pianist, I was going on as a concert presenter, welcoming the audience as Artistic Director to the very first program on my new series The Artist Sessions. I was launching the series with the West Coast release party for my new CD Exiles’ Cafe, and I’d invited the genre-bending Quartet San Francisco as my guests, along with a co-host, Rik Malone from SF’s Classical radio station KDFC. It was going to be an evening of celebration, conversation, and exploration – in this case, a musical searching into a kaleidoscopic range of time and place, through music of exile and diaspora.

My idea for the Sessions came out of a lot of thinking over the last few years, about all the issues we explore here on Greg’s blog. Lots of thinking about the present and future of the art, about putting some ideas to the test, building something new, creating the kind of concert experience where real engagement, on a personal, human level, can bring artists and audiences together in a game-changing way. I’ve been out on the front lines for some time, talking the talk about new and better ways to make music happen. Next step: walk the walk.

Late one night last fall I was talking with my great good friend Christopher O’Riley about these ideas, and my plans to find a venue in SF to give them a try. He suggested Yoshi’s, where we’d both played in the past and had appreciated the unbeatable combination of a magnificent Hamburg Steinway, swanky room and excellent cocktails. So I asked my old SF Symphony Youth Orchestra buddy and fabulous trumpet player Chris Grady, who knows his way around Yoshi’s as a frequent performer with various jazz groups, to get me a meeting. I pitched my idea, we agreed to move forward, and I became, suddenly, a concert promoter. And then began months of planning, building, and organizing. Talking to my friends, curating programs, working with the media, booking artists and dates. And understanding, at a completely new level, just what is involved in presenting music, after all.

These last months, I’ve thought really hard and deep about the structures of relationships and community. As we discuss often in this space, there are many different audiences for music, and part of the puzzle of presenting is defining the audience you want to reach, and how. In the case of The Artist Sessions, I wanted to find a mixed audience: people who go to concerts regularly and people who don’t. I wanted to seek out the people who support music and art in the city, and would be excited about the different style and content that the series would be offering, and I also wanted to reach people who are curious and adventurous but not yet initiated –  the people who direct their entertainment/culture selections into other channels: food, art, film, fashion – and could be drawn in by a resonant aesthetic to try something new, and, hopefully, to love it.

I guess my search was directed in large part towards an audience of my own peers. What I see from the stage, night after night in concert halls all over the country, is a real absence of people who look like me out in the audience. I mean people in their 30s and 40s, with busy careers, young kids, limited opportunities for nights out and plenty of competition for their fun money. And I get why they (we) aren’t there. We who are in the thick of things with developing careers and raising families are overworked and overwhelmed. We  feel that our nights out are limited by many things, and when we do get to go out, we would like to have a really good time I believe absolutely that classical music needs to step up its game and offer its audiences not only transcendent art, but also a really good time. Tall order much?

As I waited in the wings on Wednesday I was a little terrified. I was feeling all the anxiety that comes with accountability, and all the expectancy that comes with having put in a lot of hard work. And when I walked out onstage and saw the people sitting out front, it was a moment of exhilaration and blessed relief.  The audience–about 100 ticket holders and some invited friends and family–was made up of a beautiful range of ages and faces, exactly that mix I had hoped for. The usual suspects from the concert circuit around town, but many brand new faces too. There was a full-out energy flowing back my way.  The room felt great, and I was so happy that we were all there together.

It was a pretty wonderful night. Here’s a review.

When we as artists talk about the future, when we talk about building our audience and increasing our opportunities, I think we need to recognize two things:

1)    The job of building that audience is our job. I hear musicians complaining, so often and so loud, about the state of the art. But we can take an active role in addressing this, both when we’re onstage and when we’re off.

2)    The job is a hard job. I think that many musicians believe that concert presenters have access to mysterious resources and powers. Really, they don’t have any magic. Ultimately, they have the same basic tools as everyone else: the courage of conviction and the power of persuasion. How they use those tools, how we all use them, is at the heart of the matter.

LaraRik blogHere I am, talking with Classical KDFC’s Rik Malone about my vision for the Artist Sessions, at last Wednesday’s launch. (You can watch us on video.) 


Back to what I did behind the scenes, before that. Basically, I called everyone I knew. I started with my inner circle – got my family and close friends to swear blood oaths that they would come to the show, and would try to get their friends out too. Then I called my music colleagues around the Bay Area to get their support, advice and ideas. I brainstormed with the staff at KDFC — the station had sponsored a classical series at Yoshi’s a couple of years ago, with great success, and they were enthusiastic about getting involved with this new venture. I made personal calls to my friends in the media, the bloggers and writers who have their fingers always on the local musical pulse. I was fortunate that my new record was in its release phase during this time, so I had a lot of support from my label’s PR team, and I was able to leverage some of the visibility the record was getting in the press and media all around the country to bring attention to the series. But, above all, I just talked to people, over coffee, over drinks, over the phone…

Our easy access to social media is one thing. It’s kind of great to be able to send a Facebook invite to thousands of people, or retweet a great review. Our circles get wider and wider. But our messages get diluted as well, precisely because of the ease of their dissemination. Marketing as a group message is just that, and we all know it when we see it. We need that kind of marketing, obviously, and we need to do it well. We need to put the information out into the world so it’s there for the seeing and hearing, and we need to do that in the most creative, interesting, attractive, informative ways possible.

But still, there’s nothing that replaces the immediacy of a personal suggestion that comes with some individual caring and effort. And I think this is a simple, obvious answer to our questions about building audiences too. Word of mouth. If everyone who came to Wednesday’s Artist Sessions launch invites two friends to the next Session, that’s about 300 people next time. If, in turn, those 300 people each bring two friends next time, well, you see where this goes. It’s really easy to do, and I think we’re all guilty of not doing it. When I need a new babysitter or hair stylist, or a recommendation about a movie, a restaurant, a book – I ask a friend. You do too. We trust our friends, and they trust us. So if we care about music, out here on the front lines, we need to mine that trust and share information. We need to walk the walk.

Try this: the next time you go to a great concert, text two friends on your way home. Tell them about it. Tell them why you loved it, and why you think they would too. Look up the next concert on the series, or the next appearance by that artist. Find a bar nearby. Invite your friends to meet you for a drink and go with you to that next concert.

By the way, I recommend The Artist Sessions in San Francisco! May 29, Chris O’Riley with the West Coast launch of his new album O’Riley’s Liszt. Please come. Please bring a friend. Walk the walk.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Brava! Sounds like great ideas very well implemented.
    I can’t get to SFO for 29 May (it is 14 hours flying away) but you have convinced me to catch The Art Sessions sometime.

  2. Lawrence de Martin says


    I am looking for ways to build audiences, but I wonder if your story has a bias. Your classmates from school and the people you work with tend to be music people. We can’t build new music performance careers only from music people attending each others’ concerts. It has to involve a much larger audience and I am still wondering how to do that.

    I am an engineer and my partner is a massage therapist. Our friends, family and co-workers are not interested in traditional acoustic orchestrations and do not attend concerts. I joined Audio Societies who get together to talk about and listen to music – but they are concerned more with equipment and amplified music. It seems acoustic music is not garnering their interest.

    The traditional hall or club concert format is not conducive to community building. We have been attending hundreds of classical concerts a year and have only met a few friends that way, from the shared tables at Le Poisson Rouge and the stage seating of Melissa Smey’s “Pop-Up Concerts” at the Miller Theater featuring free beer. These bring social and music interests together. LPR also has a separate mailing list for “classical” devotees; but some events still have a thin audience of immediate contacts.

    I have been producing some concerts at Spectrum, a Lower East Side loft where the audience mingles before and after concerts. This is encouraged by the living room furnishings – sofas and reclining chairs, a wall of books and a kitchenette. It is a comfortable place to absorb musical styles out of your comfort zone. I have met dozens of people this way but they come back rarely and the attendees are still mostly musicians.

    Your description of the process is time intensive and uses “personal capital”. Do you see yourself doing this for every concert? What have you done, if anything, to reach non-musicians? How many showed up?

    • says

      Thanks Lawrence. I’ve played at Spectrum! And I think we met there??
      You’re right that my situation is a unique one, and I recognize that as a musician I have a certain “in” to the musical community. I’m going to publish a second post here about the figure of the artist/presenter, and the impacts possible through the active musician’s influence as a curator.
      My post is about the responsibility that musicians have to be good concert-goers, and to spread the word about music, but I see that as something that can quickly spread far and wide outside of immediate musical circles. Six degrees of separation, right? My approach definitely depends most heavily on the process of very polite proselytizing to the uninitiated. You’d be surprised at how many guests at the Artist Sessions launch were non-musician friends of friends. I think that the introduction of a social/personal element to musical happenings is really critical. Putting classical music in a social context that matches “real world” aesthetic expectations is long overdue.
      But as for the time-intensive piece – um, yes. I’ll let you know when I figure that one out! My hope, of course, is that an initial investment in generating word of mouth will lead to awareness of Artist Sessions events and a more self-generated following. But that obviously remains to be seen, and the pavement pounding continues for now!

      • says

        Any entrepreneurial work is time-intensive. Always, inevitably. No way around that. There are people who’ve successfully built their own audience over many years (I’m thinking of a classical group I know, and a singer-songwriter I’ve read about), and who spend hours every day staying in touch with their fans online.

        When someone gets big enough to have a staff — or, at an earlier stage, even a few volunteers — then some of what Lara does can be delegated to others. But only some of it. She’ll still have to keep in touch with key fans, key donors. And when you have more people to do the work, you can think of more things to do!

        It’s hard to imagine what kind of top-level work isn’t time-intensive. Top baseball players, for instance, might practice incessantly. If they’re infielders, they might take a hundred, two hundred grounders in a row, just to keep their movements smooth and automatic.

  3. Scott Darwin says

    As a parnter of a performing artist we’ve gone down a similar route of presenting our own concerts in a variety of different ways always looking for the model that would start up, like a gas mower, and become sustainable. My favourite, and I think the most ridiculous, was when we realized the venue made far more than the artists leading us to rent our own venue and control all of the food and beverage sales ourselves. It might have worked if we weren’t at the same time trying to put on a concert. We had the largest audiences when we had the largest social circles via friends and small children and sometimes through startup work networks. Over time most models sadly surrendered to ennui. Likewise investment in albums seems to follow a similar path with high initial investment followed by ever lowering ability to invest in production and manufacturing costs. We’ve often joked about creating a Bhuddist wheel of life image for presenting concert series and producing albums. As part of the financing arm of this venture through other work I was sometimes resentful of the costs and the model. Albums selling for $20, I knew to be worth $50 in production and manufacturing costs. Concerts that took in $800 at the door cost $950 to present. While financially unsustainable the point I eventually reached was that these efforts were making the world a richer place and that that was something not easily achieved. So in the end it became sort of a karmic charity bringing artistic richness into an otherwise banal world. If it came close to breaking even or not bankrupting us it was a success. Much luck to you in your efforts to enrich the world.

  4. says

    Congratulations Lara, what a great project you’re starting here.

    I particularly like your turn of phrase here – “drawn in by a resonant aesthetic”. This is something that is key to my work as well, although in a slightly different way… I start out with a story that I want to tell and look for the best pieces of music to help me tell this story. For instance, I was keen to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s 100th this year somehow, and found myself a choir to help me. We’re performing Britten’s Op 91 song cycle “Sacred and Profane”, the eight songs of which I have connected to a specific pop song which tells the same (or a related) story. Although it may look obtuse to a trad classical music crowd, I have found some success in speaking about it with my non-classical-music friends who are my first port of call when I do my anecdotal audience research. “Would you come to this latest offering of mine?” I ask them. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they ask me why I’m doing the crazy thing I’m doing… and the latter is a particularly valuable lesson. It makes me clarify my vision, tweak it a little in order to make sure it speaks to them. My hope is that they’ll come away liking some new music. We’ll find out if it worked in November!

    • says

      Britten plus related pop songs might make a fine blog post, Sal! Or not. Your call, of course. But it’s a fascinating thought.

      I had a student years ago who loved Beethoven and U2, and proposed a radio show on the links she heard between them. I thought it would be most effective as a series of two- to five-minute episodes, dropped in among other shows, but whatever. Seemed like a good approach to the outside world. Not because we need to connect classical music to pop music as the only (or crucial) way to interest outsiders, but because my student so deeply believed in it. It was what came to her mind when she thought about Beethoven. Therefore a deeply rooted way for her to reach out.