Two paths

OAE blogThis is a post about assumptions. We all make them. And we couldn’t do without them. None of us approaches anything we do as some kind of blank slate. We have opinions, preconceptions, things we like and things we don’t, and all of this colors everything we do. Even research. If you want to find a new audience for classical music, and do research to find how best to do that, the direction of your research — and even your conclusions — will blow with the winds of the assumptions you made at the start.

To show what I mean, here are two assumptions you might — consciously or not — make about the new audience:

You might — again, consciously or not — believe that the new audience won’t be too different from the old one. Younger, yes, and more informal. But still ready to fall in love with the great classical masterworks, and to share the same classical music culture we have inside the field.

Or you might believe it doesn’t work like that, that the new audience won’t be like the old one. Years ago, B. H. Haggin wrote an introduction to classical music called Music for the Man [sic] Who Enjoys Hamlet. Now, after decades of cultural change, it would have to be Classical Music for People Who Like Mad Men. That’s another universe.

Where would these two assumptions lead us?

If you share the first one, you might reasonably ask who your new audience would most likely be. Where’s the first place you might go to find it? You wouldn’t have to look far, you might all but unconsciously think, since you’ve assumed your new audience would be, in many ways, much like your old one.

So you might ask who, in the world around you, already is close to classical music. Maybe, you’d think, you could approach people who play classical instruments, whether or not they go to classical concerts. So you might commission research on these people, trying to find out why they don’t go to your performances, and what might make them want to. 

An approach like that — minus the research — worked at the University of Maryland when I was artist in residence there. Students who played in the music’s school’s symphony orchestra and wind orchestra (a fine group that mostly plays contemporary classical works) visited marching band rehearsals, and also rehearsals of the Gamer Symphony, a student group that plays videogame music (with a full-sized symphonic orchestra), and is — since it sells out all its concerts — the most successful musical group on campus.

The result? Success! More than 200 new people showed up at the next symphony orchestra and wind orchestra concerts.

Or you might want to do what the Cincinnati Symphony did a few months ago — play Beethoven’s Ninth, stream the performance to video screens all over town, and arrange listening parties in various neighborhoods. You might do research to find out which neighborhoods in your town would work best for something like that.

But if the art museum in your town did a show of punk fashion, you might not think to reach out to those involved (either the curators or the crowds coming to see the show), because you might think these weren’t your people. Even if this show was the talk of the town, as seemed to happen in New York (at least to judge from more than one piece in the New York Times), when the Metropolitan Museum of Art did just such a show.

If you made the second assumption, though, then the punk show would be on your radar. You’d know that punk is much loved in current culture, that kids who were in high school or college when punk hit in the 1970s now are 50 years old or more, and that punk has been revived both in music and (as the Met Museum show exemplified) in fashion. This is one place, you might think, that you’d find today’s cultured people. So how — your research might ask — could you find common cause with them?

Or maybe you’d just reach out to people geographically near you, without first asking who’d be mostly to care about classical music. An approach like that worked, once again, at the University of Maryland, when students who played in the symphony orchestra promoted their concerts in the dorms where they lived. The result? The hall, which before that was normally just half full, now was overflowing (as I saw myself) with excited students, most of them there for the first time.

Or you might think you could do what the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did, which was to brand special concerts as young, current, maybe even hip. Using members of their actual young audience who — with tattoos and edgy clothes — were clearly not the old classical music crowd. You could do research to learn how the OAE did that, and whether their approach would work, transposed from London to your own town. 

Or you might, as Lara Downes did, try to craft concerts that speak the cultural language of smart, savvy, arts-friendly people who don’t normally go to hear classical music. I don’t think Lara did research, because I imagine that the cultural gap  — between us and the people we want to reach — seemed obvious to her (as it does to me). But if someone wasn’t so sure, they could do research to find what the people Lara wanted to reach might respond to.

Now I’ve outed myself as someone who makes the second assumption — as if that would surprise anyone who’s been reading my blog for a while. But which side I take isn’t the point in this post. I just want to highlight the two very different mindsets, and show how they might send you down very different paths, even if you honestly think your research is objective.

And I also want to ask one last question. What research could we do to show which assumption is right?

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  1. says

    I think the idea of “the new audience” or “the old audience” implies there is a single classical audience, or that classical music is a main feature in enough people’s identities that they form the audience. It wasn’t true for the old audience, and it’s not true for a new audience. The goal ought to be filling a desire that all people have which classical music (concerts and the overall experience), and that desire will be different for many of them. Everyone has some sort of regular entertainment diet of movies, books, apps, magazines, restaurants, plays, museums, etc., and the goal of classical musicians and lovers should simply be, I think, to find a space for classical music inside that diet. Attempting to build “an audience” is a monumental task; sliding your art/artistic offerings into what people already consume and enjoy is much more reasonable and viable. I suppose *my* assumption is that there is no audience; there’s a society, and we need to appeal to as many of its members as possible, on terms they will understand and find relateable. I think that is what’s behind the University of Maryland examples you cited: Those listeners will likely bristle at being “the classical audience,” but say they enjoy some classical music, alongside everything else they bury themselves in. Too nuanced a view?

    • says

      The more nuance we have in these discussions, the better. So thanks for bringing some!

      From what I’ve seen, classical music, as a field, is far behind other enterprises in our society (whether it’s movie or pop music marketing or a new product launch in business, or an entrepreneurial launch of an entirely new enterprise) in understanding how nuanced the concept of “audience” (or, what amounts to the same thing, “market”) really is. Everyone else is looking at detailed breakdowns of subcultures, and sub-subcultures, trying to see where the most likely niche will be for what they’re trying to do.

      This is inevitable, even in what you’re proposing, Mark. I mean, anyone trying to find any audience at all has to start somewhere. You’re going to look toward one group of people rather than another, simply because you can’t speak to everyone at once. Especially in this age of subcultural niches.

      When I was at Entertainment Weekly, the magazine commissioned a detailed study of its readers, as compared to readers of other popular culture magazines (Rolling Stone, Premiere, TV Guide). We even found out what vegetables each group of readers preferred. And there were differences! Which I’m sorry to say I can’t remember. I also don’t know what implications vegetable preference might have for magazine marketing, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility — probably a strong possibility — that some genius marketer or psychological consultant could put together a number of seemingly minor differences between these groups of readers, and extrapolate things about the tone and look of the magazine that really would make a difference.

      We did learn one simple thing about our readers. I observed this myself in focus groups. A focus group of people who’d taken out trial subscriptions and then not renewed them had very set, very limited musical taste. Most were hardcore fans of classic rock. But another focus group, of people who did renew their trial subscriptions, was very different. These people had — and, with delight, gloried in — very wide musical taste. Which certainly encouraged us to keep on covering a wide variety of music in the magazine. We did learn, though, that doing music cover stories was risky. Very roughly, our readers broke down into two large groups, older ones and younger ones. These groups had very different musical tastes. Virtually any artist we put on the cover would alienate either the older group or the younger one. Do a Bonnie Raitt cover story, and younger readers wouldn’t buy the magazine. Put Pearl Jam on the cover, and older readers wouldn’t buy it. So it seemed safest to do very few music covers, as compared to covers about movies or about TV stars or shows.

      I’m giving all these examples to show that audiences in fact are different, and may need to be approached in different ways. We already have a subcultural situation in classical music. The orchestra, opera, chamber music, early music, and new music audiences are different from each other, and may not overlap very much. (See, for instance, Flangan’s research on the effect of orchestras and opera companies in the same cities, and their effect on each other’s audience, from his book on the economics of orchestras.) The new music audience is considerably younger than the others, though here’s an interesting niche. In the ’80s and ’90s, the American Composers Orchestra had a good-sized subscription audience in Carnegie Hall, made up to some great extent of older people who described themselves as “graduates” of the New York Philharmonic. Fascinating niche! A group with a lot of marketing money could learn to find more people like that.

      To conclude, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gives a neat example of a group that puts this kind of thinking into practice. They have two audiences, an older one and a younger one, both thriving. And, very consciously (I’ve had a long discussion with one of their top people about this), they brand themselves differently for the two groups. For the older audience, they’re the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. For the younger group, they’re the Night Shift Orchestra, or simply the Night Shift, identified in smaller print as a project of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. They feel that this dual branding is the key reason why they have a thriving younger audience. They speak its cultural language.

      So there’s an example that suggests that some savvy about how to approach different groups — doing it in different ways — can be very successful.

  2. David Snead says

    Hi Greg,

    I think it was Will Rogers who said “It ain’t what you don’t know that’ll get ya, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.”

    Good researchers approach their jobs with humility and respect for the audience and a true commitment to listening and learning from them. The ability to listen without assumptions is essential for accuracy and actionability; without it, the research can be wrong, the recommendations fail, and the researcher is out of work. So challenging assumptions is essential.

    Defining terms and understanding the true goals of the research are also essential. If you say “I want a new audience,” for instance, your researcher will begin with some questions: What do you mean by ‘new?’ Do you mean more (i.e. I want a larger audience), or do you mean different? If you mean more, are you including the option of getting current audience to come more often, or are you focusing on the brand new?

    (This, by the way, is a key strategic question. Are you only interested in attracting people who’ve never been before? What about the new people who came last night, or came last year and haven’t been back? Do you want to include in your New Audience Initiative some way of identifying, understanding, and building repeat among the new audience you’re already getting? Maybe it isn’t all about a new audience, but also about developing the people who’ve only been once, even those who came a couple of years ago; many orchestras have more of these kinds of customers than they realize.)

    And if you want different, different how? Demographically? Psychographically? Because one can get a hipper audience that’s still white, upper-income and 50+.

    If you want younger, what do you mean by young? Many orchestra audiences have an average age of 60+. So, would getting 50-year olds be OK?

    Let’s say your answer is “I want an under-40 year old audience that’s never been before, I don’t care much about what kind of young person they are I just want young and new.” The researcher should ask if you have any ideas to attract that audience you might want to test — different concert formats, lower prices, more diverse locations, programming, branding etc. A good researcher would probably propose a few additional ideas of their own.

    With this understanding of the project the researcher should then say, as Marc suggested above, “OK. I’m going to give you a picture of the newer, younger market, but realize it probably isn’t just one market. You may find segments within that market, with different musical tastes, different barriers to attendance and different actions you should take to appeal to them. In the segmentation I give you, you’ll get an idea of which ideas are attractive to which types of people, and an estimate of the size of each of those segments. You can then decide which ideas you want to pursue, and you’ll have some good guidance from this work about how to be most successful with them.”

    Oh — and the research should ask, “Is it primarily a newer, younger market you’re after, or is it about net revenue? Is the financial viabilty of these ideas a factor?” The answer to this question may lead you in wildly different directions.

    Lastly, you’re going to have to commit to making the changes the research says you need to succeed. Implementing the results isn’t just about marketing, it may very well also be about programming, scheduling, brand strategy — in other words, the whole organization, including Board, Music Director and Orchestra.

    To answer your question about which assumption about the new audience is right, Greg, the answer may well be “both.” In many markets there are still opportunities among the “usual suspects,” as well as among newbies. The direction an orchestra chooses to pursue may depend on who they want to attract, their financial goals, and how flexible thay are in changing what they do to attract the audience they want (or rather, finding the audience that wants them).

    • says


      Thanks for all of this. Very good thoughts, very good questions. Which of course have to be answered by any classical music organization — not only orchestras — that wants to have a future.

      But there’s also a danger in overthinking all of this. Suppose my car is breaking down. My mechanic says it hasn’t much future. So I need a new car. That’s basic. I’m going to have to answer lots of questions about what kind of new car I want, and also about how much it’s going to cost. Very likely I’ll face tradeoffs between price and functionality (not to mention sheer desire). I’ll have to figure all this out, but that doesn’t change the basic situation. I need a new car, and that understanding comes before any detailed thinking about which car it’s going to be.

      So let’s think about the audience like that. The classical music audience isn’t young. Studies released by the NEA in 2008 showed every age group within that audience going to performances less frequently than similar age groups did in past decades. The only age group within the present audience that still goes as often as it used to is the group aged 65 and over.

      This doesn’t seem sustainable. Whether it portends extinction or shrinkage is a question for further research (and speculation), but it’s something that has to be dealt with. As is the familiar phenomenon of the churn. New people do come to orchestra concerts, and some of them are younger than the steady, longtime audience. But they don’t return. The great majority of them come just once.

      So now we have the reasons why we need a new car. (So to speak.) The existing dependable audience — those who come repeatedly — appears to be shrinking. And those who might replace it come only once, suggesting difficulties in the future keeping the numbers up, not to mention greater marketing costs, as you keep finding more new people. And also the difficulty of converting these one-time ticket buyers into donors! The dependable audience, those who come repeatedly, are the first place any orchestra looks for donors. Those who come just once, to state the obvious, aren’t likely candidates.

      There’s a sketch of some related problems. Having come this far, we can start asking who we might attract. And of course there are many answers. Often when we say “a new young audience” we’re thinking of people in their 20s. Fine. There seem to be ways to get them in, maybe not ways an orchestra would try, but ways that work. Organizing college dorms, as happened in Maryland. Or pairing classical music with indie bands, as Wordless Music did so successfully in New York for a couple of years.

      But of course, exactly as you say, this isn’t the only younger audience. I think the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment draws an audience in its 20s and 30s, by steady branding in contemporary style, and by giving concerts later in the evening. The Toronto Symphony seems to have success in attracting this audience as well, since they say that 1/3 their ticket-buyers are under 35.

      People in their 40s? Very important, and I’m glad you mentioned them. Anne, my wife, is in her 40s, and this is the new audience she’s most interested in. She’ll often cite her college roommates, whom she’s still close to, as examples of smart, educated, even arts-minded people who never go to classical concerts, and as things now stand very likely never will.

      And then you can also ask about people the same age as your existing, dependable audience, who don’t come to concerts. This is maybe a psychographic question. People in their 60s may have had their cultural preferences shaped at a time when classical music already had fallen behind the rest of our culture. I’ve often found myself in conversation with people of this age who are happy arts consumers, but never go to classical concerts, and don’t know anything about classical music. Some of these people are very smart, too. Once, after an art opening, I was having dinner with a well-known painter, a psychologist, and a Macarthur prize winning psychoanalyst, who also was a historian. These people could discuss the history of art with quite a lot of knowledge, but knew almost nothing about the history of classical music. Or a dinner party I was at, with some actors, a mystery novelist, and a cultural theorist. When I said I was in the classical music biz, conversation ground to a halt.

      So you’d want to ask if you could draw some of these people. So now comes some research. I’ve sketched out four groups you might look to. People in their 20s, in their 30s, in their 40s, and those 50 and above. Do they need to be attracted differently? Or can the same strategies be used successfully with all of them? Which group or groups will most likely go repeatedly, once they get a taste for going? That’s an important consideration. And what are the potentials of each group to be donors? The answer there is pretty clear. Of course it’s the oldest group who, once they want to do it, will give the most.

      So you can sketch out some strategic thinking. Which groups should you attract? Or do you have to choose? (If you can show that one strategy will attract all of them, you won’t have to.) Which will be most likely to go repeatedly? And to be donors? You can map all this out, with financial consequences sketched.

      Then you can proceed. None of this in practice will be as easy as writing about it is, but it can be done. And has to be, if you want to move forward.

      What we don’t want to do, I think, is ask so many questions in advance that we don’t proceed, and stare at a serious problem, knowing that it’s there, but not taking action. I fear that classical music, as a field, is somewhat afflicted with this difficulty. But just because the problems are complex doesn’t mean they can’t be solved. I’ve tried to sketch out an approach. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but it seems to me that if an amateur like me can find a path through all the questions, a professional like you will do an even better job. Any thoughts on all of this?

  3. David Snead says


    I think you’ve laid out some good potential markets and pointed out where learning more about these markets — through objective, clear-eyed, unbiased research as well as,in some cases, piloting — can be very useful in growing the future audiences we absolutely need. I also agree that we need to deal with the realities of lower attendance frequency among the new audiences we are now attracting.

    The only thing I’d add is that we also need to do a better job of keeping and deepening relationships with these new attenders, or all the efforts to attract them will be for naught.

    One compelling reason to work on this is donations, as you pointed out. First-timers donate at a very low rate, but get them to come back for two more concerts and the rate of donation increases fourfold.

    I also agree that “What we don’t want to do is ask so many questions in advance that we don’t proceed, and stare at a serious problem, knowing that it’s there, but not taking action.” But I don’t think that’s the usual problem. The problem is orchestras don’t ask the right questions at the right time and apply what they learn strategically, i.e. they don’t learn about their target audiences before creating programs for them, with the result that the programs under-achieve and the orchestras retreat. The failure is not in asking too many questions, but not asking enough.

    • says

      Glad you brought up that crucial point, David — forging real ties with a new audience, and deepening those ties.

      Which then raises the question of how that could be done. And a related, very important question — has anyone actually done it?

      I’d suggest two candidates. Red, An Orchestra, which during the last decade gave concerts in Cleveland, drawing (or so some of their people told me) 1000 people in their 20s and 20s. I’m going to assume that many of these were repeat customers. Hard to believe they’d draw 1000 new people to concert after concert, or even 500 new people. They collapsed for financial reasons. They must have had a huge hole in their financing, since all it took was one cancelled concert (because of a snowstorm), and they were gone. Which does raise the question of whether their operation was sustainable — whether simply putting on the concerts, and branding and marketing them, cost more than Red could afford, no matter how many people they drew.

      Still — 1000 people at each concert (if what I was told was true). I think I can guess how they did it. The concerts were buzz-worthy events. First because of the programming, which included a lot of new music, artfully chosen. One concert, I remember, had a Haydn symphony, and then — depicting the era that Haydn lived in — Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, a music/theater extravaganza. Anyone who saw that, assuming the performances were halfway decent, would go away buzzing about it.

      Second secret: branding. The color red was featured. People, I’m told, wore red to the concerts. So the organization, it seems to me, created a distinct identity that younger people identified with. What they did beyond that — email contact, whatever (social media wasn’t a factor back then) — I don’t know.

      My other example would be the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Night Shift. Late-night concerts separately branded for a young audience. Seems to work brilliantly, if I’m to believe what I’m told by OAE people I’ve emailed with, or talked to. They do four big Night Shift concerts each season, with an audience of 1000, and several smaller events in clubs. I spoke to one of their top-ranking people, and he stressed branding. Said he didn’t think they could have drawn a young audience with the usual orchestra branding. They needed to speak the cultural language of the people they wanted to reach.

      One key to that, as I’ve said here before, was to recruit eight people from their young audience to represent them in brochures, advertisements, marketing, publicity. The point was that these people should be different from each other, striking in many different ways, and nothing like the established classical audience.

      They’ve also got videos on their website introducing the Night Shift, which just shine with what seems like a genuine club vibe. Their programming stays pretty much what it is outside the Night Shift (they’re a period instrument group, though they’re expanding now into new music). Though they add pop and jazz musicians, who play in the club nights before the OAE musicians. They pick these people carefully, discuss them in detail on the Night Shift website, so it’s not generic pop/jazz. It’s strongly curated programming.

      All of this speaks the cultural language (to use that term again) of the people they want to attract. So if I were asked for some best practices, in attracting — and holding — a young audience, I’d start with this: Speak its language, visually and otherwise. Enter the world of the people you want to draw. Instead of trying to get them to enter yours.

      I gather the OAE thinks of this as a separate product line. Since they’re British, they depend less on donations than a US orchestra would, so I don’t know if the Night Shift audience would be likely to donate. Or if that’s an issue.

      American orchestras would of course be more intensely interested in donations. And in the long-term sustainability of a Night Shift-like project. But I can’t believe any large American orchestra wouldn’t be thrilled to have young people thronging to 10 late-night events each season, including four large-scale concerts. If nothing else, it’s an investment in the future, and, maybe, a demonstration that there might just be one (with the financial model yet to be worked out).

      • David Snead says

        PS Reading your last post again, Greg, I think you’ve got the best marketing & communications practices for attracting a new audience, as demonstrated by OAE, exactly right.

  4. David Snead says

    Yes, there’s much to admire about (and learn from) OAE, even though their funding model is different from American orchestras; and there are things to learn from Red, their short lifespan perhaps being part of the lesson (we could speak of Eos, their predecessor, as well, which had a lifespan about the same as most marriages).

    Besides the format and branding aspects of the OAE example, there’s their structure. They’re a chamber orchestra, with greater portability and flexibility than most symphony orchestras; looking at their terrific web site, it seems their personnel varies from 14 to 40 depending on programming (and speaking of programming,The Night Shift leans toward audience-friendly Baroque, right?). Also, The Night Shift does not appear to be subscription-based; this plus their smaller, more malleable structure allows them to be nimble and adjustable — they can fit easily into small venues, and can charge low prices.

    There are some examples of innovative concert formats in the US as well — New World Symphony comes to mind.

    But this gets us back to Do. What’s your goal? Do you want to break the mold, do stuff differently and see what happens? There’s certainly a need for that — just make sure you measure and evaluate based on facts, not anecdotes. Find out who the audience really is, ask them what they thought, take their input to heart, and use it grow. (It might be interesting to find out OAE’s process for creating The Night Shift brand — did they solicit any customer input as they built it?)

    Or is your goal to maximize the number of under-somethings attending your concerts? This may lead you towards a very different set of options, The Night Shift being one of several you’d want to consider.

    Returning to your original post, this isn’t a zero-sum game — only attract newbies or only attract more of the same. I admire what the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is doing, if I read your numbers right, they get about 4,000 people a year for their Night Shift concerts. They’re a great example of one way to go. Here’s another: 36% of the New York Philharmonic’s classical single ticket buyers are under the age of 35 — that’s more than 45,000 people a year. Another 15,000 are between 35 and 44. So that’s half the single ticket buyers — 60,000 concertgoers — under the age of 45, annually. And the proportion of the audience under 45 has grown 50% in the last ten years. Just sayin’.

    Point is, we shouldn’t miss the opportunities to do better with the concerts we already have, even as we shop for that new car.