As we head into 2016, we — meaning we in classical music — have to focus more than ever on the future. We have to! Because here are some truths, truths that can’t be said strongly enough:
The new audience isn’t coming to old-style events. Not in numbers large enough to keep things going. The world has changed. People have changed. We have to do something new.
If you think I’ve said those things before, it’s because I’ve said them before. More than once. And most recently in my last big post of last year, called “Lessons to learn.” I could repeat the post, but that would be crude. But I want to stress, once more, much that I said in it. Read the post for more, but let me say again:
The old audience is going away…(etc.)
Are we ready for this?
These are serious things, and I fear that even some of us who say we agree may not realize how radically we have to change. Right now, I think that much of the classical music world wants to keep things more or less as they are.
Oh, change the cosmetics. Have an out-there conductor like Yannick, someone exciting and modern. Relax some of the formalities. But still play the old music! We think we’re going to keep the core of classical music as it’s been for generations,while — somehow, some way — we get the world around us to buy into that.
But that’s not happening. Not in the long run. In the long run, everything changes.
And so, again to repeat things from “Lessons to learn”:
Classical music institutions need a strategy. A coherent, tested, long-term strategy. Backed by the same resources we give to our standard performances.
What we need
That strategy has to be based on a note-perfect understanding of the culture we’re in. We have to be native speakers of its language. And if we’re not, we’ll have to find people who are, to advise us. No, to tell us what to do. We might ignore advice, or use it only partially. We need to be yanked out of our comfort zone, and placed in a new world, or what we think of as one, even though for most other people it’s home.
And one aspect of this which hits especially hard…we do special performances, aimed at a new audience. Which is fine. I applaud these (if they’re good, and if they really touch the new audience).
But we can’t treat these simply as special events. To quote myself one last time:
These new events aren’t casual. They aren’t extras, nice additions to standard stuff, things we do on the side.
No, they’re our road to survival. So we can’t skimp. We can’t take them casually. We can’t say — about anything: performance quality, branding, audience feedback — that there are things we just can’t do. We’ve got to be just as strong for our new audience as we are for everything else.
We don’t just want to plan new-style events, coexisting with what we’ve been doing for years. We have to look to the future when all the events will be new-style. We have to plan for this now. The new-style events we do now aren’t just something nice, something we do on the side. They’re our path to the future.
So we should think of them, right from the start, as potential replacements for all our standard events. We don’t yet know what a totally new-style season would look like. But we have to evolve one. And start that now.
We’d better start moving on that!
Another truth (I’ll expand on it later):
How will we know when classical music is back in the central cultural place it ought to be in?
When some of our events resonate throughout the wider culture. New operas, for instance. When a new opera gets the kind of attention and audience Hamilton is getting on Broadway — or even one-tenth of that — we’ll know that new operas mean something.
They don’t all have to resonate that strongly. Not every new novel does, not every new play. Not every new movie! But aometimes there’s a new play like Angels in America, that gets attention far outside the theater world. Until we have resonance like that — not always, but sometimes — we’re still in our bubble.