I thought it would be interesting to write about the efforts we have made at The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to increase demand for our classical music concerts. Chairman Landesman was quoted as saying that “demand is not going to increase.” At the SPCO we just don’t believe that. The music we perform has endured hundreds of years and is part of a vibrant living tradition. We are passionate advocates for our art form, and for the meaning it brings to people’s lives. Music matters!
Because of this belief we have taken many steps over the course of the past seven years to reduce barriers to audience participation and welcome new people to our concert halls. Much of this work was instigated by former SPCO President Bruce Coppock during his remarkable tenure at the SPCO from 1999 to 2008, in partnership with then-Board Chair Lowell Noteboom and the dedicated and creative SPCO Board, staff, and our accomplished musicians.
Here are seven things we’ve done that are working. When I say they’re working, the data is as follows. Since 2002 our subscriber base has grown nearly 40% and our total paid attendance today is near its all-time high. This is counter-cyclical to audience trends nationally in the classical industry and has been a durable trend for us despite tough economic times. (As context, NEA research shows that participation rates for classical music nationally fell 20% between 2002 and 2008.)
Here’s the list.
- Expanded our performing venues. As a chamber orchestra the SPCO is more portable than a symphony orchestra and we have used this advantage to bring our music out into neighborhoods around the Twin Cities. In 2004 we began expanding the number of venues where we perform; since 2004 we have expanded from three Neighborhood concert series to seven. We bring our music to people rather than make them come to us.
- Lowered our ticket prices. Starting in 2005, the SPCO made the bold decision to lower ticket prices at all of our neighborhood venues to two prices: $10 and $25. Last year we made a comparable decision for our concerts at the Ordway Center in downtown St. Paul, where all tickets are now $10, $25, or $40. We want an SPCO ticket to be as affordable, or more affordable, than other entertainment options.
- Welcomed young adults into our organization. Founded in 2007, our club2030 program is a free e-mail-based club that offers its members the opportunity to buy any available ticket for $10, along with invitations to get involved in the SPCO. To date there are more than 4,500 members of club2030 who are making a visible and energetic difference in our concert halls and in our organization.
- Worked to make ourselves welcoming. SPCO musicians perform in simple black attire, shunning tuxedos and the rituals and formalities that create visual and psychic barriers between musicians and audiences. Our program notes are written in plain English and we frequently speak from stage about our programming.
- Developed a robust grassroots marketing campaign, including leveraging social media tools. For several years we’ve sustained a major grassroots campaign based on encouraging our current audience members to share their love of the SPCO with friends, family, co-workers, businesses, and neighbors. Through the creative distribution of physical and virtual free passes to our concerts, and through partnerships with local businesses and nonprofit organizations, we have nearly tripled the number of brand new concert attendees since 2008.
- Made our music available via digital media. For the past 18 months we’ve worked to launch a robust website where people can listen free to our concerts. We believe that classical music needs to be as readily available online as other kinds of music so that audiences can discover what we do. Early response to the new site has been enthusiastic.
- Give great concerts. This is not a new phenomenon for us! But it is important to state that audience development will not be successful unless new audiences experience riveting and memorable concerts. Thanks to our SPCO musicians, new audiences hear “the real deal” – energized performances in intimate settings.
Our communities’ entertainment options are proliferating. Fewer students have an opportunity to study classical music in school. Many people work longer hours and stay tethered electronically when not working. Incomes are stretched. Technological advances have resulted in more and more enticing entertainment opportunities that can be enjoyed in the comfort of one’s own home. Against these societal trends, our field must find new ways to welcome people to the art forms we exist to nurture and sustain. For the SPCO, being an indispensable community asset means that we must make and re-make ourselves constantly, so that we are bringing our music to people in ways that make sense to them.
We are proud of the work we are doing at the SPCO to attract new people and make it as easy as possible for them to participate in the work of our organization. We want more people to discover great music. And we believe that demand will increase if we work creatively to make it so.