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Music Lessons for Museums

Over the past year or so, I have had the pleasure of working with the Wallace Foundation on its Building Audiences for Sustainability program, which has been funding initiatives at performing arts organizations for the past few years.

My project–a case study that was just published–involved the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and it took me to Seattle twice this year to interview SSO officials and audience members and to view the three new concert concepts that SSO had started to appeal to the “new urban cultural consumers” in booming downtown Seattle. Like most symphonies, SSO had been experiencing declining audiences, and the new formats were more informal than its core “Masterworks” series.

Wallace provided funding to conduct market research,  both focus groups and surveys, and to analyze ticket sales–all of which helped SSO learn what it was doing right, and what it might do better.

Although the article was about music, there’s a lesson in it, I think, for museums. You should read the whole article to understand the dynamics in Seattle, the new offerings/initiatives SSO devised, and the nuances. But let me distill a few takeaways:

  • Along with the informality and an earlier start for the most promising new initiative, called “Untuxed,” SSO added “engagement” activities–e.g., a host for the concert, the opportunity to sit on stage and to talk with musicians, etc. The market research showed that, while these add-ons were nice, they did not add to the lure of those concerts. Rather–and this is good, imho–the ticket-buyers came because of the programming, the music! Nothing else. And that’s good. They also wanted to hear music that, in advance, they knew that they would love. They were less adventurous than expected.
  • This discovery led to course-corrections in what music was programmed to these concerts–and how they were programmed.  SSO had been making its musical decisions partly on what was easiest—which pieces were being rehearsed at particular moments, for example. No longer.
  • A few “engagement” activities were critical in maintaining audiences, but not those “add-ons.” Rather, it was those that created loyalty among members, that enhance the customer experience–an initiative called “Surprise and Delight.” For example, new members are greeted by name when they come to concerts, and some are given free drink tickets.
  • The whole staff is also being trained in customer relations.





  1. Great information! I loved the full article. How are the staff at the SSO able to greet the members by name?

  2. Saul Davis says

    Minnesota Orchestra engaged in Rug Concerts in the 1970s, where the seats were taken out and rugs placed on the floor so people could lounge, and Leonard Slatkin would talk to the audience, which he did, engagingly. He also used the concerts to introduce “cool” music like Alan Hovhaness’s And God Created Great Whales. As far as I know, the concerts were a big success. Did it work in the long run? I don’t know. Perhaps something of the sort is necessary in every generation.
    But when is an orchestra going to try a connoisseur series and play the interesting, eclectic pieces that people buy cds for? When are they going to try catering to true music lovers? Subscription Series do not do that.

    • The Seattle Symphony does have something for fans of eclectic, new music–and I gave it a little attention in the article. It’s called “Untitled,” small concerts in the Grand Lobby. They attract up to 500 people–so naturally they are not a large revenue generator, but they are important to the SSO’s overall offerings. They draw the most devoted music-lovers.

      These concerts did not get more attention in the article because the market research confirmed what the SSO had surmised about them and their audience. There was little “learning journey,” which was what the article was really about.

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