No musician likes to look out into the hall during a concert to see lots of empty seats, yet what can we do to improve the situation? In rather amusing terms, Sam Bergman, violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, describes some ill-formulated marketing initiatives used in the past by the Alabama Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra. He goes on to describe a current initiative in Minnesota that has transformed their Saturday night concerts into “our best and most unpredictable concerts of the week.” Read on – Sam’s description of the audience at these concerts is pretty hard to believe, at least for this violist used to staid New England audiences!
It seems you can’t swing a bassoon in the orchestra world these days without hitting a marketing consultant blathering on about “the graying of the classical music audience“ and the vital importance of “audience building.“ Leaving aside the dubious nature of the charge that orchestra fans are on the verge of dying and leaving no successors behind, we can probably all agree that cultivating new audiences is a good idea. And while the importance of getting teens and twenty-somethings into the concert hall might be a bit overstated at times, there’s no question that concerts can be a lot more exciting when a sizable contingent of the audience is used to performance venues that encourage drinking and shrieking.
The problem with audience building, of course, is that no one’s ever developed a foolproof way to do it. Consumers are barraged with advertising these days, and the array of options available to urban dwellers looking for a nice way to spend an evening is far wider now than at any time in the past. Even getting people out of the house at all is a tough sell today, now that the Internet and the 500-channel on-demand television universe have taken their places as the primary entertainment sources in most households. Add in the phenomenon of relatively high orchestral ticket prices and the dramatic scaleback in press coverage of “serious” arts over the last ten years, and the challenge of filling a concert hall four times a week in a mid-sized city becomes enough to make any marketer sweat.
This constant pressure is probably what leads the marketing departments of some orchestras to come up with audience-building schemes that, in retrospect, appear seriously inadvisable, bordering on laughable. In my first full-time professional job, in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, we had a “casual classics” series designed to entice into the concert hall listeners who ordinarily wouldn’t take an interest. Nearly every American orchestra has a series like this by now – the usual format involves a genial conductor/host welcoming the audience to the hall and telling them a few entertaining stories about music in between selections – but ours had a twist. It was called “Music on the Rocks,” and the come-on to the audience was the promise of free alcoholic beverages at intermission and after the show. The drinks were carefully themed along with the program: if we were playing Russian music, there might be vodka; a focus on Spain would guarantee sangria; and so on. This concept was, needless to say, wildly popular with those of us in the orchestra, to the extent that, at one point, our Personnel Manager planted himself at the stage door at intermission to prevent us from sneaking out to the lobby to imbibe before the second half. But the concertgoers of Birmingham weren’t impressed in the least. “Y’all know we do have bars in this city, doncha?” one patron asked me before one of the concerts. True enough, and none of the bars had a cover charge anywhere near what we were asking for tickets, either. The series was canceled shortly after I left the ASO in 2000.
There is probably no segment of the audience-building mission more beloved to marketers and reviled by musicians as the attempt to create the perfect slogan for the orchestra. Most musicians consider this a losing battle, and don’t see the point to slapping a trite, trendy motto on something as profound as a Mahler symphony. But there must be a pile of evidence somewhere that says that a good slogan has an impact, because most orchestras have them, even if they do tend to change every season or so. Earlier this season, my orchestra had the motto, “It’s your music. Experience it” prominently displayed on two giant banners hanging on the side walls of our stage. This seemed harmless enough, I suppose, although a cynic would have pointed out that 1) No, it isn’t, and 2) They are. By my count, this is the seventh official marketing slogan the Minnesota Orchestra has had since I joined up a little over six years ago, with previous entries including “You Deserve It,” “Take A Chance On Osmo” (that’s our Music Director), “We’ll Fit You In” (particularly laughable, since we were playing to half-empty halls at the time), “Minnesota Orchestra Plays With Fire” (accompanied by an unsettling image of a violin in flames), and my personal favorite, “We’re Big Enough For Everyone.” This last slogan, which was in use when I arrived in Minneapolis, became something of an inside joke around the Twin Cities’ arts scene. The snickering peaked when a cellist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, just across the Mississippi River from us, coined an unofficial rival slogan for his 33-member band: “The SPCO: Size Doesn’t Matter.”
At this point, it probably sounds as if I’m just using this space to have a good laugh at the expense of some awfully hard-working people who spend their days trying to make me and my colleagues more palatable to the paying public, so I want to be clear that I have sincere respect for people who can actually do this job. The harsh reality of marketing is that the public tends to become immune to even the most creative of tactics fairly quickly in today’s ad-saturated world, and the need to constantly reinvent and polish the image of an organization has become a given. Add in the fact that orchestras still tend to be relatively old-fashioned organizations, frequently refusing to allow the public the sort of “insider access” so widely used to make people feel like they’re getting something extra in other venues, and the marketing game becomes nearly impossible.
So if we can’t be sure what will and won’t work from an advertising standpoint, what are we left with? Increasingly, it seems, the answer is us. Any orchestra development staffer will tell you that direct contact with musicians is one of the most highly-valued commodities among big donors, and a few impassioned words from someone onstage is frequently a devastatingly effective way to engage an audience. It seems almost too simple to be true, but in my experience, no amount of advertising and direct marketing can replace the simple act of allowing members of the public to connect directly with what we do.
This isn’t to say that just throwing any old musician up on center stage with a microphone and a few lame jokes is going to build the audience: it isn’t. Not everyone who is good at playing an instrument is also comfortable speaking to a group, and some musicians who are comfortable aren’t really very good at it. The days when audiences would sit quietly and nod sagely as a musician spoke in stentorian tones about the importance of the anacrusis to the second theme of the slow movement of Beethoven’s 7th are long past, and thank God for that! Nor is an in-concert speaker going to win many friends among the laity by lecturing on the “importance” of classical music or its clear superiority to all other musical forms. Even engaging in this debate is a no-win situation in an age when most people listen to lots of different kinds of music, and no one much cares about the intellectual content of one genre over another. What seems to work best (in most American cities, anyway) is a deliberately populist approach, a variation on the theme of “Here’s why I love this piece, and why I think you might, too.”
Here in Minneapolis, we’ve had a lot of success with this “direct appeal” method of in-concert marketing, particularly when our popular Music Director, Osmo Vänskä, is the one doing the talking. (This is a remarkable thing, since Osmo’s grasp of English frequently fails him in high-pressure situations, but this is Minnesota, land of Nordic stoicism: since Osmo’s long pauses while he searches for the right word aren’t really any longer than the conversational gaps in the speaking style of the average native, he fits right in.) Nearly every Saturday night (the evening we’ve designated as the one on which we specifically try to lure younger and more diverse concertgoers into Orchestra Hall, which also allows our more conservative crowd to attend on another night without fear of encountering anything unexpected) Osmo or another musician grabs the mic and talks in a highly personal way about the music we’re about to play. The tone varies – one of Osmo’s more effective speeches was a sobering meditation on war, discrimination, and death when we were playing James MacMillan’s brutal Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and I myself was once called on to deliver what amounted to a stand-up comedy routine on the ridiculous story behind Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe – but you can immediately tell that the audience appreciates that we respect them enough to a) assume that they’re not musical idiots, even if they are new to us, and b) give them a heads-up if there’s something complex and difficult about to come flying their way. (Osmo once went so far as to confess to an audience that he didn’t particularly like the score of the world premiere we were about to perform, saying that for him, it was “too dark, too difficult to be enjoyed.” But, he added, “What does Vänskä know? You will have your own conclusions, and they are what matters.” As a result of his candor, many people I spoke to afterwards said they felt much more comfortable listening to the piece, having been given full permission to dislike it in advance.)
The effect of the word of mouth generated by these sideshows on the look and feel of our audience has been considerable, and along with ticket specials and ad blitzes aimed at the college crowd, they have helped to make Saturdays our best and most unpredictable concerts of the week. The overall transformation was gradual, and there are still plenty of “traditional” classical music fans joining us on Saturdays, but you can’t help but see the difference between Saturdays at Orchestra Hall and, say, Fridays, when the bulk of our long-standing season ticket holders attend. A few weeks back, we played Mahler’s 5th symphony, which we’ll be taking on a European tour this summer. Every concert was close to sold out, and the audience reaction was fabulous throughout the week, but the Saturday show was pure insanity. The average age of the audience couldn’t have been over 38, and everywhere I looked there were pockets of high school and college students, and not one of them looked like they’d been dragged there by an adult. There was whooping and hollering mixed in with the applause throughout the evening, and I was thrilled to see wide grins on the faces of hundreds of audience members when we finished a piece. (Until you see this a few times, it’s easy not to notice that many orchestral crowds tend to look completely poker-faced, even when applauding, because that’s more or less how we’ve taught them to look over the decades.) In the third balcony, a huge group of music students from St. Olaf College (40 miles from the Twin Cities!) had made the trip north, and made the most of their presence the minute we finished the massive Mahler symphony by unfurling a 15-foot banner reading “We Love Brass!” and waving around a bunch of those giant “We’re #1” foam fingers that you see at football games. It was as close as I’ve ever come to feeling like a rock star at the end of a concert.
I’m not suggesting that what has worked for us in Minnesota will work everywhere – I can’t imagine the buttoned-up concertgoers of Philadelphia, where I grew up, ever embracing the sort of carefree informality that we’re deliberately cultivating – but I am saying that knowing one’s existing audience is the first step towards being able to expand it. Every city has its own unique character, and that character is constantly being exploited and played to by every successful nightclub, theatre, restaurant, and sports bar within the city limits. Historically, orchestras have tended to view themselves as above that sort of thing, and as a result, we have often shut ourselves out of the thriving night life we should naturally be a part of. This is not a problem that can ever be fully solved by the marketing department, regardless of how many 2-for-1 ticket offers they toss the way of the public. We, the musicians, have a primary responsibility not only to play great music, but also to give people a good reason to care about it. When we engage the audience, we give them a piece of ourselves, and given the right set of circumstances, they can develop the same loyalty to the orchestra that they have to their favorite baseball team or rock band. And when that happens, let’s face it, we’ll all be having a lot more fun.