Christopher Stager  

How to Grow an Audience by Understanding How Audiences Behave

Christopher Stager
June 18, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Marketing consultant Christopher Stager was recently invited to particpate on a panel at the Int'l. Artist Managers' Assoc. in London, and decided to present his perception of how American orchestras go about growing an audience to his European colleagues. What follows is Chris' take on how audiences behave, and what orchestras need to do to capitalize on that behavior to sell tickets.

- Ann Drinan
I was invited to sit on a panel – “Tomorrow’s Expectations and Today’s Challenge” – at the 17th International Conference of the International Artist Managers’ Association (IAMA) in London in April of this year.

A gathering of just 400 administrators and artist managers, the conference was diverse and offered a broad perspective of the state of music in Europe. The discourse was intelligent and the panel participants well chosen. Brent Assink (Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony), Mark Friend (the BBC’s Head of Broadcasting Strategy) James Jolly (Editor-in-Chief of Gramophone) and Costa Pilavachi (President of EMI Classics) offered sobering perspectives on the future of CDs and the electronic distribution of music.

Paul Hughes (General Manager of the BBC Symphony), Janis Susskind (Publishing Director of Boosey & Hawkes), and Robert van Leer (the Barbican’s Head of Music) all explored the future of programming.

Jessica Ford (Director of Intermusica) and Tim Walker (CEO and Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic) addressed the resources needed to build an effective management team.
For the session in which I participated, the esteemed panel included Ole Baekhoej (General Manager of the Gabrielli Consort), Matthias Naske (Director General of the new Philharmonie Luxembourg), David Stapes (Principal of Theatre Projects Consultants Limited) and Sarah Wilson (Managing Director of the Insbruck Festival). The questions from the other side of the stage throughout the conference were pointed and perceptive from Gonzalo Augusto (Spain’s foremost concert presenter), Marcus Rudolf Axt (Manger of the Bamberg Symphony), Michael Breugst (Artistic Administrator of the Leipzig Gewandhaus), Dawn Day (Manager of the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields), Leila Getz (Director of Vancouver’s Recital Society), Andreas Schultz (director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus), Magnus Still (of the Stillart arts management consultancy in Sweden), Ronald Vermeulen (Artistic Administrator of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra), Florian Wiegand (Director of the Westphalian Philharmonic), and many others I wish I’d had the time to getknow better. For full details on the conference and postings of the key addresses, visit

My address to the conference follows.It is by no means a comprehensive review of audience behaviors, but offers a perspective I thought European administrators might find provocative. (For example, there is no mention of subscribers, as subscription packages are not as crucial to audience development in Europe as here in North America.)

For the past 19 years, I have had the pleasure of helping mostly orchestras, but also opera companies and performing arts presenters, build and sustain their audiences. I happen to be endlessly fascinated by how audiences behave. If a hall is not quite filled and there is still room to grow an audience, there are two or three fundamental behaviors I can share…well, maybe 7 or 8.

1. Audiences are drawn more to repertoire than to artists. This won’t come as a surprise to most of you: a little-known violinist playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto is likely to sell more tickets than a “name” artist playing the Richard Strauss Violin Concerto. Of course, that “name” artist playing a popular concerto will sell the most tickets of all. But in such a case, orchestras struggle with the variance between the two artist fees – a margin difficult to cover through ticket revenue alone.

2. Make no mistake: audiences are shrewd, selective consumers.

I am forever surprised by this. How else can we explain why Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony sells better than his Third?

I have heard board members declare that their presumed “marketing problem” can be fixed with “better” (their term), more populist programming. And I have seen their theory tested – always with a disappointing result. When the audience is presented only with peaks, they will find the valleys.

More than once I have seen Beethoven’s Second and Fourth Symphonies sell very well in a season in which they are the only Beethoven symphonies presented. But in a season of all Nine Beethoven Symphonies, their sales will be weaker; the audience will select the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth.

Better, it is an institution’s unwavering will to present interesting programs – not simply popular ones – that build audiences over time, and narrows the spread between high and low selling concerts. One of my clients recently presented Mozart’s Requiem. I proposed that the first half offer Messiaen’s L’Asencion. Each piece informed the other, providing a new context for listening. This remains the best selling concert in the orchestra’s history. Audiences came away with their expectations exceeded, and a deeper trust in the institution’s artistic values. Which brings me to…

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