Sam Bergman  

Selling The Band (Without Selling Your Soul)

Sam Bergman
December 11, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

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!

- Ann Drinan

Selling The Band (Without Selling Your Soul)

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.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

Sam, thanks very much for your article. I share your opinion that the musicians are the primary source for audience building and sustaining ideas.
rmsydiaha on January 13, 2019 at 5:08 PM

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