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Young Audiences: Obscure Object of Desire

A commenter yesterday asked why exactly it is so important to have a young audience. It's a good point. My husband, who has for some time been seeking out data on the aging of the audience, would probably reply that, although many people now say that young people never went to the performing arts that much, the audience used to be a lot younger than it is now; he would then back up that statement with some examples like these. So that's one answer.

As for me: I didn't actually post about opera and teenagers to jump on the "aging of the audience" bandwagon. But the commenter's question gives me a chance to say that, while I am all for taking children to performances early and often (hey, it worked for me), I also concur, not because I think that audiences have always been older but because I think the idea of "a young audience" is one of those fictive Holy Grails that has emerged into the conventional classical-music wisdom as a kind of theoretical quack cure-all. "If we could only reach a young audience, we'd be fine." "If only we had better arts education in the schools, we'd be fine." "If only the government would start subsidizing our opera companies and orchestras, we'd be fine."

Well, I don't think reaching a young audience is the answer. I think that we need to stop fixating on the young audience and focus on reaching an audience, period. Young people may not be going to classical music events; but neither are 40-somethings (even many of those who did have music classes in elementary school). Neither are people who came of age in the 1960s and would still rather go hear Springsteen than an orchestra concert. There are people in their 70s who haven't had a lot of exposure to this kind of music, and who would really enjoy it if they knew more about it. People are no longer naturally deposited on the shores of classical music once they reach a certain age (if they ever were); there are too many other options, and classical music, as the composer David Lang said to me in March, exerts a very weak gravitational pull.

So how do you reach a bigger audience, period? What can you do to make people realize that this kind of music is exciting, interesting, fun? No one has the whole answer to this; a lot of people are working on it. But I think this is the question to be asking. And somehow I doubt that lecturing at people, telling them that this kind of music is "better" than the kind they like, finding one-off gimmicks to lure them into the theater, or making them sit through mediocre productions of standard operas is going to do the trick.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 4, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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I think the way you get more people into the arts is to offer something that moves them - a performance has to give something to the audience. Gimmicks don't do it. Marketing won't do it. Only a great performance.

Posted by: dundili | June 4, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

How about cheaper tickets? Remember the wonders that the $25 per seat subscriptions did to the Baltimore Symphony? Yes, I know, money is usually a problem...

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 4, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Anne -- Classical music has ceased to be a serious part of the USA culture. (As have poetry and many other arts. Frost and Sandburg were well known in 1950 to the average person, now not even college graduates can name any American poets.)

I remember 60 years ago listening to Toscanini conducting regular broadcasts on National radio -- with sizable audiences.

My father in 1938(?) was responsible for the Swift and Co. display at the Chicago World's Fair -- the centerpiece was a specially constructed stage where Paul Whitman orchestra played classical music to standing room audiences every night.

When I was in the 6th grade, about 1950, we had weekly music appreciation classes -- and I still remember most of the recordings.

Our N. J. High School had a box subscription to the Met Opera in NYC. ETC.

In European countries like Austria (as you know) opera and other music and theater arts are heavily subsidized. (e.g. Salzburg Festival - opening nights operas televised nationally and watched by 1 of every 8 Austrians) The arts raise revenue from tourists, etc. Many little towns have a brass band and other classical or folk groups -- including jazz.

The Austrian Prime Minister and opposition leader regularly attend openings of new productions at the Vienna State Opera. Here, President Obama is attacked as elitist if he asks for Dijon mustard for his hamburger!

60 years ago, President Harry Truman - a high school grad from Missouri - was a skilled piano player who went often to the Washington Symphony concerts (following the concert with the score!).

Good luck USA,

Posted by: BethesdaFan | June 4, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Trying to get a bigger audience for classical music is like trying to get a larger congregation for religious services. It is important to keep performing institutions alive and viable, regardless of audience size, so that when there is a random shift in population, the people who are in search of either classical music or religious services can have somewhere to go.

It is important for musicians to always offer music of quality. In other words, always to rehearse well in order to play well, always to play music that they find interesting and engaging--regardless of the era, genre, or style, and never to judge the value of what they do by the number of people who go to concerts. That is difficult for musicians to do. We have to become very strong and very self-sufficient. We also have to be content with an audience of relatives once in a while.

People in the media need to cover performances--even in remote places. Even people in the media who don't give a hoot about classical music should offer space to publicize concerts, just in case someone in the area happens to care.

Posted by: elainefine | June 4, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Obviously there's no one answer, but something that's clear to me is that audiences like things to be new, and they need a cult of personality to get into/celebrity to identify with in any field that receives any level of media attention. I'd have to research the numbers, but I'd be willing to bet that audience decline at least partly correlates with the increased separation of composer and audience.

Even in the modern era, composers wrote some music that was designed to please audiences (in addition to their more "serious" works), and in the process gave audiences not only new works to enjoy in the concert hall, but gave them a celebrity to identify the field with, and in return kept the field appearing alive and vibrant. One of the last people like this that I can think of is Leonard Bernstein, who was a celebrity and a composer who wrote relatively commercially viable music and had the chops to demand respect in the "serious" world, despite some controversies (controversy is good).

The closest thing today might be Philip Glass, who I bet draws a more demographically varied and even larger audiences to his concerts than most programs would. But it took him a long time (and film scores) to get to that point, so he doesn't have the appeal of youth that a lot of people look for (sad but true, look how many young soloists become celebrities prematurely because they are young and charismatic... we're not talking about what's best for the artistic viability of the art, but for its survival, which it turns out is also best for its artistic viability).

Anyway, imagine if we were talking about film: if living filmmakers gradually began to make only avant garde music, they would become increasingly detached from most of the current audience, and eventually most film events would center on the generally accessible classics. Ticket sales (more to the point concession stand sales) would go down and new generations came up and the classics appeared increasingly dated, venues would close, production companies would close, actors would turn to wherever their skills were needed and their hunger for attention fed (theatre and tv) etc... you see my point.

So, young composers with a full grasp of musical forms old and new, who can further the form while also contributing something from time to time that audiences can get into, and whom the media loves to show pictures of and write about. That would go a long way in drawing audiences. This kind of person is definitely out there, but most young musicians who also crave the approval and attention of audiences tend to go into pop music, even if they love classical music themselves and have a deep interest in it.

On a side note, there are more and more such people popping up, but they are playing less traditional classical venues, and are involving themselves in the pop world, and also have a tendency towards chamber music, perhaps out of necessity.

And on a final side-note: the BBC Orchestra not long ago appointed Jonny Greenwood as their composer in residence. Greenwood is the guitarist for Radiohead. I think this is a step in the right direction, though what I'd really like to see is someone who originated in the classical camp to cross over to the pop camp in high-profile way, without hurting their integrity or standing in the classical camp. See what I mean? Greenwood is really talented (if you saw "There Will Be Blood" you heard some of the music he wrote for the BBC; it made a really fine film score), though as enjoyable as the music is, there is a sense in it that this is a pop musician trying something new. Anyway, it's a step in the right direction, but ultimately we need composer celebrities who can bring musical innovations to the table as well enjoy doing something just for the audiences from time to time.

Posted by: dan-wallace | June 4, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

“I doubt that lecturing at people, telling them that this kind of music is "better" than the kind they like, finding one-off gimmicks to lure them into the theater, or making them sit through mediocre productions of standard operas is going to do the trick.” (Anne Midgette)

While I find this comment (within otherwise interesting thoughts) problematic, let me focus on the last two parts of this statement.

The Washington National Opera presented an interesting Spring season at the Kennedy Center, and while I was not surprised that ‘Turandot’ sold–out its run, I was rather surprised that – in time of fatigue and deleveraging – ‘Siegfried’ sold-out its run. (‘Peter Grimes’ was also an important step by the company, and one that – despite the mixed local reception according to the unscientific sampling represented on these pages -- should have, I believe, been taken 30 years ago. The WNO would have been a better company today, and one better positioned to fulfill its national mandate.)

Now, the questions become -- was the WNO ‘Siegfried’ (or the concept of the ‘American Ring’ as a whole) a one-off gimmick and was the WNO ‘Turandot’ a mediocre production of a standard opera? I think that the answer to the first was yes, but one that might actually have attracted the final house-filling 8 to 15% of the audiences those nights. I think that the answer to the second was no, although perhaps it was a musically rather mediocre production of a fairly exciting, now slightly aging production first staged at the 1984 Olympics in then opera-less Los Angeles as a conservative operatic foil to the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass/Laurie Anderson/ Denyce Graves failed “the CIVIL warS, a tree is the best measured when it is down.”

By extension, would the WNO or the MET producing the recent hard-edge Salzburg staging (Willy Decker) of La Traviata (which featured Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, and Thomas Hampson, and which was released on DVD) really be a one-off gimmick to lure opera (but not film, literature, or art) newbies into American opera houses? Do some really believe that Peter Gelb’s “New MET” is based upon gimmicky premises, and that it should mount more conservative productions of Shostakovich’s ‘The Nose’ (William Kentridge), Janacek’s ‘From the House of the Dead’ (Patrice Chéreau), or Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Saint François d'Assise’ (Daniel Libeskind), than it has chosen or is now considering? (I don’t recall Washington Post music critics calling the visiting, sublime Mariinsky Opera productions of ‘Boris Godunov’ and ‘Parsifal’ “gimmicky.”)

On the other hand, I would concur that it would be a very unfortunate idea – a gimmick -- if Gerard Mortier or George Steel at the New York City Opera, David Gockley at the San Francisco Opera, or Placido Domingo at the Washington National Opera were to revive “Einstein on the Beach” (as was proposed earlier by the New York City Opera).

Posted by: snaketime | June 4, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I keep hearing that the search is on for new (and/or younger) audiences for classical music. I also keep hearing that the internet has put classical music into the ears of more listeners than was ever possible at any other time in history. (Isn't classical music a huge seller on iTunes?)

So what's the problem?

Where I think a distinction should be made is between recorded classical music and live performances of it. I strongly suspect it's the latter, rather than the former, that's getting a slimmer slice of audience share.

Why do I say this? Because if you trawl the internet's many forums, chatrooms and other online locations where music lovers (young and not-so-young) hang out, you'll quickly discover that classical music is very far indeed from needing to seek out new audiences. On the contrary - it seems that new audiences are seeking out classical music.


Posted by: Kuhlau | June 4, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I think it's less focusing on "young" audiences and more focusing on the "not old" audience. Because, frankly, it's not just our art form that's dying... it's our audience with it. We've focused on playing to that safe 'greatest generation' demographic for so long that we don't know what else to do. In the meantime, that generation is dying. So yes, we need to do something. Appeal to teenagers and tweens? Perhaps not. But every generation from young adult to middle age is up for grabs otherwise.

Posted by: dagneyandleo | June 4, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse


I wanted to present some quick research into how well classical music is selling on iTunes and at

At iTunes, I didn't see anything in the Top 100 that wasn't pop (maybe I missed something), and they don't have sales stat's on artist pages.

At Amazon, they do have sales stat's. The number 1 classical music seller is David Garrett, a violin soloist whose album came out this month. The album is #22 on the overall charts (note, Amazon seems to have a much wider demographic range than iTunes in general). Garrett's album isn't just "classical" music, however. It features songs by Metallica and from other pop outlets. I haven't heard it, so I can't say how "classical" these crossover arrangements sound.

The #2 (and #6!) Classical Album at Amazon (#46 overall) is by Chris Bottie (a "Jazz trumpeter") with the Boston Pop's, and features guest performers Yo-Yo Ma, Josh Groban, John Mayer (yikes, sorry...), Sting and Steven Tyler (you know, from Aerosmith). And the tracks consist of, as far as I can tell, only one piece that's not a Jazz or Pop standard.

#3 (#111 overall) is Il Divo's album "The Promise". I only recognize a couple of the songs, including "Amazing Grace". Anyway, the album description says these are "popular romantic songs".

It goes on like this, with vocalists seeming to do the best in general (was this started by the Three Tenors?). Eventually some Debussy and Chopin start to show up. The highest ranked Mozart disc is at #1,546 overall, Bach's more like #1200.

Personally if I were new to classical music and went to Amazon and saw this, I would think it's mainly for the day-time tv watching set who like to read romance novels and see scruffy guys in white, untucked dress shirts singing cheesy versions of pop songs I didn't like in the first place. Just because there is something called a "Classical Music" chart, and there are a couple of albums in this category selling millions of units (it doesn't take millions to chart), doesn't mean that Classical music is thriving. If it were, people would be seeking out their favorite artists live, as they do with pop music, and as they do with the people at the top of the "Classic" charts now (I'm sure the Boston Pops concert above - the one featuring John Mayer - was well attended).

I'm all for Pop crossover, but in my take on it, it's Pop music that is as creative and cutting edge as anything in the classical world. For example, Grizzly Bear recently did a concert with the Brooklyn Phil (orchestrations by Nico Muhly). This is for a demographic of about 17 - 50. Their album (also featuring Muhly work) is in the Top 10 at Amazon. Also, you have the Bad Plus, though technically billed as Jazz, their use of extended harmonies owes just as much to contemporary classical as it does free jazz. They interpret relatively current pop songs in a fresh, complicated, energetic, challenging way that is popular with fans of both experimental music and pop music, and they sell out shows. We need more things like this to be integrated into the Classical Concert world proper, and it NOT be billed as a Pops type event.

Posted by: dan-wallace | June 4, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

I just went to a concert in Warsaw where young people stood in the rain to hear Chopin.


It was free.

Posted by: pancakej | June 4, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I feel like a minor celebrity! And... to find out in addition that two of my favourite blogs are also related in ways beyond content... egads. My head is spinning.

I think your answer syncs with how I feel, that maybe the focus should be on an 'audience' more than 'the yoof'. For all the criticism about Gelb being gimmicky at the Met, I know as a young opera fan my interest in what they're up to has been seriously increased- I can still remember my surprise when I checked in on their webpage and it didn't look like a Geocities hangover anymore. Even now, if I'm procrastinating at work, I'll load up the Met webpage just to see what is new. I'm not buying tickets, so it probably doesn't mean an awful lot, but I do think this engagement is important.

I also wonder about the arts education = future audience theory. I am all for arts education, and heaps of it, but not because it will fill seats. After all, I, for some reason, spent five years in high school doing geography and I don't rush out to measure soil run-off in my spare time. English for me killed off any interest in poetry. A lacklustre teacher in grade 8 killed my then-interest in Ancient Rome. So I think education as the audience band-aid is a fundamentally flawed idea because there are just too many variables.

Now that so much entertainment is on-demand, I do worry how arts companies will convince audiences that although the schedule is inflexible, its still totally worth it.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 4, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

In my view, the only way to bring younger people (whom by the way we absolutely need) is to present this wonderful art, be it opera or symphonic concert or a piano recital through younger and vibrant performers. That way they can relate to what they see. When all of young Hollywood tried to arrange for young voter to vote for Kerry it didn't work. Because he simply wasn't exciting, he couldn't relate to them. Then, Obama came along and so many young people showed up and registered to vote. It is tough to find real stars who have the ability, looks, personality etc. But there is hope, singer Anna Netrebko, or pianist Lola Astanova are the ones who can ignite the interest of the younger audiences that we so need.

Posted by: JHeart | June 4, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

To attract the younger audience, it would be good to have concerts where people can easily explain why they are interesting.

Good: This concert has three pieces that explore illustrating nature in music.

Bad: This concert has three pieces that make up a 90-minute program.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 4, 2009 8:47 PM | Report abuse

You're right, it should be about attracting audiences in general and not just young audiences. At the same time, though, we should keep in mind that we can't hope to attract everyone to classical music. People who are only casual listeners of music aren't going to go out of their way to discover classical music. I do think classical music is more difficult to understand than popular music, and the people who are going to approach classical music are ones who like music enough to challenge themselves.

I think that the demographic that needs to be targeted is people who consider themselves aficionados of popular music but who for various reasons just don't know classical music because they haven't been exposed to it. I am friends with probably more people who fit this description than with people who actually love classical music, which for me says a lot.

Having said that, I think that there actually is a gradual opening up of classical music to new audiences, and that this is due in part to classical music's accessibility on the Internet. People who like music can listen to samples of music on iTunes, YouTube and other sites and discover music that they otherwise wouldn't hear in a bar, club, store, etc.

Posted by: robertcostic | June 5, 2009 12:32 AM | Report abuse

"I think the idea of '[garnering] a [new] young audience' is one of those fictive Holy Grails that has emerged into the conventional classical-music wisdom as a kind of theoretical quack cure-all."


Quack cure-all indeed. This now old, tired, and tiresome _cri de coeur_ is and has been wrongheaded from the get-go, conflating and confusing as it does the immediate need to generate a fresh source of income for cash-strapped classical music institutions with the desire to bring classical music back from the marginalized fringes of our culture into the mainstream of our cultural life. The answer is NOT to put new young butts in seats by pandering to current pop cultural tastes via pop, mass-market marketing devices, but to have those seats filled by a new audience that's there because of its love of classical music, and one does NOT accomplish that by pimping classical music to the adult young as better than pop trash and better for one into the bargain. One accomplishes that by first acknowledging and accepting the ineluctable fact that those adult young are in large part essentially lost to classical music, and little can be done to alter that circumstance. Next, and perhaps most importantly, one must frankly acknowledge and accept the ineluctable fact that classical music is, has always been, and will always be an elite enterprise whose appeal will never achieve anything even remotely approaching mass-market popularity no matter how aggressively and assiduously it may be promoted. The very best one can do is to intelligently, assiduously, and on multiple fronts expose the very young to classical music during their formative years, and then let Nature take its course, recognizing and accepting that that exposure will at best capture but a small percentage of those so exposed. It's the nature of the beast, so to speak; an inherent characteristic of the very thing itself. That route is, of course, a long-term one as it must and cannot otherwise be. There are no quick fixes possible here, and any blue-sky notions to the contrary are circle-squaring exercises best left to marketing suits whose talents would be better utilized pimping cars, booze, and sundry other consumer commodities.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | June 5, 2009 1:40 AM | Report abuse

Hi Anne: I think the most useful tool to promote audience participation in classical music events is the media, particularly prime time television. There was a time when classical music played an important role in prime time TV. The broadcasts of the NBC Orchestra under Toscanini and Stokowski (I think0, The Bell Telephone Hour which broadcast performances from The New England Conservatory. These ran in conjunction with I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver and even Hazel. It would take a powerhouse producer to approach advertisers to back and support classical music on TV. Even a half hour live broadcast from a Juilliard School live concert, or some of their superb masterclasses with great stars would promote popularity of classical music among the young crowds. Our excellent conservatories are abundant with exciting, hot talent. Government should play a stronger part in the promotion of classical music in the media too and if I may, I'd like to suggest you use your power in the media in CD to encourage Michelle Obama or Mrs. Biden to become Queen of the Arts in your position in Washington. Live from the White House could be a way General Motors can thank the people for their eminent bail out. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: cconarts | June 5, 2009 2:23 AM | Report abuse

Wonderful article, Anne, and many valid points you share, as well as your readers. There is no quick fix. Pop culture online has enabled many music lovers to have access to their favorite music at the touch of a fingertip. Some record companies now provide massive digital catalogs and podcasts, and many presenters and musicians are slowly adapting to the needs of society as a whole. There is more classical music available now to the masses than ever before. The importance of major record contracts has diminished, allowing more musicians to get their craft out there. Trends come and go, and as I see it, and have for twenty years, the way we present repertoire and artists is always a challenge. For myself, I present a repertoire list which includes the standard classic repertoire, plus works of popular nature. I also create large consortiums of orchestras to get new music commissioned and performed (working on a 100 orchestra worldwide project at this moment). Musicians and presenting administrators need to work hand in hand, or through their managers, to make sure they have something included in their concert seasons to appeal to all ages. Reaching out to young audiences is too narrow--we have many audience members who go by the traditional model, so we need to keep the old with the new. It is a much more creative process now, rather than going with traditional programming of the 20th century. It also opens doors to new and interesting collaborations amongst musicians, to merge their talents and create new sounds and styles. This will happen during the next twenty years, since these changes do not happen quickly.

Posted by: JBiegel | June 5, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

I'm feeling a little salty this morning, but I don't think a goal should be to pitch to young people. Have you actually been around young people today? They're dumb as a bag of rocks.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 5, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Regarding cicciofrancolando and pancakej comments above regarding ticket prices and audiences:

Possibly one of the reasons that led music critic and writer Alex Ross to hear Gustav Mahler in the late 1970s for the first time (at the same time that he was high school student studying piano and exploring punk rock) was that a Second Tier Side Balcony (obstructed view) seat to the National Symphony Orchestra cost $2 in 1978 (or perhaps the price was already up to $3.50 due to inflation – I don’t have the figures handy.)

A comparable Second Tier Side-Balcony seat (obstructed view) to a Kennedy Center Mahler Symphony concert today is at least $40 or $45, while a Second Tier Center Seat (full view) can easily be $60 or $70.

(Does anyone else recall seeing actor Alec Baldwin at local NSO concerts?)

PS. Lindemann777, our children, who are young people, are not “dumb as a bag of rocks.” Thank you.

Posted by: snaketime | June 5, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

This is seriously the most humorless blog ever.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 5, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

The issue of generating interest in the arts stems from education. In years past, Leonard Bernstein had the Young People's concerts on TV with inspiring music and dialogue. Inspiring interest in the classics must be fostered and promoted. Both of our children played piano as adolescents and this has translated into a deep appreciation for music. My wife and I were both inspired to classical music and opera through our parents and we are now avid participants.

We have noticed many of the younger generation at the MET which opens its doors with low priced tickets and welcome school participation. Peter Gelb's foray into HD movie versions of operas as well as HD broadcasts on TV encourages a wider audience. We even had a friend (non-opera lover) that he attended a MET HD boroadcast of Lucia in dungarees and a tee shirt and felt very relaxed with popcorn enjoying the substitles. This is progress.

Venues such as Tanglewood offer families the opportunity to be embraced by good music in an informal setting. Only be participation and controlling costs are we able to remove the elitist aura of classical music. I recall vividly attending the last concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood with our duaghter as clearly as it was yesterday.

While others may disagree and call this prejudicial, young inspired talent such as Anna Netrebko, Diana Damrau, Elina Garanca, Rolanda Villazon, Piotor Beczala, and Erwin Schrott offer a counterbalance to the stigma of "It isn't over till the fat lady sings". This does however brings about a larger context. Why are these singers largely tarined in Easter Europe or Russia? Why do so many Americans travel to Europe to foster their careers, e.g. Thomas Hampson to Vienna, Joyce Dinato, etc.

One needs only to have seen the Met's movie "The Audition" to have seen some of the finest talent around and the difficulty in challenges in breaking into the arts as a meaningful career. We were very pleased to see one of the participants from this movie in a Boston Lyric Opera production of Don Giovanni. To offset this success, we lament the closing of the Amato opera which showcased young American Talent.

Education be it in the home or school is a means of fostering a larger audience. It is unfortunate that budget cutbacks and the general malaise for the arts as opposed to sports in America will led to an uphill battle.

As others have stated, there is nothing like the thrill of a live performance.
Thanks for an inspiring dialogue and commentary.

Posted by: haimes1 | June 5, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I have to echo what a few commenters have already pointed out: the product needs to be superior. All the slick marketing, media hype, fancy websites, and cool concepts really don't mean anything if the musical product doesn't deliver. As a presenter, if you create these types of expectations about your show through the mediums mentioned above, it's your obligation to deliver a quality product to the public. Failing to deliver damages your reputation to both the media and your audience, both of whom will be less likely to support you in the future. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

As for building and growing an audience (of any age), speaking from my experience founding and directing a new music series in Baltimore, I believe that it's important that you build trust with your audience. That begins not only with choosing quality music but also giving quality performances. (Have I mentioned that yet?) Additionally, coming at this topic from a contemporary music angle, programming concerns and the way programming unfolds over seasons and beyond--especially with a start-up series aimed at growing an audience for what is already a niche market--has a lot to do with building that kind of trust with an audience. Starting out with a portrait concert of, say, Milton Babbitt or Salvatore Sciarrino in a market largely unfamiliar with that type of music is not going to win you any new fans (though the hardliners would likely rejoice). However, perhaps after getting an audience a little more comfortable and confident in their ability to digest some of this music through a carefully thought-out long range programming plan, they might be more receptive to something that they'd consider completely out of bounds had they not been wooed earlier on. It's a balancing act between reaching out to potential new audience members while simultaneously appeasing the already indoctrinated without alienating either set. But never, under any circumstances, should the integrity of the music be compromised. People are smart, and even if they're unfamiliar with a particular kind of
music, they'll see through your smoke and mirrors if that's a tactic. And that goes for flimsy gimmicks too.

I personally don't believe "more education" is the answer to growing audiences. Classical music folks prostelitizing in the name of education only serves to reinforce the stereotype that we're stuffy snobs. You can't force people to learn; they'll learn themselves, if and when they want, through experience, not through a pre-concert lecture.

What can be addressed, and what we're working on with Mobtown Modern, is creating an experience that is inviting and comfortable for our audience; both the dedicated audience members we already have and those who we hope to convert. For the uninitiated, going to a Classical Music Concert, can be a daunting prospect, full of foreign rules they think they need to follow; clap now, shut up, sit still, don't cough. Concerts and recitals can also often feel like strange conversations, full of awkward uncomfortable silences, that even seasoned concert-goers don't know how to deal with. I'm speaking specifically about the time between compositions, which can be drawn out affairs, especially if there's a set change involved. Is it okay to talk? Stretch? Ummm...I'm not sure about that one myself. We've dealt with this particular awkward concert moment by having music (selected to fit any particular evening's theme) playing between compositions courtesy of our co-founding DJ. This is just one thing we've done to try and put people who might not be as familiar with Concert Etiquette, at ease.

Our approach to making audiences more comfortable has been of the "loosen up" variety. It's not the only way and maybe it's only been successful for us because of our particular market and musical dynamic in Baltimore. At the core, our efforts have focused on making our concerts inclusive experiences rather than holier than thou sermons.

Posted by: briansacawa | June 5, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Regarding offering superior performances, I don't think that's the solution. It's nice to have, but most people who are new to classical music can't tell the difference. Even within the classical world, the so-called experts can't agree on such a thing. Other factors are more important, like marketing and a welcoming - even fun or at least exhilerating - environment (I love the recent articles on encouraging applauds between movements!).

There's this idea in recording albums that if it's not sounding right, "we'll fix it in the mastering". Frank Zappa once said "we'll fix it in the packaging". There's something to that. He sold millions of non-commercial albums, but was very very aware of his marketing strategies, and even says that he spent two years studying the market before forming his first band.

I think a lot of classical musicians expect or hope to be supported because of the cultural significance of what they do, but really there's no reason they shouldn't try to be as savy as a pop act when it comes to promotion and publicity.

Posted by: dan-wallace | June 5, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Hey, I misspelled "savvy" in that last post. That's kind of ironic, isn't it :)

Oh, and I wanted to chime in one more time and say that I agree with the idea that education is really important, at the very least so that people aren't intimidated by the idea of Classical Music. And I say go further than appreciation: there's no reason 8 year olds - especially the ones who enjoy it - can't learn (or at least be exposed to) some elements of composition, and incorporate that into their singing and rhythmic forays.

Posted by: dan-wallace | June 5, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Dan, I agree that strategy and marketing are important when packaging the arts, but as a wise man once said, "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." True, untrained listeners might not be able to tell the difference between good and bad performances, but there will always be a portion of the audience at any classical music show who do know the difference. Marketing cannot take the place of quality, though it can certainly do a lot to enhance it. I've seen plenty of examples of folks with plenty of media savvy, but not the musical product to back it up. In order to be successful and long-lasting, you've got to have both.

Posted by: briansacawa | June 5, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Brian, I agree with you 100%. I should clarify that I'm not talking about "bad" vs "good", but "great" (or even "definitely really good" or "good enough to please most of us") vs "superior" or "genuis". I was getting the impression from a lot of posts that the solution might be to just offer brilliant performances, which isn't the case.

Even in my example of Zappa, the stuff that he said should be fixed in packing - the stuff he thought sounded "bad" - was actually considered to be excellently produced by other ears. My point with him was that his music was very un-commercial, but he was able to infiltrate the commercial market successfully through his marketing. And yes, true, his product delivered the goods for those looking for such a sensibility.

An example in the classical world would be the Kronos Quartet. They have fantastic marketing, are incredibly PR savvy, are excellent performers, and made their name while performing plenty of music by living composers (I met two people recently who first heard George Crumb through Kronos). I don't know if their version of Shostakovach's 8th string quartet is the most "superior" I've heard, but it's certainly very good to my ears, and it definitely captured my imagination as a teenager and had a huge musical influence on me.

Also, marketing doesn't have to be slick to be effective. Quite the contrary these days. It's definitely better to undersell a bit and NOT do anything close to "putting lipstick on a pig", or in other cases, perhaps, "put lipstick on a peacock". Neither is a good idea.

Anyway, I still feel that the real key lies in creating the sense that classical music is a living, breathing animal that people can interact with. I previously posted a long comment about this already (regarding separation of composers and audience), so I won't repeat myself, but I will add: there was a time when composers wrote both popularly accessible and "serious art" music. It's not like that anymore. I do see a correlation between that and a lack of audience (see my film industry analogy).

Posted by: dan-wallace | June 5, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Hi, I live in the Netherlands, I'm relatively young - 17 years old - and really interested in classical music. There are two problems that, I think, keep young people who ARE interested in other genres than pop-music from visiting live classical concerts or listening to records.

The first and most important problem is that there's almost no one to talk - or even just have a quick chat - with about the subject. It's very frustrating to see that even most young people who play the violin, like me, don't seem to be interested at all in the music they're playing. I always have to defend, or at least explain, my taste in music. There should be plenty of others who share my interests, but I've never met them.

While YouTube and other internet sites offer very interesting stuff, you have to know what to look for to find it. An on-line-community of people interested in classical music could be part of the solution - not just to the problem of getting people to listen to classical music, but also providing those who enjoy it with a platform to share their thoughts.

The second problem could have been mentioned before: it's very unpleasant to attend a performance on your own if most of the public is older than fifty and there's no one of your age. And high ticket prices don't help either: if you're into classical music, you want to attend live performances as much as you can, but most reasonably priced concerts in theatres offer standard repertoire only. For more exiting performances, there are the famous concert halls - like the Concertgebouw here -, which are expensive and, I have to admit, slightly elitist. This problem, however, could be very hard to solve.

Posted by: SBfromH | June 5, 2009 9:15 PM | Report abuse

I have to disagree with Dan Wallace. People with very little experience listening to classical music can tell the difference between an adequate performance and an exceptional one. Many novices are pretty bowled over by "adequate," but once they hear exceptional (live and un-amplified), they know the difference. Even 8-year-olds know the difference.

It is the business of musicians, particularly classical musicians, to try to make every performance an exceptional one. Saying that a performance will be exceptional through unrealistic promotion doesn't cut it. Some PR material simply doesn't "speak" the whole truth, putting the people who are being promoted under a great deal of pressure. An audience can tell when its been lied to.

Musicians who are serious about their work are constantly trying to improve their playing in order to try to make their performances exceptional. It takes a couple of hours a day of practice for most musicians simply to maintain a functional level of technique, and making improvement as well as careful rehearsing (which is necessary for exceptional playing) takes more time and more dedication.

Posted by: elainefine | June 6, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse


I think you missed my point. I never said "adequate" vs "exceptional". I said "great" or "really good" vs "superior". And my point was that making sure every performance is "superior" (or even "exceptional") will not ensure an audience (not to mention that such a thing is impossible).

Also, at one point I said "good enough to please most of us". By "us" I meant people with extremely high expectations.

You said yourself that novices are blown away by "adequate" performances. The truth is that most people buying a recording, turning on the radio, going to a concert hall, they'll be lucky to be getting better than "adequate".

All that said, I don't believe most 8 year olds can tell the difference between a recorded performance that's good vs one that's great. Live, it's just as hard if not harder, especially if the lesser musician were a better showman, and especially if that showman won over the kid's parents. I've seen adults fall for mediocre performances over and over and over again. And I've seen people impress audiences with fast, loud, flashy pieces that were not hard at all to play, while a slow, quiet, excedingly difficult piece goes unnoticed... unless it's a truly beautiful piece (yeah, programming is essential), but people still think the fast one is harder to play.

Also, if you read my post again you'll see that I've never advocated misrepresenting a product in marketing. That doesn't work these days. People will hate you for it. Yes, I agree, musicians and composers should work themselves near to death to be as amazing as they can be (not just technically but emotionally), but in terms of winning over more audience, people care more about liking the music than they do the performance, just as they care more about liking the music than they do production value of a recording.

Posted by: dan-wallace | June 7, 2009 4:00 AM | Report abuse

I don't usually comment because I am neither a musician nor am I knowledgeable about these matters, but in this case, after reading your article and all the interesting comments, I feel compelled to do so.

There are several points that I would like to make. First, I think the location of the
venue is very important. Two things come to mind here. One is for a lot of folks is the
hastle of just getting there (traffic, distance, etc.) and second is the parking once there (either the cost or just finding a place to park or competing for
parking with everyone getting there at almost exactly the same time.
So the first issue is ease of access.
Second, to me and I suspect a lot of others, going to a concert is a much
richer experience if it is shared with
others. My suggestion here is orchestras
should consider establishing group rates
for 4 or 6 people; not just large groups.

Third, attending a performance doesn't have to be couched or marketed as an "educational experience". Concerts should
be advertised as potentially events that
can be enjoyed and where one can walk out
whistling a melody and not gripe about an
affront to the ears. By that I don't mean
orchestras should only program warhorses
since there are plenty of works that are
great but for one reason or another nether
get on a program. Which leads me to my next point that orchestras are so unionized today that the time constraints
imposed by contracts dictate the programming. If it takes me an hour to get
to the hall, 15 minutes to park and then
an equal amount of time at the end of the
concert that lasted less than (with intermission included) less than 2 hours,
then I have to ask is it really worth it.

Just another couple of comments, I don't
think the answer lies in TV programming. There are just too many competing channels and other distractions (e.g., Ovation Channel sometimes televizes concerts and, as often as not, interupts with commercials at the most inoportune times).
I thought one of the most compelling comments to this article was posted by
pancake about the Warsaw Chopin concert and the other by SR from Holland.

Posted by: barmark | June 7, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

To SR from Holland,

SR from Holland, why don’t you start to comment regularly here at “The Classical Beat” or see whether your newspaper or someone else in Holland will start a general interest classical music blog, which will be open for posting and discussion? It shouldn't be that difficult if you can find someone internet savvy and with some free time. Google will host your discussion center for free. (Or you can try to start a classical music discussion and listening club which meets before concerts.)

Have you seen Bob Shingleton’s “On an Overgrown Path” blog out of England, which is pretty lively and open to comments and which discusses classical music concerts, as well as recordings, world music, and pop and jazz? (Although I think he is on summer holiday now). Please also encourage other teenagers you know and who are interested in classical music to read and post here.

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 8, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

@elainefine Right on!

Posted by: briansacawa | June 8, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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