Concert attendance, rituals, and all the wrong questions

Something has been bugging me the past few months. People in the "Classical Music Crisis" camp often make a big deal out of the unique nature of what's happening in classical music. What comes out of these problems are answers that are also unique--unique in that they seek to change the artform itself, rather than to address problems in marketing, image, and pricing. In the past, there was much talk over ticket pricing, but that has since died down with a focus instead on kitsch, on creating some sort of buzz by putting in some new product, designed by the masses, for mass consumption, including the experience, rather than focusing on the product (and the evolution of that product naturally, which, btw, includes lots of influences) and finding ways to market more effectively, change the preconceived images, and bring more people into the fold.

There's a focus on the idea of barriers to entry. Particularly, there's a take by Pierre Bourdieu which has to do with the barriers caused by differences in customs, rituals, mannerisms, etc. by different groups of people. There was a blog post in January about the largest barrier this person felt wasn't the ritual aspect, but the specific knowledge of the music that was the problem. It's not knowledge of the ritual itself that is the issue, but the shared vocabulary to discuss the art afterwards. The author cites that talking about art is an important part of the experience, and that is a portion missing. I've blogged about the educational issue before.

If there is an issue with the preconceived idea that specialized knowledge is needed to enjoy a classical concert, then how do we alleviate this issue? We can bolster education through outreach programs, and we can actively work to change the image that specialized knowledge is needed. One of the things I try to work as a musician is how to explain music without needing technical terms. As a composer, every conversation I have with a new acquaintance has the question "What kind of music do you write?" How do I explain this?

During my comprehensive exam, I had to answer area questions submitted by faculty members on my panel. Three of the questions revolved around "elevator pitches," or discusses my music and what I do with different types of individuals. One was "You have five minutes to explain your music to a total stranger with little background in music." Another was "you have ten minutes to explain your music to another musician you've met an a conference." These are two wildly different approaches.

One can easily talk about music without getting into technical terms. I asked the question on Facebook about "what makes music relevant (or irrelevant)?" and in the long string, specialized knowledge was brought into the discussion. If you don't have the knowledge base required, the music becomes irrelevant.

But this leads to a few philosophical questions. First off, it starts down a path of there being a single meaning behind a musical piece. Second, it pushes a sort of agenda--depending on what information is given, different interpretations are achieved. Third, it discounts different styles of listening--formal vs. mimetic listening for one dichotomy.

I've seen the transformation first hand when this barrier is removed for students. In my teaching of music appreciation courses, I always seek to find ways for students to engage with the music, so I try different methods. Sometimes these are formal--I give students an understanding of the form and structure, point things out in a specific music example, then challenge them to listen for similarities in other pieces. This can work. Other times I've had students focus on historical or interpretive aspects. This works especially well with opera. Regularly, I start to see students come around not just to appreciating the music, but to start to understand all that ways that one can appreciate music.

If there's one piece of knowledge that can remove the barrier around needing specific knowledge, it's the knowledge that you don't need any one particular piece of knowledge, but can approach the music personally.

The next bit that confuses me regards marketing issues. I have lots of friends that play in bands of various sizes. Some go on tour with major groups, some flit from band to band, able to keep playing even as one band succumbs to the harsh reality that is the music business. They range in genre from brass players that have played with John Legend to heavy metal bands to jazz trios and any other group you can imagine.

When there's bad turn-out at a show, do you know what they blame first?


They didn't talk to enough people. They didn't get word out to enough of their friends, who didn't get word out to enough of their friends. The marketing group did a terrible job prepping the major tour and there were no adverts on the radio or TV. They only made a dozen posters and must have chosen bad places. Sometimes it gets into bits about a venue not being where people that like that music usually go (hey, surprise, venues cater to specific forms of music), or some other external force comes into light (shit, we booked against eighth blackbird... yeah, that happened. 15 people showed up).

What do we hear in classical music?

The music doesn't reach people. It's irrelevant. The culture of the concert hall is to blame. People feel uncomfortable getting dressed up. I've blogged before about how odd this idea is. I've made comparisons between new music concerts and death metal concerts. Talking to a friend tonight over some great Mexican street food (IN STOCKHOLM!), I came to the realization that, really, only classical musicians talk about music this way (and jazz musicians, which I think is just a symptom of being put into academia). If a death metal concert is not attended well, it's not because death metal is dead. When Kanye West only sold 4,500 tickets at the 18,500 seat Sprint Center in Kansas City, the local critic didn't say that West's music obviously lacked popular appeal and had no connection with the audience. Instead, he linked meager attendance to the various scandals surrounding West at the time. Maybe considering the album the tour featured, Yeezus, only made it up to #37 in the Billboard top 200 for the year, West's popularity could be falling.

But is it the music's popularity or West's?

Furthermore, attendance at all live events has been dropping. Live Nation has been facing financial issues because of declining ticket sales. There have been increases lately in ticket sales, though Live Nation is still having some financial issues. Overall concert attendance is down even though awareness is up. And, boy, if you want to start talking about a company that does a terrible job, and yet still exists, just look at Live Nation. But this isn't about Live Nation bashing, it's about continued decline in live music attendance.

If there's a problem in marketing with classical music, the problem lays with classical musicians. We're not doing our job well enough of reaching people. How many symphony musicians actively get their students to come to the symphony? When I studied with a principal player, he rarely mentioned the concerts. When I lived in Kansas City, I hardly heard a peep about what was happening with the KC Symphony, beyond the occasional "free tickets!" email sent to the conservatory. I didn't realize the KC Lyric was doing Nixon in China until it was sold out. It is, in part, my own fault. As a classical musician, perhaps I should be more "tuned in," and should be checking the arts calendars more often, and have the local symphonies webpages bookmarked and do the work myself. Perhaps I should sign up for the emailing lists...

But then again, that's a form of marketing that's very inactive, isn't it? It relies on the person you're trying to reach to go out of his/her way to find you. Then, once they've found you, you're in.

Take this against several of my friends in the jazz and pop world. Of course there's active use of Facebook, but it's important to remember the limited reach of Facebook--in the end, you're reaching your friends and followers. It's a bit more active, because you can initiate the contact, inviting people to like a page, or asking for a friend invite. I have to say the old system based on friending people with organizations was much better than inviting to pages. And, of course, they're posts only reach 16% of the people, on average. This means that while the bands my friends perform in do post their events, they also cross posted, repeatedly, with each member promoting as well. Some use twitter, and go out of their way to follow and gain followers. One friend in particularly still uses the old mass email.

I always know what my friends are doing. Even if I'm not paying attention, I can easily find out. They often reach out to me. I'm not saying social media and marketing is the way to go. Honestly, I don't think the reach is there for most businesses for it to be highly effective. But it's the active portion of it.

We also have to accept the reality of today's society. There's an ever growing portion of people that watch shows online instead of using TV. In fact, there's a growing number of people without TVs in their homes, with alternate devices taking over. About a third of the savior demographic utilizes the internet more for their viewing pleasure. On top of that, there's a large group that use ad blocking software. The privacy wars are raging, and it's causing a drop in ad space. While this can be good for symphonies and groups selling advertising (you can't block an ad in a live event), it can affect how a symphony markets itself. Paying for an ad on Facebook won't reach those tech savvy millenials you're after. Neither will playing on local TV.

I do not have an answer to the marketing issue...yet. But I'm working on some ideas that I think are perfectly in line with modern content and advertising ideas.

So, looking at this, what ideas really pop into your head? What ways are popular groups making a living these days? How are they advertising? Are they sacrificing their artistic ideas for the sake of more sales? The idea of the sell-out is of course omnipresent, as are the pop acts that are created by execs rather than by artistry. Should classical music change everything about itself to fit the idea of some mythical group?

Or should we find ways to reach people? Find ways so that people aren't angered by ticket prices. Address barriers to entry not from a "how do we change ourselves," thus leaving the barriers in place, just picking up and moving elsewhere (where there will be a new set of boundaries), or do we find ways to permanently remove barriers?

And if there are new modes to make money, how do we do them? I have quite a few ideas, and some have generated a fair bit of buzz in my secret meetings (look, I can do it too!). Look out in the future for any posts about upcoming projects, where some of these ideas come to fruition. 

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