Friday, 18 December 2015

Lessons to learn

In my last posts — here and here — I've been hitting on weaknesses in some National Symphony programs, aimed at reaching a new young audience.

Enough of that. Here's something more important, larger points about what big classical music institutions need to do, to get that audience.


They need a strategy. Complete with clear goals. Too often there really isn't any plan. Just do events. And then be happy if they attract a lot of new people. And then maybe say, "Let's do more of this," or "Now let's get these people to come to our core performances."

system failure blogThe first of these tentative goals is vague. The second is crystal clear, but impossible. The new audience isn't coming to old-style events. Not in numbers large enough to keep things going. The world has changed. People have changed. We have to do something new.

So, strategy in the short run. Yes, keep doing events (and other things, like special promotions) that bring the new audinece in. But not just once in a while. Steadily. Once a month. Once every two weeks.

And do it for years. That's the only way you're going to succeed.

And make the events coherent, like each other, consistent, so you can brand them. So that someone who comes to one will want to come to the others. And, once there, will have a great time, be thrilled to return. And, most crucially, will tell others to come.

All of which takes careful planning, lots of imagination, and, maybe most of all, a solid understanding of who your new audience is, what they already like, what culture they're part of.

Often enough, the people running the institution won't have this understanding. So they'd better recruit people who do. Just as, in the 1960s and then again late in the '80s, the pop record industry realized it didn't the new music people were listening to, and hired new staff.

In the longer run

One problem big institutions have, with this, is that they don't have the resources. A symphony orchestra already is just about tapped out, in money and staff time, putting on its standard concerts. So the new events don't get attention enough.

There's no easy answer for that. The money and staff aren't there? But they have to be! We're talking about survival, about making sure the institution has a future. How can you skimp on that? Somehow the resources will have to be found.

And then there's the long run. Let's face a painful truth. The old audience is going away. It won't be replaced. I've already said this:

The new audience isn't coming to old-style events. Not in numbers large enough to keep things going. The world has changed. People have changed. We have to do something new.

So we have to be planning that something new, right from the start. We don't just want to plan new-style events, coexisting with what we've been doing for years. We have to look to the future when all the events will be new-style. We have to plan for this now. The new-style events we do now aren't just something nice, something we do on the side. They're our path to the future.

So we should think of them, right from the start, as potential replacements for all our standard events. We don't yet know what a totally new-style season would look like. But we have to evolve one. And start that now.

Meaning, among other things, that we can't just do repertoire specifically aimed at what we think we know about our new audience now. If we want the standard classical works to be done in the future, we'll have to start figuring out how they'll be done. How they'll be played, how they'll be presented. This is a long discussion, but I think our playing style is much too blah — high-level blah, but still blah. We need to be vivid, exciting, just as the masterworks themselves are.

And we need to present them differently, with more style and less formality. I think we all know this. But what are we doing about it, not just in special events, but for every concert that we give? If our normal concerts changed, then it wouldn't be crazy to think we could cross our new audience over to them.

But what should the changes be? We'll have to think hard.

Quality! Focus groups!

In conclusion, two crucial points.

First, quality. Often new-style events don't get careful planning. Or don't get good planning. The National Symphony's problems, with the Ben Folds event I talked about in my last two posts, are cautions for all of us. Weak conducting! No web page for the new-style concert series!

And then things I didn't mention. A blank page in the program book for the concert I went to, showing only the logo for the new-style series the concert was part of. When other pages had full program listings. That was crazy. It baffled me. I kept looking through the program book, wondering where I'd find out what I was about to hear.

Plus, at the performance, incoherent video, meaning that sometimes the conductor spoke on video and sometimes live, with no clear reason why she was sometimes live and sometimes filmed. Gotta fix that! Our new audience is media-savvy, maybe far more than we are. So we have to meet them where they are, and do things at the level of everything else they see, for instance every time they watch TV. We don't want to look like amateurs. Like people who don't know what we're doing.

And finally…audience feedback! We have to know whether what we do works. We have to know what our new audience thinks. How do we do that? Surveys, discussions online (which we have to create), and focus groups.

I'll finish with this. We don't do the things I've just named nearly enough. Before the concert I've posted about, that came up in a conversation. A group of us, all more or less insiders in the biz, were talking. About one issue that came up, I asked if anyone knew what the audience thought. Could there be focus groups?

Oh, no, someone said, repeating a thought taken almost for granted throughout the classical music biz. We can't do focus groups. Big corporations do them, but we can't afford to.

And I'm sure there's truth to that — if you leave your imagination home, along with your sense of urgency.

Let's start with the urgency. These new events aren't casual. I've said this already. They aren't extras, nice additions to standard stuff, things we do on the side.

No, they're our road to survival. So we can't skimp. We can't take them casually. We can't say — about anything: performance quality, branding, audience feedback — that there are things we just can't do. We can't, if, let's say, we're an orchestra, make sure we have the best extra trumpets we can get, if we program the Janacek Sinfonietta (which needs a horde of trumpets), and then do weak planning for our new-audience things.

We've got to be just as strong for our new audience as we are for everything else.

A good idea

And so, for audience feedback, one of the people in our discussion suggested something in a comment she made to a Facebook post of mine. If you can't afford a professional to plan and run focus groups, get business students:

…I wish there [were] actual focus groups and interviews of the audience conducted before and after the performance. We have several business schools in town, including GT [Georgetown] University and AU [American University], whose students, I have no doubt, would love to do things like that and lots more as course projects if anyone from the KC [Kennedy Center] would care to approach marketing professors at the business schools. I did things like that when I was doing my MBA and I doubt things changed since then. These are young bright people who have lots of ideas and who could really contribute. I am also sure there is a good number of them who actually love classical music or took music lessons in their childhood. There is an immense pool of talent in this town, but people at the KC are either unimaginative or lazy to tap into it.

Maybe that last sentence is harsh, but I've heard, over and over again, that X, Y, and Z can't be done because we don't have the money. Even if X, y, and Z are crucial.

So here's a suggestion for how to do focus groups. We need more thinking like that. We can't keep saying, "No, we can't do that." We have to say, "Yes, we have do that — and we'll find a way."

Original Content: Lessons to learn

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