Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

Classical Music 2.0 is a 10-part blog series putting forward a possible vision for the future of the classical music industry – imagining a time where we might have larger audiences, more revenue, and play a bigger role in society. (Previously: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3)

In the last couple of parts of this series, I talked about the classical music ecosystem that used to exist. My hypothesis was that it is the crumbling of some of the lower layers – i.e. the diminishing of widespread classical music education, classical music in popular culture, and even light classical music – that has contributed to the decline of the top part of the classical music pyramid: live serious classical music.

Repertoire Familiarity & Ticket Sales
To go deeper into how this playing out currently, I want to talk about a concept that is deeply familiar to many in the industry – particularly if you work in the Artistic or Marketing departments of a classical music organisation – and yet I find rarely talked about in writings about the state of the industry. That concept is: the relationship between audience repertoire familiarity and the sale of tickets.

To explain: a typical symphony orchestra will put on something like 20+ performances a year. Those concerts will be bundled up, divided into groupings (the Master package, the Great Classics series, etc) and put on sale in a glossy season brochure. (Or a matte season brochure, if the marketing team decides to go a bit contemporary for a year or two.) The brochure, if it’s doing its job, will attempt to shine an even-handed spotlight on all the concerts, showcasing not just the big and popular, but the niche and interesting.

Then the orchestra has a big season launch, and tickets go on sale. For the first few weeks of sales, when there is a window for renewing subscribers to get tickets, things will be awesome: there will be a nice spread of tickets evenly across shows. Those people who have been going for 30 years or more and always have seats B12 and B13 on Thursday nights, fork over the big buckets, and those concerts fill up.

The Fickle CYO and Single Ticket Customers
But then things get interesting. Generally, the next lot of people to buy tickets are “choose your own” (CYO) subscribers. The trade-off for getting them to lock in a minimum of three or four concerts a year is that they get to pick whichever shows they want. All of a sudden, the nice even spread of customers in the concerts starts to shift. Some shows fill up really quickly. Other shows are barely touched by the CYO crowd. The data crunchers in the office can start to put together a table of “winners and losers” in terms of ticket sales. (Please note: this is nothing to do with artistic quality. A loser concert might be amazing. It’s just simply got less people in it.)

The third stage of selling tickets is the launch of single tickets. Now we throw open the box office to the general public and people who want to buy a ticket at full price for just one show. Nearly always, an interesting pattern will emerge for the year – regardless of how hard individual shows are promoted, tickets will flow in the same pattern as the CYO sales. In other words, the concerts that have proven mega-popular with CYO subscribers will be mega-popular with single tickets buyers. The shows that have the lowest number of subscribers will nearly always sell the lowest number of single tickets.

[There is one exception to this – some orchestras offer populist or family concerts to subscribers – e.g. a movie music concert or a family concert. These might sell only low numbers to the main subscribers who prefer core classical but then pack in a lot later with families or populist audiences. But in terms of regular classical concerts – the type that make up the bulk of a typical season – it will almost always be true that what attracts subscribers attracts single ticket buyers.]

Beethoven vs Bruckner vs Alwyn
So what is it about some classical concerts that makes them massively popular and others much less so? The answer is – in the vast majority of cases – the familiarity of the repertoire. In other words, if you play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – a classical work that is one of the most famous of all time – it will sell better than Bruckner’s 5th Symphony – a similarly great but much less well known work – and both of those will outsell a performance of William Alwyn’s Symphony No. 5. (In fact, no programmer would ever make Alwyn 5 the main work for that particular reason, but you get the idea.)

We can even be a bit scientific about this because in Australia our national classical music station ABC Classic conveniently polls its audience every year on its favourite piece of music in a particular category as part of its massively popular Classic 100 Countdowns. Approximately every 10 years, ABC has a simple repeat poll of “what is the music you can’t live without” and that list is the closest thing to a record of the favourite classical music of Australia. In all my years in the classical music business in Australia, there was almost no better predictor of the financial success of a concert than how high its repertoire ranked on that Classic 100 list.

[The only other exception I’ve ever seen to this is occasionally a classical music group will add some extra-musical element into the show, which allows the repertoire to be a bit more obscure. e.g. Australian Brandenburg Orchestra does an occasional concert with contemporary circus company Circa, where the orchestras can play almost anything. Similarly, Australian Chamber Orchestra has also had a successful run of nature documentaries with live orchestral accompaniment (narrated, however, by the very familiar voice of Willem Dafoe).]

Put simply, familiarity trumps almost everything at the classical music box office, followed occasionally by an easily – and I mean really easily – graspable concept.

Sweet Anticipation
The best technical definition of why familiarity has this power that I’ve ever come across is the work of Professor David Huron, in his magnificent book Sweet Anticipation. In it, he demonstrates from numerous various experiments performed on music listeners that essentially, our brains are trying to predict where music is “going” when we listen to it – if we can predict where the music is likely to go, then our brain rewards us with a pleasurable sensation. But if we can’t predict where it’s going, then our brain tends to give us an unpleasant sensation.

However, because most of us don’t know that this is the game our brains are playing, we tend to assume that the pleasant / unpleasant feeling is generated by the music. The result? Any music that is similar or identical to music we already know gives us pleasant vibes when we listen to it. Any music that is very different from what we’re used to tends to sound unpleasant to us – or we may simply “not like it”. And I know of very few audience members who are happy to shell over their hard-earned cash to pay for an experience that they do not think they will like.

This is where the impact of the pyramid comes in. Consider the presence of classical music if you grew up in the 1950s (which many of classical music’s current audience did!):

  • You were surrounded by the famous tunes of classical music in your cartoons, in your movies, and on the radio and TV all the time.
  • Your school taught you the famous classics of music like they would teach Shakespeare or any of the great works of literature.
  • You probably had music lessons which contained classical music.
  • And at that stage in history, that’s what people had been listening to for years, so it seemed like a good idea.

All these touch points, over and over again, would have primed your brain to be familiar at least with some of the “famous bits” of classical music and with that style of music in general. So if, by some chance, you ended up at a live orchestral concert, hearing that tune live would be like an explosion in your brain.

As you can imagine, for listeners just starting out, the thing that would be most familiar would be hearing a piece they already know played live. But after time, that might start to get too familiar, then they might want something similar but different. This natural seeking out of things that are similar but not exactly the same is what leads to people becoming deep classical music fans. And that is the process that has been so disrupted by the changes of the last 50 years.

In my next blog post, I’m going to answer a couple of possible objections to the familiarity theory and explain why the audience decline of the last few decades should best be understood as a crisis of familiarity. See you then.