Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

More Thoughts on Familiarity (Part 5 of Classical Music 2.0)

Photo by Alev Takil 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 | Part 4)

In Part 4, I talked about the concept of familiarity and how it is nearly always the biggest driver of revenue for classical music companies. In my time, I have encountered, if not scepticism, at least some questions about this idea, so I wanted to pause to answer a couple of potential objections before we continue.

Objection 1. What about all the contemporary music groups that exist in classical music? They’re often performing new music and they often attract different audiences that are seeking something new. Doesn’t this disprove the familiarity theory?

Yes, it is true that there do exist many high-quality ensembles that predominantly perform contemporary music and can often have loyal audiences. However, in my experience, the audiences for these types of ensembles are nearly always 1) much smaller than the audience for, say, a symphony orchestra and/or 2) often cross over with audiences that go to the symphony.

In other words, the audience is much more likely to be a sophisticated audience that has spent many years listening to popular classical music and are now looking for something new and exciting. So for them a contemporary ensemble helps them listen to music similar to a genre they already like, but different because it is new (so I would argue the familiarity rule still holds).

Don’t get me wrong, there will always be exceptions to the rules, and if anyone reading this works for or is in an ensemble that is attracting large numbers of brand new audiences that have never listened to classical music, I’d love to hear from you. But in my Australian experience, I’ve never seen a niche contemporary group that doesn’t either have a small niche audience or simply a subset of the larger classical audience. I have seen no evidence that being niche will yield large swathes of new audiences (yet).

Objection 2. If we use audience-centric marketing that talks about the experience and highlights the benefit of going to concerts, won’t that be able to persuade people to try repertoire they haven’t tried before?

The last decade has been fantastic for moving marketing from being very much centred around repertoire and musicians and towards being more “audience-centric” and we’ve seen great advocates of this approach from Aubrey Bergauer, Ruth Hartt and David Taylor amongst others having many great things to say in this space.

In my years as a Director of Marketing with Queensland Symphony Orchestra, I encouraged my team to implement as many of these types of strategies as we could get away with. And definitely, it lifted the overall waters, which raised the average number of audiences in all concerts, so this type of marketing should be considered the bare minimum that a classical music company should do to attract new audiences. But I never saw a magic bullet of marketing which could suddenly get large numbers of brand new audiences to prefer Bruckner over Beethoven. Once users were on the website and had to pick a concert, familiarity was still king at the box office.

[I could maybe make one exception for concerts with an easily graspable concept, such as when we called a performance of Scheherazade “Arabian Nights”, which sold well. However this can’t always be easily done. I challenge anyone to turn a performance of, say, a Mozart Piano Concerto and a Brahms Symphony into an easy-to-grasp concept that doesn’t revolve around mentioning the composers. Having said that, the Danish consulting company Rasmussen Nordic have put together a phenomenal toolkit for orchestras and ensembles to Get More Audiences and they dive a lot into the idea of concert concepts and how to think about the whole experience.]

A Crisis of Repertoire Familiarity

Even if contemporary ensembles and audience-friendly marketing do turn out to be the magic bullet, I would like to propose that the “ageing audience problem” be re-thought as “a crisis of repertoire familiarity”. (The more accurately we describe the problem, the better we can find solutions for it.)

In other words, on the whole, the typical person born in the 1940s in a Western country was much more likely to develop an “internal classical canon” whereby they were familiar with a certain number of key classical composers and their compositions – and enjoyed listening to them. But fast forward to today and that internal canon, on average, seems to be a lot smaller.

Due to the crumbling of the music pyramid already described – which most likely started in the 1960s as Baby Boomers turned their backs on the music that their parents’ generation had happily listened to for the previous 100 years – over time, the collective internal canon shrunk in two ways: 1) Less people now have an internal classical canon at all and 2) of those people that do – the ones that predominantly make up classical audiences today – their internal list is a lot shorter than their grandparents’ generation.

More rigorous research could be done by academics on this point – or if any research has already been done, I’d love to know about it – but an approximation of this can be estimated (at least in an Australian context) by looking at the ABC Classic 100 countdowns.

In the last post, I mentioned these ABC Radio Countdowns and their freakish predictive ability. But I find the list itself fascinating – and slightly disturbing – just looking at who doesn’t make the cut. One hundred pieces seems like a lot, but last time the list was ranked, there were none of the three Big S composers on the list beloved by orchestras and conductors – Stravinsky, Shostakovich (except The Gadfly) and Strauss (Richard, of course).

Coming Up Next: Whatever Happened to Brahms?
But the one that really haunts me is Brahms. When I was a boy I learned about most of the famous composers from my Dad (who was perhaps unusual as a Baby Boomer in being into classical music), and as an amateur pianist, he loved the music of Brahms. And amongst musicians and conductors, it is still undisputed that Brahms is one of the great composers of all time. Also, unlike Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Richard Strauss, who can be either too modernist or long for conservative audiences, that has never been the case with Brahms’ music.

And yet, no one voted a single Brahms piece at all onto the last Classic 100 countdown in Australia of “the one piece you can’t live without”. So in my next post, I’ll do a deep dive into Brahms and why he is disappearing from the classical music scene, because I think he is a great example of what might have changed with our audiences.

See you then.


  1. Brian Oxley

    I really appreciate the series of posts.

    I was a composition student in the 80s, and under pressure from professors to write music I considered unlistenable. The trends and state of current classical music that you discuss is close to my own observations.

    With the depth and popularity of classical music in East Asian countries, I am looking forward to a renaissance over the coming decades, and possibly hybridization of classical and swing and jazz forms. Greater sophistication of percussion and rhythms, a hallmark of the last century of popular music, would not be a surprise if classical music had an upsweep in general popularity.

    • Matthew Hodge

      Hi Brian, good to hear from you! Definitely, I think the subtle pressure to compose music that might have been academically interesting (but didn’t capture an audience) didn’t help sustain the classical music business. Definitely, we’re starting to see that Renaissance occur. I’ll blog about him in a couple of weeks, but Christopher Tin is an interesting example of this – went from being a video game composer (completely overlooked by the classical world) and just this year was asked to finish off Turandot. I think his sound will be the way of the future. Perhaps not as complex as prior decades of classical music, but getting close to the exhilaration of so much music of the 19th.

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