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Whatever happened to Brahms? (Classical Music 2.0 – Part 6)

Johannes Brahms

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 | Part 5)

So we’ve been building the case that the audience and their familiarity (or otherwise) with classical repertoire is the primary driver of concert attendance (and thus revenue). I’ve suggested that what we have been seeing as an ageing audience crisis could also be seen as a crisis of familiarity. In short, that audiences have less of a knowledge of what used to be known as “the canon” – the great masterpieces that (at least supposedly) everybody knew.

The barometer of this (at least in Australia) is the ABC Classic Top 100 countdowns, and I mentioned in the last blog post that when ABC last polled people on their favourite piece (“the music you can’t live without“) Brahms didn’t make the top 100. This is one of those strange discrepancies between audience and musicians / conductors. Among the latter, Brahms is considered one of the greatest composers of all time. So why are audiences not on the same page? How did Brahms fall so far out of fashion?

Education as an aid to Processing Music

The mostly likely main culprit in Brahms’ decline in popularity is a lack of musical education. However, this lack is perhaps not for the reason most of the classical music industry thinks of. Often when the classical music world thinks of musical education (especially with classical music) the goal in the past has been to keep the “great works” of the past alive, or perhaps to generate an enthusiasm for classical music – music appreciation.

But one of the most important aspects of learning about classical music, particularly musical theory, is that it provides a guide for our brains in how to process the music. In Part 4 of this series, I mentioned the work of Professor David Huron and his work Sweet Anticipation, which details how we tend to experience music as pleasurable when our brains can anticipate where the music is going.

One of the things that I don’t think we’ve appreciated fully in the classical music world – even perhaps when we have been the beneficiaries of such knowledge ourselves – is that some of the basic points of music theory work to guide our listening. And not only that, but not having that knowledge makes it much harder for a listener to process the music.

Brahms Symphony No.3 – the Pre-Requisite Knowledge
Let’s take Brahms Symphony No. 3 for instance. I want you to consider the level of knowledge that the typical die-hard classical music fans would bring to bear to listen to a piece like this. For instance, if a person with some classical training found themselves at a concert with Brahms’ Third Symphony, even if they weren’t immediately familiar with the music and hadn’t listened to it before (or not for a long while), they would know to flick open the program booklet. In that booklet, they would find a program listing that contained something like this:

Johannes BRAHMS – Symphony No.3 in F major, op. 90 (1883)

I. Allegro con brio
II. Andante
III. Poco allegretto
IV. Allegro — Un poco sostenuto

35 minutes

I’m not sure what a newcomer would make of this listing, what with its Roman numerals and Italian language (for music written by a German?). But the classically trained person, almost without thinking about it, would pick up the following:

Level 1 Knowledge

  • That Brahms was a famous composer from the Romantic era. (They would pick that from the 1883 date.)
  • That this is a symphony, meaning a large-scale work for orchestra.
  • That Brahms wrote multiple of these symphonies and that this is his third one.
  • Despite this being only his third symphony, this is his opus 90, meaning the 90th work he had published. So we can already presume he wrote a ton of music before this, making this something he wrote later in this career when he had his style fairly styled.
  • The key is in F major, indicating that – at least for the opening – the mood will be in a more “happy” major key rather than a darker minor key. (Though a classically trained person will expect a lot of variance in mood for a Romantic piece.)
  • This symphony, like most symphonies, is broken into sections called “movements”, rather like courses in a meal.
  • There are four movements, indicated by the four subsections with Roman numerals.
  • The Italian wording refers to the speed of the movement. Allegro con brio means fast and lively, for instance. Andante means a more moderate speed.
  • That all four movements together will take about 35 minutes to get through.

Level 2 Knowledge

If they’re even more advanced with their musical theory, and have listened to a few symphonies, they might also know:

  • That symphonies from Haydn onwards (i.e. for most of the 18th century) usually had four movements – though this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
  • That the first and fourth movements of these traditional symphonies would usually be fast.
  • That the two middle movements would consist of a slow movement (to contrast with the opening and closing movements) and a lighter movement usually with a one-two-three beat known as a minuet or a scherzo.
  • From which the advanced listener could look at the Italian speeds above and deduce that Brahms’ symphony, even though written towards the end of the 19th century is, at least in form, following the basic pattern of many, many symphonies written before it.

Level 3 Knowledge

If they are really, really advanced in their musical knowledge (and I think most classical fans were up until the 21st century), they might also know that often the opening movement in a symphony (and some of the later ones) is written in a form called sonata form, which is a form where several themes are stated (in different keys) in an opening section called the “Exposition”, then the themes are mixed up and played around with in a section called the “Development” before the themes return in a section called the “Recapitulation”.

Now, you’re either reading this and thinking “Yeah, isn’t that obvious?” in which case, chances are you’re a part of the classical music business or a long-time audience member. If you had no idea that die-hard classical music fans bring this much knowledge to the listening experience, then congratulations, you’re probably an ordinary person who stumbled across some classical music and decided you loved it, even if you didn’t know all the stuff I’ve mentioned.

The Importance of a Listening Framework

Here’s the important thing – the points I’ve mentioned above aren’t necessarily terribly interesting, or of themselves necessarily going to make you like Brahms Symphony No.3 better than any other symphony. But they do give you a guide as to how to listen to the music. This knowledge, which as far as I know was well-known to most classical music audiences up until the mid-20th century, was the framework which guided people to be able to know how to listen to different pieces of classical music and how to anticipate what was likely to happen.

This does not make classical music a cold clinical thing, just because it utilised these sorts of frameworks. It was simply a way to create length. In the same way that the typical structure of a song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, etc) allows a songwriter to create a song that is 3-5 minutes long, the above structures of movements, sonata form, etc allowed composers to create works that run anywhere from 15 minutes to 100 minutes (!) without the audience getting lost. (Mostly. There are some long symphonies that do get a lot of people lost.)

Another analogy might be to say that the rules of a sport allow spectators to follow the action – they know roughly how long the game is, whether their team is winning or losing, whether a particular shot or goal was successful or not. Or consider film, where we have an instinctive knowledge that most films have a three-act structure with all the problems being worked out in the finale. These frameworks exist all the time in arts and sports (and many other areas of life) so that we can make sense of what we are processing.

Brahms to the Untrained Ear

So now I want you to consider a hypothetical situation: Let’s say a listener knows no classical music theory at all. They don’t even know what a “symphony” is. They encounter Brahms’ Third Symphony. How are their brains likely to process the work?

There may be better research out there that can shed more light on this, but I would say – based on Huron’s work and my own personal experience when I was younger and know a lot less musical theory – that the listener is likely to only be able to grasp onto simpler things:

  • How the music makes them feel
  • The melodies
  • The rhythms

Most music listeners with no knowledge can pick up on these elements. But the harmonies, the symmetrical structures, the journey that Brahms created, the cleverness of the way he creates something that sounds similar to the symphonies that have gone before and yet different, the difficulty and challenge for the musicians and the conductor – many of these will not be perceived. Now you might say, “But does this matter? What’s wrong with listening to Brahms for the tunes or the feel?” And this is a fair point, except that sometimes, for some composers, creating a catchy tune wasn’t the top priority for the piece. In many cases, symphonies can be far more about how themes are changed or developed over time and combined in different ways, than whether the themes themselves have a good hook.

Tune and Mood

In my years in the business, I have spoken to many, many audience members that I ended up sitting next to at concerts or met in the foyers or attended some of my pre-concert talks. And it has become apparent that the depth of knowledge that used to guide extensive and deep listening of classical music has started to dry up. As the music education part of the pyramid has dried up, people have started listening to classical music in simpler ways.

This, I believe, is the driving force behind the shape of the ABC Classic 100 and the connection between familiarity and sales in orchestras around the world. Left to their simpler listening devices of tune and mood, the pieces that are staying firm on the favourites lists are those pieces with either clear “hook” tunes that everyone knows (e.g. Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, Bolero, Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony) or pieces with a clearly defined mood / theme that is easy to grasp (e.g. The Four Seasons, The Planets). Pieces that require more knowledge of structure and form, with less easily memorable themes – like most things by our friend Brahms – are disappearing from the mental canon of our potential audiences.

And that mental canon is crucial for the financial future of our organisation. For the average ticket-buyer, if they see an ad for “Beethoven Symphony No. 5”, your success at selling the ticket will almost certainly depend on whether that person has a good idea in their head of what Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 sounds like already. (I would add that even for the so-called “commercial” concerts, this is important. It’s not just enough for an orchestra to create a concert of movie music or video game music. It must be movie music or video game music that, on the whole, is already familiar to the audiences.)

This type of idea does get raised in the halls of classical music organisations from time to time, but it’s not one that the industry likes to dwell on too much, because it seems to only lead to one conclusion: playing the same old Top 20 pieces that everyone likes to hear.

But I want to put forward a new framework: what if, by embracing this limitation of audience familiarity, we could chart the pathway back to larger, smarter, more diverse audiences? What if, simply by acknowledging that audiences today are not the same now as they were 50 years ago, we could see a way forward? This, to me, is what Classical Music 2.0 could look like.

More on this, in the next post.

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.

Classical Music 2.0 – Part 4: The tyranny of familiarity

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.

Classical Music 2.0 – Part 3: The music pyramid today

Photo by Arindam Mahanta 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)

In Part 2, I spoke about the ecosystem that included live classical music back in its glory days of the 60s and 70s. I likened it to a pyramid with live classical concerts at the top, but a whole raft of other layers that supported it.

The helpfulness of considering the industry like a pyramid is that if we look at the state of that pyramid today, we start to see what might be going wrong at the moment. I believe it also points forward to interesting opportunities. Here’s the situation as I see it today:

Starting at the bottom and working up:

  • Orchestral Music in Pop Music (almost entirely gone). By the time we reached the 80s, the sounds of orchestral instruments had started to disappear from pop music. Possibly it was budget-related – a producer and record label that decided to bring in a session orchestra would have to pay a fair few people to lay down tracks. Perhaps everyone was more excited by the prospect of what the new synthesizers and keyboards could do. Perhaps Gen X wanted to show they were different from their parents by showing a propensity for the more dissonant sounds of rock, with its heavy guitars and loudness. Whatever the reasons, orchestras stopped being used as part of pop songs. Fast forward to today, with the music business being even more competitive, if a bunch of musicians start a band, are they even going to consider using an orchestra? Where would they get one? Unless they happen to be friends with someone who can lend 50+ musicians for a week, most modern musicians will write for the instruments readily available to them: guitars, drums, keys, electronics.
  • Easy Listening Classical (some niches but disconnected from main industry). I didn’t completely cross through Easy-Listening Classical, because someone like André Rieu is still the exception to the rule. But in terms of music that is gaining listeners, there are very few breakthroughs to people who don’t listen to classical music already. An exception could be someone like Max Richter, who’s neo-classical style has gained a broader appearance. And I also argue that Víkingur Ólafsson, the Icelandic pianist, came to fame because many of his albums also double as Relaxing Piano Study Playlists. (But more on him in another post.)
  • Classical Music in Pop Culture (largely gone). This is unfortunate at a time when “needle drops” can be spectacular in their impact. When you consider the revival of “Running Up That Hill” from its use in Stranger Things or “Murder on the Dancefloor” in Saltburn, not to mention almost anything that appears in Bridgerton, we can see that a well-placed use of music can create a whole new audience for a song that might have been otherwise disappearing into obscurity. However, I feel this happens far less often with classical music nowadays.
  • Music Theory and History in Schools (simplified to Music in Schools). The last point about pop culture is possibly explained by the overall lower level of teaching Music Theory and History in schools. While learning about classical music in school is no guarantee that children will become fans later in life, nonetheless, if you wanted someone to learn the basic terminology of classical music (e.g. a symphony vs a concerto vs a sonata) or the basic core composers (Beethoven vs Mozart vs Brahms), where do you go? To put it more bluntly, there was a time when the existence of classical composers was as widely-known as we might know the Beatles or Elvis today. That is no longer a universal guarantee, particularly in Australia.
  • Classical Radio (looking promising and willing to innovate). At the top of the pyramid, classical radio still exists and I will say that ABC Classic (Australia’s national classical music broadcaster, for those overseas) in particular is doing the best it can to reach a broader audience and welcome the newcomer. However, radio is a good taster for classical music, but due to the nature of the medium, it doesn’t necessarily contain the same level of rigour without the educational component.
  • Populist Concerts (disconnected from the main artform). Finally, in terms of light concerts, even Populist concerts are a bit different than they used to be. 50 years ago, a populist concert would probably be mostly classical music, but simplified down into well-chosen excerpts and popular “lollipops”. These light classical concerts have gradually been replaced by what is known in the business as “commercial” concerts – so called because an orchestra or classical music organisation considers them mostly to be valuable for money-making, but less so for any artistic value. This is great if you like hearing your favourite pop star with an orchestral backing or you’re a fan of movie music, but with the loss of populist classical concerts, we do seem to have lost an arm of classical music that probably fed into the top category.
  • Classical Concerts (still strong but facing difficulties). The top category is still surprisingly strong relatively speaking, even though there are increasing concerns about audience sizes and how much growth is necessary for sustainability. It’s arguable that the performance standards – much like professional sports – are steadily climbing, with most state orchestras being able to pull off astonishingly top-notch performances most weeks of the year. However, ironically, many of the current audience that comes may not fully appreciate the quality of musicianship they are hearing, and may simply be there to hear their favourite tunes from over the decades. It is certainly fair to say that there can be a massive different in audience size between a concert that features a top 20 work and one that features something less well known. It’s also quite noticeable that even the definition of “well known” is variable. Go back 100 years and Brahms was considered one of the masters and his symphonies and concertos were on regular rotation. However, now, his music is drifting more into obscurity. (More on Brahms in another post as well.)

So on the whole, the industry’s currently shaky audience for classical concerts layer is arguably because classical music organisations are trying to get the same level of concert-going as they had in the 70s – but without being able to draw from a much broader base of people listening and learning about classical music and instruments from the layers below

Viewed at from this perspective, I think a new and exciting challenge opens up for the industry. During the last 20 years, there has been a great focus on how we can use audience growth initiatives (usually focused around sales and marketing) in order to break down barriers and reach new audiences. This type of promotion has had some great success – and is certainly met with less opposition than it was when I started in the business and there was a fear that too much audience-friendly marketing would dumb down “the brand”.

But I say, why stop at the marketing? If the core issue is a half-collapsed ecosystem, why not set to work rebuilding it? Why not rebuild all the levels, in order to have a thriving classical concert scene at the top?

Later in this series, I’ll talk about what this might possibly look like in the future and some of the obstacles that might exist to getting started. But for the next few posts, I want to take a deep dive down an issue that every classical music marketer and artistic programmer has encountered in their time, but is talked about surprisingly little: the tyranny of familiar music.

More soon.

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