Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

People Who Don’t Like Classical Music

(Part 2 of A Wild Theory About the Future of Classical Music)

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So in my last post I touched on the fact that the audience for classical music is getting older and we need new people to replace them. The question is: How do we do that? How do we grow our audiences?

Now, the job of audience growth will look different for every organisation, so at best anything I say will be a generalisation. But from looking at the literature and attending conferences, it seems like the strategy that many classical music organisations are taking, whether consciously or not, is to find more people that like classical music and get them along to concerts.

People Who Like Classical Music

This is a great strategy – if there is a steady stream of people out there who like classical music. But if, in fact, the underlying market conditions are shifting – if there are overall less people in society who like classical music – then basing all or even most of our operations around performing and marketing to these people is going to cause problems. Essentially, we’ll hit a point where each year it gets increasingly costly to acquire and retain the same amount of people. With a smaller and/or shrinking pool of classical music fans out there, we will have to spend more to reach further and dig deeper into that pool.

So what do you do about that situation? The way I like to think about it is to start with a question. What if we went to people who don’t like classical music and tried to persuade them to come to concerts?

People Who Don’t Like Classical Music

I’ve deliberately phrased this in an over-simplified manner to provoke some thought. At first glance, what I’m suggesting is utterly ridiculous. If people don’t like classical music, why would we waste money and effort trying to make them come along? They don’t like the stuff, right?

And that’s correct. In some ways. I’m not suggesting that any classical music organisation abandon its strategy of chasing classical music fans. That would be marketing suicide.

But, as a thought experiment, let’s pretend we were going to chase people who didn’t like our music. What would that look like?

It seems to me that you would end up having to ask two massive sub-questions:

  • Why don’t some people like classical music?
  • Can you make someone like a particular type of music?

The Brick Wall of ‘Liking’

Both those questions contain the word ‘like’, which is somewhat of a curly word. In this Facebook-dominated society, a Like is more of a dichotomy: you either Liked or Didn’t Like something. The reality is, of course, that Liking (at least for music) is more of a scale with 1 being ‘Hate Intensely’ and 10 being ‘Favourite Music In The World’. So it would be perhaps more accurate to say that it’s not so much about people Liking or Not Liking classical music, so much as people Not Liking It Enough to go to live performances of it.

But nonetheless, this concept of Liking – whether it’s a scale or a dichotomy – fundamentally underpins the success of all our efforts. Many classical music organisations have surveyed their customers over the years and almost without fail, the #1 reason for customers’ repeated attendance at concerts is: hearing music that they like. If they don’t like the music, or don’t like it ‘that much’, then they’re not going to come along too oftenin the future.

We in the industry haven’t always given a great deal of thought to how powerful this concept is. But ‘Liking’ is the brick wall constraint that your organisation faces. The amount of success or otherwise that any of us will have in presenting classical music in society is directly proportional to the amount of Liking that is out there for what we have to offer.

In the past, nobody had to worry much about why people Liked classical music or how to make people Like classical music. They just Liked it. All we had to do was perform it at a level of excellence and keep up the variety and they were there. In fact, up until the 80s, they couldn’t get enough of it. Liking was working in our favour. But now it’s become a major hurdle.

So, in my next post, I’ll dig further into the concept of Liking: Why do people like certain types of music? And if we knew that, is Liking something we can influence?


  1. Rebecca

    Nice post, Matt. I am slightly challenged by what you think motivates people. I don’t think that many people would actually say that they don’t like classical music. It seems to me that most people are open to actually listening to it on the radio or if they stumble across it in, say, movie soundtracks or taxis.

    The greater challenge is about the experience and self-actualisation – will the hall be filled with their kind of people? If I go to a rock concert, particularly something like say PJ Harvey or Nick Cave, I know that the audience will be people like me, and I will be comforted by all these old cool people who can still rock it out. I love the experience, I sing along, I will be feeling generally awesome by the end and my self-image will be reinforced. What kind of experience does classical music offer me? Will I feel cool and will the money be worth it? What feeling will I be left with – is it the same exhilaration as a PJ Harvey gig?

    Second challenge is the perception of elitism. I genuinely think classical music suffers because it is seen as music for a snootier richer crowd and people don’t feel they fit. While people don’t say “I don’t like classical music”, they will say “I’m not that posh” or “it’s not for me” – which I think are very different sentiments. It’s about belonging and identity, again.

    I think this is what classical music is up against. It’s not dislike, it’s disaffinity.

    • Matthew Hodge

      Great comment, Rebecca! It’s almost as if you’ve read my mind…. I’ll be going into this very topic shortly.

      One of the tricky things with talking about the audience issues today is terminology. I use the word ‘liking’ because I like the fact that it’s a bit jolting. (‘What? They don’t like my music?’ )

      But the reality is that there are all sorts of underlying causes that influence why people are drawn to particular music and others are not. And absolutely one of the most important is that issue of affinity (I usually refer to it as Personal Connection). I think one of the chief factors that influences our appreciation of a particular type of music is how we answer these questions: Is this music for someone like me? What do I get out of listening to it?

      Some people, like yourself, are aware enough to see straight away that affinity plays a part. Others are less aware and describe it more as just not liking certain types of music. So, for instance, a classical music fan may say they ‘don’t like’ pop music. But is it the music or the type of people that listen to pop music? Are they making a subconscious calculation about who listens to that sort of music and deciding that it’s not for them?

      So I tend to have a broad category that is ‘Don’t Like’ – which might not mean that you hate classical music, it just might mean that you’re not drawn enough to it to become a raving fan. And then I break down the ‘Don’t Like’ into various other parts like Not Liking The People That Like This Music (e.g. ‘That music is for X type of people and that’s not me.’) or Not Liking The Music Itself (e.g. ‘It sounds too slow and boring.’)

      But you could totally argue the case for splitting disaffinity off into its own problem, and I certainly intend to devote a blog post or two to the issue as we go along.

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