The unsexy middle…

the-big-question-are-retiring-baby-boomers-about-to-crash-the-stock-marketAnyone who has visited this blog more than once will know that it doesn’t get updated all that much. It’s just as well then that this blog exists, as it manages to get me so irritated it encourages me to write.

My topic today does not address the blog specifically, although a later one will. Rather, I’d like to point out the middle ground. To summarise the linked article above – the author proposes that arts companies (orchestras and classical record labels in particular) spend too much time and money chasing young audiences who aren’t likely to attend rather than investing in their core audience.

Of course, it depends on your organisational priorities. But from a commercial point of view then I’d generally agree – it is harder to engage with young audiences than your core audience. But the tricky thing here is that core audience. For Orchestras your core audience is likely to be remarkably small. Indeed in an average classical concert in London its likely that over 60% of the audience will be coming on a one-off visit. UK orchestras have a very small subscription audience and reply hugely on people making one-off visits. So, no, it doesn’t make sense to concentrate all your marketing on that small core audience (this is not to say you shouldn’t give them some love, but you can also be fairly sure of them booking on the strength of the programme alone). However it does make sense to concentrate it on those ‘floating’ arts attenders who come but once a year, if that. The holy grail of course is to get them to come back just a little more frequently – but sadly the evidence is that, where classical music is concerned, many of them come once – but never again.

What of the unsexy middle of my title? Well, lots of talk surrounds audience age. The core audience is too old. We need a younger audience. And yeah, nothing wrong with that – but I think we forget the unsexy middle. Those aged maybe 40, 50, or 60 – often referred to as ‘baby boomers’ in the US. This generation by and large hasn’t grown up with (in this case) classical music in the same way that people a bit older did. And this is really the generation we need to go for. Targeting them isn’t sexy and wont win you audience development prizes, but they have the spare cash and the spare time and they’re by and large not spending it on classical music.

Question is…how do we get them? I don’t have all (perhaps any) of the answers, but it can’t just be about sending them a flyer. We have to communicate what we do differently, and perhaps maybe change some of what we do quite fundamentally (and no, that doesn’t mean performing Classical Spectacular every night).

So no, putting all your eggs in one basket and concentrating all resources on your most loyal audiences doesn’t make sense. If your artistic product is right, they will come. And experience shows that this segment of your audience is unlikely to grow much. Nor does it make sense to spend huge amounts on what often proves to be a fickle younger audience, if your aim is getting good return on investment. No, you should be cultivating and nurturing your one-off attenders, tempting them back just a *little* more often and thinking of ways to tempt in that cash and time rich middle aged generation.


Who’s the audience? What’s the selling point?


It’s one of the most basic parts of marketing, but one which classical music (especially) and the arts generally often gets woefully wrong. It’s that basic point – who are the people that you are marketing to – and what is the benefit of the product to them – what is the selling point?

Today this offer from Time Out plopped into my inbox – a special deal from the London Philharmonic.

So, take a step back. Who reads Time Out? It’s a bit of a stab in the dark, but I’d say culturally aware 20-50 somethings in London. They go to a lot of film, theatre and galleries but indulge in classical music only infrequently. Its a much more general market for an Orchestra than an email to its past attenders or an advert in a solely classical publication.

Ok, now look at the programme. What would be the selling point to this audience? It’s probably not Berg or Martinu, pretty niche composers. It’s probably not Bartok either. Oh, but hang on…it just might be. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste featured in the soundtrack to one of the most legendary films of all time, The Shining. This is GOLD DUST to a classical marketeer. It links your product, often hard to describe, to a massively famous film and gives the more general audience (i.e. the Time Out audience) an instant ‘hook’ and way in. This SO rarely happens in our field.

But does the concert get sold on this? No, the main copy leads with

“The London Philharmonic Orchestra is performing ‘Music from Dark Times’ as part of the festival based on Alex Ross’ book ‘The Rest is Noise – listening to the Twentieth Century.’ The LPO is the backbone of this journey through music of the 20th Century bringing its audience 30 plus concerts and unravelling the stories behind the music that has been part of our lives now for what seems forever.”

Music from dark times. Hmm, alluring. Music that clearly isn’t ‘part of our lives’ that much as most people haven’t heard of any of the composers on the bill. And who cares how many concerts there are in the series, why on earth is that a selling point?!

Yes. These are selling points to a section of your audience. Just not this one. A missed opportunity. And the kind of example of classical music missing a trick that makes me feel a bit like how Jack Nicholson looks.

Its not apologising. Its being open.

6929697914_0fd3bd4457_bA while back this blog got me a bit worked up. Not the bit about the BBC, as I didn’t see the programme. But this bit:

” The COO of Universal Music, Max Hole, recently gave a speech to the Association of British Orchestras in which he enumerated the many problems facing classical music today.  Orchestral musicians dress too formally.  Concert halls are overly forbidding to outsiders.  Audiences are constrained by a plethora of unspoken rules.  The words “elitism”, “etiquette” and “tradition” were deployed in a pejorative manner.

I believe such proclamations are counter-productive.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the only serious problem facing classical music today is that people keep saying there is a problem with classical music.  There just isn’t.  It’s a myth.  This is music that has survived for hundreds of years, through countless upheavals in popular taste, and which has found its audience – a niche audience, to be fair – for generation after generation after generation.  Its audience is not young, nor trendy, nor especially interested in the “shared experience” of a rock concert.  In short, it is an audience that loves classical music for what it is, not for what it’s not”

Reading the blog again in the calm light of day made me a bit less annoyed, but it did touch on a nerve that gets me very very agitated. The line we often hear that goes ‘Why should we change? If people don’t appreciate classical music that’s their problem’.

Well, here’s a few reasons why we should change. And be open. And be less formal…

Why should we change?

If Classical music made money, didn’t need state support or huge fundraising efforts then I’d be more tempted to say “fine – lets keep things just the way they are – it’s your business.” But, fact is, not enough people like classical music to make it commercially viable. So, if you’re going to accept public funds, you have a duty to appeal to as wide a public as possible. So that might entail some change, though to my mind, not enough so far. If you want to pay the true price of your seat, with no subsidy, then you can do just what you want. That’s called Gyndebourne, and you’ll be aware of just how expensive that route is.

There’s no problem with classical music

Erm, have you looked at the US lately? Orchestras are on strike / closing / in deep debt across the country. In the UK audiences outside of London (with a few notable exceptions) look like retirement homes. Even in London, where audiences are more mixed and large, we have to grapple with the staggering fact that most people who come once…never come back. I’d say there’s a problem.

Its audience is not young, nor trendy

This is largely true. And I should say first there is nothing wrong with being old and untrendy. But I’m kind of young. And maybe a bit trendy. And I like classical music. I’d quite like my young and possibly more trendy-than-me friends to like it too. What’s wrong with wanting classical music to be cool? Why does it have to be about plastic bags, smeary glasses and anoraks? I’d like my enthusiasm to be something other than the trainspotting of the music world.

Its audience is not…especially interested in the “shared experience” of a rock concert

Well that’s a shame because every time you sit in a hall with two thousand other people it is, like it or not, a shared experience. If you want to be in a bubble, with a perfect silence around you, absolutely no coughing, shuffling, clapping in the “wrong” place, or turning of programme pages I suggest you either a) sit at home with a CD or b) Hire an orchestra and a concert hall just for you. Alone.

Fact is, it IS a shared experience. Part of the thrill is seeing how the audience reacts. Ask many players and they’ll tell you that the vibe of the audience affects the performance. I love hearing the roar of a crowd after a great concert. And yes there will be distractions. Deal with it.

Orchestral musicians dress too formally.  Concert halls are overly forbidding to outsiders. Audiences are constrained by a plethora of unspoken rules.

How ridiculous! Its obvious how to behave, why would anyone be put off by that? Concert halls are fine as they are. And we’ve been wearing that garb for centuries, what’s wrong with it?

These are the perspectives of the regular audience. They have no clue how alien much of this is to 99% of the population. Just put yourself in a weird situation, where you don’t know how to behave. For me this is on the rare occasion I go to church. I’m never quite sure what to do when, when to stand, kneel, pray, whatever. As a consequence I spend the whole time feeling mildly uncomfortable. This is exactly what many people feel like when they come to a concert hall. If you want to widen your appeal the you have to understand what the experience might feel like for your prospective audience member. Feeling mildly uncomfortable is not an experience many people actively want.

It’s not about excuses

For me, attempts to make classical music more accessible for more people are not about making excuses. They’re about trying to widen the appeal of an artform I love. The music, let us accept, is not the problem. I’m convinced of that. It’s everything around it, the leaden weight of unwritten rules, the formality, an almost perverse will not to allow enjoyment to seep through any part of our body (I have been glared at before for a tapping foot), and a culture of risk avoidance on the part of the musical establishment. Let us embrace risk, change and diversity – it is only this way that our industry will survive.


Having two platforms to update just ins’t enough these days, so we’ve added a third – the lovely cuddly Facebook. Probably just another way to keep up with those amazingly regular posts on this blog, though we may also put up the odd small thing from time to time that doesn’t merit a full blog post. Anyway, here’s the link, so get ‘liking’.

We demand to be entertained.

At a performance last night the conductor stopped the show, turned around to the audience and said that he needed absolute quiet to continue.

As my friend noted: “If you want us to be quiet and stop chattering, you better entertain us then”


That classical music bubble. Again.

Sorry. I’ve written about this before. Here. and here.

But three things that happened recently just served to underline how much of an issue it is. ‘It’ in case you can’t be bothered to read the link above is this thing where artists that are big in the classical music world are nothing outside it. Nothing really wrong with that, but classical music trades on ‘star’ artists a lot in its advertising.

Three in incidents. Each time with friends or colleagues who are moderate to infrequent classical attenders. All three go to at least a concert or two a year though. They’re exactly the kind of people orchestras are desperate to tempt back, and to increase their frequency of visit.

I mention Sir Simon Rattle’s Proms to a friend. He says ‘sounds familiar, feels like I should have heard of him’…

LSO Brochure lying in office. Valery Gergiev on the cover. Colleague looks at it, snorts and says ‘well he’s not exactly going to make you want to go is he?’. It becomes clear they have no idea who he is.

Friend is around at mine. Barbican brochure with Bernard Haitink on the cover. Friend asks who the ‘old guy’ on the cover is.

So…as i’ve said before, my point is this…these images only communicate to very knowledgeable classical attenders who attend a lot. BUT these attenders typically only make up a small part of the audience. So why Gergiev and Haitink might be appealing as images to, say 20% of the audience who see your brochure, they look unappealing / sweaty / old (delete as appropriate) to everyone else. Given this, and that your regulars will make their minds up on the programme details, why not actually find some attractive and appealing imagery for your classical brochure?

But orchestras wont. Because they like to play safe. But as I’ll explore in my next post, safe isn’t safe.

Marketing you can’t believe in

I always think that one of the most important things with effective marketing is that it’s sincere. So I often struggle with those letters you get with brochures. Apart from the fact that they’re mostly dull as dishwater (this season we welcome the exciting Argentinian conductor Bob Woolpack who conducts Stravinsky’s neoclassical…*YAWN*), often you really can’t believe they’re from the person who has purported to write them.

So, I get this letter about the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican. It’s from Angela Dixon, Head of Music at the Barbican. I kinda find it hard to believe she has taken time out of her schedule to write a direct mail letter. It’s all pretty dull stuff not telling me anything that’s not in the brochure. But then there’s a curious thing. Shortly after Angela has kindly told me about the multi buy discount she quotes someone. Herself.

“Britten Sinfonia stands for excellence and diversity blah blah…” Angela Dixon, Head of Music, Barbican.

This not only reads very strangely, but it also makes me a bit angry. It treats the reader with contempt. It’s clear this letter hasn’t been written by her. It’s clear no one has taken any care over it, or even proof read it properly. It’s just been dashed off. Sloppy marketing, no excuses. And insincere.