What We Can Learn From “Orchestra X” About Engaging New Concertgoers

Today’s blog post is written by Ellen Hindson, Education Specialist, PatronManager.

“Is Classical Music Dying?”

Classical Music in America is Dead”

“Saving Classical Music”

Above: Actual headlines from the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate.

It’s likely you’ve heard the dialogue surrounding classical music over the last few years, largely centered rather dramatically on whether or not classical music is dying, or already dead. Amid concerns that classical music audiences are simultaneously “shrinking [in numbers] and aging” (literally dying away), many institutions have made wild assumptions about what newer and younger concertgoers in their 20s and 30s really want, often without consulting them.

One orchestra, however, has taken a different approach and the rest of the classical world could benefit hugely from following their lead. In 2016, the California Symphony sought out a group of Millennials and Gen Xers who didn’t know a lot (or anything) about orchestras, to attend a few concerts (at the nominal price tag of $5 per ticket), use their website, and join their email list. Then they held an event at a local brewery where they facilitated a discussion over pizza and beer to hear the participants’ comments and critiques about their experiences. Taking inspiration from Google’s research and development project Google X, they called this project “Orchestra X,” and committed to changing their business practices according to the feedback they received.

“Spoiler alert: the music is not the problem,” said Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director and catalyst for change at the California Symphony, outlining a major finding from the data gathered. “Almost every single piece of negative feedback was about something other than the performance.” The Millennials and Gen Xers in this study had an amazing time listening to the music, saying things like this about the actual performances they attended:

  • “The music was GREAT.”
  • “It was so impressive to see it in person. The musicians are so good.”
  • “It was weirdly cool to not have to focus on other things.”

Many participants said they felt “complete awe.” You can read all about the initial “Orchestra X” findings here.

This aligns exactly with an experience I had recently while freelancing with a professional orchestra (#nerdalert, I’m a classically trained oboist). My hosts for the week were Becca and Alec, a scientist and a tech entrepreneur, respectively, both in their 30s. Neither had much experience listening to classical music or attending classical concerts, but they happened to be free on a night I was offered last-minute comp tickets for my show, and they jumped at the opportunity to see a performance.

As I was packing up my oboe post-concert and preparing to meet them in the lobby of the concert hall, I got a text from Becca that read “The music was INCREDIBLE!” When I asked them for more details about their experience, they reiterated how much they enjoyed the sensation of hearing an orchestra live, and watching the players perform.

The experience of going to see live classical music involves so much more than the art itself though, and the negative feedback from the participants involved in “Orchestra X” was virtually all about what was happening before and after the music. The same was true with Becca and Alec. Here’s what they noticed as first-timers at the orchestra:

  • They didn’t know when to clap and weren’t familiar with the traditional silences between movements, which made them feel awkward.
  • They didn’t know how long the intermission would last or how long each piece would be.
  • The specific program for the concert they attended was buried in the middle of a huge season booklet, and they couldn’t find the concert program notes.
  • They were confused by the drama of the drawn-out bows and multiple curtain calls.
  • Even though they dressed up for the concert, they still felt underdressed.*

*I found out later they were seated next to a moustached man wearing a three-piece suit and holding a cane topped with a large crystal, so this likely contributed to the feeling of being underdressed.

While many concertgoers may have years of experience and are primed to expect silences between movements, lavish bowing traditions, and exceedingly fancily dressed fellow patrons, it’s important that orchestras work to make the concert experience approachable for new audience members, too.

Courtney Lewis (Music Director at the Jacksonville Symphony and Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) remarked on his blog: “We haven’t really changed the way we present classical music in the last 150 years. We expect newcomers to sit through 90 minutes of music with no explanation of what’s going on, and just figure it out.” This is generally true among American orchestras, and sometimes younger, newer audience members (like Alec and Becca) are left feeling like they’re not wanted.

In contrast to the orchestra my hosts came to see me perform with, the California Symphony is already addressing the concerns the “Orchestra X” participants brought up, and doing so has contributed significantly to their bottom line as an organization.  

The California Symphony is selling 97% more tickets annually now than four years ago, and 46% more since 2016. Additionally, the first time attendee retention rate (people coming back within a year of their first show) has gone from 13% to 27%. The California Symphony has made their concerts more accessible to everyone by adding an unpretentious Before You’re Here guide, offering a Spanish language version of their website, and generally by proving they’re listening to their audience by implementing changes based on feedback.

Other orchestras are following suit in changing the way they welcome newcomers. Check out these first-timer guides other organizations have put in place over the last few years:

  • Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: (a PatronManager client, by the way!) If you click through each casually labeled section (like “when is it cool to talk”) in this guide, you’ll get a conversational, anecdotal description of what to expect. I love this one!
  • New Jersey Symphony Orchestra: I personally enjoyed looking through the NJSO’s First-Timers’ Guide page on my phone, it’s exceptionally mobile-friendly!
  • New York Philharmonic: I like that this guide includes a note about online program notes, which become available two weeks prior to each performance.

Building and retaining your new audience is not simply a result of having a FAQ page for newcomers on your website or making your marketing copy more approachable (though those will help), it’s most importantly about building a relationship, and building trust. That starts with welcoming your guests, the familiar faces and new ones alike. Whether it’s responding to requests for more diversity in programming, or revolutionizing the concert experience, asking what your unique audience wants and making changes based on what they say will show them you’re listening, and can have an incredible impact.

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