Friday, March 5, 2010

Marketing Modern Music (2)

The second article I linked to last week was "Looking for Listeners Who Love New Music" (New York Times, February 28, 1999), by Greg Sandow, who composes, has taught "Music Criticism," and "Classical Music in an Age of Pop" at the Juilliard School. and has written on classical music for The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

The subheading of Mr. Sandow's article is, "There really is an alternative new music audience, one that's hardly connected to classical music at all."

Sandow suggests that part of the challenge in getting mainstream classical music fans to embrace new classical music is that the product (new classical music) is being marketed to an audience whose stylistic preferences lie elsewhere (18th- and 19th-century music). The problem isn't with the product; the problem is in the way it is marketed.

As an analogy, consider what would happen if someone decided to market "adult contemporary" pop ballad singers (e.g., Céline Dion, Lionel Richie) to fans of death metal, gangsta rap, or screamo, or vice-versa, using the logic that fans of one sub-genre of pop music (e.g., death metal) are bound to like all other pop sub-genres (e.g., adult contemporary). It would seem a strategy unlikely to succeed; just because you like one sub-genre of pop music doesn't mean you necessarily also like all the others. The marketing principle, in a nutshell, is that it makes more sense to target your product to people who would be interested in it than to those who would not.

Sandow:  Let's say you're in business, and you've got a product that your customers love (in the Philharmonic's case, Beethoven and the other classical masters). Now you've produced something much less comforting, and more esoteric. Would you try to sell it to the same people?

Or think of the pop-music world, where it's taken for granted that audiences come in many flavors. There's a mainstream audience, which loves Top 40 ballads, and there's an alternative audience, which prefers darker, edgier, more difficult music, by artists like PJ Harvey and R.E.M. Is there a lesson here for classical music? Is there an alternative classical audience that can be reached in some new way?

The answer, according to Sandow, is a resounding yes. As an example of such an audience, Sandow cites "Bang on a Can," which draws 1,000 people to its annual new-music marathons, and these, said its director of development, Christine Williams, are in their 20's and 30's, attracted in part by aggressive marketing aimed at lovers of downtown dance, jazz, visual art and performance art.

Another example mentioned is Milwaukee's "Present Music:" "You can look down from the stage, and see the earrings and nose rings and different- colored hair," said its director, Kevin Stalheim. "If I were going for mailing lists, I'd go to the art museum and modern dance companies, not the Milwaukee Symphony."

If you want proof that is closer to home of an alternative new-music audience, you need go no further than the biennial Newfoundland Sound Symposium, known around the world as a kind of sonic Mecca for new-music enthusiasts. There is some overlap between its audiences and, say, Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra subscribers, but my hunch, having attended both numerous times, is that the overlap is probably not very large; both have their own devoted followers, and just because you like one doesn't mean you will like the other.

So, does this mean it is impossible to get people who love Beethoven and Brahms to open their hearts to new classical music?

I don't believe so, nor is the article's author suggesting as much. Some mainstream concert presenters seem to have succeeded in doing so, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the San Francisco Symphony, according to Sandow. A lot of new classical music is very much rooted in old classical music, and it isn't unreasonable to think that there can be audiences that enjoy both.

On the other hand, there is also a lot of new classical music that seems to fall outside the comfort zone of many Beethoven/Brahms/et al. lovers, and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect otherwise.

The "elephant in the room" that hasn't been mentioned in this discussion is that a great many orchestras find themselves in crisis: Most are losing money, and are not attracting enough new, younger, patrons to counteract their steadily aging and shrinking audiences. As a result, some have gone bankrupt — in this country, this has happened to the orchestras in Halifax, Hamilton, and Vancouver, although all were subsequently resuscitated — and others teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. The CBC cited financial reasons for shutting down its radio orchestra, although some see it as part of their overall shift away from supporting classical music (which, in the case of CBC Radio 2 has resulted in a drastic reduction of their audience share, as I understand it). Fortunately, the National Broadcast Orchestra of Canada has arisen in its staid without any financial support from the CBC, and as I understand it, part of the NBOC's mandate is to programme contemporary works by Canadian composers. I hope they will thrive as an orchestra.

In an effort to grow their audiences, many orchestras offer "pops" programmes, film music programmes, and programming hybrids wherein rock bands and rap artists perform with a symphony. I would guess that some of these initiatives are financially successful, but I don't know the degree to which they create a new or larger audience for either more mainstream or contemporary classical music. Hopefully they do.

The solution seems quite simple to me: Programme more of my music! Audiences of all ages, hair colours, and body-piercing preferences love the stuff.

No? Well, that statement was made half in jest, but only half, because I would like to think that the solution lies at least in part in reaching out to audiences that are attracted to newer, often more experimental art by offering programmes targeting these audiences. But I recognize that it's a kind of logical paradox (A.K.A. Catch 22) wherein many who are attracted to the work of living artists think of symphony orchestras as musical art museums exhibiting the work of dead artists, and so programmes aimed at fans of contemporary art might not actually attract them, and may in fact alienate some of the orchestra patrons who prefer their art to be by composers who are mostly European and entirely dead.

One thing I have discovered is that you don't have to be a fan of classical music to enjoy contemporary classical music.  A few years ago, I started posting my music at, an on-line community of thousands of music-makers of all kinds, probably mostly falling within the various sub-genres of pop/rock, but also including other genres such as jazz and classical.  I have read many favorable comments about contemporary classical pieces by people who admit that they don't know or even like much about classical music, which I thought was pretty cool and reinforced my hunch that more people would like this music if they were exposed to it. If you are curious to read some of these comments, have a look at my Dream Dance page, or just go to the site's "classical" category and see what you get.

And so, in agreement with the Sandow article, it has also been my experience that there is an alternative new-music audience, but the challenge for contemporary composers is to find a way to reach them.


Kate Bevan-Baker said...

It's too bad that so many symphony orchestras have gone bankrupt because of dwindling audiences. I'm pretty sure that would happen to the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra if they didn't to their regular Big Band, Movie Music, Gala, and Silver Ball shows each year. The NSO Gala is *always* sold out, and tickets are $100 each! Because there are 'big name' people performing, it definitely attracts a wider audience, and I'm sure that it's the only time that many people in the audience go out to a symphony concert all year.

The size of audiences for the Sinfonia concerts are *much* smaller, and even D.F. Cook doesn't get filled for those concerts.

I wonder what would happen if more famous classical musicians came to play with the NSO, but they played contemporary music instead of the classics? Would people still come just to see the amazing musician, or would they not come because of the music choice? Would the soloist not want to travel to perform modern works? That might be a way to attract more people (because of the name of the musician onstage), and to get them to listen to contemporary classical music...a trick, perhaps!

It's really hard for orchestras to have the money to keep going, so Pops shows are pretty much necessary. I think throwing in contemporary music every now and then is a good way to reach audiences with this type of music, but I'm not sure if it could make it more popular in a short amount of time. Who knows!

Steve said...

"Classical" and "Contemporary Classical" to me are just such broad genres.. their titles don't really tell you anything. While many people get tired of sub-genres or will argue whether a certain title is appropriate for music or not (post-rock indie-pop -electro-grunge and all the other bizarre combinations you hear about in popular music), maybe contemporary classical music could benefit from being at least a little sub-divided. It would be very challenging to do so since there is such a broad scope of approaches, and many new approaches are not even remotely similar to one another... but perhaps SOME grouping or naming could be done.

The thing is, jazz music is jazz and people know basically what to expect, be it more modern fusion stuff, or a traditional approach.. rock music and electronica or whatever have specific instrumentations associated with them... "contemporary classical" music can be anything from a full orchestra playing a challenging atonal work, to Derek Charke wailing on his flute over nature-sound loops?? How can the two simply be called "contemporary classical"?

There is definitely an alternative music audience, and they aren't necessarily musically trained or advanced (which I have previously suggested, that in a lot of cases newer and more challenging music is "musician's music"). I see people in the downtown St. John's scene who don't play an instrument or know anything technical about music, but they are attracted to the most experimental or edgy approaches in the bar scene, and wouldn't be caught dead listening to cover bands or top 40 music. These same people would probably be bored to tears at a concert full of Bach or Mozart, but would be fully entertained at one of our Newfound Music Fest shows.

Composer's to me these days seem like lone soldiers forging their own path and surviving by their own efforts to promote their original ideas... pop music is always grouped in scenes or phases and that helps get more of the groups heard. When classical music was sub-divided like this, I'm sure it helped the success of the music (take "Minimalism", "Neo-classical" or whatever appraoches/composers were grouped together when looking back on them).

Do sub-genres like this exist in anything that was composed since 2000? Are there patterns or styles to be identified and at least loosely connected for music in the last 50 years? Grouping such things and pushing them on the right people, or programming the right things together in a concert could probably help this dwindling enthusiasm in "contemporary classical" music... simply trying to please everyone by having a program that has Bach - Brahms - something totally new and wacky in probably not the best idea.

Labels are tricky because many composers will despise the labels their given and will argue "i'm so much more than that", which may be very true, but if they want to get heard, I think grouping themselves with other at least SOMEWHAT like-minded approaches will create a buzz and get more of the right people paying attention.

I write long comments so I hope they count as 2...

Steve said...

or 3...

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