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 MacJams.com, 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.