Tomorrow’s audience today

Audience development. In the language of orchestral management that means getting people to show up for concerts. Many of us are familiar with the Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study conducted by the Knight Foundation, and if you aren’t I highly recommend that you go take a look at it. Although it isn’t a perfect study, it does help us begin to address this critical problem in an analytical fashion. Unfortunately, one point that the study does not consider is how orchestras need to develop new patrons from specific subsections of our communities. One woefully overlooked resource is private music teachers. That’s right, those piano, guitar, and violin teachers that are taking on more and more beginning adult students.

These older beginners typically fall into the 45-55 year old demographic. They are baby boomers that grew up with television at the expense of live performing art. Their children are off to college, they have more time and money for themselves than they’ve ever had before, and they are looking to fill a distinct void in their lives. That void is culture. So they find a local private music teacher and start to take lessons.

As professional musicians and private music teachers, my wife and I have had the pleasure of introducing well over 100 adult students to the world of orchestral music. And in almost every case they’ve become enthusiastic patrons. But of course they do, and why not? They have already shown a desire to become culturally enriched by initiating private music lessons on their own. All they lack is a guide to what the world of orchestral music has to offer. I’ve organized filed trips to orchestra rehearsals, written a beginners guide to the orchestra (that directly ties into what they learn in their lessons), and educated them about the music they hear (beyond the usually dry, academic program notes they are exposed to at concerts).

Wow, a vast mass of suburbanite patrons that is waiting to be discovered. Have I ever been approached by my local orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony) about developing a program for my students? No. Have I sent hundred’s of students their way armed with excited anticipation and willing to put up with bad parking so they can enrich their lives? Yes (and I have yet to see any residuals come my way!).

When I do initiate a conversation with orchestra marketing executives about this situation, they say things like:

“Well that’s a great idea but it sounds more like something education should focus on”.

So I go to education managers and I hear:

“Well that’s a great idea but our budget doesn’t have room for something like this with all of the in-school programs we need to fund. And we already have some adult education programs, like preconcert lectures (I wish they would stop using that ‘lecture’ word, it sounds stuffy, academic, and elitist). Maybe marketing has room in their budget for something like that.”

Sigh. At this point I usually make a nice cup of tea and take a few aspirin.

There are thousands of private music teachers across the country, each with access to hundreds of adult students over their careers. You do the math. Do I even need to bring up how cost efficient it is to find new subscribers and individual ticket patrons this way? In a recent Detroit News article (linked from the 12/10/03 Arts Journal headlines), DSO president Emil Kang is quoted as saying “[Declining ticket sales] are an industry-wide problem, and we have to come up with a new model to replace or at least modify the traditional idea of subscriptions.” Well Mr. Kang, consider this blog a freebie, you don’t even have the typical exorbitant consultant fees (although I’m not opposed to someone giving me a call to talk about it!).

I can almost see the emails starting to come in, saying:

“You’re just one teacher, how do you know this would be a big opportunity?”
“Education needs to focus on children, not adults.”
“A few thousand adult music students isn’t going to fill the empty halls among today’s orchestras”

Well then, how about this. A recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that learning how to play a musical instrument reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 69%. Just how many baby boomers are there across the country? How many are going to become very concerned about Alzheimer’s in the next few years? And when you learn a musical instrument, you should also learn about music. There is so much that orchestras can do to include private music teachers into their outreach and exposure initiatives. But this industry has been so focused on exposing children to classical music as the Holy Grail to the “audience development problem”, that they have forgotten to analyze the issue from the other end of the demographic spectrum. As a result, they are uninterested and altogether disinclined to even consider changing course. Hopefully the sharp, progressive orchestra administrators will pick up on this before the opportunity has passed.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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