Checking Up On The Soundcheck Programs Part 2

To continue where Part 1 left off yesterday, this installment will continue the examination of a unique audience development initiative designed to attract the under 30 demographic.  Today’s article will focus on the soundcheck programs at the Nashville Symphony and the St. Louis Symphony.

Nashville Symphony Soundcheck
According to Michael Buckland, Nashville Symphony’s Director of Marketing & Communications, the Soundcheck program for 04-05 is nearly identical to the 03-04 program with the exception of expanding the membership qualifications.

Nashville took the time before the 04-05 season to clean out non active members from their Soundcheck database.  As a result, they now know that approximately 1,250 members are active participants in their program, 300 of which are local teachers (Nashville has expanded the qualifications of the program to include teachers).

This shifting of members will allow Nashville to focus directly on members who have shown an active interest.

Compared to last year, the program has evolved toward focusing on students to a larger extent than the post college crowd.  However, they have started an Education & Outreach Internship opportunity which is promoted through the Soundcheck program and is available to those 18 and over.

Sound Check St. Louis
A newcomer to the soundcheck programs is the St. Louis Symphony.  According to Julie Krull, the SLSO started the program at the beginning of the 02-03 season and cost about $10,000 to get off the ground and since then they’ve had just over 2,000 enroll in the program.

During that initial year they sold 1,000 tickets and in 03-04 they doubled that number to 2,000.  However, Julie said that they still want their target demographic to remain in the 55 year age group.

One intriguing spin St. Louis has taken compared to the other groups is establishing a spin off program for a mid 20 to mid 30 demographic called the seven18club.  Tickets are twice the price of Sound Check ($20 each) and based on information provided by the website, membership requirements are a little vague.  Other elements of the program include special social functions in the hall and at surrounding restaurants.

The seven18club website tries a bit too hard at being “cool” by using marketing content which comes across as sounding like, well, marketing content. For example:

“After all, this is the Symphony we’re talking about.  But you know what?  If you can’t tell Mozart from Chopin, or don’t want to dress up like a fancy-pants, or don’t know when to clap, don’t worry about it – we don’t care.”


“…it’s not like the Symphony sucks, either.  Our musicians are some of the best in the world, and play with all the artistry of Miles Davis and the same fire as U2.  Yes, it will be possible to get your Brahms on and enjoy yourself at the same time.”

The St, Louis Symphony doesn’t care if you “don’t want to dress up like a fancy-pants”?  I have to point out that the lovely young woman on the front page of the website is wearing a charming formal dress, a string of pearls, and has her hair done quite nicely; so I think that one qualifies as a “mixed message”.

But the program is still new and I’m sure content like this will work itself out in due time.  I think it’s a good idea to have something like this especially for this demographic, but it seems like it needs more identity and sustenance as opposed to catch phrases and dialog you would expect to hear from your mom and dad when you were a teenager.

Toronto appears to be building a real juggernaut of an outreach program designed to make the orchestra attractive to one of the most important demographics to any orchestra’s future the under 30 crowd.

According to Toronto Symphony’s Rob Piilonen there has been some serious interest from orchestras in Vancouver and Calgary in setting up initiatives similar to Toronto’s tsoundcheck program, but none from America have contacted them.

I would recommend to every American orchestra administrator that they should contact the Toronto Symphony and see about sending a detachment from their marketing department to observe the tsoundcheck program first hand for a few days.  If you have professional development money in your budget, I can’t think of a better way to spend it.

This program is representative of the sort of grass roots style efforts which are going to be a crucial step in moving classical music back into the mainstream cultural consciousness.  And although focusing on student patrons is never a bad thing, there needs to be some dedicated effort to the nebulous post college crowd who are in the process of forming the habits which will remain with them the rest of their lives.

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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