Hang ‘Em By His Castanets!

For those of us who work at the business end of classical music, discussions about non-artistic components of the concert experience come up all the time. If you’re a regular Adaptistration reader, you know that we examine those issues on a regular basis and my opinion is that there are more non-artistic reasons behind most declines in concert attendance than artistic reasons. As such, it tends to catch me off guard when stakeholders within the business fail to take advantage of useful non-artistic criticisms simply because they are intertwined with uncomplimentary artistic observations…

In yesterday’s post, readers were asked to visit a piece at Proper Discord where the author presents a very detailed account of a recent concert-going experience. If you haven’t had a chance to read the article yet, treat yourself to a little extra blog time and read the article then head right back for the rest of this article (I promise, this will make you a better manager).

I would have completely missed the article if Marc Geelhoed had not pointed it out at his Facebook page. Similarly, what really caught my attention was the lengthy discussion thread among Marc’s Facebook friends and suffice to say, the majority of those offering feedback focused more on Proper Discord’s tone and artistic observations than anything else (sorry, to release identities or details would be unseemly). As a result, I think a number of folks walked away from the article missing what was paramount; i.e., Proper Discord’s non-artistic observations.

Embrace the criticism.

Not only did the author take the time to observe and make note of these annoyances but he (she?) offered up a number of useful suggestions. Frankly, I could have cared less about Proper Discord’s artistic opinions (which, at best, are on subjective ground). I don’t know who he (she?) is nor did I attend the concert in question so there is no way I can reasonably agree or disagree with those points. The best thing to do is simply blot them out and focus on more of the concrete non-artistic points.

If this business hopes to ride out current economic conditions and reach its potential, it will have to get used to increased levels of criticism and praise (constructive and otherwise). New media formats all but guarantee more posts like those from Proper Discord; in fact, any orchestra should feel fortunate to have them. Why? Because you rarely know you’re going to lose a customer until after they are gone (barn door, horses, anyone?).

In most cases, a ticket buyer (casual or regular) might cross a threshold of frustration for any of the non-artistic reasons listed in Proper Discord’s piece and never attend another concert. Sadly, the orchestra would likely never know why and although the business could certainly do a better job at investigating those issues, there’s only so much you can do after the fact. The result is increased marketing expenses and decreased confidence in how to spend it. Eventually, orchestras start to lash out at “sinister forces” beyond their control and simply accept lowered attendance averages when in reality, a number of those ticket buyers could have been retained.

The more new media outlets write about any orchestra with the sort of sincerity included in Proper Discord’s piece, the better. At the very least, it provides orchestras with a glimpse at non-artistic issues they can work to improve. For those that don’t like the attitude displayed in Proper Discord’s piece, I say man-up and learn to see past the anger. Go right ahead and argue about the artistic issues all you please, but everyone in this business should be better than to tune out an entire article based on inference of issues that aren’t germane to the heart of the non-artistic observations.

For those of you who like to skim longer blog articles (who doesn’t?), I think this is important enough of an issue to put together a bullet list of important items to consider. So if you walk away with nothing else, take this with you:

  • Focusing on improving non-artistic elements of concert events is paramount to future success in this business.
  • Evaluate non-artistic and artistic observations separately and dispassionately and be certain of the times when/if they coincide.
  • Consider the source (for better or worse), but not to a point of absolutes. Even if you disagree with everything someone says, there may others out there who don’t, and they may stop buying tickets and making donations for any of the reasons you dismissed based on nothing more than the fact that you don’t like the source.
  • The business, by and large, needs to begin focusing more effort toward discovering why ticket buyers leave and identify as many non-artistic triggers as possible in order to begin improving retention rates and attracting new buyers.
  • Regardless of how often they attend or their level of appreciation for classical music, the more ticket buyers write about their concert-going experiences in a public forum, the better.

Finally, I do appreciate that some folks have trouble separating non-artistic criticisms from artistic observations. As such, I took the liberty of editing Proper Discord’s post to hide all references to artistic matters (IMHO). I apologize in advance to the anonymous author if this offends but there was no copyright or creative commons notice I could find on your blog nor could I locate any contact information. If you don’t approve of my efforts, contact me and I’ll be happy to remove it.

In the meantime, take a moment to read though the lobotomized version of this piece and see if it comes across as vitriolic as some have charged. If you’re curious to see the blocked out bits, simply highlight them by selecting with your mouse.

Get Off The Podium

Posted on May 21, 2009 at 6:57 pm at http://properdiscord.com/2009/05/21/get-off-the-podium/

Last night I went to see Yuja Wang perform with the San Francisco Symphony. She played extremely well. It was beautiful and impressive, which is all you can really ask for.

After the performance, there was a Q&A session with Yuja and Mason Bates, who had premiered a work for electronics and orchestra in the same concert. My question was “If you were in charge, what would you do to improve the traditional classical concert experience?”

There was an audible “ooh” from the audience, the moderator got very uncomfortable, Mason mumbled something about video program notes and Yuja said “er… next question please.”

I thought it was a pretty soft question, open to answers like “I’d like to see more young people enjoying classical music” or, perhaps something as banal as “free tickets for poor people” or “world peace”. But no. Apparently, it is a heresy to suggest that concerts aren’t already perfect.

So let’s take a look at last night’s show – a fairly typical one – and see if it could be improved in any way:

Three months before the concert, I decide I want to go, and convince somebody to throw down $186 plus fees for my tickets. Thanks, btw. They were great seats.

Three days before the concert, I make a reservation at the fancy restaurant near symphony hall, mostly so I can use their valet parking. There is no traffic quite like 2,000 rich people trying to get home, so I do anything I can to avoid the Performing Arts garage. The restaurant is fully booked, but squeeze me in because I pretend to be important.

On the day of the concert:

5:00pm – I leave work early to make my 6pm dinner reservation

6:00 – I’m stuck in traffic, and call ahead to get them to hold my table

6:20 – I get to the restaurant where, for some reason, they haven’t changed the one vegetarian option on the menu in several years. Valet parking is $12.

7:30 – It’s just as well nobody want dessert, because it is time to pick up tickets. Dinner comes to $125, including tip.

7:35 – I arrive at the venue, straight into the will-call queue. You can’t get to the restrooms or the gift shop without a ticket, so just hop on one leg for a moment. Everybody else, I’ll meet you, er, here, because there’s nowhere you can go either.

7:40 – I’ve got tickets, I’ve had a pee, and its time to mill around with old people, all seemingly lost because the terms used to describe where you might find your seats are the same incomprehensible ones used to justify charging a range of extortionate prices for them. Orchestra or Premiere Orchestra? But this is the Loge, sir. Lost? Buy a drink. It is the only other thing you can do here.

7:55 – I’ve been hanging around in the venue for twenty minutes, and finally somebody gives me a program. I sit down to read it, and they turn off the lights. The orchestra shuffles on stage as if nobody can see them. For a reasons that aren’t entirely clear, they are wearing tailcoats. I feel a bit under-dressed in an outfit that only cost $2,500. People practice their instruments. In principle, I’m in favor of that, although this doesn’t seem like the time.

8:00 – A young man in a suit comes on stage and tells us that the program order has changed, and they’ll be doing Sibelius first.

8:01 – Michael Tilson Thomas comes on stage and tells us which bits of Sibelius 4 we should find glorious, creepy, scary, joyous and exciting in the manner of a small chid explaining why the joke he’s about to tell you is funny.

8:10 – The orchestra amble through Sibelius in the manner of a small child telling a joke they don’t understand.
While I can see which bits of it are supposed to be, there’s no part of it that I can actually find glorious, creepy, scary, joyous or the least bit exciting. The peculiar thing is that this is probably the easiest and best-known work on the program, so they either didn’t rehearse it at all, or they simply can’t be bothered to play it properly.

8:50 – This shambolic embarrassment of mezzo-forte draws to a close, and the crowd dutifully applauds. Michael accepts the applause and walks off. Then he comes back.

9:00 – MTT introduces the world premiere of a piece they commissioned from Mason Bates. I must admit that I switched off after MTT said that Mason would be DJing when the man was clearly using a laptop to trigger samples.

9:05 – They play the piece. It is nowhere near as bad as all the talking had led me to believe. The orchestra play very well. MTT fiddles with something with buttons on. Maybe he was turning the brass up. They certainly seem to have located their balls. The tuba player gets his mute out, which is a rare treat. MTT could have talked us through all the things you don’t often see that put in an appearance in the piece. That would have made us feel like we’d learned something interesting.

9:30 – A standing ovation. I wonder if the orchestra would have played the Sibelius better if they’d paid him to write it.

9:35 – I need to pee, so the interval provides welcome respite. I don’t know how all these old people manage. There’s always a long queue at the ladies, but not at the gents. This seems to be true of all concert halls. Somebody should look into that.

9:40 – There is nothing to do in the interval except top up on fluids, so we sit in the crowded lobby and I try to convince my +1 that Sibelius is a good composer.

10:00 – We’re back inside. Yuja Wang comes on stage and redeems the whole sorry affair with a rendition of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto that I will never forget. At the end of each movement, we suppress the urge to fill the awkward silence with rapturous applause for reasons that nobody can quite remember.

10:30 – It’s over. Almost everybody stands up to clap, then almost everybody leaves.

10:40 – The performers return to the stage hoping nobody will ask them anything tougher than “what is your favorite color”.

11:00 – I’ve offended the artist I was here to meet, so it’s time to go home. Since the restaurant is now closing, they’ve kindly fetched my car, and have it sitting outside. I congratulate myself for having really worked out how to do this. Tip is $2. The car needs gas. Where did they park it? Sacramento? That’ll be $35.

12:45 – I’m at home and in bed, trying to sleep but somehow plagued by the notion that my evening out cost $350, and that it took eight hours to hear 40 minutes of good music. I could have bought Yuja’s record for $10.

Here’s what I suggest:

  1. If you have to build to concert hall a ten minute walk from the sketchiest public transport stop in town, then plan your car park in a way that takes into account the fact that everybody will want to leave at the same time.
  2. If there is a reason why people without tickets can’t be allowed into the bar, then give me my program while I’m waiting in the will-call line.
  3. Put in twice as many toilets for the ladies. Just do it. Life will be better.
  4. Have the orchestra make a proper entrance. This is a performance, people. Try to at least look like you give a crap.
  5. If you have no intention of playing a piece properly, cut it from the program and start the whole thing an hour later. Then we can eat a proper dinner, won’t need an interval to pee, and won’t be too bored to stay for the Q&A. We might even stay for a drink at the bar afterwards.

Postscript: I’m embarrassed to say that until Marc Geelhoed pointed out Proper Discord, I had never visited the blog before. I’m glad to have rectified that error and have also added it to Adaptistration’s Big Roll of Blogs.

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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3 thoughts on “Hang ‘Em By His Castanets!”

  1. I think it is completely pointless to complain about problems in Davies that result from decisions made 30-odd years ago when the hall was being designed, including the placement of the bar, the ticket office, the gift shop, and the parking garages. Those things are not changing unless someone donates $50 million to rearrange the interior of the hall and a large plot of land for a new garage (and the $100 million it would take to build it).

    I say that as someone who dislikes Davies in many ways, but what I complain about most of the time is the really crappy acoustics, about which the blogger says nothing.

    I also note that the musicians warm up and practice on stage because THEY HAVE TO TUNE ON STAGE in the light and heat conditions under which they will be playing.

    • I entirely agree that complaining about brick and motor issues via decades old decisions won’t produce much in the short term but I do think people need to mention them in order to give an organization the push it needs to launch major capital campaigns. To that end, the more people point out problems like the bar, restrooms, etc. The more likely change will come sooner than later (never?).

      From a national perspective, it also benefits new concert hall construction. I know for a fact that design elements in Nashville’s hall and other locations like LA and even smaller buildings like Dayton have all benefited from noticing universal complaints from patrons across the country.

      To go one step more, I’ve noticed a number of concert hall refurbishing projects over the past 10 years that seem to have missed the value of non-artistic points included in Proper Discord’s post. In those cases, the organizations merely replaced old inefficiencies with new inefficiencies. I suppose that’s a classic example of adding insult to injury.

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