It's The Audience, Stupid.

At its best, a symphony orchestra is more summer blockbuster than art-house flick. Orchestras make music on a big scale and consequently demand a big audience. Filling the house affirms why orchestras exist in a way that half-empty performances, regardless of their intrinsic merit, simply cannot.

Our community value is most easily and honestly measured by how many people want to hear us. We shouldn’t get distracted by obsessing about the age of the audience or the type of music we play for them. The central concerns are attracting a good turnout and performing as well as possible, irrespective of the repertoire.

As a first step, I believe orchestras should start with the low-hanging fruit and unapologetically play fewer Classics and more Pops.

My perspective was formed primarily as a player in two orchestras and by serving on various committees. My experience may not be apples-to-apples with every budget size and cultural market, but I know from doing research for contract negotiations, subbing in other orchestras, attending an ICSOM conference and the Mellon Forum that there are common problems.

To name a few, we face low attendance, high ticket prices, unstable budgets, high staff turnover and low morale. These may have different causes, but they are all worsened by a lack of funding. In these tough times, struggling orchestras should lead with programming that has more appeal than concepts. Our opening line to the public should be based on familiarity rather than aloofness.

Our best bet is to do more of what is already working. For most organizations, that is Pops. This, more than slashing budgets or new comissions, is a simple and intelligible way to grow roots deep enough to keep us from blowing away every time an economic storm kicks up. Insuring stability first earns us the right to be adventurous later.

Classics is a sturdy ship that more Pops won’t capsize. Ultimately, orchestras perform symphonies and the public will associate us with classical music. But it seems there is no amount of marketing (at least that we can afford) that can attract an adequate number of people for every classical concert.

Producing more Pops will make the ticket taker busy right away. From there, we can invest more in our artistic ownership of the programming and address some of the warranted complaints. There are many shows out there. Some are good and some are bad, but they consistently do well. I think the burden is on us to fold them more comfortably into the core artistic mission, and there is no real barrier to doing more immediately.

For a few months last season, I toured with Star Wars in Concert. The combination of good pay and thousands of fans each night gave the work a clarity of purpose that is often missing in our concerts, even some Classics. Obviously, ICSOM orchestras can’t play John Williams’ film music every night in arenas, but the lesson learned was that Pops doesn’t have to be rudderless.

The measurement for success is just different than it is for classical concerts. Of course, there will always be great traditional performances that will stick in the minds of the audience and players, but those nights are special because they hard to capture and reproduce. We need something more reliable and less inwardly focused.

I’m advocating that orchestras plant themselves firmly in the mainstream and play to their strengths: big shows in big spaces. To my taste, too much of the current orchestra-reform conversation centers around boutique innovations or simply cutting back. Certainly both have merits; however, they act merely as tourniquets by not meaningfully increasing the number of seats sold.

On the other hand, success at the box office can be pursued and measured. It is something that an institution can focus on and can use as a concrete benchmark. From there, we can extend ourselves on limbs strong enough to support the weight of more conventionally challenging projects.

About Rob Simonds

Rob Simonds is a violinist currently based in Indianapolis. He is a former member of The Phoenix Symphony and prior to that, The Richmond Symphony. Rob has participated in the Colorado Music Festival and more recently The Cabrillo Music Festival. He is a graduate of The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

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0 thoughts on “It's The Audience, Stupid.”

  1. You make really great points here, Rob. Musicians, who spend hours each day thinking about and playing music often forget that many people are not in the habit of going to concerts. It is vital that we expand our audience and promote the idea that our orchestras are there for the entire community to enjoy.

    I agree that we need to put on big, exciting concerts. Often, orchestras develop “casual” concerts with small, cheap programs and superficial gimmicky ideas and the results are often embarrassing and insulting to the audience.

    Reading your post, I started to think about the history of orchestras in the United States. At one time the vast majority of orchestra musicians were playing in theater orchestras for Vaudeville acts and silents films. Concert programs from that era suggest that there was less separation between what was considered “popular” versus what was considered “highbrow.”

    In the Twentieth Century, with the help of rock and roll and cultural changes, “Classical’ music evolved out of the mainstream and into a boutique niche. There is still (and will always be) a loyal market for classical music, but by changing our perspective we have an opportunity to greatly expand our audience. In the end, we need to promote the idea that there are really only two types of music: good and bad.

    • Tim,
      Thanks for the great comments.

      I think we’re on the same page, but just to clarify, I meant that the shows are good or bad, not the music. There are often empirical problems like bad sound production, under-written orchestra charts, poor timing, etc.

      I believe we should choose programming based more on demand and less on ideology. And we should perform it free of cynicism. If we engage with these productions and make them more our own, we can smooth out the rougher or “gimmicky” surfaces.

      You make an excellent point about how the blurring of styles has been going on for generations. It is hard to not notice that many of the most basic Broadway shows are big sellers. That music doesn’t do much for me on a personal level, but neither do many “masterpieces.”

      I really like your observation that “casual” concerts are put on with little thought. The irony is that when we court new audiences, we do it with too few resources.

      At the end of the day, most Pops shows attract a good audience and use the full orchestra. Pops make sense for orchestras that value their role as community institutions and as a place for good jobs for staff and musicians.


      • My reference to “good and bad” music was just to suggest that we should not let category influence our taste. In the end, its all just music and if people repeatedly want to hear it and are inspired by it, its good. In that respect, the music to Star Wars succeeds. Thanks again, Rob for a really great post that has generated great discussion!

  2. I wrote something about that a while back, mentioning how pops concerts are the key. The only real difference between Howard Shore’s film scores and most classical music is that:

    1) they aren’t public domain, and
    2) they don’t mark one as the product of superior genes for liking it or being able to play it.

    I ADORE classical music. I can listen to it all day, and often do. There is a SHEDLOAD of brilliant classical music that can stand alongside “Star Wars” for audience adoration.

    But why does John Williams’ work even need to be defended? Let’s face it, it’s no easier to play than most classical works for orchestra. A lot of people who are anxious to claim obscurist avante garde cred are way too much like amateur wine snobs. I’ve made this comparison before, but it’s true: you can get those people to fawn and faint over a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck if you soak the label off and tell them it cost $150 and comes from France. Alternately, you can make them puke on a bottle of pricey good French stuff if you tell them you bought it at Walgreens. An awful lot of people who wine about pops concerts are like that — they would have said the same things about the Haendel revivals. Popular nonsense, unchallenging garbage that sucked up to the audience. Three hundred years later, they are all over themselves about his operas because now they are snoot music. Such people don’t actually like or dislike any music — they merely like and dislike whatever they perceive will bump them up a few notches in the primate hierarchy. Musically, they might as well be stone deaf.

    There are reasons why stuff like “West Side Story” and “Star Wars” are still beloved scores, and it’s the same reason why people still love Tchaik’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” It’s good freakin music. Just PLAY IT!

    • Janis,

      Thanks for taking the time to write such thoughtful responses.

      I’m not sure why Williams’ music needs to be defended on a classical series. But it does.

      You make a good point about its difficulty. Too often we (classical players) connect the dots between a piece’s value and how hard it is to play. Star Wars in Concert was the first time I heard all the notes. (Also, the first time I played them all, to be fair.)

      I really like your point about the packaging of the product. But I think orchestras win that race right out of the gate. Our halls are often the nicest place in town to hear a concert. I think by default, the standard orchestra concert dresses up most of what we perform.

      I will respond to the rest of your thoughts after I read your links and give it all some more thought.


  3. BTW, read that entire interview with Kevin Shirley that I link to in that article — all of the current back-and-forth about art-music-vs.-pops that the classical world is currently angsting over is an already plowed field in the area of rock. Art-rock and prog-rock bands that shunned popularity and considered being well-liked to be identical to selling out all died out as a movement eventually, and with a predictable reaction. As audiences began to love them more and more, critics hated them more and more — because they did what the classical world is now confronting having to do:

    They made accessible music that people loved, radio-friendly music that sold well.

    The bands that did this both rescued rock from choking to death on its own prestige, and garnered the unending hatred of the Comic Book Guys for having done so. No good deed goes unpunished. They are hated because they all but said to the CBGs that the approval of a bunch of working schlubs and chicks meant more than the approval of the coffeehouse cool crowd.

    I’m saying this just to make sure that you guys know that 1) this fight has been fought before, and 2) you won’t be thanked for winning it.

    Funny enough, most of the avante garde “classical” fans who despise pops and look down on audiences who love it are also art-rock fans who look down on radio-friendly melodic rock and AOR. The most you can get out of them is a chipper and “generous” admission that of course orchestras will have to play pops from time to time, because there’s always a part of culture that’s unadventurous, timid, and unimaginative, and they have to be catered to as well!

    I’m serious. Rock music already fought this fight of obscurist-vs-popular and figured out how to manage it. They’re just more heavily beholden to ticket sales rather than donations, so they came down on the survival side of things PDQ. And it’s worth remembering that 30 years later, it’s all those old “sell-out” bands whose music is coming back with a vengeance, isn’t it? It’s not hard to figure out why — they were virtuoso players that married their virtuosity with accessible music. They never played things to educate the ignorant peasants, because well-adjusted people with pride will not pay good money to be called an ignorant peasant.

    If you like more obscure stuff, then as Eddie Van Halen said, “sit in your room and play it. But if you’re gonna play it for people, you better play something that they’re gonna want to hear instead of walking up there and pretending you’re so good and beyond your audience.”

    I’ll shut up. I just feel very strongly about this. If orchestras and other people who make programming decisions in the classical music delivery industry truly feel that connecting with an audience is “dumbing down,” and that the only way an audience will accept a connection is if the music is stupid, worthless, unimaginative garbage, then not only are they provably incorrect, but they have a nasty attitude toward audiences, and it’s no wonder that said audiences aren’t shoveling money at them.

  4. Excellent article, Rob, and I appreciate your candor in writing it. This attitude that “if people actually want to hear it, there must be something wrong with it” is depressingly common in our business. The reality is, it’s never bad to have a full house.

    My feeling is simple – we shouldn’t play music we don’t think our audience is going to like, whatever the style of music may be. That can’t be taken completely literally – there are some people who don’t like Beethoven’s 9th. But by and large, we shouldn’t be playing music that our audiences don’t like. So many still seem to buy into the idea that we should be shoving difficult music down the audience’s throat whether they like it or not, and then calling that “adventurous” or “courageous.” “Arrogant” and “foolish” would be more apt. Does this mean I’m against new music? Of course not. New music, though, should be written and played to reach an audience.

    • Paul,
      Thanks for writing and the kind words.

      I agree that the large audiences tend to set off alarm bells for many people in our business. But it would be hard to find any department across an orchestra that doesn’t benefit from a full house. Players play better, it takes a load off marketing, it makes donors feel like they’re giving to a healthy institution, etc.

      I believe that most of our problems at the institutional level have a common ancestor in empty houses.

      I too am not against new music. I have been dedicated to new music for years and I am writing this between rehearsals of a contemporary music festival.

      “New music, though, should be written to reach an audience.”

      I would only suggest that we should choose music that is written for our audience. Based on the level trust between audience and institution, those pieces could sound quite different. I just think we should not be embarrassed by those distinctions. Serving the audience well should be a reward in itself. More than acting like a bigger budget orchestra for a night or two.


  5. As someone who spent 15 years at the junction of symphony orchestras and music other than standard classical repertoire, I would caution folks who think that concerts of popular music are a magic budget-balancing bullet. Artist fees and production costs can easily eat up all of the new revenue. As noted above, poor programming and insufficient orchestra (and conductor) preparation can sabotage the concerts, as can musicians’ frequently-visible-to-the-audience attitude that they are doing something beneath their call. Concert production and logistics will need to be adjusted, for a variety of reasons, including artists’ schedules, greater sound pressure levels and both sound and lighting technology.

    That said, orchestras that don’t explore more and/or better pops concerts are making a mistake. Net concert profit can be improved. An orchestra can strengthen its position in the community if it has a broader audience. And there is opportunity for a symphonic ensemble to make some wonderful music outside the symphonies of Mahler and Beethoven.

    Regardless, the local market will have its say. Some cities have a market for orchestral pop music that is not saturated; others have an unending stream of pop music concerts in other formats that are preferred by pop music audiences. “Producing more pops” may make the ticket takers busy right away, but unless the program is properly supported and focused on audiences it is not “the” solution.

    Finally, I would not want to see a pops program supplant the effort to present live classical music more effectively, as orchestras own that space. But that’s an entirely different topic.

    • Reid,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree with every word.

      Pops is not a magic bullet. These are multi-million dollar organizations that represent cities with large populations and there is a level of complexity built in. No one personality or project is enough to fix all their problems or support all their successes. But, every facet of the organization benefits from a good audience.

      Orchestras are set up for a specific set of values that color Pops with cynicism. I don’t believe we have really tried to maximize Pops’ (non-classical/familiar) programming. Nor have we tried to maximize our own buy-in. The whole institution’s attitude could improve, the musicians are the just the visible ones.

      The thrust of what I’m advocating is for more ownership of Pops within our artistic mission. Like you wrote: orchestras own the classical music space. Given the way we are organized and the training of the people that work in orchestras, we are in no danger of losing that ownership. But we could do more Pops and do it better very soon. The bar is pretty low.

      However, I don’t believe that we are having an honest conversation about audiences, old or young, when the most under-produced/rehearsed Pops do better than many of our flagship Classics.

      Pops can be very expensive. But it isn’t just the A-list acts that sell well or out. I think orchestras should look to partner/employ people who can facilitate the creation of new but still familiar material. A first step to more ownership might simply be knowing that someone on XYZ orchestra’s team is creating music for XYZ orchestra and its audience. We don’t need to depend only on the high priced stars.

      I agree that everything done needs to be focused on the audience and properly supported. We need to cast a wider net in general for the institution. The more people under the roof, the more we win. And producing aggressively audience-friendly programming would be a good start.


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