Programme for Wieniawski’s concert, 26 June 1891 ©Cambridge University Library
A recent guest post about Tring Chamber Music by pianist James Lisney in which he states that “it is the role of musicians to be creators of concerts rather than separate themselves from the responsibility of the promoter” set me thinking about the role of promoters and impresarios in today’s busy and competitive world of classical music.
The musician as promoter – by which I mean one who organises and promotes concerts – is nothing new and there are historical precedents in the activities of Handel and Mozart, for example, who both organised their own subscription concerts. As the musician became elevated to celebrity status so the role of the “impresario” became more important: one who talent-spotted, and organisd and financed concerts. Famous impresarios have included Thomas Beecham, Richard d’Oyly Carte and Sol Hurok (who managed, amongst many others Ashkenazy, Gilels, Richter, Rostropovich, Pavlova and Segovia). But today the impresario has largely been superseded (with a few notable exceptions such as Simon Cowell whose role as a “creator” and promoter of new pop stars is, frankly, questionable…..) as musicians have taken over the responsibility of organising and promoting concerts themselves.
There are practical reasons for doing this, perhaps the most obvious being financial, as an independent promoter or impresario will take a percentage of the concert’s income. Musicians I spoke to in the course of researching this article also highlighted a need to remain in control of all aspects of the concert, from hiring the venue to deciding what should form the programme. Composer, singer and crossover musician Clio Em says “the positives include carrying out one’s artistic vision fully and collaborating with the musicians you yourself choose to worth with“, but she also cites social media, marketing and communication with the venue as potential admin headaches. A paid promoter or impresario will take on these administrative roles, liaise with and pay the venue hire, organise marketing and ticket sales and so forth, leaving the musician to concentrate on the music……But in return for this, the musician may be required to play a particular programme to please promoter/venue/audience.
Here is violinist Beatrice Philips who runs Lewes Chamber Music Festival, on the administrative aspects or creating and promoting concerts: “I find that it is important for me to separate my performing state of mind from my “organising a Festival” state of mind……………in the end, having created the programmes and chosen the performers, there comes a deluge of ‘non-musical’ things to deal with in order to make it happen which require a totally different part of the brain.”
Terry Lowry, composer, conductor and pianist, says: “Being responsible for concert promotion has been a strong positive for me. Knowing how to promote an event myself makes it easier to help venues and presenters who are trying to promote a concert for me be effective. It also forces me to stay in contact with my audience, which – while I enjoy this part very much – doesn’t come naturally to me. I think pianists and composers become pianists and composers because they are very comfortable being alone. Concert promotion forces me to interact in ways that are both effective and personally rewarding.”
Double-bassist Heather Bird says: “If nothing else it has given me a greater insight and appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes in putting on gigs. And there’s nothing more satisfying than putting on a successful night that you’ve thought of, fixed, found the venue for, sorted out the tech specs, promoted and played in and watching people enjoying listening to and performing in the gig.”
Pianist Emmanuel Vass says: “Art doesn’t pay my mortgage, unfortunately. If I want people to buy into what I do, it has to have an element of “consumer” or “product” orientation. Part of being a product = marketing. Otherwise, you’re just art on the shelf, which consumers will rarely want to automatically buy.“
Today the world of classical music is extremely competitive which means one constantly needs to find new and creative ways to attract and engage audiences. Not many musicians, especially young musicians who are just embarking on a professional career, can afford to pay for a specialist promoter, and so putting on and promoting their own concerts, either singly or in collaboration with other colleagues, is the way forward. At London’s Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the BMus degree course includes a module called ‘Engaging Audiences’ which encourages students to consider how to market themselves, create effective promotional materials and think about their own ‘brand’ – i.e. who they are as an artist. This gets students thinking more commercially before they have left the relative comfort of the conservatoire, and a number of Trinity students who are friends of mine have been busy organising and performing in their own concerts in the years prior to graduation. As one student at Trinity-Laban said to me: “You can’t sit back and expect things to happen: musicians need to play an active role in promoting themselves and making things happen!”
A number of people whom I spoke to in the course of researching this article cite retaining control and giving free rein to their own artistic vision as important aspects of being one’s own promoter. Pianist Jeremy Young, artistic director of Alfriston Summer Music Festival, says: “I have a wonderful freedom to programme concerts that are intellectually stimulating and perhaps more daring than other concert promoters might be. Of course, my festival will not be successful if I don’t provide a broad scope of experience for the audience but now that I have built up a loyal audience I sense their hunger for new things and feel less need to consistently programme ‘classical favourites’. Of course, there is still an appetite for that too by both the artists and the audience…………I feel as intrinsically linked to artistic directorship as I do to playing the piano these days and my position as Head of Chamber Music at the RNCM also gives me opportunity to be educationally creative on behalf of the students.”.
The musician as promoter can also enjoy a special relationship with the audience, especially if one organises a regular series of concerts or an annual festival which gives one the opportunity to get to know one’s audience and build loyalty. This has several benefits: an element of familiarity and “trust” is established between performers and audience, which in turn can allow performers the artistic freedom to create more adventurous formats or experimental programmes which may include contemporary music or new commissions.
Pianist Daniel Tong, whose activities include Wye Valley Chamber Festival and a chamber festival based in Winchester, says: “I do see it as a natural extension of artistic directorship to come up with a concept and take ownership of it. To put one’s own stamp upon a concert, festival or series and help to shape it. Often these are the most personal and meaningful concert experiences. I think of my own festival in the Wye Valley, where we have built up a real rapport between artists and audience over the years…… That festival has always had a real family atmosphere, welcoming ambience and this, I am convinced, has in turn fostered a really creative and supportive spirit amongst the musicians. Some of the best performances I have heard have taken place down there……. Having musicians involved in the running of their events also means that some practical issues are understood more intimately. On the one hand, they know what it takes to create the right conditions and atmosphere for musicians and can pass this on to fellow organisers. Conversely, it introduces us to the kinds of details of which we are not always aware – how to publicise and promote, as well as how to look after an audience. We understand the business better and perhaps then sympathise and empathise more with those in administrative roles.”
For all musicians the desire to create, communicate and share music is (or should be) at the foundation of what we do, and organising concerts can be a wonderful way of expressing this desire while also controlling the environment and manner in which we present our music. Of course, practicalities include venue hire, marketing, ticket sales and front of house activities. When one retains responsibility for all these things, the admin and organisational aspects can be migraine-inducing, especially anxieties about selling enough tickets to cover one’s costs. In my experience of co-organsing the South London Concert Series we have had a couple of occasions when ticket sales have been very slow and this definitely creates stress. However, the satisfaction of organising our own concerts, working with musician friends and colleagues, and creating a friendly and convivial atmosphere in which to share music in some of London’s most beautiful and unusual venues outweighs the anxiety. This way of working makes our artform more democratic and, hopefully, brings classical music to a wider audience by making it more accessible. Ultimately, the music benefits – but also the musicians, the audience and the venue.
James Lisney’s ‘Promoter of the Month’ series continues on his website
©Frances Wilson 2015