The first post-pandemic full season of Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts (WLCC) drew to a close with a beautiful rendition of Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s Widmung, played by pianist and artistic director of the series, Duncan Honeybourne. This glorious piece of music was written by Schumann as a gift to his beloved Clara; for Duncan, playing it at the close of his concert, and the finale to the series’ 20th anniversary season, it also felt like a gift to our audience to thank them for their ongoing support.

I’ve been Concerts Manager for WLCC since November 2019. Shortly after I took over the role, the pandemic hit and we were forced to suspend all our performances. We resumed in a limited way in the autumn of 2021, presenting just two socially-distanced concerts before we were obliged to suspend the series once again. Throughout this time, our audience supported us, returning enthusiastically, though in vastly reduced numbers due to the constraints of socially-distanced performances (we could only allow 25 people in a church which normally seats 80), and adapting to new ways of doing things, including an online box office and advance booking system.

Having now completed my first proper season as Concerts Manager (absent a Christmas concert due to the omicron wave), I have seen at first hand the importance of trust between artistic director/organiser and the audience. In fact, it was my husband, who has been regularly attending WLCC concerts in recent months, who highlighted this significant aspect of the series’ success. Our audience place a great deal of trust in Duncan Honeybourne’s stewardship of and artistic vision for the series and because of this, they reward us with their loyalty, returning to the concerts month after month, regardless of who or what we are presenting.

So how does this trust manifest itself? For some audience members, Duncan is a friend, and this friendship fosters a sense of trust. He is also well-known and highly regarded in the local community, as well as in the wider British musical world, with a 20-year record of running WLCC, a reputation that counts for a lot. But I think above all it is Duncan’s unsnobbish, authentic and enthusiastic approach to music-making which makes audiences feel confident that they will enjoy the concerts. (And it’s worth noting at this point that the series specialises in presenting lesser-known and rarely-performed music and composers alongside classical favourites and well-known works.)

Promoters, programmes and audiences

As concert life returns to normal after covid, promoters and venue managers – and musicians too – need to rediscover or reconfirm a sense of trust with their audiences. From the most basic aspect of making people feel comfortable and safe when visiting the venue to the planning of programmes and featured repertoire, I believe a sense of trust should be cultivated at all times.

Unfortunately, it strikes me that some venues have a rather casual, untrusting attitude to their audiences, and I see this most clearly in the type of programmes being presented. I sense a certain unwillingness to trust audiences’ taste/discernment and instead to impose programmes, repertoire and composers on the audience. In some instances, especially with regard to contemporary music, a didactic, almost patronising attitude prevails – that one must listen to this music because “it is good for you” or because it has “an important message”. This misses the point of why, in general, people go to concerts: most of us want to escape the hectoring and finger-wagging of politicians, public health “experts”, commentators and others, at least for a few hours, rather than endure a polemic in music. And now, more than ever, because of the lack of live music over the past two years, many of us want to go to concerts to socialise as well. Concert managers and promoters need connect with their audience in such a way that shows they understand them: the most basic aspect of this is presenting the music the audience wants to hear. If you’re spending upwards of £25 on a concert ticket, in addition to the effort and expense of traveling to the venue, you probably want a guarantee that you’re going to enjoy the concert.

The anti-popular, anti-classical favourites advocates seek to impose their ideas of what audiences should be listening to and then wonder why tickets don’t sell and concert halls are half-empty.

Sadly, an attitude prevails in the contemporary music world in particular that the music matters far more than the audience and that considering the audience is an egregious form of pandering which devalues the “art”.

Music is there to be heard – a particular concern for contemporary classical music. But that music won’t be heard if the audience feels alienated but the way it is programmed and/or presented. Advocacy of new or neglected music is important, and audiences should be given the chance to hear that music for themselves. But in the end, however hard you argue a case for the music, audiences either will or won’t like the way it sounds, and there’s not much one can do about that!

A more trust-oriented way of doing things would be to plan programmes which include well-known repertoire as a “hook” to entice audiences, while also featuring more unusual, less familiar, rarely-performed, or contemporary music. Presented in a non-didactic way, audiences may enjoy the chance to discover new music, while hearing it alongside the more familiar. Thus, you can build a degree of trust with your audience by gradually expanding the repertoire alongside popular classical favourites. Open the concert with something familiar, so people don’t arrive late, then give them something new or less familiar. Programme another such piece after the interval but end with a box-office favourite so people stay to the end.

Musicians and audiences

The relationship between the musician and their audience is, or at least should be, founded on mutual trust.

If the audience doesn’t trust you, it won’t turn up for the concert. If there is no trust, people will be reluctant to listen to and engage with the performance – and, by the way, audiences are very good at sending whether or not the performer trusts them!

When I hear of A Famous Pianist complaining about audiences or insisting that they sit through 2-hour programmes without applause or a comfort break because that would “interrupt the flow” of the performance, or sneer at a perceived ignorance or lack of discernment in current audiences, I sense a lack of trust between performer and audience. In fact, this musician perhaps does not trust audiences at all, instead preferring to impose his will upon them.

Many performers are expert at creating a sense of connection and trust between themselves and audience from the moment they walk on stage – or even beforehand through posts and exchanges on social media (the British pianist Sir Stephen Hough is particularly skilled at this). Verbal and non-verbal cues can quickly set up a sense of shared experience and even friendship between artist and audience. Speak to the audience but in a language they can understand. Introduce the programme in a way that allows audiences to feel a connection to the performer – why is this music meaningful to them, for example? – rather than simply parrotting programme notes. Know your audience and where they’re coming from and respond accordingly. Show your gratitude to the audience – by playing encores (if appropriate) or by greeting them after the concert in the green room or at a CD signing, for example.

Concerts are a customer-facing activity, and while some may baulk at such a phrase in relation to classical music, accepting and understanding this can go a long way to making audiences feel welcome and trusting. Do more “Put the customer first”, and audiences will reward you with their support and loyalty.


Photo by Melanie Deziel on Unsplash

 

In response to my article Where Have All The Audiences Gone, a reader, and a keen concert-goer, makes this response:

First, we need a functioning transport system at a price that normal people can afford.  We need trains outside London running 24/7 as tube and bus has inside London for years.

Second, we need to radically reduce the “cost of experience”. I have no issue with venues making a profit but a sandwich in Waitrose is about £3 so a 10% uplift would seem reasonable – say £3.50.  Drinks likewise.  And have everything open!  Covid is being used as excuse for poor customer service – plain-as.

Tickets – bring the cost down and fill all the seats. The Proms was a case in point – much better to have ALL the seats filled for £10 each rather than the 50% empty I witnessed. I found £44 stalls seats for the Labeque Sisters on StubHub for £11, a sure sign that the market has collapsed. Have transport-included/subsidised offers – buy two tickets for concert X and get the associated rail fare for 50%.

And start giving out tickets for students and children for free via schools and heavily reduced for their responsible adults – get young, really young people back just as the Schools Opera and Robert Meyer concerts did for my generation.

And. Stop Talking about COVID! My view is that our reaction to it was totally overblown, likely to kill more people through a depressed economy than the illness itself. My generation (50s) has always been the cultural backbone audience and so many that I know have taken Covid as an excuse to curl-up into early retirement. I rage against the dying of that light.


Comments are open if you would like to join in this discussion, or respond via Twitter

There has been a fair amount of commentary and angst in recent months about a noticeable drop in audience numbers for concerts as live music returns to (almost) normal post-pandemic. The subject of a number of articles in the press, the issue was also aired in an episode of BBC Radio Three’s Music Matters series. In almost every article and discussion, ongoing anxiety about Covid was cited as the main reason why audiences are not returning – whether anxiety about catching Covid in a crowded concert venue or opera house, or the possibility that the programme may be changed, or the concert cancelled at the last minute due to illness amongst performers.

In fact, audience surveys reveal that Covid is fairly low on audiences’ list of concerns (source here: https://www.audienceoutlookmonitor.com/post/june-27-executive-briefing-with-alan-brown-goodbye-again-hello-uncertainty).

So if it’s not Covid that’s keeping people away, what is it?

  1. Cost of tickets. Concert tickets have noticeably increased in price since the pandemic as venues try to recoup lost revenue when they were closed or forced to operate with limited capacity (West End ticket prices are about c30% since the spring). This is in the face of a serious cost of living crisis which means people have less discretionary spending, even those from the more affluent demographic which tends to comprise classical concert audiences. As pressure on personal finances bite, people cut back on activities and spending which they may deem to be “non essential”. Unfortunately, for many people concert-going may now fall into this category.
  2. Additional costs of attending a concert. On top of the concert ticket (c£25-£30 on average in London), there are additional costs such as travel and food and beverages (a glass of wine at a leading London venue now costs nearly £10!). Add these to the ticket price and it’s already turned into quite a pricey night out. (See 1. above.)
  3. Time value. Is this concert worth my time? Will I get value for money and value for my time if I attend? High ticket prices raise the level of audience expectation: the higher the price, the less likely that expectations will be met, leading to disappointment (see also 5. below).
  4. The seductively low or zero cost of streaming services at home. Why schlepp up town with all the additional costs of going to a concert or opera when you can watch from the comfort of your living room, the only spend being a reasonably-priced bottle of wine from Lidl.
  5. Programmes. Audiences are reporting that some promoters/artistic directors/venues are simply not offering them the kind of music they really want to hear. We have an inherent cognitive bias rowards minimising disappointment over maximising enjoyment; this especially works against ‘new’ content.
  6. Ease of booking. Organisers and promoters report that audiences are booking later and later, which is deeply anxiety-making for concert organisers. Because there is an assumption amongst concert-goers that there will be last-minute availability, and online booking is easily accessible via your smartphone, concert-goers will act accordingly and book at the last minute. This also ties in with 3. above, whereby people are weighing up the benefits/value to them of attending a concert and then deciding at the last minute whether or not to go.

Some possible solutions:

  1. Dynamic pricing — in which ticket prices increase as demand increases (a pricing model favoured by airlines such as EasyJet). To make this work, you have to first open with a low ticket price and step-up prices as demand builds. So, for example, you might run an ‘Early Bird’ ticket offer in the first instance, and increase prices as the concert date approaches. Audiences may be incentivised to book earlier because of the special offer.
  2. Lower prices across the board. Venues are reporting low audience numbers and while all of the points above may be contributing factors, price is the single most important issue at present. Most concert tickets are priced according to seat position in the venue – the best seats cost the most. While some people may enjoy the kudos of being in the most expensive seats in the house, I suspect many more would happily pay a lot less. Why not offer lower prices across the entire venue and enjoy potentially higher attendence?
  3. Give audiences the programmes they want to hear. It is possible to offer programmes which include both the well-known/popular works of the classical canon alongside lesser-known, rarely-performed or new music. Remember that people go to concerts for entertainment (in the best possible meaning of that word), to escape from life’s daily grind for a few hours, to meet up with friends, and because they enjoy live music.
  4. Build greater trust between promoter/organiser/artistic director and audiences. Nurture and respect your audiences and they will repay you with their presence. (I will write more about trust in a future article.)

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

As concert life begins to return to something resembling “normal” after months of silence – the result of government restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic – venues, promoters and indeed the performers themselves can do a great deal to help audiences book tickets and get back to the live music and opera which they enjoy.

I’m both a concert-goer and also a publicist and it frustrates me when venues and artists make it difficult for audiences to access information about events and book tickets. It also makes my job as a publicist more frustrating when I don’t have the right information to share with potential audiences.

Now more than ever we want to encourage audiences back to venues so let’s make it easier for them.

Here some thoughts on things which deter audiences and suggestions on how to optimise potential audience engagement and retention:

  • Artist websites which do not list concerts in order of most recent. Who wants to scroll through someone else’s calendar to find the right date?
  • Artist website listings which do not include live links to the venue or ticketing site
  • Artist website listings which have broken or incorrect links to venue or ticketing site
  • Venue or ticketing sites which omit crucial information such as ticket prices and concert start times; such information is only available if you click through to another page/site. (Studies show that people usually abandon a site if they can’t get the information they want within three clicks.)
  • Badly-designed or difficult-to-navigate websites – especially those with stark white text on a harsh black background, the kind of design which fries the eyes……
  • Over-long or egocentric descriptions of artist and programme. Ditch the self-indulgent self-promotion and instead focus on fulfilling your potential audience’s (“customers”) hopes and desires.
  • Meaningless/boring programme biography notes recounting every teacher, competition and orchestra the soloist has played with. [See above!]
  • Ditch outdated rules/concert etiquette and unnecessary or inaccessible jargon in programme notes. Instead use more casual language and aim for readability in both programme notes and marketing materials.
  • Concert listings, programmes and even printed tickets should include information such as concert length (in minutes) or end time. These details are important for people who may have a train to catch post-concert.
  • State whether there is an interval and how long it is.
  • Consider adding a “newcomer’s guide” to your website, with information to make new concert-goers feel more comfortable (classical music and the etiquette surrounding it can still feel very intimidating and confusing to some people)
  • Venues and promoters should be mindful of the fact that not everyone has the facility or inclination to book online and to show ticket details on a smart phone (not everyone has a smart phone). Do not exclude those people who do not have access to this technology. An example here: A pianist acquaintance of mine described a neighbour who has had a stroke but who loves going to concerts. He cannot use a smart phone to show a ticket or scan a QR code and has difficulties with speech, reading and cognition. Although he has a printed vaccination status certificate, he has trouble remembering that it’s in his pocket to show at a venue. Thus, concert halls and other venues should be ready to allow alternative methods of proving Covid status for people who are not able to take advantage of the digital world.
  • In the age of Covid, audiences need clear information about venue policies regarding measures to ensure audiences, staff and performers are kept safe (pre-attendance testing, temperature checks on site, vaccination status, mask wearing, social distancing etc.). If your audiences feel confident and comfortable about visiting your venue, they will come.
  • Audiences need clear information about social spaces, refreshments, access to lavatories and other practicalities of the venue. This kind of information is even more important in the age of Covid when some people may not wish to congregate in crowded social spaces.
  • Front of house staff should be welcoming and courteous.
  • Engage with audiences through feedback forms, surveys, and other post-concert follow up to find out what they liked and disliked about the concert (this kind of contact can also makes audiences feel “special” and “looked after”). Curiously, it’s the things they disliked which should inform the way you present future concerts. Put simply, you won’t gain or retain audiences unless you understand their anxieties around the concert experience.
  • BUT don’t bombard audiences with post-concert marketing material encouraging them to subscribe, join a friends’ scheme, donate. Instead encourage them to come to more concerts with incentives – for example, discounts, free drinks, backstage tours, a chance to meet the artists….
  • Artists who use social media have a powerful tool with which to engage with audiences before the event. This can create a connection between performer and audience before a single note has been played and also helps break down barriers and preconceptions about classical musicians being distant, elite or inaccessible. British pianist Stephen Hough is an excellent example of someone who uses this kind of engagement through Twitter: he might tweet an image of two piano stools on the stage where he is due to perform and ask the question “which stool should I choose?”. By doing this he draws the audience into his world so that they feel they are active participants.

These are not complicated suggestions – and many organisations and venues already have these types of “audience/customer relations” measures already in place. By focusing more explicitly on the customer experience, artists, promoters and venues can better encourage and retain audiences and give them the best concert experience from the moment they decide to book tickets to when they leave the building, and beyond.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” – Henry Ford

Guest post by 1781 Collective

Classical music is elitist.

Classical music puts up barriers to new audiences.

Classical music is inaccessible and unwelcoming.

A fair chunk of us in classical music performance have heard, acknowledged, and pondered the above statements which are uttered often enough to help us understand why a large majority of the population generally doesn’t want anything to do with us.

Our answer? Make it more elitist, build bigger barriers, and make it even more unwelcoming.

That is, on the surface. Whilst it may seem paradoxical to the extreme, our goal is the do the exact opposite: to release classical music from the perceived elitism that admittedly has a monopoly on a product that we as performers feel too passionately about to let go.

 

UNDERSTANDING OUR CURRENT SITUATION:

First, we need to understand where the accusation of elitism stems from. As it cannot be the complex arrangement of sine waves and overtones that organise themselves into the actual music, it has to be something outside the actual making of it. We point the finger directly at the institutions and organisations that charge themselves with ‘protecting’ classical music, i.e., the gatekeepers surrounding classical music who have spent the past 100 years building a wall around it (or as Daniel Barenboim termed, those in the ‘Ivory Tower’[1]) to make sure it is as hard as possible for an outsider to walk in.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in existing concert formats. For those of us who have attended more than a few concerts, the existing ritual is a wonderful experience. Arriving early to the Philharmonie, Staatsoper, Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall (or wherever you prefer to get your kicks); having a crémant before the performance; settling down in your seats and waiting for the lights to dim; knowing exactly when applause is due and frowned upon; relishing in the silent nature that allows one to listen intently; having a pretzel during the interval (sorry U.K., the ‘Interval Ice Cream’ is good, the German ‘Pause Pretzel’ is GREAT) – all of these things we happily agree to upon entry because it is familiar, and a great way to listen to music that more often than not, we are acquainted with or have expectations of.

As an industry, we’re always bleating and bashing our heads against the walls to how to convince the white whale of marketing‘new, young audiences’ – that what we’re doing is a tonne-of-fun and they should come and shut up and realise what they’ve been missing. What we don’t realise is that telling anyone (not just the new and young) to come into an unfamiliar space filled with people all too willing to let them know when they’ve strayed from an unwritten set of rules, whilst sitting still for two hours to listen to something they’ve not necessarily any connection with… well, it hardly comes off as inviting.

So how does building bigger barriers, expectations, exclusivity, and coating it with a fairly thick pretentious layer of paint go against any of this?

RE-DESIGNING THE CONCERT FORMAT:

One of our first attempts at an answer has been to try and completely decontextualise classical music performance by looking at all the existing rituals inherent in the traditional format, and turn them around to observe how it affects audience enjoyment. These rituals can include (and are not limited to):

  • The choosing of concert based on repertoire, performers, instrumentation (generally online or in brochure form);
  • Purchasing tickets or reserving seats (generally online or through a ticket office);
  • Knowing dress codes and what is generally deemed ‘appropriate’ (seemingly obvious perhaps, though there is without doubt an expectation – bondage gear being generally frowned upon);
  • Arrival time at the venue and atmosphere (classical audiences know arriving at least fifteen minutes before is safe, and that there isn’t entry during performance. Non-classical audiences don’t necessarily know this);
  • When to applaud (the most contentious issue – no matter how much proof you give to fanatics, we’ll never go back to applauding between movements);
  • Communication of additional information through programme notes (is anyone else still worried that something as simple as performer speaking to audience is still referred to as a ‘new’ and ‘big’ change?);
  • Sitting silently during performance with as little movement as possible.

Our modifications to these existing rituals include:

  • Not communicating at any point who is performing and what repertoire will be presented – allowing us then to programme according to artistic desires rather than hiding a contemporary work between a Beethoven and a Brahms.
  • Sending formal invitations to selected guests, chosen to represent a wide variety of networks. Note: at least 80% of audience members are not those who currently engage with classical music on any constant level.
  • A strict dress-code policy of all white clothing. Originally this was to change with every performance (for instance, each member would need to wear flowers, or bring a gift), however the success of the white clothing in atmosphere curation has led us to instigate this as a constant across the series.
  • Knowledge of the arrival time (between 20:00-20:25), with no exception allowed.
  • A blanket ban on all applause – taking out the insecurity that non-classical listeners all experience, which can overwhelm their listening attention by creating a sense of anxiety. Note: repertoire selection needs to support thislarge fortissimo perfect cadences tend to leave the audience with the musical equivalent of ‘blue-balls’ if they’re not allowed to express afterwards.
  • Subtle communication of repertoire during the performance, and using a candelabra with five candles to let the audience know how many pieces have been played and how many remain.
  • Selecting different physical situations for each piece, including standing, kneeling, sitting cross-legged, lying down, eye-gazing with a neighbour, and free positions. The audience is informed that every position is wholly optional, with no insistence.

Finally, we want to address the existing performer-audience dynamic, traditionally based on a top-down model. Referred to by Prof. Julia Haferkorn in The Classical Music Industry as the ‘sit-and-stare’ model, audiences attend a performance as passive consumers: having chosen the particular concert they wish to attend, it is then up to the performer to bear the responsibility for the performance (outside of the audience not moving and clapping in the wrong places). We want to realign this relationship to a horizontal dynamic, with both audience and performer responsible for the outcome of the performance – a further justification for the dress code, arrival time, honouring their RSVP commitment, and non-applause. Primarily, we are looking to create a more direct and honest point of contact for the listener to challenge core communication issue that underlies the current barrier between audience and performer.

THE CASE FOR NEW RITUAL DESIGN:

All of this is geared towards delivering a strong element of value for the audience. By respecting certain requests and requirements, we imbue them with a responsibility which gives them more satisfaction at having contributed to that value. For non-classical audiences, simply begging them to attend because we promise the music will be great is not enough: adding additional layers to it welcomes them to see the event as a whole, separate to their existing notions of what a classical music performance is.

Most importantly, whilst designing these additional layers we are conscious of not letting anything get in the way of experience of the actual music – as our goal is to communicate high-quality classical music, nothing can be gimmicky or without justification. Each layer then is designed to highlight or enhance the listening experience, and we’re fully aware of the fine line that separates ‘effective’ and ‘interruptive’, meaning this process includes an element of trial and experiment. The challenge is to create a natural environment where the audience feels comfortable, whilst simultaneously maintaining the necessary elements of silence and reflection to allow them to delve fully into the music.

Our goal through this concert series is to develop a highly-engaged audience community, who we can then utilise as a base for further performance concepts going forward. By and large, this growing community is completely separate to the existing classical audience: as we have no desire to undermine or attack the traditional concert formats in our long-term mission, we aren’t seeking to convert traditional concertgoers to our methods – hence the focus on developing a new audience base. By ‘engaged’, we hope the attention to experience design, and increased audience responsibility and resulting value improvement, means they won’t attend purely for the Instagram-able nature of the events, or just so they can say ‘we went to this weird space to listen to classical music’. Our goal is not to trick people into liking classical music, but to demonstrate its real value.

Following on from this, we want to create a sense of trust in our product from the community, so they introduce the concept to their immediate networks – i.e., marketing. As mentioned above, the initial invitees have been selected because of the diversity of their networks. Each attendee then is encouraged through ‘Invite Cards’ to select friends they believe would appreciate the performance. Inspired by the members’ club model, we hope this method builds a large and motivated core group of attendees.

RESULTS, GOALS, PROJECTIONS:

Which brings us back to the concept of exclusivity, elitism, and unwelcoming barriers. Yes, on the surface, this is extremely exclusive. However this exclusivity is limited to these early stages of audience-community development – allowing us in the future to curate the larger, open-for-all performances that form our mid-term goals, with the knowledge there is a strong audience base to support. Whilst the images above scream ‘elitist’, we believe it is far removed from the perceived existing elitism that stains classical music in the form of traditional format expectations (which can seem like a private party where the initiated understand, and the ‘plebs’ don’t). And, as explained in detail above, the unwelcoming barriers have a two-fold effect: 1) building value and delegating responsibility to audience members; and 2) taking out uncertainty and anxiety from audiences by communicating exactly what is expected, giving them freedom to operate how they prefer within the clearly defined boundaries.

Is the concept perfect? Of course not, it is still very much a work in progress. Does it hold the answers on how to ‘save’ classical music? Again no, we don’t presume any claims of greatness in this realm. However, our audience retention and engagement has been pleasantly high with a vast majority of guests requesting to come to the next events, and reporting that they previously hadn’t experience such a close connection to classical music. Are we claiming our ideas to be unique? Not at all, they’ve been inspired by the constant historical change within the industry. And is it the only way to break out of the traditional model? Not by a long shot, there are many excellent groups doing some really excellent explorations – and one of our goals is to connect with them all.

Finally, to those who have gotten this far and are still not convinced – that’s great! We have no need to be in competition with you. As it is inconceivable that there is anyone who is actively trying to ruin classical music, it stands to reason that we’re all passionate about developing and communicating classical music to as many people as possible. To those who think everything above is trite and unreasonable, well if this is the case, trust the audience to make that decision – if true, then you probably won’t be hearing much more about it. All we can say is that we are looking forward to the future, and you’re more than welcome along for the ride.


The 1781 Collective.

www.1781collective.com
info@1781collective.com

About the 1781 Collective:

Why play along with their system, when we can just create our own?

1781 is an international collective of musicians and interdisciplinary artists. Launched in Autumn 2018, their mission is to explore new listening and performance methods with music, and offer an alternative to the traditional music industry for both audience and creators.


[1] Quote in Alan Rusbridger’s ‘Play it Again’