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  • Ditch outdated rules/concert etiquette and unnecessary or inaccessible jargon in programme notes.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

One of the secondary pleasures of going to live music in concert is “audience watching”. Different artists and repertoire attract different audiences (the music of Scriabin, for example, seems to attract a particularly ‘unusual’ audience…..). The ritual of concert going and the habits of audiences have fascinated and intrigued me since I was a young child when my parents took me to the Proms and concerts at Birmingham Town Hall (where the CBSO was based before Symphony Hall was built).

I love the very palpable sense of “collective listening”, that curious vibration in the concert hall when everyone is listening very intently, or when the musician/s creates a remarkably intense connection via his/her performance and the power of the music. At the end of a particularly concentrated performance, one senses the audience uncurling and flexing, like an animal, before exhaling a collective breath and applauding. At a recent lunchtime concert at my local music society, I was amused to observe the reactions of several members of the audience to some rather outré contemporary music which was being performed by a piano and percussion duo. The final piece in the programme, during which the performers alternated between throwing themselves onto the piano keyboard and clapping (including some quite intricate “Pat-a-Cake” clapping patterns), seemed particularly “challenging” for certain members of the audience. Some people shifted uncomfortably in their seats, presumably because they found the music unpleasant or difficult to understand. Another person rested his head on his left hand, feigning boredom or sleep; others lowered their heads or looked down at their laps in embarrassment. Luckily no one walked out, though I suspect a couple of people might have considered doing so. When the piece ended, some of the applause felt like relief, that this curious “musical” experience was over, though in general I felt the applause was given generously, as it always is at my local music society’s concerts.

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Crowd-surfing is generally not acceptable at a classical music concert…..

I think it’s important to be challenged by music and that listening should not necessarily always be a passive activity – though of course a concert can, and should, be a relaxing and enjoyable activity as well. I have experienced sidelong glances from other audience members when I have laughed at the wit of Haydn or Beethoven, or a certain gesture by a performer to highlight a moment of humour in the music. These days I quite regularly cry at concerts, overwhelmed by the music and the emotional experience of hearing it (a friend of mine believes I suffer from Stendhal Syndrome with this regard). Yet the etiquette of the concert hall, a mode of behaviour which developed at the end of the nineteenth century when concert going became more formal, and largely remains so today, can make people feel constrained, obliged to sit in rigid reverential silence for the duration of the performance. It is this etiquette which can also put people off attending classical concerts, and the unwelcoming attitude of some fellow concert-goers, and the conventions of the concert hall – how to behave, in particular when to applaud – can make concert-going a behavioural minefield for the ingenue concert-goer. There is a small contingent of audience members who wish to maintain these conventions and they manifest their antagonism to the more relaxed concert-goer by curious (mostly) passive aggressive behaviour including glaring at the person who accidentally drops their programme or loudly shushing others. Sometimes these are the same people who bellow “Bravo!” at the end of the concert, or start applauding almost before the final note has sounded. All of this behaviour would probably seem very alien to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, and even Brahms and Tchaikovsky, who were used to a much more rowdy and noisily engaged audience. Somehow we need to find a middle way between the very formal behaviour which still dominates classical concert going and a more relaxed attitude akin to an earlier age which allows people to react spontaneously to what they hear, feel and experience……

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Hush! (The Concert) by James Tissot