Scrolling through Twitter, as I do far too often each day, this concert poster caught my eye:

It’s striking, isn’t it? Not just the bright colours and simple design, but the choice of image which instantly says “summer” – appropriately, for a summer concert.

It’s also not a typical classical music image. There are no people in penguin suits, or conductors with wild hair, or women in evening gowns – indeed, none of those tired, cliched images all too often still associated with classical music. It’s immediately eye-catching, it contains the information you need, and the choice of the ice lollies instead of a more “classic” (as it were!) image might just attract people who might not normally choose to go to a classical music concert.

Working in the publicity and promotional realm of classical music, I am struck more often than not by how poor a lot of concert promotional material is – including by the big/important venues and promoters. It is a fact almost universally acknowledged these days that we live in a visual age; for advertising and marketing material – whether physical posters or flyers – or digital assets for online promotion, the choice and quality of images is pretty crucial. Yet time and time again I see poor quality, or simply bad, images, and, worse, in appropriate and/or illegible typefaces.

Today one doesn’t necessarily need to hire a graphic designer to create decent promotional materials. Easy-to-use design programmes like Canva offer templates and a wealth of images and other elements to help you create quality flyers, posters and social media posts, which are set to the correct dimensions for specific platforms, e.g. Twitter or Instagram (this ensures no chopped off heads or misaligned text etc).

In addition to high-quality images, choice of typeface is also important. Florid scripts may look pretty or artistic, but think about how they translate to a flyer or poster. Are they easy to read? Largely, no. Another pleasing aspect of the ice lolly poster above is the clean typeface (something like Helvetica or Arial, I think). Note how a different weight (bold) of the same typeface is used to highlight the composers’ names. The final aspect which receives a big thumbs up from me for this poster is its simplicity: it contains the crucial information (though it could perhaps do with a website link and note of ticket prices).

That oft-quoted three-word phrase from architect and designer Mies van der Rohe (“less is more”) is as applicable to furniture design as it is to concert promotional materials. Too often I see posters and other materials which contain far too many words. Give your potential audience enough What Where and When information and trust them to do the rest by visiting the relevant website or calling the box office. There’s no need to tell them everything about that forthcoming concert…..

Despite the best efforts of those inside the profession, and many outside it as well, classical music still suffers from an image problem. It is perceived by many as stuffy, high-minded, exclusive, expensive and boring. So marketing classical music successfully is not easy, given the entrenched preconceptions about the art form and an apparent inability by some within the profession to market themselves and their concerts effectively.

Few musicians can tell you anything about what they do and/or why. They have been a few famous exceptions like Leonard Bernstein and Itzhak Perlman, but most are strangely inarticulate about their craft [EM]

Maybe musicians just assume that their performances speak for themselves, without giving any thought to why anyone else should want to listen. Maybe we are all so immersed in what we do that we forget to promote ourselves. A lot of musicians don’t seem to know how to get people to care about (their) music [RC]

Unfortunately, we’re starting out from an already difficult position: the words “classical music” have a stigma attached to them – as do words like “avant garde”, “contemporary”, “modern” or “new music” – and are immediately off-putting to certain people. Finding the right vocabulary to describe something that is already freighted with negative connotations ain’t easy. In addition, classical music is in competition with a whole host of other activities which want your attention.

I have lost count of the number of unenticing, badly-written, poorly-proofread and overly long emails I’ve received from musicians and/or their publicists trying to interest me in their concerts. Five paragraphs of densely-written text telling me about their concert series or tour, a dry list of pieces in the programme, the places where the performer has already played (this reminds me of the weatherman who gives an overview of what the weather has been before the main forecast), a boring impersonal biography (basically just a list of pieces performed, places, last season, this season, plus a few quotes from extravagantly positive reviews) – and then, right down at the very bottom of the message in the place where by this time I might not even look because I am bored, a link to purchase tickets. And sometimes that link doesn’t even work…..

I want musicians to connect to the content they share, to the music…. A link on its own is hardly enticing or engaging. On the other hand, a long press release can have pretty much the same (non) effect [RC]

If you can’t tell me why I should attend your concert within the first paragraph – or even the first two lines – of your email or marketing blurb, you’re not getting your message across clearly enough.

Too many people seem to start from the premise that classical music is boring and write slightly apologetic marketing material, hinting that I might like to come to the concert but there’s no guarantee I’ll find it interesting or exciting. Or that because music is “art”, they believe it should not be marketed in the manner of a new film or bestseller.

“Young pianist to perform at concert”

– hardly attention-grabbing is it?

Sometimes an attempt at humour may be used to attract my attention:

“Schopin, Schubert, Schampagne and Suschi!”

Nice try, but that particular concert promotion tweet made my toes curl in embarrassment. Using silly, sexy or just plain weird gimmicks to make classical music look cool or interesting tends not to work, in my experience.

Another offender is the person whose publicity material is overtly egocentric – It’s all about ME! This article examines this particular issue rather well.

If people who don’t know classical music keep getting ‘meh’ press releases, with nothing in them to interest any person with any spirit, any involvement with the world, then all of classical music suffers.

Because we’re not just flacking the project du jour. We’re representing all of classical music, in every public communication we make. That’s a big responsibility. If we fail in it — if we can’t bring classical music vividly alive — then we’re failing our art.

Greg Sandow – Why I’m talking about publicists (1)

When marketing concerts it’s important to remember that our publicity material – from tweets and Facebook posts to flyers, listings and the diary section of our website – reflects back on us and must reflect well. Such material is the potential audience member’s first point of contact with us, the performer, and first impressions really do count. The name of a composer or artist spelt incorrectly on a press release or website listing, errors in press releases and flyers, incorrect or broken links on your website, missing information: all these things will discourage people from purchasing tickets for your concert. And let’s not be coy about this: never mind all the high-falutin artistic reasons for giving concerts – sorry to say it, but we want “bums on seats”!

I get particularly hung up about badly-designed or difficult-to-navigate websites, possibly because I spend a lot of time online and can recognise a really well-designed website when I see one. As a blogging colleague of mine said recently, “Why do some websites still use white text on a black background? Are there people who enjoy having their eyes melted trying to read such things?“.

Instead, why not make it easy for your potential audience?

  • Describe the programme/pieces/concert format in a way that is enticing but not naff, nor dull or patronising
  • The classical music audience, and potential audience, is intelligent – probably as intelligent as you, or maybe even more so! Don’t talk down to them or over-simplify what you are trying to say. Respond and appeal to their intelligence in your marketing material.
  • Provide clear information about date, time, venue, ticket prices – and make sure the links to venue and/or ticketing site actually work
  • Remember that “brevity is the soul of wit” (Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’) and keep marketing material concise and to the point
  • Use good-quality images (but not too many of yourself in white tie and tails or 1950s evening gown) and use natural, conversational language in marketing material
  • Avoid saying flattering things about yourself and instead focus on fulfilling your potential audience’s hopes and desires. Ditch the self-indulgent self-promotion and instead motivate your potential audience (or “customers”) to buy tickets.

Further reading

How to write a press release

If you think you need a publicist….

Marketing the Arts to Death – blog of Trevor O’Donnell, full of intelligent and relevant articles on arts marketing


The following is from an address given by Christopher Stager at the 17th International Conference of International Artists’s Managers Association (IAMA), and is drawn from his perception of what American orchestras need to do to grow their audiences, and how understanding how audiences behave can be utilised to increase ticket sales and attendance at classical music concerts.

1. Audiences are drawn more to repertoire than to artists. This won’t come as a surprise to most of you: a little-known violinist playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto is likely to sell more tickets than a “name” artist playing the Richard Strauss Violin Concerto. Of course, that “name” artist playing a popular concerto will sell the most tickets of all. But in such a case, orchestras struggle with the variance between the two artist fees – a margin difficult to cover through ticket revenue alone.

2. Make no mistake: audiences are shrewd, selective consumers. I am forever surprised by this. How else can we explain why Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony sells better than his Third?

I have heard board members declare that their presumed “marketing problem” can be fixed with “better” (their term), more populist programming. And I have seen their theory tested – always with a disappointing result. When the audience is presented only with peaks, they will find the valleys.

More than once I have seen Beethoven’s Second and Fourth Symphonies sell very well in a season in which they are the only Beethoven symphonies presented. But in a season of all Nine Beethoven Symphonies, their sales will be weaker; the audience will select the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth.

Better, it is an institution’s unwavering will to present interesting programs – not simply popular ones – that build audiences over time, and narrows the spread between high and low selling concerts. One of my clients recently presented Mozart’s Requiem. I proposed that the first half offer Messiaen’s L’Asencion. Each piece informed the other, providing a new context for listening. This remains the best selling concert in the orchestra’s history. Audiences came away with their expectations exceeded, and a deeper trust in the institution’s artistic values. Which brings me to…

3. Audiences buy what they know. Generally, this has always been. We often rail against the audiences’ lack of adventurousness, their limited interest in contemporary or challenging music.

But perhaps we should view “new music” as a subset of “unknown music” – whatever its age. If they only buy what they know, and they don’t know what is being played, what will entice them to come? Their trust in the organization’s artistic values.

Audiences select the familiar. By extension, then, audiences are also buying a pre-determined emotional response – therefore, the standing ovation for the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto is granted perhaps weeks before the performance, at the time of ticket purchase. Maybe to validate the cost of their tickets.

In the last couple of decades this new dynamic has contributed to our audiences’ timid sense of adventure. Ticket prices are accelerating beyond inflation. As a consequence, audiences are less willing to risk the investment in what they don’t know. As ticket prices increase, their trust declines. The burden, then, is passed on to the most loyal audience, most of whom will continue to pay whatever we ask. And as attrition reduces their ranks, we further increase the cost to an ever-shrinking base.

This vicious cycle disenfranchises and penalizes the adventurous through high pricing, squandering the organization’s artistic capital. There’s no real strategy to address this, and there is no end in sight. I have been as guilty of this as anyone, and this, more than any other issue, keeps me awake at night.

4. It’s not just “what” we play – but also “when” we play it. A strategic alignment of timing and programming can deliver new audiences. A couple of years ago, I recommended that one of my clients perform Berlioz’ dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet on Valentine’s Day weekend – and their too-large hall was filled nearly twice over. The coordination of programming to the holiday delivered a sizable audience, many of whom were attending for the first time – an audience I knew would not accept this work the other 51 weeks of the year.

5. It’s not just “what” we play – but also “where” we play it. Strategic alignment also exists between certain repertoire and where it is performed. Currently, two orchestras I am working with are presenting Bruckner Symphony cycles in their community’s largest gothic cathedrals over the course of several seasons. These performances fill quickly, far more quickly than the same works performed in their traditional concert halls. Why is this? Have we finally found the key to Bruckner’s accessibility? A space – both reverent and reverberant – that is the equivalent of the epic architecture of his symphonies? Ole Baekhoej [a participant on the panel] could cite numerous examples of experiences in presenting the Gabrielli Consort in non-traditional spaces.

6. Participation in school music programs is a predictor of attendance. No matter how distant the point of contact in one’s past, participation in school music programs is a strong predictor of classical music attendance later in life. This has been the breakthrough finding of the past decade. Brent Assink made this point yesterday, and it is a key point of understanding and, frustratingly to marketers, almost completely non-actionable. Past music education is not something we can currently query when we purchase lists of potential prospects.

7. Classical audiences are not graying. There is a common and often repeated perception that audiences for classical music are aging, dying off. But there is no substantive data to support this. My own research suggests that a 55-year average age is the result of several factors: children have grown, income is high, and household expenses are low. (We have found a direct correlation between longevity in one’s home – i.e., lower mortgage payments – and symphony attendance.) A substantial portion of the audience (and donors, for that matter) are enjoying a sudden windfall of disposable income at this point in their lives.

Curiously, the average age varies little from city to city and, if historic data is reliable, the average age hasn’t varied much in the last 40 years. With increasing life expectancy, a 50 year old couple entering the classical consumer cycle now will likely remain longer than they could have a generation ago.

And if in the coming decade, the average age should finally increase – should the audience actually become “grayer” – it is just as likely a function of a more elastic life expectancy. Our audiences will get to us later than in the past, but stay just as long.

8. Classical music – at least as it relates to audiences – is in transition, not decline. The problems we face may be global – but the solutions are almost always local. Conditions in individual markets vary widely. Consider…

  • Halls with high capacity in smaller cities; there is not the critical mass of people to fill all the seats.
  • Advertising costs fluctuate from market to market – it can be more expensive to sell tickets in some cities than others.
  • The proximity of the hall to where the core audience base resides –issues of access
  • The newness of the venue or music director – what to do in their third year and thereafter?

What is presumed to be declining interest in classical music may be our lateness – perhaps obscured by our traditions – in understanding the impact of post-war demography on participation. Almost all entertainment options – movies, television, popular music, even books – are now specifically targeted to a narrow potential audience. The indisputable evidence that this is happening in classical music should not be viewed as a decline of interest in the art form. Mark Friend of the BBC in yesterday’s session provided an astonishing number of examples of classical music niche “narrow casting.”

Consider the proliferating number of new music ensembles performing in non-traditional venues at non-traditional concert times. Or the growth of the audience for opera and its resulting expansion of the repertoire. Or the popular phenomenon of “crossover” artists such as Katherine Jenkins or Andrea Bocelli. Perhaps none of these audiences every actually “cross over” to the traditional symphony-goer. These collective but discrete audiences, taken together, represent a sizable market share. So, for the future, consider a delivery system that “right-sizes” the number of orchestra concerts to keep demand high and available capacity low, while offering a new music ensemble more concerts in an intimate space to accommodate its specialized, but growing, demand. And consider, perhaps, that these two audiences will never meet, never “cross over,” but each have their specific audiences served.

These eight points – how audiences behave, not as we think they should, or wish they would – are universal. I have purposely steered away from action steps, as they require market-specific solutions. But these points serve as a baseline to begin to understand audience behavior.