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Symphonies are playing a new tune to lure younger audiences

Summer Pops fare is a traditional way of expanding orchestra audiences.
Photo by Jeff Wheeler
Summer Pops fare is a traditional way of expanding orchestra audiences.

It's a sad, old refrain in symphony halls around the country: The audience is getting grayer and grayer.

If that tune stays in the background for many American orchestra leaders, it's partly because they're dealing with wider troubles: a "Red Alert," as the opening session at the League's annual conference labeled it. Meeting June 6-9 in Minneapolis, executives in the field worried aloud about systemic problems that have led to recent deficits, bankruptcies and closings. Orchestras in Philadelphia, Detroit, Syracuse, Louisville, New Mexico, and Honolulu have all faced serious financial trouble.


Of course, the two problems are related. If orchestras can't pull in a younger audience they potentially face more and more red ink. But the familiarity of the graying-audience tune leads some observers to accept it as a fact of orchestra life. They point out that every generation goes through lifestyle changes that affect concertgoing.

Over time, they argue, more and more members of Gen X and Gen Y are bound to start showing up at Orchestra Hall. That may be true, but there's a smaller base to build from. As a League report says,"Gen Xers in their 30s are participating less (9%) than Late Boomers when they were the same age (11%)." and "Gen Yers are participating at substantially lower rates than preceding generations." Largely because of that, the report projects that by 2018, the already declining audience for live classical music could drop by another 14 percent, or 2.7 million people.

Several League conference sessions testified to the importance orchestras place on cultivating future fans. The challenge isn't getting easier; today's audiences are far less likely than their predecessors to have a built-in allegiance to classical music.

Socializing -- and other solutions
"It's an axiom of arts participation," says researcher and consultant Alan Brown, "that as connection to an art form weakens, the importance of social motivation increases." So it is, says Brown, a principal with the firm WolfBrown, that orchestras have turned to the "Symphony with a Splash" concept. Under that heading, orchestras in Pittsburgh, Miami, and elsewhere have held pre- or post-concert cocktail parties, luring young professionals to the music with a social networking opportunity. In the Twin Cities, both orchestras and the Minnesota Opera have launched special, volunteer-run groups to stage events like that.

Socializing is not the only activity for these groups. The Minnesota Orchestra's Crescendo Project, started in 2008, invites its 112 active members behind the scenes to deepen their understanding of music making. During a League conference panel, project manager Scott Mays, a major gifts officer for the orchestra, described group members who have taken baton in hand for a conducting lesson, or experienced the audition process by vying for the position of "principal kazoo."

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Katie Berg discusses the difficulty of turning youthful participants in the SPCO's Club 2030 cut-price program into regular ticket buyers.
Photo by Bill Kelley
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Katie Berg discusses the difficulty of turning youthful participants in the SPCO's Club 2030 cut-price program into regular ticket buyers.

Recognizing that cost can be an obstacle for any age group, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra slashed its ticket prices six years ago as part of its overall business strategy. Extending that approach, the SPCO established Club2030 in 2007 for the specific purpose of lowering the price point for younger audiences. The 4,600 club members can purchase the best seats available for just $10. Assistant Development Director Katie Berg is pleased she can easily reach out to so many young people, but she admits "it is a challenge to get them to flip the switch and buy tickets" on a regular basis.

More recently, the club has added special member events to its offerings and established a council to plan them. Crescendo Project and the Minnesota Opera's young professionals group, Tempo, have similar governing boards. On occasion, they take on substantive advisory roles. Mays says 15-16 Crescendo Project members helped the orchestra president decide not to do away with the box office as part of the planned Orchestra Hall lobby renovation. But group members sometimes need help understanding the limits of their decision-making authority. "My challenge with the Tempo board," says Minnesota Opera Marketing and Communications Director Lani Willis, "is not to step on toes and energy, and still provide guidance."

Tuning in to social media
The growing power of the individual consumer is a given for a generation steeped in social media. Recognizing that, Club2030, Crescendo Project and Tempo all maintain Facebook pages. "You've got to go where the fish are," says consultant Beth Kanter, "and the fish are on Facebook."

To succeed in that new arena, orchestras need to adopt a "networked mindset," advises Kanter, author of The Networked Nonprofit. It means sharing control with the audience, which she acknowledges can be "a difficult mind shift for organizations not used to working that way." Witness Detroit Symphony management's recent learning experience during tough contract negotiations. Part of the battle played out "in a changed media landscape where the people formerly known as the audience had a voice, and where Facebook provided a channel for musicians to share their views," says Kanter. Worse still, she adds, some orchestras have no Facebook presence at all. "You need to be present and listening and participating, or risk being irrelevant in the future if you don't."

As researcher Alan Brown suggested earlier, orchestras have turned to an array of social tools and motivators because younger audiences have become less connected to classical music and the core concert experience. But what about that connection? Can it be strengthened? Brown thinks it has to be. "Audience development is not a marketing problem," he says. "It's a programming issue."

DJs, dance and Dvorak?
"Music is as vital to people as it ever has been," Brown continues, "but they're consuming it differently and tastes are changing radically. Research suggests that young people have categorically more eclectic tastes." Orchestras have two choices, says Brown. They can continue to define their programming around the tastes of current patrons, in which case their audiences will shrink, or they can broaden their offerings.

The choice is clear to Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. In his opening remarks at the League conference he said, "musicians, managers and conductors are not moving fast enough to meet the public's demand for new forms of the orchestral experience."

The push to diversify is causing tension, Brown says. Kanter notices the same thing, saying orchestras and their core patrons are extremely reluctant to let go of "the sacred concert experience."

Nonetheless, it's happening. Brown gushes about the new "Pulse" concerts by Miami's New World Symphony. The audience mills around in a club atmosphere while the music alternates between the orchestra, playing contemporary compositions, and a DJ, spinning electronic dance music. In Minneapolis, Mays says rock star Ben Folds was a "home run" playing with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2009, and he'll be back this fall. Although the SPCO does not schedule concerts specifically to attract younger audiences, it enjoys a reputation for adventurous programming. Berg says some SPCO board members expected the orchestra's new-music emphasis would appeal to Club2030 members, but experience has proved otherwise. They haven't had much exposure to orchestral music, she says, so they prefer to hear the mainstream classics.

Can orchestras do the "iPod Shuffle?"
Ultimately, diversifying the music and experimenting with the concert format may not be enough to rejuvenate orchestra audiences. Brown believes orchestras also need to recognize that people have other ways to bring classical music into their lives. Why not aspire to be an all-purpose music organization, he asks. "Be a player in a larger ecology — not just live concerts — becoming relevant in homes and automobiles" by acquiring radio stations, developing a deeper Internet presence, and surprising listeners like an iPod set on "shuffle." Perhaps, in the bargain, orchestras will find themselves reaching more blonds, brunettes, and redheads along with the grays and whites.  

Don Lee's last article for The Line was a portrait of Saint Paul's Rose Ensemble, in the April 13th issue. This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

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Comments (4)

I blame modern cartoons. Where's the "Rabbit of Seville: or "What's Opera Doc" in modern cartoons? That's definitely where I got my introduction to classical music...

Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and many others have endured time. Classical music should be started at birth and continued through life. If this happened, young people would grow and love this music, just as the "gray hairs" have. Unbeknownst to a lot of young people, this is the music that we hear in many movies, if only in part. This is the music that calms us, excites us, and helps our brains improve. There is much more to this music than any other or it would not have lasted as long as it has. It will never fade away.

The symphony orchestra is the most amazing musical instrument ever devised by man. However, nothing that will stand the test of time has been written for the symphony orchestra in my lifetime (with the possible exception of a few movie scores) and I'm 59 years old! The true "classics" are great, but there are only so many of them. What we need is a new generation of composers who can write "accessible" music for a new generation of listeners who don't have masters degrees in contemporary music composition. If I don't want to listen to any of the atonal drivel written over the last half-century, why should today's young listeners?

I'm thankful for all the wonderful and thriving arts organizations in Minnesota. At performances of the Minnesota Opera I am always happy to see children in attendance and have no trouble foreseeing the next generation of opera goers. Tempo has a strong active community of 21-40 year olds exploring opera and the MN Opera's New Works Initiative ensures that new composers and new operas join the repertoire. I'm proud of the successes of our local sources for opera, theater, and orchestral works and know the future will continue to be bright for these genres.