I was walking back through the skywalk toward downtown after Saturday’s concert of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and it gave me enough time to meditate on some things that I have been wondering about the city and symphonic music in general. Over the last year or so, I’ve discussed my thoughts and asked my questions with groups of friends–and I value that I have friends in every socio-economic bracket.
Someone mentioned to me several years ago that the classical music world has been looking at itself in the mirror for far too long. And as my shoes clacked down the hall, I meditated on the thought as I loosened my tie. Was I in danger of the same? There’s no doubt about the quality of music the DSSO puts out there. I can’t ever recall reading a negative review of the orchestra. To be honest, I hardly ever read the reviews the newspaper writes about the orchestra. Why should I? And why should you read a review of the DSSO here on these digital pages? Excepting a gross misstep like someone dropping an instrument or Erin Aldridge just completely losing it during a solo or a bow popping out of someone’s hand and skidding across stage, how in the world is a technical review of beautiful music going to influence people who love symphonic music from going when they see their favorite composers on the program year after year?
I was told over a year ago by someone associated with the symphony that the reviews aren’t helpful for ticket sales. In fact, if any coverage were to be given to the DSSO, previews of the concerts were preferred, so people would know what they were going to listen to that weekend. But, I wondered, exactly what audience would the previews attract? Would we be, again, polishing the mirror? As an editor, I had to ask myself the questions, “What is the audience? What is the tone? What vocabulary do we use? Do we shut out a segment of readers ‘just because they might not, in some elitists’ views…get it? But, do they, in fact, get it, but they’re not being embraced? Where can we be most effective?”
This season of the DSSO has been especially exciting, I think. The idea of featuring the five finalists for the position of conductor of the orchestra is fantastic. The candidates, thus far, have all proven themselves in technique, choice of repertoire, and their passion for what they do. Devotees of the DSSO will have their favorites, but the fact is that the faces on the stage may change, but what about the faces in the audience at Symphony Hall? As I sat, looking around, I noticed that, for the past three seasons that I have had the privilege of holding season tickets, the audiences have not trended younger nor have they blended younger. But, why not?
I questioned a cross-section of my friends under 40. I have to admit that I was ready for at least half of the responses to be that they didn’t particularly care for classical music. I mean, that’s the predictable answer, right? How many people entrenched in the ether of the fine arts have I heard say that those who aren’t there simply don’t have an appreciation for the art form or have not cultivated an understanding of it. For, when one has the proper understanding and affinity, they’ll be there, right?
It turns out that not one person in twenty-five under the age of 40 and some under the age of 30–not one person–answered that he or she did not appreciate classical music. In fact, several rattled off the names of their favorite works and composers. So, I asked, why were they not going to listen to our orchestra perform? The answers were intriguing. First? Cost of tickets. Second? They didn’t feel welcomed or valued or courted. Third? They didn’t feel they had friends with whom they could go as they preferred not going alone. I have felt similarly, I have to admit, to some extent. I have loved classical music since childhood. In fact, when I received as a gift my very first CD player when they hit the market in the mainstream, the first discs I received were those with music from Bach and Mozart. I marveled over the quality of the recordings. But, ticket costs, for many, but not all, are prohibitively high, thus shutting out a vast swath of those who would love to sit and listen to a live concert of symphonic music. A survey of those who felt the ticket prices were too high indicated that they’d be able to afford an average of 15 dollars to go. That’s about the price of a Renegade Theater Company production ticket (except the nights when they graciously offer their pay what you can nights) and those seats are always full, pay what you can or not.
Which brings me to my next point. Value. This wouldn’t be Oeuvre Magazine if I didn’t keep with the editorial philosophy of breaking down barriers and opening up access for the arts. This publication is blessed with benefactors who purchase blocks of tickets and gift them to those who wouldn’t normally be able to find it in their budgets to go to an evening of the symphony. Those philanthropists value people. Not just the DSSO, but orchestras across the country face a similar problem of recruiting and showing value and investment in a new generation of audiences. And I’m not talking about educational programs or offering schools the chance to sit in on a dress rehearsal, which begs the question of why a dress rehearsal and not Saturday night’s concert? But, that’s another matter for another time. I’m talking about recruiting from the economic and social diversity of this community–breaking the tuxedo ceiling.
I’m reminded of a story I read once of a reporter asking the marketing director of Carnegie Hall about efforts to bring in younger audiences. Her reply was that she took her interest from the perspective of her community. She happened to live in Chappaqua, a wealthy, upscale enclave in Westchester County. Yeah, take a beat or two on that. I know that the 50 and over crowd often have more money and can be an incredibly lucrative market, but in Duluth, that only goes so far. I have yet to see a marketing campaign or language that appeals to a diversified orchestra audience. If the pops concerts are the mechanism by which orchestras hope to encourage an interest in their venues, they’re barking up the wrong tree. Remember, it’s not about the classical music and it certainly isn’t a preference for a blended or pops arranged concert. It’s about showing value and outreach beyond the educational components. Why? The people my age and younger already like and have a working knowledge and appreciation for classical music and they are not in middle or high school. Here’s who they are: students working two or sometimes three jobs, young professionals working freelance and piecing together a career in the new normal of this bewildering economy, artists living with one or two roommates who hit up Improv on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday nights who pay $5 at the door and might spend $20 or $30 more before or after on drinks and appetizers or dinner and dessert. They’re servers and assistants who might go home and enjoy a glass of wine or three and listen to jazz or modern classical. They’re DJs and mixers of music, showing a profound appreciation for music and the history of it and earn some money here and there spinning while others dance. They’re sophisticated in their tastes in their own ways and they do have some money to spend. Not as much as the typical person attending the symphony, but they’ve got it.
The point is they are not doctors, lawyers, or accountants–the typical demographics where outreach is never a real problem or effort for marketing and development directors. They get tickets dropped off at their offices, offered up as a welcome to the community or bestowed upon their own by corporations that sponsor the concerts. You know what? That’s fine. No argument there. One wise person has told me that every event requires some checkbooks and pocketbooks. But, doesn’t the future of any artistic community rely on cultivating a new generation and a diverse group to fill the seats later?
I’m 37 years old and have often sat in my seats at Symphony Hall feeling like an adolescent among the adults. I’d love it if at least half the people sitting around me were my age or even ten years younger and were involved in the more diverse fields of art and employment our city offers. Other city symphony orchestras have embarked on creative, inviting, and even edgily provocative marketing campaigns to appeal to and welcome everyone. In the 1990s, the New York Philharmonic launched “Young Friends of the Philharmonic” with the marketing slogan: “Become a Young Friend of the New York Philharmonic, and discover how live classical music can be as much a part of your musical life as classic rock!” that made some of the upscale, elite, 50 and older crowd gasp in disdain. Materials featured vivid and attention-grabbing graphics, almost as if going to listen to Beethoven was like going to a rock concert. It worked.
My hope is that the DSSO doesn’t find itself in a position of rising expenses and an already saturated market and where their missions and programs lack meaning for people. Instead of considering my demographic an unreliable market, perhaps it’s time to show that they’re truly valued in the community by honestly marketing to them, diversifying the music with American compositions and more classical modern such as “blue cathedral” introduced by conductor candidate Rei Hotoda at the beginning of this season. How about collaborating with and dropping off blocks of tickets at places like Renegade Theater Company? How about a “Young Friends of the DSSO” where tickets are $10-$15 for a year? How about encouraging mentoring by asking those with more to sponsor a season of tickets for a person or a couple who can’t quite afford it this time? How about mixing a diverse group of people at specially tailored community events?
All of these things pay off in the long-term. You gift, sponsor or offer $15 tickets now and in five years when that freelance artist is picking up new clients and making a little more change, she’ll remember how much she was valued and she’ll spring for her own season tickets. But, the marketing, the repertoire, and above all else, the serious intention has to be there: an orchestra and an organization that looks beyond the comfortable and turns away from the mirror long enough to see what’s new, fresh, worthy, and waiting to be discovered.