The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the back page of its Pursuits section in today's weekend edition. The subject is a recent report by the Magic of Music Initiative, a project started about ten years ago to study concert attendance at symphony orchestras and to attempt to find a way of reversing the fall in the fortunes of American concert halls. The study has uncovered a lot of useful background information on the listening habits and preferences of Americans, and simultaneously has reached a lot of dispiriting conclusions about pragmatic solutions to the problem of flagging concert attendance.

So what doesn't work in terms of driving up concert attendance? In short, everything. The study determined that none of the current outreach and advertising methods employed by symphony orchestras has a positive effect on attendance.

Free concerts are one of the most frequently used methods, and while they may be well-attended they don't result in greater paid concert attendance. The majority of attendees at free concerts are subscribers who already pay to attend concerts regularly. Those who go to free concerts and don't regularly pay to go to the symphony are almost never converted to paying customers by free concerts; they merely become regular attendees of free concerts.

Educational outreach is similarly ineffective. Symphony orchestras have tried to offer free or cheap lectures to the public on classical music, in the hopes that it would make the symphony less intimidating and spark an interest in concert attendance. Here, the imbalance between regular attendees and neophytes is even more stark than in free concert attendance: nearly everyone who attends these lectures is already a paying symphony attendee, taking the opportunity to broaden their understanding of the music.

Youth outreach generally doesn't work, either. Young Persons Concerts, orchestra performances at elementary and middles schools, and general exposure to live classical music seems to have no effect on concert attendance later in the lives of children thus exposed. The one slightly positive thing that the study uncovered is that playing an instrument does seem to have an impact on symphony attendance. 74% of regular concert attendees played an instrument or sang in a chorus as a child. Unfortunately, the correlation doesn't work in reverse; if you're a concert attendee, you probably played an instrument, but playing an instrument doesn't mean you'll become a concert attendee. So expanded hands-on music education offers a means of growing the pool of potential people to lure to concerts, but offers no lessons on how to actually get butts into seats.

So what works? Nothing. At least, nothing tried so far. The study did, however, produce interesting background research on American musical tastes and has given some idea of what aspects of the concert experience are problematic and what aspects aren't. The most hopeful finding: The music itself isn't the problem. 60% of Americans expressed an interest in classical music and in learning more about it, and a third of Americans make listening to classical music a part of their daily lives. But while that 60% purchases classical music recordings (owning an average of 16 CDs each), only 5% of the 60% actually attend concerts.

So the interest is there, but orchestras have thus far failed at turning that interest into attendance. The report posits several possible avenues of exploration in the future. The first is greater community outreach. Right now, the principle audience for orchestras is white, old, and wealthy. Symphonies need to do a better job of becoming a part of their community, rather than an island of high culture removed from its surroundings.

As an aside, this strikes me as a very confused and hand-wavey solution to the problem. Supposedly education doesn't work, free concerts don't work, and there's no need to change the music on offer because people are already interested enough in it. I'm not sure exactly how symphonies are supposed to integrate with their communities without offering free concerts, free education, or a selection of music designed to appeal to the local community.

The study also suggests that the venue is the problem. People enjoy classical music on the radio, and classical music CDs, but that doesn't translate to actually jackassing to a concert hall and paying for a ticket to listen to live music for several hours. Perhaps the solution is to perform shorter works or to charge less for tickets.

There's also another element that isn't really addressed by the study, but that I think might underlie a lot of the problems. Classical music is, you'll be shocked to learn, fairly conservative. It's been a long time since a new piece of music has entered the canon. That's not to say that new works aren't being composed, just that they seldom get much play by orchestras.

One of the techniques that various symphonies have tried to increase attendance by younger audiences is to increase the proportion of new pieces performed. The Magic of Music study determined that this doesn't work. It alienates older audiences who want the so-called Three Bs (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms), and younger people aren't particularly drawn to the new pieces (Because they haven't heard of them, because nobody performs them). So playing new music just hurts symphonies and, according to the study, orchestras ought to stick to the classics.

While that might be true in the short run, I think it's part of what's slowly strangingly classical music. One hundred years ago new pieces were being composed, performed, and, if audiences liked them, they entered the canon. There was a strong willingness to experiment with new music. That has stopped. A new piece hasn't entered the canon in over half a century.

The problem is that new music isn't particularly profitable. Essentially nobody is walking around saying to themselves "I never go to concerts because they never play music by bold experimentalists like Kaaija Saariaho, or even stuff by Phillip Glass or John Adams." Playing new music annoys regular attendees and doesn't bring anyone new in.

But playing new music is vital for the continued existence of classical music. Classial music has been made into an antique, an oddity to be studied carefully and not to be tampered with. Nobody gets excited about new pieces being performed, and that means that classical music lacks a vibrancy that popular music possesses. It's hard to attract a new listener with the prospect of the orchestra's five millionth performance of the same Brahms concerto that they play ten times a year.

The problem is the overall aesthetic. The lack of new music means that classical music is pitched to people not as a vital art form, but as a history lesson. That puts it at an advertising disadvantage; where popular music functions on a simple "attend concerts because you enjoy them" pitch, classical music sets itself up as "attend concerts, not because they are enjoyable, but because they are good for you and you'll learn something from attending them." Playing new music isn't a short-term means of attracting a new audience; it's a long-term way of transforming classical music from a high-brow academic pursuit into a normal form of musical expression and enjoyment.

But of course, the problem is that playing new music is something of a luxury. As mentioned, new music pushes out present customers and doesn't attract new ones, at least in the short term. And right now, orchestras are barely surviving with the old patrons. They can't afford to take a loss for the greater good of classical music by playing a bunch of new music that may never catch on.

I'm interested to know what people think about attending symphonies, particularly people who don't right now. Why don't you? This is not intended to be accusative. If, for instance, you're just not interested there's not much to be done about that. But if you are interested in classical music, why hasn't that translated to attending concerts? Too expensive? Too intimidating? Too long? Not enough interested friends to go with? Or does it just never occur to you to look into it?

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 4, 2006 3:33 PM.

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