One of the most exciting orchestra concerts I’ve ever attended was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on Boston Common in September of 1998. The police estimated that the crowd was 80,000 people strong, and as I recall most of them stood packed, shoulder-to-shoulder over an area the size of a football field in front of the stage. Seiji Ozawa, whose 50th anniversary as music director was being celebrated, was ill, and Assistant Conductor Federico Cortese conducted the first movements, but it was announced that Ozawa would take the podium for the final movement, the Ode to Joy. But after only two movements, Cortese left the stage. Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer described Ozawa’s surprise early arrival: “There was some applause as the soloists entered and took their positions, but the real thrill came on the giant video screen, where the audience could see Ozawa standing in the wings, speaking quietly to Cortese. A few seconds later, Ozawa took a deep breath and walked on, as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the audience leapt up, and even the orchestra applauded.” I remember extended cheering and raucous applause. Where, we might ask, did these 80,000 people come from, and where did they go after it was all over? Many of the standard explanations for the difficulties that orchestras have in appealing to the popular audience seem flimsy in the face of this overwhelming if short-lived response. Perhaps a good place to start would be to understand the differences between the popular music culture and the orchestra culture to see how they are difficult to integrate. I have been developing a conceptual model for analyzing the structure of the popular music culture and comparing it with the classical music culture which turns out to be quite revealing.
There are essentially two parallel models for the experience, discovery, and propagation of popular music, which apply to two different phases of the careers of musical acts. At the local Scene level, unknown and moderately known bands play gigs in bars and nightclubs. The bars charge a modest “cover” of $10 to $20, and the fans spend some time listening to the music and some time hanging out at the bar or outside the venue. Fans discover new music because they are deliberately putting themselves into circumstances where they are likely to be exposed to new music. For our purposes, one of the most important aspects of this economy is that discovery of music happens at concerts and recordings are sold on the basis of enjoyment of the concert experience; at the national level we will see that this relationship is reversed. Over the last decade or so, especially with the advent of filesharing networks and of MySpace, internet based social networking has become a critical means of music distribution and tool for music discovery as well. As in the bar scene, fans find new music through trial and error, and sites like MySpace are designed to be used by bands in conjunction with their live shows – MySpace offers a variety of ways for bands to keep fans updated on when and where the next live shows will be. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call this the “Seeking” strategy, since it is characterized by active seeking of interesting unfamiliar music and of social situations in which such music might be discovered.
The second level is national fame. Commercial success at this level is primarily a question of record sales, and those sales are driven by a combination of direct advertising, commercial radio play, appearances by the band on television programs like Saturday Night Live and David Letterman, song placement in movies and TV shows, and word of mouth. The band will also tour to promote the album, and these concerts can be quite expensive. In a brief review of some of the big concerts currently being promoted at Ticketmaster, I came up with the following representative ticket price ranges:
Jimmy Buffett: $36 to $126
Kenny Chesney: $56 to $66
The Killers: $33 to $50
The Police: $50 to $225
I suspect that few people attend these Event concerts who haven’t already become fans through hearing recordings. Many people will buy the new album before seeing the show so that they will already know the songs when they see the show live, and I suspect that most attendees will ultimately own the album whether they buy it before the show or afterwards. Let’s call this model of casually consuming the mass media and picking out the music that is most appealing from the buffet it presents the “Absorbing” strategy, since it is chiefly characterized by receiving and filtering the music presented by the mass media.
Most people employ both of these strategies but are inclined more to one than to the other. This model is, to be clear, a dramatic oversimplification of a very complex ecosystem, but it’s accurate enough for our current purposes. One final, crucial element ties all of this together: in both the seeking and absorbing strategies there is a direct link between recorded music and live performance; they feed into each other and are both chronologically and strategically directly linked.
The structure of the classical music economy is quite different from its popular music analogue. Since I am writing for “Take A Friend To The Orchestra” I will focus on the structure of the orchestra “scene” specifically rather than trying to cover chamber music as well.
Historically speaking, orchestras tend to structure their seasons for people who are willing to commit in advance to a series of concerts via a subscription and are willing to trust that the repertoire selected for the season will be appealing; orchestras continue to prefer this model when they can make it work. Obviously, purchasing a subscription requires a fairly substantial financial investment up front, as well as a commitment to long-term scheduling, but single tickets are expensive as well. I conducted a small survey of ticket prices, and found the following representative price ranges at a few American orchestras:
Chicago Symphony Orchestra: $19 to $199
Los Angeles Philharmonic: $39 to $135
Boston Symphony Orchestra: $30 to $111
Nashville Symphony Orchestra: $30 to $100, on the high end, and $16 to $63 on the low
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: $25 to $78
Many orchestras also offer student rush tickets for around $10
Repertoire at orchestra concerts varies widely, not just from concert to concert but sometimes within concerts, the expectation being that the audience will have a sufficiently broad classical taste that all or most of this music will be appealing or that they will be willing to pay the cost of admission even if some of the music disappoints. With ticket prices as high as they are, the audience must either be relatively wealthy, have an interest in classical music that is both broad and deep, or be willing to risk not liking part of the program.
While many people go out to dinner before or after a concert (and many halls have restaurants off the lobby) the structure of the events and of the facilities themselves are not particularly conducive to socialization, especially since the atmosphere of reverence for the music makes socialization during the concert basically impossible Most of the real social events around orchestras are organized as part of the organization’s fundraising effort, and the price of admission is often correspondingly high.
For a variety of structural reasons, the bulk of any given orchestra’s repertoire is not recorded by that ensemble, and when an orchestra does record, the CD is typically released months or even years after the concerts on which the music was presented to the public. Recently, a number of orchestras have been focusing on trimming that delay, and some are making digital downloads of live performances available quite quickly. On the other hand, the recording of John Adams’s 2003 piece “The Dharma at Big Sur” wasn’t released until three years after the premiere. At the same time, most of the historical repertoire has been recorded before, and usually a prospective CD buyer has many recordings to choose from and can purchase them at any time, regardless of whether any local orchestra has or ever will perform it. Recorded music, then, is quite disconnected from live music in the classical world.
As we compare them side-by-side, many of the structural differences between the classical and popular economies begin to emerge. Can we be surprised that people accustomed to living within one structure have difficulty transitioning into another and appreciating what it has to offer? How much of what we perceive as a lack of understanding of classical music can be explained by a difficulty in relating to the structure of the classical music economy on its own terms? Let’s look at what happens when classical music is approached with the Seeking or Absorbing strategies developed for the navigating the popular culture.
The Seeker is, contrary to what we might think, basically risk-averse. Searching for new music is inherently risky since much of the music encountered will be unappealing, so the Seeker offsets this risk by only investing small amounts of money in those risky concerts, and by combining concerts with social events so that even if the music doesn’t work out the evening is still fun. Taking advantage of social networking websites and freely available digital music reduces the risks even further by enabling the Seeker to get recommendations from people with similar tastes, find out about concerts by appealing-sounding bands, and preview those concerts. Classical concerts have risky programs (broad range of style within a genre that’s already less well known by the popular music audience, and difficulty of previewing for free) but lack the cheap prices and social elements that would offset that risk. While student rush tickets are an important exception to the price problem, they apply only to a small segment of the population, and the inferiority of a classical concert as a social venue remains a problem. The availability of social occasions in the form of fundraising events doesn’t help, since they are priced for people who are already committed to the orchestra and to classical music. I suspect that the greater need for advanced planning to attend a classical concert also exacerbates the risk. Finally, the disconnection of the orchestra concert from the classical recording makes it difficult for the new audience member to cultivate his interest in the music heard at the concert in the way he is accustomed to doing.
The Absorber has a different but related set of difficulties. As we have seen, ticket prices for orchestra concerts are relatively comparable to ticket prices for major popular music concerts, and one might reasonably draw a comparison between waiting for one’s favorite band to come through town on tour and waiting for one’s favorite pieces to be programmed on the local orchestra’s season. The minimal social element of the major popular concert is also analogous to the social aspects of orchestra concerts. The problem arises in the source of interest in the concert. The Absorber is accustomed to having his interest in attending an Event concert cultivated by media coverage, radio play, perhaps music videos on MTV and VH1, and usually by a big record release. An orchestra concert, however, is almost never preceded by major media coverage or by a record release event. In this way the Absorber is also risk-averse: justifying the cost of an Event concert requires near certainty that it will be worth attending, and the Absorber draws conclusions about that risk on the basis of already knowing the music or the band. The classical model asks that the audience trust that the concert will be worth attending based on a general love of the genre and trust in the judgment of the music director. The way in which orchestras tend to focus on selling many tickets to a small group of people (especially in the form of subscriptions) also conflicts with the popular music model. For an orchestra most single concerts are not Events, but rather elements of an ongoing series, so they are not promoted in the way that the Absorber expects them to be. The Absorber expects to go to relatively few Event concerts each year, and venues for such events sell many tickets on the basis of deep, targeted appeals that bring in a different constituency for each show, whereas orchestras sell tickets on the basis of broad, general appeal that attempts to bring in a few constituencies for many shows.
I don’t mean by any of this analysis to say that the structure of the orchestra economy is bad, or even that it is inferior to the structure of the popular economy. In fact, that selling subscriptions has worked as a business model for so long and that so much fundraising money can be raised by orchestras indicates that the current structure works very well for a large constituency. If, however, we want to attract new audiences from the popular music audience we need to understand the barriers, and the model I have proposed shows that structural differences can be a major barrier. Looking back at the BSO concert on the Common, we can see that it met the structural expectations of the popular audience: for the Seekers, the price was right and the social environment was passable, and for the Absorbers the music was relatively familiar and the concert had been marketed as an Event. Most orchestra concerts can’t follow this model, but many orchestras are already doing good work.
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How can we, as advocates of classical music who want to turn our friends into classical music concert-goers, use this model to advance our goals? By now you’ve probably already come up with a number of strategies, but here are a few specific thoughts: Figure out which of the two strategies your friends prefer, and find ways to modify the concert experience accordingly. An orchestra concert could be made more social if a whole group of friends went together, much in the way that groups of friends go out to movies together. Plan to hit a bar or go to dinner afterwards. Find ways to take advantage of student rush tickets if you are eligible for them, or find the cheap or free concerts that your local orchestra puts on. The Seekers in your life will be interested in discovering new music if a person whose judgment they trust tells them that it’s exciting. The Absorbers will be less inclined to need the social elements, but will need confidence that the music will be worth hearing. Pick a concert that features a piece or a composer that you know your friend is already excited about. Loan the friend some CDs with the repertoire for the concert to cultivate interest and insure that you choose a concert with music that will be appealing. Most of all, keep this model in mind so that you can capitalize on the specifics of your circumstances. And as we prepare for a brighter future for orchestral music, understanding the forces at work is always the best place to start.