Classical Music discovers Clubbing just as Clubbing Declines

There have been a number of recent pieces about Classical Music and Clubbing over the past few months and a couple of hefty dissertations about the “new” phenomenon and the “Indie Classical Scene.” I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time (well, years, actually) as I’ve been playing clubs for a couple of decades now (for the most part with the cello as my main axe) and have seen the explosion of clubs during the late 90s and their subsequent decline over the past 10 years or so.1

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Odd venues for Classical Musicians

The il Troubadore Klingon Lounge Band after a performance at the Melody Inn, one of Indianapolis' old punk rock clubs.
The il Troubadore Klingon Lounge Band after a performance at the Melody Inn, one of Indianapolis’ old punk rock clubs.

Having spent so many years playing odd venues since the 90s I sometimes forget that most of my earliest performances were in auditoriums, recital halls and churches.  Some of the venues are jsut variations on a theme, such as the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, while others are what non-classical musicians will regularly play like Punk Rock Night at the Melody Inn in Indianapolis.

Jon Silpayamanant performing at the Grand Ole Opry with Ray Price
Jon Silpayamanant performing at the Grand Ole Opry with Ray Price

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Is this really what Classical Music needs?

“Your existing clientele won’t mind. Old people LOVE seeing young people around. What if word leaked out? Scandal! Lookism! Headline: Symphony Luring Beautiful Young People To Concerts With Free Tickets! Watch the box office phones light up for days afterward.” – thad

I must say that I’m a little speechless right now.

thad says:

The question is, is the audience graying because the music is not cool enough to attract the young, or do the young avoid the music because the audience is full of deeply uncool old people?

As you well know, Greg, I tend toward the latter view. The music is fine; it’s the audience you have to change.

I think back to your friend Jed and his experience with the Pastoral Symphony. He already loved the music. If it was a professional orchestra he went to hear, we can safely assume the performance was more than vivid enough for a first-time concert-goer. (Do you remember the first time you heard a professional orchestra live? I do. Vividly.)

It was the experience that left him nonplussed. Music, for the young, is tribal. My favorite band attracts my kind of people to its performances. That – almost as much as their music – is why they’re my favorite band.

When young people do happen to wander into symphony hall, they encounter an alien tribe. No wonder few return.

Allow me to interject my own recent experience here. Until about a year ago, I was a bartender and server working for the catering company at our local symphony hall. Our company also serviced a number of other venues in town, including one of the premier live music clubs (rock, alternative, hip-hop, country, you name it).

At Symphony Hall, whenever an under-30 would approach the bar they would inevitably ask “Can I take my drink into the hall?” The answer, of course, was “No.” You shall enter the hall when the bell rings. If late, you shall remain outside until there is a break. You shall not take your beverage with you. You shall remain in your seat until the music is over.

At the live music club, people arrive all through the performance. Get a drink, take it up front, right next to the band, meet a girl there, move to the back for a little conversation, fetch both of you another drink, head up front again, then outside for a smoke, then back inside for more of everything.

At Symphony Hall, the “Development Team” consists of former bankers and stockbrokers, inviting older folks in for dinner at the restaurant before the concert to talk about making a “planned gift” to the orchestra after their death. At the live music venue, the “development” team is the bartenders – all smokin’ hot young gals – each of whom is required to fill their comp list quota every night with 10 smokin’ hot friends like themselves so that patrons entering the club see 40 – 50 hotties out on the floor even before the concert starts.

Keep in mind that the live music club puts this kind of effort into “grooming” their audience even though they are presenting musical acts that already have a following among the young.

I know you’re a happily married father, Greg, but think back to when you were 25 and on the make. Musical considerations aside, which audience would you rather be a part of, the one where the cute bartenders recruit their cute friends, or the one where the suits invite the old folks in to talk about their will?

If I were the executive director of a major symphony orchestra, my first hire would be a new audience development director. I would look for such a person well outside the performing arts circle. I’d look for them in the nightclubs of cities – Vegas, LA, New York, London – where the clubs are state-of-the-art. They would have absolutely nothing to say about the music or programming; that is the prerogative of the music director. Everything else – ticketing, advertising, the bars, the food, the programs, the ushers, the overall vibe of the event out in the lobby – would be theirs.

I’d have them recruit a dozen model/actor types: gregarious, sociable, magnetic, men and women. Give them a stipend, an expense account, and a stack of business cards and have them hit the town every day. Coffee houses, yoga studios, gyms, hair salons, boutiques, brewpubs, bars, restaurants, nightclubs. “What do you do?” “I work for the symphony, in development.” “The symphony? You know, I love classical music!” “Really? Here’s my card. Call me. I’ll hook you up.”

Twelve recruiters. Ten prospects a day each. Every day. Comp 200 young, good looking, well-dressed, fashionable people for every single performance. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. All season long.

Your existing clientele won’t mind. Old people LOVE seeing young people around. What if word leaked out? Scandal! Lookism! Headline: Symphony Luring Beautiful Young People To Concerts With Free Tickets! Watch the box office phones light up for days afterward.

The temptation to fiddle with the music is powerful, especially for musicians/composers/critics. When your toolkit consists of a hammer, every problem is a nail. The fact is that the modern symphony orchestra, amazing and flexible as it is, is not infinitely flexible. It evolved to perform music from a given span of human history. Sure, a symphony orchestra can play Go-Go or Mos Def if it wants to, but the result is unlikely to be satisfying to true fans of Go-Go, Mos Def, or of symphony orchestras for that matter.

Have faith in the music. It’s amazing. It’s your institution that needs work. Its funding, its cost structure, the marketing, the atmosphere, the audience. Take care of those things and all will be well.

thad amended his post with this:

thad says:

One thing I meant to add, but forgot:

I smiled when I read your mention of the 1955 Minneapolis audience survey. My grandmother grew up in Minneapolis, albeit well before 1955. When -in my early 20s – I first started going to classical concerts, she told me that, when she was a young woman, she used to go to hear the symphony all the time.

“Why did you stop?”, I asked.

“Well, I got married”, she answered.

“Why should that stop you?”

“Because I went to the concerts to meet boys!”

For her generation, there were only a handful of places where a young woman could have a drink and talk to eligible young men and not be thought a slut: Junior League dances, the country club, or the symphony. That was it.

Young people have a LOT more choices for that sort of thing today. If we’re going to attract them to concerts, we have to keep that in mind.

The 1500 Opera Houses of Iowa (1870-1920)

The Opera Houses of Iowa by George D. Glenn and Richard Poole
The Opera Houses of Iowa by George D. Glenn and Richard Poole

I just got my copy of a book I discovered about a week ago–a book on Iowa Opera Houses from the turn of the century!

I while ago I had posted about the “66,000 opera companies across America” and as I was skeptical of the numbers it was nice that the poster, Digoweli, supplied some of his numbers/sources.  However, I don’t think we can talk about “Opera Companies” or even “Opera Houses” in the manner we think of what an Opera House is today.  As the Opera House page at the Iowa Pathways states about these Opera Houses:

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Creating Sustainability as an Entrepreneurial Musician

Jon Silpayamanant as a Klingon Cellist at the Joliet Public Library Annual Star Wars Day in the Chicago-land area.
“An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious – just dead wrong.”
~ Russell Baker

I’ve been blogging about the economics of large scale organizations a lot lately and must confess that it’s related to research I’ve been doing with my wife in the service of figuring out how and why things work in the field(s) of performance.  One of our future goals is to have a side business consulting for performers and we believe that understanding what works and what doesn’t work is going to be far more useful than just accepting untested or unquestioned received wisdom.

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