Classical:Next, day one: Innovation in concert presentation, reversing audience decline

- 31 May 2013

A conference strand on how to reverse the decline in audiences for live music filled much of the first full day of Classical:Next.

Naomi Grabel, Carnegie Hall’s director of marketing and creative services, divided her venerable venue’s audience into three categories: devotees, samplers and celebrators. Marketing efforts were not used to target at the first, but at those giving classical concerts a try or people who were making Carnegie Hall the venue for a special night out.

Naomi Grabel of Carnegie Hall, talking about developing audiences.
Photo: Eric van Nieuwland

The website remains its main platform, accounting for 43% of ticket sales &#8210 up from 25% at launch. Grabel’s team has created 150 videos of educational content and artist interviews, and its archive is being put online, with records so far stretching from opening in 1891 to 1931.

The hall’s advertising budget is shifting from print to online and revenue from Google advertising last year rose 1,029%, she said.

But Ms Grabel offered some caveats about digital marketing. It had yet to integrate its database of 500,000 names with its list of active ticket buyers and, although moving its merchandising operation to Amazon doubled revenue in eight months, sales of branded mugs, T-shirts, etc, represented a relatively small income.

An app developed for its 120th season, featuring New York City walks and much else, produced a disappointing response, probably because it was too elaborate &#8210 it launched late as a result &#8210 and had a limited life.

However, Carnegie Hall’s digital contests were expanding audiences. In particular, those targeting people interested in Jay-Z and James Taylor concerts brought a spillover of attention to classical events.

In the session on orchestras, John Kieser, ceo of the San Francisco Symphony, pointed out that subscriptions &#8210 the traditional bedrock of box-office revenue &#8210 is declining.’There is an increase in single-ticket sales. The days are over when people are going to commit in the spring for something that is going to happen in the fall. There is a lot of last-minute buying.’

A report commissioned from WolfBrown showed radical change in the San Francisco Bay population: the Latino community accounts for 22% and is forecast to represent 40% in 10 years’ time. Families with young children are moving out, single tech-industry workers with scant leisure time are moving in.

Last year the SFS experimented during a festival of 2oth century music with a ‘membership model’ &#8210 people paid a subscription and received the best available seat if they decided to drop in for all or part of a concert.

The orchestra is using more visual elements in its programming, providing a live soundtrack to Hitchcock films or performing the Martyrdom of St Sebastian with film and dance elements.

Christian Scheib, of Austria’s ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, said orchestras with their strict hierarchies were ‘the last remnant of the Napoleonic-era army’. Last year he had asked 100 Austrian composers to each ‘donate’ a 40-second work and they were compiled on a CD. This year he is asking 10 composers to each write a dance in the style of a Viennese ball.

Gerald Mertens, managing editor of Das Orchester magazine, said there was a lack of networking between orchestras, artist managers and venues. ‘Where are the orchestra managers at this conference?’ he asked.

The New York Philharmonic recently found there were 600,000 people in the Greater New York area who like classical music but do not attend concerts.

The Berlin Philharmonic proved its motto of being ’128 soloists, one orchestra’ by its members making up 33 chamber ensembles.

Uffe Savery, ceo of the Copenhagen Philharmonic, revealed that his group &#8210 which was a YouTube sensation with its video of flash-mob railway station performances, is planning to launch a World Online Orchestra this year.

In the final session, Johan Idema explained the thinking behind his book Present! Rethinking Classical Music. ‘We have to stop thinking about performing classical music and present it,’ he said.

He cited examples such as Peter Sellars’ staging of a Bach cantata, the Lincoln Centre Chamber Music Society’s Rose Studio series, and patrons drinking wine in a candle-lit cafe setting at a relaxed late-night hour, while listening to music. There was the Amsterdam Sinfonietta’s performance of Berg’s Lyric Suite, the six movements interspersed with an actor reading the letters the composer wrote about the secret love affair that inspired the music, soprano Annette Dasch’s DaschSalon in Germany, a combined talk show and concert, and the West Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Water Music, seated on a pontoon in a swimming pool surrounded by an audience of swimmers.

There had been many similar ventures, he said, but they were one-off events. ‘Some 95% of concerts are still in the traditional format.’

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