Developing an Audience That Likes Classical Music

A Better Way to Make Money — And Grow Audiences — Than Pops Alone

If our job as administrators is to help audiences love our art form, why do we silo our programming and further create barriers to accessing different types of composers and music?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to an orchestra concert with John Williams and Beethoven on the same program.








This is because generally Beethoven and John Williams are never programmed together. Beethoven is defined as core classical or masterwork repertoire and Williams is considered film music or pops. And there is some sort of unspoken rule that those two types of music are never to be on the same concert program, which is kind of crazy that they are so segregated, because at the end of the day, both composers wrote for an orchestra. Some would say that Williams (and other pops repertoire) is categorized separately because his music is not composed in the European tradition, following established principals or forms, but the same can be said of music by John Adams, Aaron Copland, Anton Webern, Leonard Bernstein, and others, and yet somehow those composers’ pieces are programmed with the masterworks. The point of this post isn’t so much to say that the way we categorize music is broken (i.e. it’s totally fine to label pieces as pops, or film scores, or light classics, or symphonic masterworks, or new music, or whatever the appropriate descriptor is), it’s to say that using those categories as sacred siloes in our programming is a disservice to our cause. In a time when a lot of orchestras, or at least a lot of music directors and artistic personnel, argue that pops (or film concerts or collaborations with Ben Folds or whatever) is the “money maker that detracts from the real music” or from “the mission,” it is possible that we as administrators are in fact creating this dichotomy, this tension, and this disparate taste in our own audiences. Because we program this way.

Music Director Donato Cabrera and I have talks about developing an audience that likes music. Not talks about one kind of audience that likes the standard repertoire and then separate conversations about new or younger audiences that like something “more accessible” or “more familiar,” but talks about developing one holistic audience that generally likes classical music and all the various and versatile forms it can take. We talk about our job being one to develop an audience that likes music, period. Following are a few examples where we have blurred the lines and broken down the typical repertoire siloes, accompanied by the results of each undertaking.

All of the following programs were part of the California Symphony’s subscription series or special event fundraisers over the last two seasons.

An All-Jazz Subscription Concert (January 2016)
The infrequently performed original jazz band version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue headlined the program, along with Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs and the jazz version of Stravinsky’s Scherzo à la Russe, plus some heavy-hitting 20th century works in Milhaud’s La création du monde (Creation of the World) and Weill’s Little Three Penny Music. On this subscription program packed with modern music (read: traditionally not a big seller at the box office) and a stage filled with the banjo, electric guitar, and saxophones in addition to the rest of the orchestra, the house was full at 96% sold capacity. Side note #1: This concert provided a fantastic opportunity for a focused effort to invite our previous summer’s special event attendees to return, the fans of Postmodern Jukebox’s vintage, jazzy sound who had first been introduced to the California Symphony through our collaboration with the band six months prior. Side note #2: Notice the absence of the typical concert format of overture, concerto, symphonic work. We had never had so many core, traditional patrons and subscribers tell us they had no idea they could be so genuinely entertained at an orchestra concert…until we decided to break the mold again.

One digital ad size for an all-jazz program on the California Symphony’s subscription series that both longtime and new patrons embraced with a nearly sold-out performance.

Pops and Light Classics Special Event Program (June 2016)
Shostakovich + Bizet + John Williams + Brahms + Rodgers and Hammerstein + Copland + Debussy + others = an offering of good music by good composers. Afterall, “pops” means “popular,” and there are good reasons why the works on this program are crowd pleasers. Selections from Carmen followed by the Superman theme made not for any cranky, nose thumbing stalwarts, but rather for a seriously happy group of people comprised of about half long-time, core supporters of the orchestra (read: traditional audience) and half newcomers experiencing us for the first time (people who had no preconceived notions of what an orchestra concert “should” entail). Across the board, people loved it, and we made our fundraising goals that night.

A goal to offer good music by good composers made for an intentionally mixed bag program ranging from John Williams to Johannes Brahms, and the audience loved it.

A Holiday Program with a Recent Commission (December 2016)
Say what?! A new work on a holiday program?! This past season as the California Symphony celebrated its 30th anniversary, Music Director Donato Cabrera programmed a work by a past composer-in-residence on every concert. For the holiday set, this included Bright Sky by Kevin Beavers, written in 2011, at the top of the show. The piece was preceded by a video introduction sent in by Beavers from Germany where he now resides, edited to include sound clips and visuals from the score. By adding this piece to our most popular concerts of the year — the concerts that bring in more new patrons than any other — we were able to showcase our premier training program for young composers to all in attendance, giving them insight into the process for creating new work and into our mission, and setting them up to enjoy this modern piece. The program continued with Prokofiev, followed by an audience sing-along of holiday songs and Sleigh Ride. Never before have I seen an orchestra combine all these works into one program, and every performance completely sold out. Plus, almost 10% of those single ticket buyers came back to one of the next three concert sets in the season (a very solid return rate in a very short time period). Those repeat buyers are now our in our top prospect pool for new subscription sales, and that’s just from this one particular concert program.

Composer Kevin Beavers introducing his work and the poem on which it was based to the California Symphony audience. Including a recent commission on the holiday program did not alienate audiences, but rather brought them into the process of creating new music.

Fundraiser with New Music and Film (June 2017)
This last example features another unlikely programming pair. For our recent special event fundraiser — the culmination of our 30th anniversary season — we booked Anne Akiko Meyers to perform the “Love Theme” from Cinema Paradiso (among other pops and film tunes), and we wanted to continue the idea of including a work by a past composer-in-residence on every program in the season. We didn’t shy away from programming new music on the biggest fundraiser of the year, and instead embraced it, putting program alumnus Mason Bates’ Attack Decay Sustain Release at the top of the show, trusting it to set the tone for the entire evening, also with a video message by Bates introducing the piece and talking about how our program helped his career. Later in the evening, when we moved into the live auction and raise-the-paddle portion of the event, we auctioned off a dinner with Bates, which sold for over $4000. Then when Anne Akiko Meyers made remarks to set up our fund-a-need appeal, she was able to talk about working with Bates on his violin concerto (also new/modern music, of course), and how that collaboration was so important to the art form and to her personally. Paired with pops, we used new music and turned into a fundraising gold mine. How many orchestras are doing that? Not enough.

Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers speaking to California Symphony event attendees about her time performing with the California Symphony as a young artist, and about her work with composer-in-residence program alumnus Mason Bates.

All of these concerts were incredibly well received, and not one patron said, “Why did you program the pops with the classical?”

So how do you build an audience that likes (all) classical music? Be strategic about why, how, and when you program:

Be strategic about WHY you program.
If you want to develop an audience that likes a variety of good music, then program a variety of good music. It’s not rocket science really, and there are simply people out there who like Beethoven and John Williams. A lot of them in fact. Also, people don’t always know what they like. They certainly think they do oftentimes, but consider the story of when the iPhone first came out: no one in focus groups thought they wanted, much less needed, this newfangled device. Or until Henry Ford created the automobile, people thought they wanted faster horses. People don’t always know what they like or want, and part of the why we program is to be tastemakers. A few months back, California Symphony Music Director Donato Cabrera said it best on Facebook (shared here with permission), “My long held belief is that it’s impossible and pointless to program a concert or a season based on what one thinks​ an audience might like. Be a cultural contributor (leader), rather than a cultural follower!” So to all the music directors and artistic personnel reading this, fulfill your artistic goals! Program multiple styles and multiple composers! Schedule works that haven’t been done (a lot or at all)! Do this not as the Lone Ranger though, but in strong partnership with the executive director. Which leads to the next point.

Be strategic about HOW you program.
Our job as administrators is to proliferate and propagate the art form, so let’s be smart about this. We’re not putting the all-Schoenberg concert on our season anytime soon, because how we program matters. Research shows that people like what’s familiar to them, which is why the masterworks of the repertoire — and music from our favorite films — are well loved. We have a duty to help people enjoy those works that are so adored, in addition to a duty to help those same people understand and appreciate, if not love just as much, other types of classical music too. So mix it up, put varying degrees of familiarity together, but also do those introductory videos, and/or write really interesting (not boring) program notes, and/or have maestro speak from the podium. One of my favorite moments this season was when Donato introduced from the stage a work by Christopher Theofanidis by simply stating that the piece was based on a C-Major scale, “the white keys on the piano,” as he put it. Pretty much everyone, even if they had no musical training whatsoever, knows what a piano or keyboard looks like and knows what the white keys are. And even for me, with a degree in music performance from a top school, that made an impact…I knew exactly for what I was supposed to listen, and it significantly improved all of our collective experience and enjoyment of the piece. Our job is to help the audience go on the journey, and we must be thoughtful and strategic about how we do that.

Be strategic about WHEN you program.
There are times when it’s better to break the mold than others. Sales data supports this, and when all is said and done, sales are, like, really important to our bottom line. So often though, it’s our focus on sales that leads to siloed programming in the first place, and the whole point of this post is to contend that we need to get away from that and instead use sales data to enhance — not play at odds with — artistic decisions. For example, it is no coincidence that next season, the program scheduled immediately before subscription renewals drop is Mozart’s Requiem. It’s totally safe, timeless, and probably going to sell out. And that’s exactly what we want before announcing a new season. So when Donato first brought up that he wanted to do this seminal work with a big chorus (read: expensive!!!), we had a conversation about when on the season best maximized this opportunity for us. On the other hand, when he wanted to program the California premiere of living composer Nathaniel Stookey’s YTTE (Yield to Total Elation), which is not exactly a box office home run (at least not yet!), he talked about pairing that with a Mahler symphony, and we agreed this could be a strong opening to the season. No subscription sales are hinging on the performance, except for the choose-your-own packages we’ll be pushing by the time August/September marketing rolls around, and this is one of those concerts that some people will be happy to choose and some not so much. If we had scheduled this program for say, January, by that time in the season, this program would have had to be on all our small packages because we won’t have as many concerts left to offer, and that simply isn’t the most strategic approach to maximizing those sales. In the end, the music director was able to program the repertoire he wanted and our marketing plan is set up for success. When you program makes a difference.

We live in a time where the value of classical music is not intrinsic to everyone, and in response to that our industry tends to overly focus on concert formats (shorter concerts, rush hour start times, new lighting and projections) and other programming (movie concerts, semi-staged musicals and operas, video game music, pop/rock/hip-hop star collaborations) as a means to draw in those that are unfamiliar with or new to the art form. To a degree this works, and to a degree this does translate to sales. It’s just that we submit to these programming siloes like we’re embarrassed of our core product or something, or like we believe that new audiences won’t see the value in or enjoy “traditional” music. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and we think our traditional audiences won’t see the value in or enjoy the new formats or programming. It’s all good, important, and entertaining though, and all a part of our living, evolving art form. An artistic vision (and a marketing plan) can live in harmony with John Williams and Beethoven, and we do ourselves and our audience a disservice when we as administrators treat them as two composers — or two types of composers — who can’t share the stage. Developing people who love music, period, is achievable.

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when many arts organizations are finding it more and more difficult to meet rising ticket, subscription, and fundraising goals, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (young patrons group for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to quadruple the size of its donor base. From growing audiences, increasing concerts, and expanding programs to instilling and achieving common goals across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, Bergauer is someone you want to follow — on the nationally-recognized blog she created to discuss what actually works in a changing arts landscape, and in real life, too.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through ground-breaking marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of technology, and through taking strategically calculated risks in a risk-averse field. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of impact and execution at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around.” (Mercury News) Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization’s mission and vision is creating a transformational change in the office, on the stage, in the audience, in the community, and going well beyond the industry of classical music.

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.

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