Medium: A Younger Audience for Classical Music

Adam Szabo, 10 Feb 2019, Originally published on Medium

1. One of my standout moments of 2018 was receiving a tweet from a man with the Twitter handle @GingerLoveGod. The message was a reference to a show that Manchester Collective had recently produced at The White Hotel, a club in Salford. It read:

Pierrot Lunaire is without doubt the craziest, most mental, intense, dark and passionate piece of art I’ve ever witnessed. Maddest night sober I’ve ever spent. @manc_collective you lot rock in a very weird way. Nutters.

At risk of pointing out the obvious, this is not the way we have traditionally received performance feedback in the classical world. We didn’t meet @GingerLoveGod in the foyer of the Southbank Centre. He didn’t find out about our Pierrot Lunaire by leafing through our season brochure (we don’t have one). The venue that he came to is an ex-MOT garage, next to a prison.

@GingerLoveGod is by no means an outlier in the way he engages with music and culture, but he is definitely not cut from the same cloth as the cohort that we identify as the “core audience” for classical music in the UK.

2. In a 2017 report, The Audience Agency identified that between 2014 and 2016, just 7% of classical audiences nationally were aged under 31. If you further isolate the group aged under 25, they comprise just 2% of the entire concert-going public.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with older people enjoying classical music, but as these figures currently stand, I can’t help feeling that there must be lots of young people in the UK that are not currently coming to concerts, but would have a blast at classical shows.

3. Manchester Collective is a very young company (we were founded in 2016), but our basic goal is pretty similar to many of the other brilliant arts organisations that currently operate in the UK — to perform the finest music that we can, in the best way we know how. Crucially though, building a young audience has always been a core part of our work, and this has had a huge effect on the way we present our shows.

The way we operate is definitely not the only way to go, and certainly not for everyone, but we are undeniably getting results. It’s still very early days for us (we currently have three members of staff and work out of a shipping container), but one only has to look around at an MC show to understand that the audience feels different. At the Pierrot Lunaire show attended by our redheaded friend @GingerLoveGod, we presented a staged production of Schoenberg’s song cycle in a brand new English translation that we commissioned. Furthermore, the show was presented by Elizabeth Alker, who broadcasts on NTS, BBC 6 Music, and Radio 3. Our show was bookended by DJ sets, and a big chunk of the overwhelmingly young audience stayed late, drinking, chatting, and partying.

So far, so alternative, you might say. Of course it’s possible to create a trendy environment in a nightclub, with people drinking craft beer out of clogs and DJs spinning records to attract a younger crowd. However, it’s not just about the venue. We played the same show a few nights previous at the Leeds Town Hall, a building that few would describe as edgy or underground. The audience was different to the crowd at The White Hotel, but not a world away.

There are a thousand little decisions that add up to create the overall experience that our audiences have at classical shows. The bottom line is that at our organisation, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to create an environment where people who are not already in the “classical music club” can come along and have a great time.

4. You can never be everything to everyone. It’s very difficult to create a cultural experience that is going to be the “favourite thing” of both a 25 year old and a 65 year old, (although of course there are some notable exceptions in this regard — Scottish Ensemble’s brilliant show “Prelude” and Aurora Orchestra’s year round programme spring to mind).

If we want to make work that is going to primarily and not just incidentally attract a younger audience, then we have to start thinking and working in a different way. Again, this is not going to be the goal of every arts organisation — nor should it be. There is a large and hungry audience of age 40+ classical attendees that want to be served world class, thrilling musical experiences (and are willing to pay a lot of money for those experiences).

However, if your organisation is one of those that is interested in young bums on seats, then the following list may be of interest. These seven concepts are things that matter, or things that we have found to be helpful, when creating classical experiences for a younger audience.

1) Brand

Brand really matters. A large part of our audience is not familiar with the music that we play — Schoenberg or Beethoven, Cage or Purcell, it really doesn’t figure in their decision to come to one of our shows. Instead, it is their relationship to our brand that informs their decision to attend — they are intrigued by the look of the gigs, by video content online, or they have already built up a level of trust in Manchester Collective as a curatorial body. They may not know the exact repertoire, but they believe that we will play them music that they will respond to.

2) Embrace Digital Communications

This one is pretty obvious. Since the time of Hilary Hahn’s iconic @violincase Instagram account (currently at around 137k followers), it has been clear that artists and organisations that connect with their audiences digitally are going to be able to reach a much younger crowd. Creating content for your fans online is a great way to stay in touch, build loyalty, and sell tickets — other great examples can be found in violinist Ray Chen (@raychenviolin — 116k followers), and of course in the young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (@shekukannehmason — 140k followers).

This strategy can also be extremely effective for larger organisations — the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestraare just two examples of ensembles that have invested heavily in video streaming and social media. Both organisations see direct returns in revenue from video streams, and also from ticket sales on tour.

3) Diversity of Venues

Or, make music both in and out of the concert hall. Anyone that thinks that concert halls in and of themselves are off-putting to young audiences has never been to a Final Fantasy orchestral concert of video game music. However, there is no doubt that by playing shows in alternative venues, we attract young people who wouldn’t normally think to book tickets to see chamber music at the Bridgewater Hall. Alternative venues bring their own type of street cred to shows, and often have a built in audience that is hungry for new experiences. This sort of audience cross-pollination is incredibly useful.

4) Tell the Story

Young audiences respond really well to narrative. It’s very rare that we would try and sell a show based purely on repertoire. In the case of our Pierrot Lunaire, the hierarchy of messaging for our campaign was something like:

  • Pierrot is a set of songs about death, sex, violence, and trauma. (Everyone can relate to this stuff — these are universal themes.)

  • Elizabeth Alker from 6 Music is going to be deconstructing this work. Pierrot is completely new to her as well — she will be going on this journey together with the audience. (You won’t feel dumb or uneducated at this show — we’re all in it together.)

  • We’re performing the show in the round, and the whole performance takes place in and around a bed. (Intriguing premise — audience is going to be unusually close to the action.)

  • We’ve assembled an incredible team of musicians to perform. (Everyone likes talent.)

  • The music is crazy and different — but that’s ok! If you like discovering new things, this show is for you. (Setting expectations — people, prepare for a challenge.)

Note — none of these bullet points are about Schoenberg being a genius, or about the importance of serialism in the Second Viennese School. We definitely talked about that material during and after the show, but as a marketing tool it’s not helpful.

5) Find the Human Element

People like people. We have always found that our younger audiences respond very well to the subjective. Personal stories, challenges, triumphs, and feelings play very well with this audience. One of our most successful mid-concert chats occurred when an MC violinist spoke to the audience about her misgivings regarding the performance of music by Leos Janacek, a man with a famously disturbing and inappropriate obsession with a young woman. Guided by our musicians, we explored this thorny area together with the audience, who found the music all the more engaging once they realised that some of our players had really conflicted feelings about the repertoire we were performing.

It is very easy for classical music to become like a museum piece, viewed through an inch of protective glass, belonging to the past. If we choose to, we can bring this music vividly to life. Exploring the human element is one way of doing this.

6) Reshape the Core Offering

This is a tough one. It’s very easy for us to plan concerts designed to appeal to a younger audience, and then to place these shows alongside, or at the edges of a “main” concert series. If we truly want to attract a younger audience to all of our work, this is simply not enough. We have to believe in our new formats enough to call them the main meal, not just the starter.

This is not to say that we have to throw away everything that we know and love from the past — far from it. The overture/concerto/symphony format has been around for long time, and in many ways, is a perfectly balanced way to enjoy an evening of music. However, the two models can exist side by side, equally legitimate. When we call a specific series the “XYZ Series for a Hot Young Audience”, the message that we’re sending about the rest of our programme is that it’s most definitely not intended for a Hot Young Audience.

7) Experiential Concert Design

There have been a lot of words written about the idea of framing concerts as “experiences” so I won’t labour the point, but it really is important. Thinking in this way doesn’t have to cost us anything, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we have to make artistic compromises. It doesn’t mean that the old ways are out of date — 19th century music salons were all about experience — it just means we need to take a little care to design events that are going to be enjoyable for young people.

It’s not that the music isn’t enough. It’s just that even the best art goes down a little sweeter with a good drink, a comfy chair, and good friends to hang out with after the fact. Generally, even the slickest organisation can make tweaks to their box office, website, cloakroom, lighting, or bar to engender a more enjoyable experience — our goal should be to make it easy for young audiences to have a good time, while continuing to pay this brilliant music the respect that it deserves.