Sounding the right note

In Edinburgh we have recently been enjoying the globally renowned International Festival, the Fringe, the Festival of Politics, the Book Festival and a huge number of additional festivals. The city has been awash not just with sunshine (this week at least!) but with debates, discussions, comedy and performance.

Experiencing a wide variety of what is on offer at this amazing time of year has led me to think further about the types of audiences that I have seen at different events. Tourists and locals, young and old both in demographics and at heart. Thinking in particular about some of the classical music and opera I have attended, I am conscious that parents of young children are often very enthusiastic about ensuring that their kids can experience classical music, not just at the Festival but in general – shows with this purpose often sell out, the dedicated ‘Wee Hansel and Gretel’ for kids a week before Christmas has already sold out in Edinburgh, and the London Symphony Orchestra’s classical music classes for under 5s are hugely popular and uses a lottery system to allocate places.

But what happens as these kids grow up? Some learn instruments, play in orchestras and enjoy concerts and shows, either as a performer or in the audience. But starting school seems to be the end of the classical music experience for many children and therefore represents a challenge to orchestras and opera companies. School activities and sport become more popular; fewer opportunities for older children and teenagers are perhaps available – or is that simply a perception?

It does seem the case that attending classical music and opera falls off the radar for many parents and also young people themselves. It is often seen as stuffy, boring, hard to understand or simply ‘not for me’ and inaccessible. It is considered expensive, although offers and discounts mean it can be cheaper than, for example, attending a Premier League football game. The logistics don’t always help – timings that clash with family routines and finish late ‘on a school night.’ Sometimes the offer just fails to stack up and is less appealing than other leisure alternatives.

This situation undoubtedly leaves orchestras and opera companies with the very real challenge of an ageing audience and a need to target younger and more diverse groups. The US NEA cites from a 10 year survey that classical music is the most popular choice of live music for over 75s (36.5% compared to average 18.2%). So what can these organisations do to make their brand and offer more appealing and improve attendance, particularly among younger demographics?

Many new ideas have been tried and there are some great initiatives going on.
• Using alternative types of venues that are less conservative and formal e.g. PopUp Opera.
The Piano Guys mimic mash-up trends in dance music by mixing current hits with classical music (or mixing two classical pieces)
• Live screenings of Operas from the Royal Opera House at both cinemas and special outdoor screens are increasingly popular – audience figures are high and growing, with almost 48,000 watching the free outdoor screenings and around three quarters of a million people watching the outdoor screenings, approximately doubling the ‘official’ audience.
• The screening of films with the soundtracks played by live orchestras – which is hugely popular (the Royal Albert Hall’s shows are always sold out); a really effective way of helping children to understand the role the orchestra plays in their favourite films.

Initiatives such as this certainly increase exposure to these art forms, demonstrate their versatility and generate news coverage. However, these initiatives are often outliers that don’t really help to address the fundamental challenges that would make the wholesale offer more attractive to those who don’t currently attend.

The concert pianist Stephen Hough has recently suggested that concerts should be shorter, start either earlier or later to allow them to fit better with an evening meal, along with less formal dress code for performers. All of these initiatives could help the brands reconnect with potential audiences.

There are no quick fixes and this is a long standing, complex issue. In my view there are three areas of focus that organisations such as orchestras and opera companies need to consider to help on this journey:
• Understand your audiences – we need a really clear understanding of what the actual barriers are, as opposed to what we might assume they are. Qualitative research is the best tool here to listen to key groups and understand better the barriers, the fear and the challenges to attendance. Does incorporating visual components or making more of a stage show help to bring music to life? What assumptions and stereotypes do we need to overcome? Are film scores and soundtracks a helpful ‘way in’ to classical music? Which relevant brands have got it right that we can learn from?
• Bring your people with you – in some cases it can be those in the music industry who are most resistant to or apprehensive about change. This is perhaps not surprising; being a professional musician doesn’t typically pay very well and is a tough lifestyle with antisocial hours and a great deal of travelling. Professionals are not always treated well by management and rarely see the benefits of the sponsorship that soloists see; the scepticism comes from seeing little upside for themselves. We must cherish and respect this talent, along with ensuring that those in the industry are heard in terms of their own concerns and suggestions.
• Make your communications relevant – I recently saw one of the International Festival adverts for classical music at a bus stop in Edinburgh. I wasn’t familiar with either the composer or the orchestra and the obtuse image did little to help me out. A sense of the narrative behind the music would go a long way to entice audiences: Why was it written? What was the composer trying to convey? How is it relevant to now? How might hearing the music make me feel? Sometimes it’s not just the music but the orchestra or the soloists that could be explained – for example there might be an orchestra of extraordinary young talent from another country or a soloist that performs very rarely in this country; these stories bring relevance to the performance and help it to become an appealing offer to audiences of all ages.

There are no easy solutions. But for Festivals like Edinburgh to continue to flourish – and orchestras to continue providing heart-rending performances – evolution is needed.