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Bring out the ‘House Full’ signs

Meet the Press: Journalists on Music TUESDAY, JUNE 7, 2005


Vicki Allpress visited Philadelphia in December 2004 and July 2005 to consult on web and email marketing. The principles she espoused during her presentations come from a wider background in developing arts audiences in New Zealand , the UK and the US for chamber music, orchestral concerts, ballet, opera and online music services. She is currently based in New Zealand heading the marketing for The NBR New Zealand Opera. Last night I had one of those proud moments that make all the work worthwhile. From the “latecomers’ room” at the back of the orchestra stalls seats in Auckland’s Aotea Centre auditorium (seating 2,256), I listened to the capacity audience roar as they gave NZ Opera’s production of Dmitry Bertman’s La Traviata a standing ovation. Earlier in the week the venue hauled their ‘House Full’ sign out of a dusty cupboard; it had been a long time since this large theatre in a city of just 1.2 million had filled every last seat for not just one, but two performances of a production. It’s been a good year down here, and not just for the popular operas. I also have fond memories from last February, when Auckland Town Hall was filled by a highly appreciative audience for the concert performance of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. At NZ Opera we know that our potential audience is made up of three broad groups. The first of these, a tight-knit circle, are our regular attendees—committed, educated, voracious. We call them the “Aficionados.” The second are the “Opera Lovers” who will come to the “top 10” operas. The ‘make or break’ group is the third—the “Event Goers.” This is the group we have to reach in order to meet and exceed break-even targets. We’ve come to learn that they’ll buy a ticket when the ‘buzz’ gets loud enough, giving them the confidence and desire to attend. “Event-goer” is a crass marketing term for a beautiful and sophisticated art form. I can feel you cringe. But unless we in the arts understand and embrace the people who make up this group, we will be unable to grow our audiences beyond the first two. And what a waste that would be for so many people to miss out on such a transformational experience! When it came to our full houses, I was much helped by a production that was hugely praised, bold, dramatic and enticing for a new younger, broader audience. I can take some of the credit though, for the outcome. I have certain marketing principles, you see, which I tend to rave on about. Those of you who attended my web marketing presentations in Philadelphia during the past year will recognise some recurring themes. Get into the head of your potential customer You’ve been attending the arts for as long as you can remember and more than likely you are a musician yourself. That does not make you the best judge of what it feels like to be completely new to your art form. Plan carefully and in great detail The earlier you plan, the more creatively you can think, and the more opportunities you can identify and utilize. Plan for integration between everything you do, which creates synergy (i.e. the ‘whole’ being greater than the sum of the individual parts). PMP 36

Use stylish and appealing imagery Whether we like it or not, we live in an age where image matters. Be appealing with your imagery and express the aesthetics of your art form. That’s what draws new people in. Be simple and logical This is very important on the web, but applies to communications in general. Don’t make people struggle to find or interpret the information you are trying to get across. Be consistent Create a brand and a “look” that is instantly recognizable to people, and be consistent with all of your visual imagery and messages. That includes, of course, your website! Build strong relationships Use relationships with marketing suppliers and partners to your advantage. Win-win situations can work miracles and really enhance a marketing campaign at low cost. Inevitably, with such a bold production, not everyone enjoyed La Traviata. One customer complained that it wasn’t the Traviata she’d seen on DVD. When we explained that each director interprets an opera uniquely, her response was, “I just didn’t know that.” We seasoned arts consumers find this sort of thing hard to believe. It’s easy to scoff, but we need to understand where people are coming from in order to get them through our doors. Putting ourselves in our potential audiences’ shoes can transform our bottom line and enliven our art forms, not to mention create new passionate audiences for the future. With the extraordinarily vibrant music scene on offer in Philadelphia (something that impressed me enormously when I was there), and a constant challenge to find audiences, I’d say this is one of the most important things you can focus on. Here’s to the dusting off of many more ‘House Full’ signs!

I think that we’re seeing a whole new school of composers...of people who are not forging a new language but are writing music that communicates and is vital and important. I think that people in our field have had to readjust our way of thinking about this. Ten years ago, ‘derivative’ was a dirty word, a very dirty word. I don’t think it is anymore. David Patrick Stearns

More than sixty people joined PMP at the venerable and well-appointed Curtis Institute of Music to hear what music journalists had to say regarding contemporary music, its criticism and its audiences. The event featured Anne Midgette, Willard Jenkins, Anastasia Tsioulcas, Philadelphia’s own David Patrick Stearns, and Greg Sandow, who acted as moderator. Sandow has worked extensively as both a classical and pop music critic and now focuses his work almost exclusively on the future of classical music both as an orchestral consultant and Juilliard faculty member. He’s also a composer. He began the morning boldly, dispensing with the “pop” in “pop culture” and declaring the death of classical music as we know it. More compelled by a wider category of art music, including streams of rock and pop, Sandow argued that it was time for classical music to evolve or perish. The rest of the panel, as they introduced themselves and discussed their approach to classical-and-beyond music journalism, seemed to identify, if not with Sandow’s apocalyptic thesis, at least with his conviction that change is inevitable and adaptation a necessity. Jenkins, who has worked in a panoply of capacities within the world of jazz (arts administrator, producer, presenter, journalist, broadcaster, educator), now mainly operates via his Open Sky consulting platform. He described Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center as “the 600-pound gorilla,” giving everyone a laugh, and focused his comments on the evolution of jazz away from the clubs and toward festival and concert settings. Jenkins regarded this change within the “aesthetic umbrella” of jazz not unhappily, citing a recent Village Voice article on the same topic and seeming to enjoy the irony of jazz’s departure from the clubs as classical groups clamor to get in. Midgette, the first and only woman to regularly cover classical music for The New York Times, spoke eloquently on the oft-noted issue of classical music’s inaccessibility to young audiences, affirming her intuition that younger generations in fact do have a hunger for art music. She hypothesized that, in part, the perception of classical music as an undifferentiated, “monolithic entity” prevents young people from listening. Similarly, she pointed out that people, especially new listeners, who have idealistic expectations and then experience a barrier in listening to classical or new music are likely to think that the problem is them and give up on such music. New listeners may never suspect that the performance just wasn’t very good. Tsioulcas was hired to Billboard Magazine as a classical music journalist but described herself as interested in the point “where art musics coincide.” She writes as much about world and jazz music, and especially their intersections, as she does about classical. She was optimistic about

young audiences, the growing numbers of listeners with cross-cultural perspectives, and claimed that one of the biggest challenges of her work lies in understanding how best to provide context for an artist or music. The game is over and classical music as we know it is on its way out....I think that the ultimate problem with classical music is that it’s had its distance from contemporary culture which I think has been growing for quite a long time. But it’s really marked now. If you go inside a concert hall, you still will be in a place where Berlioz’s relationship to Beethoven and Shakespeare looms largest, larger than anybody’s relationship to stuff that is actually going on in the world now. And I’m not saying that we should never talk about that, but you want to be in a world where both things happen. This is really not so in the other arts to as nearly a great extent. Greg Sandow Stearns, the classical music columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, was also optimistic about the musical future, asserting simply that, “It’s all going to somehow work out.” He spoke positively regarding the decentralization of music communities, as well as the intriguing friction inherent to the very effort of writing about music. He reflected on the pitfalls of contemporary composition, how people writing new music can take up the wealth of musical vocabularies that have already been developed, and how the very variety of compositional styles and purposes offer challenges to a listener—how, for examples, does a listener differentiate between music meant as an “emotional sounding board” from music based on other, perhaps cerebral or experimental aims?

This page, left to right: David Patrick Stearns, Anastasia Tsioulcas, Greg Sandow, Anne Midgette, Willard Jenkins

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Vicki Allpress visited Philadelphia in December 2004 and July 2005 to consult on web and email marketing. The principles she espoused during...