A Simple Reason Why Audiences Are So Small For New Music Concerts

Discussions about the small audiences new music attracts have been a constant of my life as a musician since I first entered university as a 16 year old to study composition.

I have to confess I’m getting a bit sick of the topic, mostly because there’s no mystery to these matters whatsoever, and the whole ‘debate’ ends up in the field of deliberate self-delusion almost as soon as it begins.

Last night someone said to me that audiences are small for ‘this kind of thing’ because, and I quote, “Australia is so backward”.

Something in my head finally broke after all the years, and I found myself struggling to hold back the waves of derision engulfing me. I may not have won that struggle.

I’m not going to waste my breath explaining the multitude of ways in which Australia fails to demonstrate backwardness. And before I don’t do that I’m not going to waste my time deconstructing the idea of backwardness itself. Instead, let’s begin from the beginning.

Of all the possible reasons for a concert to have a microscopic audience the most likely of them all is this one: the music has no fans.

Live concerts (or any live events) are built on a fan-base, so if you have no fans you have a limited chance of attracting an audience. This holds true for a pub band as much as it does for a purveyor of experimental sound art. Any performer needs to build an audience if they want to have an audience.

Now I do appreciate that there has been an aesthetic of writing with no thought for connection with listeners, but seriously people, if you write with no consideration of how you are building your audience you can hardly be surprised when you don’t have one.

And yeah, it’s your audience. It’s not the audience for “new music” or “experimental music” or “art music”. It’s the group of people in your neighbourhood, community, workplace, internet forums, facebook groups and twitterfeed who are interested in what you do. That’s what an audience is: it’s a bunch of people who care about your work so much that they want to participate. By being there. By being close to the action. By giving you money so you’ll keep doing what you do.

For about 8 months in pre-social media days I once programmed cabaret for a new, small but growing-in-prominence Sydney music/art venue. We had some of Australia’s finest musical theatre and cabaret talent on that fabulous, small stage, and the experience got me wised up to some fundamental truths about audiences.

The most important lesson was this: there is no general public. Even when you are an institution with a subscriber base. Even when you are a producer of a Broadway hit musical. Even when you are a decades-old rock band. The audiences you connect with are specific, and have vested interests in participating in your event, even when there are tens of thousands of them.

Some performers would tell me an hour before going on “I haven’t told any of my friends about this – I want to see what the general public looks like” and my heart would sink. “There is no general public,” I would whisper to myself as I pulled out my phone to track down even two or three extra friends prepared to drop everything right then and there to come in and bulk out the “crowd”.

Even with advertisements in the right places at the right times (including feature stories, sometimes, in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro section), the audiences for these uniformly stunning performances were invariably friends, family, colleagues, and their friends, family and colleagues. Walk-ups were rare.

Some of these shows went on to be performed in RSLs around the city/region/state/country. But RSLs have their own audiences, their own loyal fan base, their own communities with vested interests in participating. The performer is the detail. The performer has to persuade the RSL to host the performance, not the audience to attend. And so the performer experiences the delusion that the public at the RSL is ‘general’, when in fact it has been carefully inculcated over many years.

This is what a festival can bring to a performer/composer – a focussed, committed audience that is engaged in participating in the event of the festival primarily, and interested in the performer/composer as a by-product of that primary engagement.

Established venues (such as the Sydney Opera House) have in the past decade or so attempted to build this same kind of audience loyalty and invested-ness.

But the best way for an exponent of new music to ensure there is an audience for their music is to take responsibility themselves, particularly as festivals and venues who work hard at building their audiences will want to see a partnership with an artist as being mutually advantageous. And that means the performer needs to attract an audience. And if the performer can’t attract an audience without the festival/venue, then…. You see the circularity we’re dealing with here.

What can new art music musicians do? Try these seven suggestions for a start:

  1. Stop blaming the people who stay away. If there’s no one in Australia ‘forward’ enough for your music then travel until you find a sympathetic community in which you can thrive.
  2. Start thinking about who you want to connect with from the inception of the creative process. So you’re composing a 90 minute work about sewer pipes – who might find that interesting? Why are you wanting to compose a work about sewer pipes? Why do you think people will be interested for 90 minutes? Answering questions of this ilk will improve your composing. It helps you edit, to synthesise. But it also helps you gear up for connecting with your audience right from the get-go.
  3. Stop thinking that the audience doesn’t matter. If you’re talking to thin air then you’re talking to thin air. If that’s your point, that’s sensational, but no one is hearing your point, so your artistic practice is probably more like a spiritual or psychological praxis. Which is fine. But now you’re not being an artist, you’re just engaging in growth. And no one other than your family and close friends care about that. See what I did there?
  4. Stop being a narcissist. Seriously, you think random strangers care about your personal growth?
  5. Start connecting with people. Whether you have a concert coming up or not. Connect via conversation, shared interests, real life dilemmas. Connect by sharing recipes, local knowledge, book recommendations, travel tips. For one thing, having people in your life who trust you and feel connected to you will be incredibly life-enhancing no matter what, but you’ll also start building an audience who really *are* interested in your discoveries and performances. Because they know you and they trust you.
  6. Use social media. You don’t need an organisation to build a platform for you – get on twitter, set up a facebook page, make a video blog. The gatekeepers of culture are no more. Start finding yourself an audience in the global village.
  7. Know who you are. Easier said than done. And really hard when ethical artistic engagement involves change as much as it does consistency. But the more you know who you are the more clarity you will have in shaping engaging music/performances and in building an audience for your work. And the less you will find yourself taking on projects that go nowhere and have no one listening.

Having something to say is somewhere between unsatisfying and stultifying without having someone who wants to hear it. Stop composing, rehearsing and performing for audiences you could have brought with you in a family vehicle. And start changing your/the world.

Classical Music Futures Summit: Quick Points

I spent today (July 12) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at an event importantly titled the Classical Music Futures Summit, having scored a lucky last-minute invitation to be part of the talkfest.

So lately invited was I (somewhere between 6 and 2 weeks ago, depending on how you interpret the invitation) that the sheet listing the participants, explaining who they worked with/for, what they did/had done, along with their email addresses, didn’t include me. Which was fine – I’m very well-accustomed to people asking me who on earth I am.

This was my first experience at an event run by a professional facilitator, and I’ve come away from the day with a sense of awe at the quick-witted skillfulness displayed throughout the event, quickly sifting ideas into themes, managing the time-ego tug-of-war, and working to deliver both forward momentum and a sense of ownership to the participants. Truly inspiring work.

I’ve also come away from the day thrilled to have met some fabulous people in the flesh – people I’ve been tweeting with, like Yvonne Frindle who works with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, or blogging about, like Julian Day who works with Classic FM, or reading the blog of, like Gregory Sandow who works as a critic and writer and teaches at Julliard and the University of Maryland, or who were completely new to me [and I'm so glad I got to meet them] like Euan Murdoch of Chamber Music New Zealand.

And of course, it was equally fabulous to see familiar faces too – Rita Crews, John Colwill, Rachel Hocking and Sonny Chua from my experiences in educational piano music, John Davis from the Australian Music Centre and Matthew Hindson (probably only just recovered from the marathon that was the ISCM World New Music Days held in early May here in Sydney) who shares a publisher with me, amongst many others.

Greg Sandow was the keynote speaker, and there’s not a thing he said that didn’t make me nod and murmur with appreciation. His ideas are deceptively revolutionary, and it was interesting to see how warmly he was received, how rapt was the attention during his presentation, how enthusiastic the applause after, and yet the fundamental observations he made were routinely ignored in the remainder of the day. If this was a keynote speech the form of the day was atonal variations; most of Greg’s themes were inverted in further discussion and many of the comments from the floor were clear efforts at retrograde.

A statistical overview was then given, with what felt to me like too much detail at times along with some interesting philosophical perspectives emerging from some data. I’m just not convinced that statistics are best delivered aurally – I would have preferred an A4 page with numbers, graphs and conclusions that could have been taken into any and all discussions throughout the rest of the day. By now all I can remember thinking is that the statistics from Japan and China and other Asian nations simply couldn’t be lined up against European data without a broader economic and policy background, so I wiped that information immediately; I also recall most countries reported roughly a decline of 3 percentage points in concert attendance, so it depends where you started as to how truly appalling a statistic that is, and that education was attributed to the success of numbers increasing for concert attendance in some countries. Now this last issue struck me as a confusion of causal and casual links, but there was no time to query methodology before we moved on.

We then were facilitated into producing a vision of what success might look like in 2013, and it was at this point that I realised what a very difficult task the day would prove to be: instead of addressing the task immediately at hand (envision and describe a new world where our dreams for classical music have been realised) discussion easily devolved into anecdote or soapbox. And this is where a better preparation of participants would have been ideal, maybe with every participant needing to email in ideas addressing this question in advance, so that the small group discussion would be starting from somewhere beyond personal bugbears and old chestnuts. But even small advance preparations take considerable man-hours to marshall: this was the best we were going to manage today.

After a bit of synthesis we were let loose to collect our lunches and find our break-out discussion groups. I was in a group discussing audiences, and this is such a large issue I’ll leave the ideas emerging from this discussion for a separate blog post.

After 30 minutes we had a break to listen to Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Arts and Politically Damaging Stimulus Programs and former Midnight Oil front man, reveal that he’d been a chorister, could read music (although he phrased it ‘learned the difference between the black notes and the notes with white in the middle’) and had had a thoroughly decent music education that had laid a solid foundation for his work in the rock circuit and political life. When Peter left his prepared speech he was passionate and articulate and connected with his audience; left to follow the script he seemed destined to an unsatisfying end as yet another not-so-well-thought-through-Labour-recruit. He recited the dollar figures granted in subsidies to various music organisations, and this really was funny – some numbers were so low that they were in the ballpark of a politician’s annual salary – hardly impressive largesse. But he could name three Australian composers right off the bat, and even if his idea about the importance of classical music to the history of Australia was wildly exaggerated, his heart was clearly in the more-or-less right place.

The groups had another hour to work through their area of focus and then nearly two hours was spent reporting back.

This was again a time where I reflected with some degree of sorrow on the value that might have been achieved through a more thorough preparation of summit participants; some reports met the designated criteria (highlight 4 key points) while others didn’t even try (4 pages of densely scripted A2 sheets of butcher paper, with extra notes on the back of the final page), and this formal discrepancy created a lack of balance in this reporting process. This could have been minimised if everyone present had developed basic skills in following instructions at any point in their tertiary, secondary or primary school education. The personality of the designated reporter also made for wild differences in the dissemination of the ideas and insights from each group.

But the facilitator was worth her pay: she quickly found useful correlations between the discrepant reports, and rapidly shaped something workable with which to move into the future. Simply achieving an acknowledgement from the floor that an overarching strategic directions committee was needed to drive the next few months was a substantial feat, for this is where territory begins to be staked! Who is to be on this committee?, and who appoints them? dominated debate in a somewhat tiresome way, but then I don’t feel as if I have territory to protect, so that’s an easy observation for me to make.

So a real outcome, with measurable milestones: a good achievement for the Music Council of Australia.

Now for an update in three months to actually measure those milestones, and a new blog post from me in a day or two unpacking the ideologies and narratives in play throughout the summit.