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.