Gary Levinson
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Why is Classical Music Marketing So Bizarre?

Gary Levinson's classical music column Guts & Rosin returns. This time he explores the current marketing of classical music and opera.

published Tuesday, January 15, 2019



It’s that time of the year. Everywhere you look it seems like we have to buy something. It seems like every day is Black Friday. So I was really gratified to have read a refreshing missive written by Jennifer Gersten, dealing with the message du jour that many classical music marketers have embraced, namely, music as a relaxing alternative to our frenetic world. This well-written article was penned by an award-winning, twentysomething doctoral student, the very age demographic marketers constantly covet, often complaining they can’t be reached.

Her opening sentence is at once an attention-grabber and thought-provoking: “If classical music really sounded the way it’s described in radio ads, composers would have fallen asleep while writing it.” Think about it: how often does one question an ad’s veracity when given a choice of where to go for the evening? Do we hear a radio ad for a steakhouse and wonder if it’s really a drycleaner? Of course not! Yet, nationally, many nonprofit subscription campaigns tout the “relaxing and calming” aspect of the concert experience. They seem to presume that because many concert halls (as well as opera houses and theaters) have a certain regal look to them, they are necessarily temples of tradition where one can chill out to some kind of background music on stage. That position is missing a huge element of the concert experience.

The point of music is to reflect the human experience. To be sure, classical works have always depicted some mystical and historical events. But the same was always of interest to painters, sculptors, playwrights and countless others who chose their medium to comment on events important to them. Why not compare the different ways that Beethoven treats a bubbling brook in the Pastoral Symphony with the way Debussy treats water in La Mer? Often the marketing answer to the question is a tightly worded blurb centered around the word “elitist.” In other words, “musical language” is not really a language, it’s just overly complicated mumbo jumbo which turns off most people. Or does it? One man’s opinion is that it turns off marketers who have not studied their product adequately. The idea of cultivating an audience and capturing their imagination by explaining programming has often given way to empty stats meant to support a misguided marketing strategy.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Gary Levinson

How often does the same marketing strategy find its way into for-profit companies? Why don’t we see smoke and mirrors marketing for investment banks, automakers and restaurant chains? Because for-profits have a different mission, besides serving the customers. They serve the interests of the investors; they are in business to make money and that result is easily measured. The music business model is to put on great concert experiences. That is well and good; yet we seldom hear about the kind of research performing non-profits do and how they could borrow from the for-profit sector. How many NBA marketing heads never heard of Bill Russell and Michael Jordan? But try that question with some of the bigger names in classical marketing (replacing the names with Szell and Heifetz) and you will witness something between a stroke and a panic attack. En masse, this is a sector that has historically put too little a value on professionally acknowledged expertise of the very product they are supposed to sell. Worse, I have personally witnessed massive pushback to the notion that musicians are not 100 percent entertainers. Musicians have a profound message to deliver to audiences who want to receive that message using the language of music. This sentiment goes over the heads of many a classical marketer, who will whip out the old “butts in seats” argument.

Many of the great organizations in the world look to develop an artistic conversation between the musicians and the audience, thus selling that unification between the two groups. However, other organizations embrace the novelty factor, trotting out the new and the most outrageous, in the hopes of attracting the first time ticket buyer. While it is great to have the first time ticket buyer, it would also help if that first timer doesn’t turn into a last time ticket buyer in roughly two hours.

Another unfortunate trend is the replacement of legitimate seasonal programming with familiar pop culture programming. We put on live performances of film scores much more often than a run of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. While it is indisputably a great experience to hear a film score played by a great orchestra, it is equally thrilling to hear the masterpieces written by acclaimed geniuses for a certain occasion, such as the big holidays. Could it be simply easier to sell Harry Potter than Handel or Honneger? And if so, are the institutions truly doing their best to attract a new and recurring audience? Or are we going to accept living in an age where building a lasting relationship is measured by the 24-hour news and social media cycle which will not focus on a story that is longer than 20 characters (and definitely shorter than this article)?

For the past two decades, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony have created concerts that have a solid audience base. Empirical evidence suggests their demographics span all the age, gender and economic groups. These concerts include music of our time, neglected works and warhorses. It is curious that one does not see much copycatting of that formula around the country. It may be a tough proposition to expect a cohesive marriage between the top executive, the music director, education and marketing all doing their part for the greater good of the organization. But it is clearly possible and it definitely works.

Finally, let’s put the “millennials don’t like classical music” myth to bed. While we are at it, can its cousin “classical works are too long for the ADD generation” go to the same bed and keep each other company? Music schools have more applicants and graduates than ever. People of all ages listen to more music than ever because they no longer need a space equipped to do so, such as a library, their home listening space or a car. So why do many of them not come to the concert hall? I seldom see a case made for acoustical music sounding more amazing in an acoustical space than through headphones. The entire high-end music reproduction business is built in bringing the concert experience to you. But what about marketers explaining why the concert experience is so special? It is self-evident why attending a live football game is superior to watching it on the biggest screen at home. We should also explain why great instrumentalists, under the leadership of a visionary conductor, performing in an acoustically designed space is superior to any other substitute. On the chamber music side, we have many a patron come to us sharing how much they love seeing the interaction between the musicians. Yes hearing the interaction, but also seeing it! This is not something that can be experienced at home since every performance is completely different. How many marketing departments encourage patrons to hear a subscription series twice? There is no argument that on a four concert series, the Thursday concert is very different from the Saturday or Sunday concert. I know many culture vultures who will go to the first and last performance of a series, yet none of them have ever mentioned they heard of an invitation to do so from the performing arts group.

Most musicians begin their training between the ages of 5 and 10, establishing their commitment to their craft in their early teens. Those who make it to the highest levels of performing and teaching, put in between three and five hours a day practicing and reimagining their craft. It is time that we ask marketers to be more aware of what it takes to bring the concert to the audience. Music can be humorous, philosophical, tragic or just trigger something in the listeners imagination. Let’s stop pretending that soft music is automatically peaceful and loud music is always exciting. Or pigeonholing the composers as if all works written by them sound the same and provoke the same audience reaction. By painting the concert experience with a broad brush, marketers are alienating future audiences who can’t realize that their interest was squelched due to omission of detail in favor of practicality. A dose of sophistication can open up a whole new demographic of listeners who also happen to be thinkers. As we approach the New Year, let’s hope we see more story telling from our marketing friends and fewer disposable shiny objects.


» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.

» Guts & Rosin now runs on the third Tuesday of the month on TheaterJones






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Why is Classical Music Marketing So Bizarre?
Gary Levinson's classical music column Guts & Rosin returns. This time he explores the current marketing of classical music and opera.
by Gary Levinson

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