Making A Lasting Case For New Music (part 1 of 3): Accepting The Casual Fan
19 May 2011
Inside the Classics

Last weekend, I stood on the stage of Orchestra Hall during our final Inside the Classics concerts of the season, and asked – pleaded with – our sold-out audience to take a leap of faith and renew their subscriptions for next season. Why would I need to plead with people to renew for a series that has grown exponentially over the last four years and virtually sold out every concert we gave this season? Because: of the three featured works we’ve chosen for next season, one hasn’t been written yet, and another was written less than a decade ago, and years of hard experience have taught symphony orchestras that, while a small and passionate audience does exist for new music, the bulk of our reliable subscribers are only interested in an occasional taste. Asking even as devoted a subscriber base as the ItC crowd to commit to a season in which at least 2/3 of the music will be entirely new to them is a lot to ask, and to be honest, we have no idea whether our experiment will be a success or a failure.

But why is this the way things are? There are a lot of trite, overly simplistic explanations for audience resistance to new music that fly around the business. Few of them are grounded in reality, and none of them actually point us toward a future in which any composer of more recent vintage than Stravinsky becomes a concert hall staple a generation from now. Which is sad, because the more I’ve thought about this (and I think about it a lot,) the more I’ve become convinced there are solutions. This series of posts is designed to lay a few of my ideas out in something like an organized fashion.

We tend to think of audiences and fan bases as monolithic things, bound together by their mutual interest in whatever it is they’re attending, subscribing to, or rooting for as a group. But anyone who’s ever worked at a box office can tell you that audiences are actually maddeningly fragmented. The way one person engages with a particular type of performance is likely to be completely different from the way the person three seats over engages. And that presents a particular problem for orchestras, because it’s very likely that the largest fragment of our audience is made up of people who are actually the least engaged with Music as an art form.

I don’t mean that in any sort of derogatory sense, either. We all have to make decisions in our lives about which topics and entertainments we’re going to seriously engage with in a meaningful, intellectual way, and which ones we’re going to ignore almost entirely because there aren’t enough hours in the day. And then we have to stake out our personal middle ground – the activities we’re interested in dipping into on a semi-regular basis, but which we want to be able to simply enjoy without being forced into a deeper intellectual relationship.

For instance, this last category is where I place TV. I like my TV, and I spend multiple hours a week watching it. But I don’t tend to care what awesome new groundbreaking drama HBO has created, or what postmodern meta-sitcom is pushing the Hollywood boundaries this season. There are many smart people who care passionately about TV, and my lack of full engagement doesn’t mean that I think they’re wrong or I’m too good for the medium. It just means that I haven’t chosen TV as one of the entertainments that I’m going to engage with on a more than casual level. I, in other words, am the reason that shows like Arrested Development get canceled, but Law & Order is an unkillable juggernaut. It’s because there are a lot more people engaging with TV the way I do than there are passionate, devoted students of Quality Television. And that’s true of pretty much any form of entertainment that needs to engage a large audience to stay financially viable, including (on a different scale, obviously,) orchestras.

Sorry, Bluths. It's nothing personal.

As musicians, we tend to assume (for self-serving reasons) that our audience is as passionate about all aspects of our craft as we are, and while there is a sizable group that fits that description and we’re getting much better at catering to them, Symphony Orchestras are, at their core, the broad-based mass-market institutions of the classical music world. And as with any other institution that exists to serve a broader public (i.e. not fill a small niche,) we have to recognize that, while the Deeply Engaged might be our most loyal supporters, our largest constituency is the Casual Fan, the person who might come to three or four concerts a year based on your offer of a discounted ticket and free parking, but who isn’t ever going to sit through a pre-concert lecture or spend time ruminating on the future of the orchestra business.

The Casual Fan is what makes new and unfamiliar music such a tough thing for orchestras to program on a regular basis, even now that we’ve emerged from the era when “new” almost automatically meant “dissonant and cacophonous.” If we’re playing unfamiliar music that is going to require a heightened level of engagement, the Casual Fan will shrug and stay home more often than not, and wait for us to get back to Beethoven and Brahms. So we play more Beethoven and Brahms, which makes some of the Hardcore Fans (and the critics who have to attend every concert we play) restless, and also perpetuates the cycle of breeding generations of Casual Fans who choose not to engage with new music at all if they can possibly avoid it.

Orchestras have become adept at crafting short-term solutions to this conundrum, such as launching high-profile new music “festivals” that allow the intellectually curious to get their fix without troubling the Casual Fan at the weekly subscription concert. Our own Composer Institute is a great example of an initiative that has had great success in drawing attention to new music on a big stage. But these projects don’t address the long-term problem – the Composer Institute is one concert per season, and again, the Casual Fan just sits it out.

The good news is that I believe there are long-term solutions to this, and that we can get to them without forcing unpalatable music down anyone’s throat or abandoning what I believe to be an essential commitment by orchestras to each successive generation of living composers. In part two of this series, I’ll get into some of the specific hurdles, both real and imaginary, that face us when we program new music. And in part three, I’ll lay out one of the ways I believe we can change the status quo over the long term without blowing up any existing institutions or forcing unwanted change on the existing audience.

<April 2020>

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