Making A Lasting Case For New Music (Part 2 of 3): The “Comfort Food” Problem
21 May 2011
Inside the Classics

This is the second post in a series on why orchestras find it so difficult to incorporate new music into our concerts, and why it’s important that we find a way to change that. For the first part, click here.

One of the ways that orchestras try to bring audiences to an acceptance of (note: acceptance of, not love for, which is part of the problem) contemporary music is by sandwiching a world premiere in between a couple of well-loved warhorses, and hoping that potential concertgoers will buy the old favorite and be pleasantly surprised (or at least not angered) by the new work. And a lot of the time, this works just fine, assuming that your goal is for no one to storm out of the concert or send an angry e-mail promising never to come back to your concert hall again.

But that isn’t actually the goal, right? Or at least, it shouldn’t be. The goal should be for audiences to be so engaged by new music that they leave the hall wanting to hear more music by this composer. At the very least, the goal should for a large percentage of the audience to remember the composer’s name, and develop a positive association with it, so that they’ll consider buying tickets the next time around.

But will they even see the composer’s name the next time around? Probably not. Because orchestras know how difficult it is to find a critical mass of ticket buyers for unfamiliar music, we play up the big familiar works in our marketing materials, and often relegate the lesser known composer to the fine print in the hopes that the audience won’t notice what it’s in for until it’s already trapped in the hall. So oddly, our attempt to get people interested in new music through what I’ll call the “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” strategy is actually directly undermined by our own marketing tactics. And yet, if we reversed tactics and started playing up the unknown living composers we program, we know for a fact that far fewer people would buy tickets to our concerts (see the “casual fan” discussion from my last post,) and we’d be sabotaging ourselves in an even more egregious way.

And this brings me to one of the toughest conundrums orchestras face in trying to make new music a regular part of the mainstream concert experience. Everything we know about the human brain tells us that we’re most open to new ideas and experiences as young children. This is because our brains at that age are still forming basic connections and developing what will eventually become our adult personalities. The older we get, the fewer new connections are formed, the more entrenched the old connections become, and the harder it is for us to accept or understand new data. (This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but I’m confident that it’s a reasonably accurate oversimplification.) By the time we reach late middle age, most of us are pretty set in our ways as far as likes and dislikes go, and that calcification extends to our musical tastes.

Now: without conceding for a moment the preposterous notion that the audience for classical music is dying out, let’s acknowledge that the gray-haired portion of the average orchestral audience is vitally important to us as an industry. Compared with the 20-, 30- and 40-somethings who attend occasional concerts, our older fans tend to be more loyal, more likely to buy subscriptions, and more engaged with the orchestra as a community organization. It takes far less marketing muscle to keep them buying tickets than it does to entice a 38-year-old with a more-than-full-time job and three kids to hire a sitter and truck in from the suburbs after a hard week at the office.

But while those loyal, older ticket buyers are quite literally the lifeblood of orchestral stability, they also represent a major programming challenge. Since we become less interested in new experiences and more interested in nostalgia as we age (again: a generalization, but one backed up by science,) a large percentage of our most devoted fans aren’t coming to our concerts because they want to be challenged by new material. They’re coming because they want to hear the music that they associate with good times in their own lives, music that they’ve formed a personal bond with at some point, and that plays across long-set existing connections in their brains.

It’s the “comfort food” phenomenon, and none of us are immune to it. I’m about as open to new musical experiences as anyone I’ve ever met, but I can’t deny that something in my brain throws an endorphine switch whenever I hear either the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, or any song from Genesis’s Invisible Touch album. These are musical bonds my brain formed for me in childhood, and it doesn’t even matter to me whether the music is objectively good or not – it sounds good to me, and always will.

So now, we have a two-pronged problem, right? A large percentage of the orchestral audience is made up of casual fans who aren’t interested in going on an extended musical-intellectual voyage with us – they just want to hear a concert, get a drink afterwards, and go home. And many of our most loyal and devoted fans will tolerate the occasional unfamiliar work because they love us, but their brains are too hard-wired to want familiar music to be interested in really digging into Osvaldo Golijov or John Harbison on a regular basis.

Many advocates for new music like to point to successful concert series that occur outside the orchestral realm as an example that orchestras should follow if we want to remain “relevant.” The problem is, orchestras operate on a different scale than the alt-classical scene does. Selling 250 tickets will pack a one-off show at the Southern or the Walker, but to us, 250 tickets is 10% of our house for one night, and we almost never play one-off concerts. In order to really make new music a regular and relevant part of orchestral programming, we’ve got to find a way to get a lot more people thinking about Golijov and Harbison the same way they think of Brahms and Ravel.

In the final post in this series, I’ll lay out one of my ideas for doing just that. It’s not anything that will have an impact overnight, and it requires the acceptance of some tough realities. But we have to start somewhere, right?

<April 2020>

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