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The Future of Orchestral Marketing

When musicians think about the orchestra, they typically think that orchestras are dying because of the lack of interest from younger generations. This is a major crisis for the future of classical music. I would like to propose a different angle to look at this issue. If the organization blames the problem on their consumers, then they have an impossible problem to solve. I believe that they should focus on the issue at a different angle in order to have a problem that presents a solution. This angle involves marketing and I hope to show that there is an audience waiting to be engaged in classical music.

First and foremost, I would like to argue that orchestras are missing more than just their young audience. A study from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012 states that “a decade ago, middle-aged Americans(those 45 to 64 years old) were more likely to attend a classical music performance more than any other age group.” From this same study, the NEA made this chart for audience demographics from 2011-2012:

If we look at that same age group(now from ages 55 to 74), they contain 36.5% of the audience. According to the NEA, “one of the few demographic subgroups whose 2012 rate of attendance exceeded its 2002 rate is older adults.” The reason for this is because the majority age group in 2002(45-64) aged ten years and is still the majority age group. While the younger audience members do have a low percentage, I believe orchestras can grow their audience from ages 18-44 especially since most other demographic groups have decreased since 2002.

This presents the question of how can orchestras grow their audience across this age group? There are two different hidden audiences that should be marketed to. Of course, one audience is the group of people who have not developed an appreciation for the arts. However, the other group already has this appreciation and will also raise the percentage in younger audience members. This group is college students.

I sent emails to the heads of 3 different music departments which are near the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. These were NKU, CCM, and Miami. I asked for the numbers of students who are involved in the arts at these schools. There are nearly 800 students that are music majors: 800 people, ages 18-24, who have a direct appreciation for music and are in close proximity to a world class orchestra. Also across these schools, there are over 1,600 students, including music majors, that are majors in some kind of creative arts program. This is roughly another 800 students that have an appreciation of the arts. The numbers increase even more because these are only students who are majors, yet there are many students who are still affiliated with the arts:

This equates to over 1,000 non-music majors at Miami alone who show appreciation for the arts by participating in a performance group.

There is a large local audience of college students that already have appreciation for the arts. The numbers are present and there are more schools in the area with more arts majors and non-majors. Yet, in an Instagram post of an audience at a CSO concert we have this:

Again, from the NEA chart from 2012, the national average for audience make-up from ages 18-24 is less than 10%. This problem is not just with the CSO but the whole country. The problem organizations have to solve is how to get these college students, who appreciate music, to their concerts. I believe marketing and programming can effectively solve this problem over time. College students have many barriers when it comes to attending arts events. Two large barriers that every student can relate to are lack of free time and lack of money. An example of how to help students with the money barrier is to market student ticket prices that many orchestras offer in the country. This could be through advertisements and also having a student ticket portal on the front page of the orchestra’s website. To counteract the free time barrier, I will show an example of an experiment that the New World Symphony Orchestra did. They came up with unique concert formats and studied the analytics of how many audience members were first timers:

Mini-Concerts were highly successful in this case. These concerts were 30 minutes long and were offered at three different times in a given night which allows for more flexibility for the audience members’ schedules. These would be great for attracting college students who have very limited free time(the ticket prices would most likely be cheaper due to the shortened concert). Also, mini-concerts are great for first-timers because it is a short time commitment. If the first-timers didn’t enjoy the concert, they didn’t have to sit through 1.5-2 hour concert, causing it to be low-risk for skeptical consumers. In the case of the NWSO, these concerts did tremendously better than the other three formats which had traditional concert lengths.

These ideas to reach out to this audience are simply possibilities that could be explored. All-in-all, though, there is a large group of young people who care for the arts and I believe organizations should be reaching out to them.

The other audience aside from college students are people in that 18-44 age group who do not have an understanding for the arts. The picture above is a crowd from a cricket match in Europe. This is a sport that is completely unfamiliar to most Americans; yet, this crowd, cheering for England, is very passionate about the game and it is getting them excited. Imagine being in the middle of this crowd, knowing nothing of the game, the rules, the skill that’s involved, or why the crowd got excited over a big play that didn’t make any sense. You would most likely be uncomfortable, confused, maybe even bored, all while feeling like you just wasted your money on a ticket. In fact, with this scenario, why even buy the ticket and go to begin with? This is the same reason for why some people have never been to the orchestra. How can orchestras market in such a way in order to get people to overcome these fears?

Let’s backtrack to 15 minutes before the cricket match. You decide to look up the rules and objectives of the game, the context of the game and each team, and maybe even the lives of certain players. The game would then be a whole different, and much more enjoyable, experience. Orchestras need to figure out a way to give people the information they need in order to understand the significance of the music and why it is so special. In this Ted Talk by Benjamin Zander, he proves that music is for everyone once everyone understands it:

Zander played a piece of music on one instrument and the crowd had an amazing reaction. They understood the music and had emotional responses to it. To further this, you could add on the fact that an entire orchestra or choir is working together to convey the same particular musical message at any given time. The skill and teamwork by each individual involved in this is incredible. An orchestra can be from 50-100 musicians who have invested thousands and thousands of hours into personal practice. Then they all come together to use their talents in order to create the same music. These are the aspects that everyone needs to know in order appreciate the arts. Without the understanding of the event, no one will want to attend it. According to Joanne Bernstein in Standing Room Only, about 80% of people who go to a concert at a particular orchestra never return to that orchestra. A possible cause for this could be that they didn’t enjoy the experience because of their lack of understanding for it.

In conclusion, I am not providing instructions on how orchestras need to market, but rather the possibilities that are out there as far as marketing goes. I believe there is plenty of hope for a thriving classical music scene, but organizations will need to be creative in order to get it there. For example, for someone who is unfamiliar to the orchestra, how would their experience change if they were sitting among the brass section on stage? This experience can be captured through technologies like virtual reality.

YouTube also supports 360 degree videos in their advertisements. That is one way that experience can be captured and marketed. Overall, it is time for arts organizations to stop blaming people and instead start teaching them about the beauty of the fine arts.


Charlie Gately is a junior studying Music Performance and Arts Management at Miami University.

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