Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why audience growth at any cost is the wrong strategy

I sort of come to this conclusion at the end of every Prom season having had most of the concerts I've attended ruined by some buffoonery or other. Attending concerts isn't just parking your posterior on the seat and listening; there are all the attendant costs, financial and otherwise that have to be considered. Booking the concerts, fixing holidays at work, paying for the seat, travel, hotel and meals. I'd hazard a guess that I spent well in excess of £1000 at this year's Proms and when I have concert after concert ruined by coughers and other avoidable distractions I have to ask if it's worth it. It never used to be like this.
That comment is part of a discussion on the Radio 3 Forum which includes a reference to my recent post about buffoonery in the concert hall. Similar sentiments are being expressed elsewhere about the Proms audience; a group reputed to be one of classical music's best behaved audiences. My post was sparked by a serially-interrupted concert in Marseille two weeks ago. Since then I have attended another concert where the irritating dribbles of applause between movements, which are now a regular feature of concerts, developed into staccato bursts of clapping at any point where there was the briefest pause in the music between or within movements. This and the occasional mobile phone held over a concertgoers head, came close to short-circuiting the vital electricity that flowed between the fine players making the music and the audience appreciating it. (Elsewhere in the Radio 3 Forum discussion the very sensible suggestion is made that: "It would also help if the conductor or house announcer gave a steer. A few years ago, Yannick Nézet-Séguin asked us to refrain from applause until the very end of a Bruckner concert he was performing at the RFH: Christus Factus Est - Symphony 9 - Te Deum. Worked perfectly".)

Any discussion of these problems is derailed by unhelpful arguments as to whether elitist legacy audiences or disrespectful new audiences are to blame for the tensions that are marring live classical music. Neither group is to blame: it is the prevailing 'audience growth any cost' thinking within the classical music industry that is to blame. A perfect storm of demographic and technology change means that the demand for live classical music is not growing at the present time. Basic economics teaches that when demand falters, first you try to revive that demand. Then, if demand does not respond, you curtail supply and cut costs to compensate. It must now be accepted that the increasingly outlandish attempts to revive short-term demand for classical music are, at the best, not working, and, at the worst, are actually having the opposite effect to that intended by driving away the core audience - see header quote.

Both the Chinese economy and the Volkswagen Group are currently providing sobering case studies of the danger of pursuing growth at any cost. Yet, with just one exception, nobody in the music industry is challenging the prevailing 'audience growth at any cost' strategy. The danger presented by the over-supply of classical music is well illustrated by the ongoing saga of Simon Rattle's new London concert hall. As was widely reported, Rattle prefaced his appointment as designate music director of the London Symphony Orchestra with a demand for a new London concert hall. At no point did he explain what was to happen to the three existing major concert venues - Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall, and Barbican - nor did he dwell on the fact that another concert hall would increase capacity in an already over-supplied market by 33%.

In June the Architects Journal reported that the present site of the Museum of London is the preferred location for the new Rattle/LSO concert hall. This highlights the cavalier disregard for oversupply: because the distance between the London Museum site and the existing Barbican Hall is precisely one quarter of a mile. (At this point I will simply note what is in the public domain: that the chairman of Askonas Holt - which manages Simon Rattle - is Michael Cassidy, who is also chairman of the City of London property investment board, and has previously held positions including chairman of the Museum of London [2005-2013], chairman Barbican Arts Centre [2000-2003], and is also a past planning chairman of the Corporation of London. In addition he is a non-executive director of the Swiss investment bank UBS, which sponsors the London Symphony Orchestra. I also note that Mr Cassidy has practised law in the City of London for 40 years.)

Coughing, mobile phones, intrusive applause, and other distractions are the result of a wrong-headed 'audience growth at any cost' strategy. All markets are cyclical, and that for classical music - both live and recorded - is no exception. Those who preach that classical music must change or die are right. But the problem is that they are advocating the wrong kind of change. Only when it is accepted that classical music is in the downturn phase of a demand cycle, and only when the core problem of over-supply, excessive costs and self-interest are tackled, will things change for the better.

Header graphic comes from Lauren Radford's architecture blog. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Graeme said...

Why not just invest some more in the Fairfield Hall, Croydon? It has a better acoustic than any large hall in central London and is poorly utilised.

Pliable said...

Graeme, thanks for that and I totally agree. I have enjoyed sone fine sounding concerts and it was used successfully by Unicorn Kanchane, among others, a s recording venue -