Does classical music really understand its audiences?
Very exciting things are happening at the Southbank Centre's Rest is Noise festival in London. So exciting that respected commentator Jessica Duchen has been moved to proclaim with almost religious fervour that the festival "will change concert-going forever". The reason for all the current excitement is a Southbank Centre press release giving the good news that 76% of concert bookers for the Rest is Noise festival had not previously booked a contemporary classical music event at the Southbank Centre and 39% of festival concert bookers had not previously booked any tickets at the venue. (On a point of detail Jessica overstates the latter figure by 6% in her original coverage).
Context is all important, so this post attempts to put these statistics and the euphoria surrounding them into context. Central to this is understanding how the audience data was compiled. Readers may have visions of hoards of people with clip-boards interviewing concert goers, but that is not how audience research is done these days. Like every major arts venue, the Southbank Centre uses a sophisticated computerised ticketing system and the data in their press release was drawn solely from that source. Ticketing systems were first developed in the 1980s to do what it says on the can - issuing tickets. But they have now developed into what is known as arts enterprise management software which also handles fundraising, customer profiling and direct marketing.
Customer profiling depends on address matching in the ticketing system database. In very simple terms when you buy a ticket your postcode/zip code is entered into the database. If you buy another ticket the software looks for a previous purchase with the same address code, and if there is no previous matching code you are categorised as not having booked before. So 39% of concert bookers for the Rest is Noise festival had no address match; which isn't quite the same as "had not been to any classical concert at the centre before" - the words used by Jessica when covering the story.
The Southbank Centre uses the Tessitura ticketing system which was originally developed for the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 2000 and is used by many leading venues and ensembles including the Royal Albert Hall, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Royal Shakespeare Company, the Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia orchestras and the Sydney Opera House. In refreshing contrast to the corporate world of business software Tessitura is a non-profit business controlled by its user network. But an online endorsement has disquieting resonances with the tone of recent data extrapolations - "one commentator has likened implementing Tessitura to a religious conversion, and the annual conference is frequently compared by attendees to a revival meeting".
Audience data from ticketing systems such as Tessitura is driven by address matching and, despite users such as the Southbank Centre being meticulous about keeping customer records 'clean', there are potential loopholes. One of these is change of address. On average in the UK each person moves house every six years. Which means that 16% of people change their address each year, with that percentage being higher both in urban areas where arts events take place and among the classical music target audience of young people, while the switch from property ownership to rental is also increasing residential mobility. Not every change of address will be recorded on the ticketing database, particularly for over the counter sales. If there is no address match on the database the customer becomes a classical concert virgin, even if he/she bought tickets for a hundred concerts at their old address, and, inevitably, this type of loophole inflates the first time customer percentage.
In all ticketing system data there will be an element of 'noise' caused by caused by data anomalies. Which means the majority of the 39% of Southbank first time bookers are almost certainly genuine first time bookers, but the rest is noise... Because of this unknown percentage of noise the data becomes more meaningful if expressed as a trend - i.e. compared with other data. The 76% and 39% figures for Rest is Noise bookers would have more significance if they could be compared with the same figures for all Southbank classical bookers. But, despite the Southbank Centre being admirably helpful in the compilation of this post, they were unable to supply these figures for comparison purposes and could not provide an estimate of the data anomaly 'noise' in their audience percentages. However they did reassure me that "the proportion of first timers for The Rest Is Noise is higher than we would see for our regular Contemporary Classical programme".
Now let's make several important points very clear at this point. It is not my purpose to detract from the achievements of the Rest is Noise festival, and I totally agree with Jessica that the visionary year-long event is delivering "a virtual thump on the head for the musical world". Nor I am suggesting that the Southbank Centre has spun the success story excessively - their press release clearly uses the term 'not booked' rather than 'not attended'. Moreover it is not my purpose to denigrate the computerised ticketing systems that are the financial backbone of the arts community. What I am doing is questioning whether classical music's movers and shakers are wise in extrapolating the robust but limited data held in ticketing systems to make generalisations about the future of classical music. In fact I am asking does classical music really understand its audience?
My real concern is that the Southbank Centre press release and the coverage it is generating will be misread as a declaration that finally the silver bullet has been found, and that all classical music needs to do to win new audiences is infinitely clone the the Rest is Noise format. To this point I have tried to base this post on fact, but from now it is based on my intuition. This tells me that the 39% of Rest is Noise first time bookers - discounted by an unknown percentage for data anomalies - does not represent a single homogeneous 'new audience'; just as the remaining 61% does not represent that much despised 'traditional' audience. In my headline I deliberately used the plural 'audiences' and I suggest that for every Rest is Noise event in the Royal Festival Hall there are 2500 different audiences. Norman Perryman has a very wise head on his mature shoulders and in a contribution here he explained that "We are by nature analogue (def. "a continuous spectrum of values") beings, consisting of fluid organic substances". Concert audiences are also analogue beings and that continuous spectrum of values varies in every one of them.
Classical music must reject the 'one size fits all' dogma of marketing gurus. Earlier this year I wrote "the way forward for live classical music... is to add, not remove, stickiness" and I belive that the remarkable success of the Rest is Noise festival - 100,543 tickets sold to date - is due to the stickiness which has attracted a richly diverse audience - new and old - and not to its appeal to a single 'new' audience. In her coverage Jessica highlights the festival's unique mix of concerts, films, talks and 'bite' events and says that "the runaway success of the series proved that what really draws audiences in is anything but dumbing down" and we are completely in accord on that. So let's celebrate the success of the Rest is Noise festival. But let's also accept that audiences are complex and diverse organisms that cannot be forced into convenient categories defined by their addresses.
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