When You Realize Your Hip “Wear Jeans” Series Audience Is Actually More Conservative Than The Masterworks Audience

Earlier this year, I wrote about studies funded by the Wallace Foundation that helped Ballet Austin gain some insight about their audiences. Recently I discovered the Wallace Foundation had supported a similar study by the Seattle Symphony.

The piece is a short read, but if you don’t even have time for that, watch the accompanying video. There are some interesting contrasts between what the symphony assumed and the reality.

The study focused on three programs the symphony felt would connect with younger and newer audiences: Untuxed, an informal series where the musicians perform sans-tux (and black dress). Start time is earlier and program duration is no longer than 75 minutes.

Sonic Evolution – a series that draws on the influences and music of Seattle area pop music bands and incorporates video.

The third series is Untitled, a late night (10 pm start) chamber series set in the lobby with alternative seating and special mood lighting featuring “challenging 20th and 21st century compositions.”

What they found was that only the Untuxed series had a significant draw for new audiences. They were also interested to learn that the audience for the edgy Untitled series skewed older than they had anticipated.

Somewhat to the administration’s initial disappointment, the Untuxed audience seemed to prefer the “greatest hits” of classical music, making the tastes of the Masterworks audience look progressive by comparison.

They appreciated works like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Copland’s Symphony No. 3 and Bernstein’s Candide Overture—nothing more adventurous. “Untuxed is actually the most conservative audience that we have,” said Wade; they wanted music that they “know and love.”

…said one audience member. “I love the fact that it is ‘the best of’.” Another, who found the music “relaxing,” agreed and voiced appreciation for Untuxed’s other key draw—its early start and short span. “I am going to be able to make it home for my kids’ bedtime, and that means a lot to me,” she said.

They had also hoped that Untuxed would be an on-ramp to transition audiences to their core Masterworks series. Unfortunately, few have made that transition. In fact, most people who attended Untuxed had attended a Masterworks concert first. The good news, however, was that the cheaper Untuxed series didn’t cannibalize the Masterworks audience as was first feared.

…Untuxed, like Sonic Evolution and Untitled, is a separate program—or brand extension—neither more nor less. But all three are valuable, even without affecting attendance at the core Masterworks concerts, because they draw new audiences to Benaroya Hall. They are providing, as Wade says, “another lens on the orchestra,” taking SSO deeper into the community.

Among the other steps Seattle Symphony Orchestra is taking to grow their audiences is directly approaching businesses, hotels, condominiums and apartment complexes in the downtown area with ticket offers for employees and residents. That effort brought in $177,000 in sales to new or lapsed audiences.

They are really focusing on customer service training at every level and making a special effort to welcome new attendees.

SSO has also created a “Surprise and Delight” program for new subscribers. In it, staff members greet them by name when they arrive at Benaroya Hall and tell them SSO is glad they’ve come. “What we found,” said Wade, “is that, in fact, the people that we greet renew at a significantly higher rate than people that we don’t greet.” In the 2016-17 season, that tally was 41 percent versus 29 percent.

At each concert, about 35 new members also hear a buzz when their ticket is scanned, and are told to go to the information desk. “They are looking curious,” Kunkel said—and about five to seven of the 35 never go to the desk, he added. Those who do, however, are thanked and given free drink tickets. “Their concern falls away,” said Kunkel, who works the desk, “and they get a big smile on their faces.”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “When You Realize Your Hip “Wear Jeans” Series Audience Is Actually More Conservative Than The Masterworks Audience”

  1. Hey Joe, this is really interesting. I think it parallels some of the conclusions I came to regarding the paying audience in the visual arts (customers, actually, at sale events). There always seems to be a marked difference between folks who come with the expectation of familiarity and folks who are seeking (or merely accepting) challenges. The folks willing to be challenged seem the most vested in supporting what the artists do, whether they understand or like it or not. The folks seeking familiarity are not noticeably there for the artists or the art per se. Rather, they are there for what the art already means to them. The art only in relation to them.

    In the visual arts this often plays out that the folks seeking the familiar are either what I have labeled (for lack of more appropriate terminology) ‘reputation’ or ‘Walmart’ shoppers. Reputation shoppers can and sometimes do have real understanding and appreciation of what artists are doing, but rather than a broad interest this is too often confined exclusively to the status of brand name artists. In other words, they won’t really see the work of other artists whose work and reputations have not already crossed their limited focus. Gatekeeping is essential. But with the criteria of an artist being recognizable (in the collectible sense) they can include more artists in their view by simple curatorial accretion. Maybe this conforms to the Masterworks audience in your essay?

    The ‘Walmart shoppers’ are the folks who are looking for something that goes with the living room, something to match the color of the couch. Their interest is entirely self focused, and the art either serves that purpose or it goes unseen. This is the ‘greatest hits’ crowd. They know what they like (because they’ve already heard it before), and interest stops at that point. There is no expanding frontier, because the stuff outside their focus is simply not worth their attention. That is, if it does not serve their interests in some recognizable way it can be safely ignored. And as such, it is less an empirical issue of testing unknowns than simply keeping it safe and familiar. That is, keeping things according to one’s definitions. What they like is not an open question as much as something that has been already decided. Which is how it is for the ‘collectors’ too, but with different criteria.

    The challenge of ‘art lovers’ differs from these audiences because it is not necessarily about themselves but the art. They genuinely love the art on its own terms. Which means they are generally open minded about what they are willing to pay attention to. Their minds have not been made up in advance, necessarily. They are willing to take risks. It’s not that they won’t have things they like and things they dislike, but the borders differentiating them are sometimes permeable. They give themselves permission to discover new things. So it is unsurprising that the artists themselves usually fall into this category.

    I have to say at this point that what I’m describing is not three types of person necessarily, but three ways that ANY OF US interact with the things in our lives. Every person I know seems to have a little of each in them, I think, but the differences are expressed into different areas of our lives. We treat some things as definitional to our sense of self and to our particular way of life. Other things we are more open minded about. There is not one right way of relating to the things in our lives. Sometimes it is important to draw hard lines and at other times it makes sense to see what happens. The downside of drawing hard lines is that less gets included. Things get left out. The downside of having fuzzy borders is that you suffer mistakes of inclusion that a more rigid rule would eliminate in advance. But notice also that seen from the inside these may not be things to necessarily regret. 🙂 We simply justify the different parts of our lives in different ways.

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!


  2. Hi Joe, thanks for posting this.
    I too felt these were significant findings that in part support loosen some of the formality associated with classical music. It goes back to the “classical concerts are like a church” analogy. We “worship” the warhorses because they still have so much to say to us, they become good friends as we know them better, we never get tired of our favorite “songs”, and they take us on a great adventure when we can listen in the spirit of meditation. The difference is in how it is served: dry or juicy.
    Also like a church, it’s increasingly difficult to draw new people without a warm, open and inviting congregation. Many churches will have a welcoming committee to seek out newcomers and gently guide them through the traditions of their church and make introductions. I’m sure the performing arts can use these lessons.


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