2009 – The Year of the Audience….let’s hope!

Could this be the year with seemingly inevitable economic woes painting a bleak picture for individual, corporate and foundation support and most importantly ticket sales, that while strategizing we collectively all ask the question……well what does the audience want? It’s not so much that we need to hit the reset button, but we do need to realize that it’s the audience that has the power to unlock our growth in these times…..

I remember so clearly several years ago when I was a candidate for MD of a orchestra, and that at the beginning of the phone interview after the initial introductions took place (with the expected cross section of the board, staff and musicians),  the last person introduced….. was a season ticket holder! Initially that threw me, and then as the interview progressed this person talked more and more asking me questions about programming, musical preferences, even wanting to know if I had heard of the local music school, the local NFL team and if I knew they were in the playoffs! Then it hit me, she was representing the largest group within the organization, the audience, in addition to the community at large.  She represented the future of the organization!

That seminal moment started me on a journey to truly try to connect with an audience and a community in every situation I found myself in, and so far it has been the most fulfilling part of my career.  Before walking out on stage, instead of channeling the composer, my first thought is of the opportunity we have before us to help make our community a better place  in the next two hours we’re together.  The audience and our collective quality of life is my motivation to perform at my best.  Earning their trust that we are there to serve them and to engage and connect on and off the stage, is what drives me.  It’s truly a fun drive!

I understand the logic used in the theory that we need to lead our audience with our programming, much like a fashion company that decides the styles and colors for any new season.  That only works though by earning their trust and brand loyalty.  If a person decides whether or not to attend or subscribe based on specific programming, then we have not earned any brand loyalty.  When Express, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein etc…come out with new styles, people will go to the store and buy their clothes because they trust the company wants them to look good and feel comfortable i.e they have earned brand loyalty and trust. We can be so stubbornly centered on a narrow programming philosophy as the be all and end all, when there is so much else that makes up the concert experience.   The goal should be to get people to attend for the simple reason that we are giving a concert!  We need to demonstrate that they will have a great experience no matter what the program is! If we can get to the brand loyalty stage, that is when we can introduce new things for people to hear.  They will then listen to something new with open ears because they will now trust us! Wouldn’t that be the preferred way to introduce new music, to an audience who is willing to be in the moment to listen to it, rather than a smaller audience who even before a new work starts is hoping it’s over quickly so that we can get to the works that they do know?  As far as programming goes, it may have start very conservatively to build that trust and loyalty, but there is nothing wrong with that.  There is something wrong though with an insistence to program innovatively whilst haemmoraging patrons, sponsors and donors!

For our concert coming up next week, we are performing Beethoven 8. I didn’t pick it. Last year I helped out our local NPR station with their pledge drive and with 5 minutes to go in the hour I was on, we were still $150 short of the goal.  So I got on the mic and said: the next person to call with $150 pledge will pick between Beethoven Symphonies No. 4,5,6 or 8 for us to play next year. Within 5 seconds a pledge came in, and the symphony picked was no. 8.  The goal was met and the donor told me she was also going to buy 10 tickets to the concert! The funny thing was that I was going to program no. 8 anyway, but would it have mattered which one she picked? We all won in that deal!

It’s time to earn our audience’s trust by making them active participants in the process, rather than passive listeners and followers of our mindsets. It is after all their orchestra! Here’s hoping that we see the current economic challenge as an opportunity to engage and connect, and that 2009 is the year of the …wait…that every year from now on is the year of the audience!

Happy New Year!

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