A letter from Kentucky

Jeff Reed writes,

I am the music director of an orchestra that is entering its sixth season, which is located in a town of 50,000 people.  Our budget was about $15,000 the first season and it will be nearly $500,000 this season.  We have always had balanced budgets and will finish this season (ends July 1) with about a $20,000 surplus.  This is happening at a time when many orchestras have ended in bankruptcy or are finishing with large deficits.  I owe much of our success to you.

Having read several studies on why orchestras are failing, I have learned (which came as no surprise), that people these days don’t want to hear one type of music (which is what orchestras usually offer-only classical) and that audiences get bored without a visual element in a concert (merely watching the musicians isn’t enough).

To respond to these studies, we created what we think is a purple cow:  an orchestra that programs Beethoven and the Beatles on the same concert (usually, orchestras perform only "serious" music on one concert and have a pops orchestra to do the "light" stuff–they usually use two different orchestra names, even though the same musicians do both concerts!).  All of our concerts are centered around themes which tie the various musical styles together, often with an added visual element on a screen above the orchestra. For example, we did "That ’20s Show" which featured "serious" music from the 1920’s by Shostakovich, a commissioned film score to accompany a silent film (the orchestra played the score while the audience watched the film on a screen above the orchestra), and popular songs by George and Ira Gershwin.   We did a bluegrass concert that featured Copland’s "Appalachian Spring," standards performed by a Bluegrass band, and a new composition for bluegrass band and orchestra.

I don’t know how remarkable all of this is nationally or internationally, but it is certainly working in Bowling Green, KY.  Our audiences have grown from 100 the first season to an average of 800 this past season (some concerts sell as many as 2,000 tickets).

I just finished reading "All Marketers Are Liars."  My question is:  what story are we telling or should we be telling?  It seems like we are telling quite a few, for example: (1) orchestras don’t have to be boring (which deals with a common perception); (2) We think outside the Bachs (sorry for the pun), which seems to make people feel good about the fact that they want to hear several different types of music and that they aren’t stupid if they get bored listening to some classical music.  All of our season themes are along those lines:  Anything Goes, Thinking Outside the Bachs, Bluegrass to Baroque, etc.

I thought it would be fun to answer Jeff’s questions on the blog… The fact is, he’s already 99% of the way there (through no fault of mine!)

Most orchestras are run by people who are focused on the "truth" of what they do. They are performing the canon, doing it with skill and passion. They offer their community the best of what they are able to produce, and hope that those that are intelligent and genteel enough appreciate what they have to offer. If people don’t come, it’s some sort of commentary on the declining state of our culture, not, in their view, a reflection of the story they’re telling.

Every once in a while, a traditional orchestra decides to go slumming to raise money. They program a Pops concert or bring in PDQ Bach. The problem with this is that they’re still talking to the very people they always talk to, so it’s not enough. That, and because it’s seen as an extra, a lesser task, few orchestras really get very good at this sort of programming.

Jeff, on the other hand, has figured out a totally different way to look at the situation. It starts by understanding worldview. There is certainly a tiny population in Bowling Green that walks around with the worldview, "I love traditional classical music and will pay to see it live." These people would be an easy sale, but there are very very few of them.

There’s a much larger group that has a worldview that says, "I’m interested in live music and enjoy an evening out. I want to do something fun and something that doesn’t make me bored or feel stupid." These people are the kind of people who read movie reviews and movie ads–not because they have to, but because they want to. They are the kind of people who don’t skip over the entertainment section of their local paper.

In walks Jeff’s group with a simple story, well told. "We’re not slumming, we don’t look down on you and we’re here to have fun, too." By taking advantage of clever programming, slide shows and other non-traditional techniques, Jeff is busy putting on a show–a show that people want to hear.

I don’t think Jeff needs help telling his story. The challenge is now to make it easy for people to tell that story to their friends. I’d obsess about getting permission from my fans (via email, or a traditional newsletter) and then deliver regularly news to them that’s easy to spread. I’d offer "bring a friend" evenings and discounts, and start programming in venues outside of the traditional theatre.

The takeaway here is that if your target audience isn’t listening, it’s not their fault, it’s yours. If one story isn’t working, change what you do, not how loudly you yell (or whine). Nice work, Jeff.