New Music Economics (Part 1): Free to Compete



[Ed. Note: This article is the first in a three-part series exploring economic issues faced by the new music community. Additional installments will appear each Wednesday in March.]

Of all the ways musicians have devised to draw an audience to new music, doing away with the price tag ranks among the most immediately appealing. There’s no financial risk for the potential listener, the organizers feel empowered to program whatever music they want since they don’t have to try and gauge how much people will be willing to shell out to hear Composer X’s latest masterwork, and the strategy may allow contemporary music to compete more effectively with the other low and no-cost entertainment options available in the community.

New music presenters are well aware of the potential draw as well as the pitfalls of giving a free concert. A lot seems to depend on what audience an ensemble is trying to appeal to. If the goal is attracting those who’ve never heard contemporary music before, freebies can be a successful lure. And without the obstacle of a ticket price, the argument goes, young people and others without a lot of spare cash will take the plunge. But if the goal is to compete with all the other live entertainment options that do charge and to attract people who will return repeatedly and expect to pay, the equation becomes a bit more complex. Will samplers become ticket buyers and not just be interested in free events? Is “success” bringing the music to those who haven’t heard it before, or is it defined by listeners paying for the chance to hear it?

Ultimately new-music performers and organizers decide whether free concerts will be plentiful or few, and there’s little agreement on their value. In this debate, the question is not really about who is right and who is wrong but about understanding what they hope to achieve in such a complex marketplace.

The Knight Foundation made news last September when it released its Magic of Music report, which concluded that free orchestral concerts do not lead to increases in subscription sales. “Free programming and outreach do not turn people into ticket buyers. They simply turn them into consumers of free programming,” declared the report in its executive summary. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was given a three-year grant by the Knight Foundation to present a series of free events in the community (and not in the SLSO’s downtown home) as part of the initiative in 1996. As the report says, these didn’t lead to many new subscriptions. But—and this was left out of the executive summary, the only part of the report many readers were likely to read—the outreach endeavors were “deemed successful” since they introduced many of the SLSO’s musicians into the community and gave many listeners their first exposure to live classical music.

What conclusions can new-music presenters and performers draw from this? Since they aren’t necessarily looking to attract the traditional symphony orchestra patron, and they have much smaller budgets and play in smaller venues, the correlation isn’t exact. But they still have to find listeners, and the cost of admission is something most people take into consideration when evaluating their entertainment options. A philosophical connection can at least be made.

Firmly in favor of presenting free concerts is Claire Chase, the executive director and flutist of the International Contemporary Ensemble, which presents most of its concerts in Chicago and New York. “When a business is trying to convince customers to try a new product, they give out a lot of free stuff,” Chase says. The key chains and bottle openers that tend to make up that “free stuff” might not seem to bear much relation to newly composed concert music, but Chase sees one nonetheless. Without being exposed to new music, potential audience members have no reason to take a chance on a live concert. If someone hasn’t heard of a new brand of laundry detergent, say, there’s no reason for them to try it. The manufacturer’s enticement, whether it’s made by Chase or Clorox’s CEO, is the free sample.

For Chase, eliminating the admission price eliminates a lot of the risk inherent in trying something new. “New music is a risk, and it ceases to be a risk when you’re part of the academic elite or are a nerd,” she says, quick to point out that she considers herself such a nerd. Despite her interest in contemporary music, Chase says she expects to enjoy only 25 percent of the works on a new-music program. “How can you expect someone to drop $20 on a concert of something that’s that big of a risk?” Devoted listeners are willing to take the chance despite those odds, but those outside this core group will weigh every enticement available before committing. Perhaps only through the free concert will they become comfortable enough to seek out performances of new work regularly.

And yet we live in a society that places a dollar amount on most things, regardless of MasterCard’s claims that certain things are “priceless.” That’s the point stressed by Dorothy Stone, the flutist and a founding member of the California E.A.R. Unit. “It’s very expensive to put on concerts,” she says. “People should realize that.” In the case of the E.A.R. Unit, it’s not a young group just out of college willing to play for nothing, but one made up of established professionals who’ve won hard-earned respect as through years of performances. Should people be able to hear them for free? They pay for sporting events, Stone points out, and “they expect they’ll have to pay for a concert.”

Stone and Chase both stress that the venue also plays a role in determining whether tickets will be given away. ICE performed at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival and Symphony Space in New York, and both venues charge admission. The E.A.R. Unit played at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s famed Monday Evening Concerts for years, and these performances were never free. Stone and the E.A.R. Unit didn’t seek the chance to give free concerts elsewhere due to their philosophical objection to them, and given the success of Monday Evening Concerts over the past 25 years, with the series becoming a cherished part of the LA music world, it seems that the E.A.R. Unit made the right decision. They found and nurtured an audience, which is Chase’s goal as well, but in this case, they did it without offering a free Feldman concert.

Alarm Will Sound finds itself in a situation similar to the E.A.R. Unit’s, according to managing director Gavin Chuck. “All of our concerts have been through a venue,” so no freebies. However, “we recognize that an audience member from the electronica crowd will pay $10 and isn’t used to paying $30,” he says. Since those are the people AWS is trying to reach, that sort of ticketing strategies—charging a little but definitely charging—are the ones AWS is most likely to experiment with.

Chuck and AWS are passionately investigating alternative audience-building maneuvers, however. One is a sort of marathon concert with a handful of sets being played in different parts of a large venue. “You’d pay $10 and see any two sets in the long concert,” he says. “It would be paying for the venue and getting more people through [the doors] in less time.”

“Nobody knows nothing,” runs the saying about how to be successful in Hollywood. It’s practically the same with free new music concerts, with everybody arguing a different point. But the subtle thing that Stone, Chase, and Chuck all know is that they’re looking for a particular listener,

Marc Geelhoed
Marc Geelhoed
Photo courtesy Time Out Chicago

whether it’s someone who might go to an electronica concert or someone who has literally never heard a note of new music. “Free means more access,” says Chuck. “But art should be valued.” He’s conflicted about the value of free concerts, but Stone and Chase aren’t, with each in an opposing camp. They’re looking for new audiences in different places, and the free concert says something different to those audiences. We need the people throwing the door open to those who’ve never heard contemporary music, but we also need those whose concerts will draw listeners who discern value from price. Each approach is a different side of the same coin, even though the free-concert advocate would prefer the coin not be considered at all.

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Marc Geelhoed is the associate music editor of Time Out Chicago and blogs at Deceptively Simple.