Lessons from the Central Valley

Fresno from the air

An aerial view of downtown Fresno, photo CC 2010 by Ron Reiring.

I live in Fresno, California.

Yes, that Fresno. The one that is generally known for three things nationally: agriculture, auto theft, and smog. The one that has been, time and again, the butt of many late-night comedy routines. For example, not that long ago, Conan O’Brien offered to help pull Fresno out of debt by offering a life-size bobble-head of himself as a tourist destination. He never did send it.

For those of you who are not familiar with California geography, Fresno is located in the smack-dab center of the state, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, otherwise known as California’s Central Valley. Demographically speaking, the Central Valley is not exactly what one normally thinks of as representative of the eighth largest economy in the world. In fact, if the Central Valley were to be its own state (which some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are currently trying to make happen), it would be the poorest state in the nation, trailing both Mississippi and Arkansas. This is not meant to be a slight against either the Central Valley or those two states; rather, it is simply a fact that these three regions all struggle with poverty, with the Central Valley struggling the most.

Despite all this, I am quite proud to live in Fresno. Just ask any of my past Fresno New Music guest artists. I talk their ears off about Fresno’s history, culture, and delicious food scene. (Seriously, we have amazing food here that costs a fraction of what you would pay for it in other areas of the state; you have to try it!) Additionally, I am also quite proud to be a part of Fresno’s art and music community. It’s a community that is thriving in spite of the myriad social, environmental, and economic challenges that we face.

One would think that Fresno (and, to an extent, the entire Central Valley) would be a challenging environment for the arts to thrive in. Although the Fresno metropolitan area is approximately 1 million people, the population that is both economically able to support the arts and interested in doing so is—in my own best estimation—less than five percent of that. The impact of Fresno’s poverty cannot be ignored as a contributing factor in keeping this number so small. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no art here—quite the contrary. In my nine years living here I have seen breathtakingly beautiful and provocative works of art on display in our local galleries. I have seen our local music scene flourish with imagination and a flair of independence. Fresno is home to the Rogue Festival, the largest “fringe festival” west of the Mississippi river. This is a festival that is just as likely to feature avant-garde poetry slams as it is to showcase indie-rock/jazz crossover cover artists.

The Fresno arts scene is highly creative, quirky, and worth noticing. Except, it is almost impossible to know about any of this if you are not a part of it.

This is the problem. The sheer number of art and music events here that go unnoticed amazes me. This is in large part due to inadequate media coverage. That is not to say that we don’t have good people covering these events—in fact, we have great people! There just aren’t enough of them. Why is it that Fresno, a city of 500,000 people with a metropolitan population of about 1 million, has only one person covering all of the arts for its local paper? Likewise, why is it that there is only one person covering the popular music scene for this same paper? This likely goes back to some of what I brought up earlier: that in a city with as many fundamental issues as Fresno (poverty, environmental challenges, etc.), and with a relatively small percentage of its population actively engaged in the arts, our local media is—well—focused on other things.

This of course makes it quite challenging to build an audience for classical music. As I alluded to earlier, I run the Fresno New Music concert series and have done so for the past eight years. As one of many who tries to make a difference in Fresno’s art scene, I can directly attest to the numerous challenges I’ve encountered building an audience here.

Allow me to backtrack a bit. In my past two blog posts, the common theme that I worked with has to do with finding new and untested methods for developing audiences for classical music and—specifically—new music. I find myself obsessed with this topic in large part because I freely admit that I have struggled to develop an audience using traditional means. Despite my insistence on trying to be a champion of new classical music, I am not always successful. Like many who put on new music concerts, I have hosted more than my share of performances with very small audiences. Just this past March, one of my featured Fresno New Music concerts had a whopping 40 people in attendance. The sad thing was that at one point the thought crossed my mind that it could have been worse.

Of course, poor attendance at a new music concert is nothing out of the ordinary. This is certainly not a unique problem to Fresno. However, what I do find somewhat unusual is that for every concert for which I have had poor attendance, I have also had concerts that were sold out! In fact, one of my best-attended concerts was a couple years ago and featured what was arguably some of the most abstract and adventurous programming that I have placed on Fresno New Music’s calendar.

What was the difference? The concert in question featured composer Charles Amirkhanian, known in new music circles for his own Other Minds festival based in San Francisco. Amirkhanian is from Fresno, is a graduate of Fresno State, and is well-known within the aforementioned Fresno arts community. All of this led to the media taking notice of my event and running a featured article in the paper on “local-composer-comes-home Charles Amirkhanian.” The concert was a huge success, and it helped bring quite a bit of attention to my relatively small concert series!

This concert helped me understand why Fresno’s arts community can be so vibrant and at the same time quite insular. It led me to establish a couple rules that, when I follow them, usually lead to better media coverage and a better audience:

  • In a smaller, economically disadvantaged market, nothing beats traditional media. I utilize social media extensively, and I firmly believe that if I operated out of a larger, more affluent market, my social media operations would prove to be quite lucrative in developing an audience! Still, my best-attended events are the ones that garnered the most coverage from our local paper. Talking with my patrons confirms this: the majority of those in attendance find out about my events through the paper, not through Twitter, not through Facebook, and not through my website.
  •  

  • Shop local. The moment I am able to provide a Fresno connection, no matter how small, my event gains a significant amount of media attention. Granted, I cannot simply feature only locally grown talent—after all, part of Fresno New Music’s mission is to bridge the gap between our local community and the world of new music. Nonetheless, I do frequently look for ways to connect my events to the Central Valley, in large part because our community is proud of its artistic talent and will go out of its way to support that talent. The larger audience is simply a bonus.

I imagine that these rules don’t just apply to events in Fresno, but to any arts organization trying to promote events in smaller and/or more disadvantaged communities. And, after a couple years, I can verify that they are pretty consistent in their effectiveness. When I follow them, my audience is strong. When I don’t, it is typically much smaller.

But what about the content of the event? Does a more tonal and lyrical event generate a better audience over one that is more avant-garde? Actually, no. My experience hosting these concerts has taught me that the type of programming seems to have almost no bearing on the size of the audience! I have had successful concerts of tonal music, of electronic music, of experimental improvisational music and have also had less successful concerts featuring each of these styles. The perceived accessibility of the event appears to have nothing to do with the audience.

Through Fresno New Music, I have been granted an opportunity to share my love of new music with the Fresno community. I am always proud of the events that I host, and I am equally proud to contribute to my local arts scene.

Even if, at times, it feels like no one is listening.

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3 thoughts on “Lessons from the Central Valley

  1. Justin Capps

    Fresno. It’s the place where I was born and if we’ll stretch to Clovis, the place I lived from 10-20. It has been a while since I’ve been back.

    While it’s maybe outside the typical scope of NMB, it seems that it would be criminal to overlook the area’s incredible accomplishments in music education, consistently developing outstanding musicians and teachers who have gone on to contribute a great deal both locally and elsewhere. From the third-degree reports on social media, it seems that this has continued.

    Jazz, wind ensemble, percussion, musical theater, and even the youth orchestras all had quite vibrant lives, even though they were not professional endeavors. Who knows what budget cuts may have done in the years since, but the place’s musical community (that of the whole central valley) is far richer than its socioeconomics would seem to justify.

    In retrospect, I wish that I had been more committed to helping to prosper that on an ongoing basis, but teenagers make decisions on the basis of limited information and I left to go to school in Philadelphia. Fast forward and here I’m a doctor of music composition, but at far too great a distance to do that work.

    Thanks for what you’re doing. I’m certain you’re already working to engage the massive pool of interested students and their parents in the area. If you can stoke in them some of the pro-local fire that Jenn Jolley has adopted for Cincinnati, then it will be impossible to stop them.

    Best,

    Justin Capps (Buchanan High ’98)

    Reply
    1. Mark Carlson

      I agree with Justin that the quality of music in the schools in the Central Valley has always been high. I grew up in Modesto and graduated from CSU Fresno, and there were remarkable number of good musicians in both places, both among teachers and students; I continue to know excellent professional musicians whom I first knew during my school days in the Central Valley. At UCLA, we have always had, and continue to have, first-rate music majors from various Central Valley towns, especially Modesto and Fresno.

      I went to one great concert after another in Fresno–touring orchestras like the Chicago Symphony,
      the Jose Limón Dance Company, Philip Lorenz’s keyboard concerts, etc.–and back then (the mid-70s), the halls were packed. I look back fondly at having grown up there, where music was an important part of the general culture.

      Reply
  2. Mark Carlson

    It seems to me that we had reasonably decent attendance when I was your featured guest composer, but I have nothing to compare it to. I know we had pretty good coverage from the press, presumably because I, too, am a Fresno State alum. So I was particularly chagrined that not a single person I knew from my Fresno days, nor any former students from LA then living in Fresno, attended any of those concerts. I’m very glad that others were there and seemed to enjoy the concerts!

    Reply

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