If you’re reading this column, chances are that you love experimental music. You probably attend or perform on at least a dozen concerts every year and likely own an extensive collection of new music recordings. You viscerally enjoy this repertoire—at least a substantial subset thereof—and want everyone to share the excitement you experience when listening to it. You prefer orchestral or chamber music to pop songs, and while you accept that most people prefer to hear Justin Bieber over Heinrich Biber and the Engelbert Humperdinck of “After the Lovin” to that of Hänsel und Gretel, you simply don’t empathize with the appeal of the more recent of these pairs of artists. Of course, those of us who share this position reside outside society’s mainstream, but I take comfort in knowing that we can populate this remote neighborhood with people who share aesthetic predilections similar to our own.
Often, I find myself marveling at how difficult it can be for practitioners of new music to attract an audience. Since I’ve been in Baltimore, I’ve been at sublime concerts by world-class musicians with a mere handful of fellow listeners. It seems that a moderately successful local band can easily field audiences numbering in the hundreds or thousands, while even the best experimental performers can’t rely on attracting a mere dozen people to hear them while on tour. I often ask composition students to consider starting a band and touring instead of pursuing the path of writing down music, because the DIY option will allow them to reach more interested souls.
There are many factors that serve to limit the potential number of tickets we can sell for concerts of new music, from the comfort that we gain from the familiar to our isolation from the larger artistic community; from the competition of amplified concerts to the silly rituals of the classical concert. We can solve many of these problems, and many of the best contemporary musicians and ensembles revisit the elemental nature of their concert presentations in order to remove the unnecessary accouterments that limit their reach. Even so, it appears that each year experimental music continues to lose ground and to become further marginalized within our society.
One inherent problem with building an audience for new music is the very fact that the listeners want to hear music that is new to them. When we go to concerts by our favorite bands, we generally expect them to repeat the same dozen selections from their catalog over and over again. A local group can fill clubs in a single town several times a year without any changes to their set list; their followers often will take comfort in hearing replicated repertoire each time and will complain about any deviation from this norm. This ability to attract audience through repetition eases the process of filling seats because a limited but dedicated fan base will reliably appear multiple times to hear the same band play the same songs in the same city. Unfortunately, ensembles dedicated to experimental music cannot rely on this sort of repeat business. Fans of the new want to have unique experiences. They will flock in droves to unrepeatable grand spectacles of Xenakis in Central Park, John Luther Adams in the Armory, and Andriessen at the National Gallery, but they won’t go to hear the same repertoire twice. Paradoxically, even though these audiences require one-of-a-kind concert experiences, they are significantly more comfortable buying tickets when they know and trust the performers and composers.
This creates a practical difficulty for our new music organizations. They need to learn new repertoire for each concert or to visit new locales for each performance. Unlike a band that can learn a single set list and bring it to club after club, these ensembles must expend significant resources rehearsing or traveling before each public presentation. When these musicians find themselves in a place that’s new to them, the local denizens often are unaware of the reputation of the artists visiting their town, and can ignore opportunities to attend these concerts. Many promising projects never get off the ground due to their inability to attract enough followers.
While there isn’t a simple solution to this situation, each of us can play a small part in helping new music thrive in our communities. We can follow our local concert listings and can make an effort to attend performances by musicians who are unknown to us, especially when they are presented by organizations that we’ve come to trust. We can support the crowdfunding ventures of our favorite artists. When our area’s musicians tour, we can contact friends in the places they plan to visit who might be interested in hearing the concerts. And, when we hear transcendent music, we might consider attending a repeat performance.