Repeat Audiences

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.

5 thoughts on “Repeat Audiences

  1. Christian Carey

    Hi David.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post about an issue that impacts performers, composers, and venues/concert organizers.

    You’ve outlined the conundrum quite well. In the “new music” game/biz/pursuit (what have you), premieres are important, both for composers and interpreters, especially from a career/marketing standpoint. But, as you know, most of the music we compose requires repeated hearings to take hold. And many first performances of new pieces don’t represent the works particularly well: the notes may be learned (one hopes!), but the interpretation has more room to grow.

    Whenever possible, I prefer working with organizations and performers that are willing to program a piece several times and commit to getting it out there.

    What’s more, I think that a paradigm shift might be in order in terms of our expectations. New music ensembles can specialize in recent music without having to premiere new things on every program. Having a core repertoire that is regularly leavened with new offerings seems to be an equally compelling way to fashion an identity for one’s group.

    By the way, if it’s a performance of a particular piece that I love, such as Judy Bettina’s rendition of “Philomel,” which I took in for at least the third or fourth time this past weekend at CUNY, I’m happy to have the chance for another hearing!

    All best,
    Christian

    Reply
    1. Smooke

      Dear Christian,

      You raise another important paradox in your comments. As a composer I attempt to write works that invite multiple hearings, but as an audience member I want new experiences. As a programmer, I tend towards the latter modality, in part because of my experience watching ensembles strive fruitlessly to fill seats for repeat performances of specific pieces.

      It’s, as they say across the pond, a sticky wicket.

      Regards,
      David

      Reply
  2. Justin T. Capps

    In recent months of trawling this and other, similarly oriented sites, it has become apparent that there are a number of shared anxieties, each of which seems to gather steam before one torrid collective eruption. This week it appears to be “experimental music’s” turn, through this lens and Isaac Schankler’s entry re: indeterminacy.

    For many, cultivating a wider audience/larger revenue stream/etc is an expressly stated goal. After all, we love this stuff and want to share the things we love with others, ideally while earning a sufficient livelihood to allow for it to serve as our full-time vocation and not only our sometimes art. Yet “experimental” anything, by its very definition is always at the fringe and requires an ongoing effort to discover and explore the new or unusual. So much of this ground has been covered in the course of the past century (the parameters rule!; there are no notes!; there are MACHINES!; the music must last several lifetimes!) that most of the self-described “experimental” work now strikes me as an effort to deconstruct and reassemble some subset of components that have already been experimentified. This is a fine undertaking, but calling it experimental is by turn disingenuous and alienating.

    As mentioned, audiences (in general) treasure familiarity. The official-onados treasure the unique. This is why motels buy Thomas Kinkade and the wealthy commission abstract art or buy original masterworks. But the contention that any local band can draw hundreds or thousands and internationally renowned new music groups or performers can only draw a few dozen is inaccurate. The bands that grow local followings do so not just by playing songs that people know but by being consistently present in the community. They are more likely to have their work available for people to hear and share online, helping fans to entice friends to go to shows or to convert them into new fans. The only expectation of those who come to the shows is that they buy a ticket, possibly some merchandise, and that they have a good time. Then, they will play again and fans can come decked out in their t-shirts! New music groups that aren’t based in the city are only likely to come through once every year or two or five and can never then form a bond with the audiences who might very greatly enjoy their performance.

    The reality is that most local bands and artists play to empty(-ish) rooms or to any audience that they can gather, and generally they do so gladly. The most successful pop/rock/(and they would even dare to say)experimental groups are the exception, not the rule. The same is true of “art” music. There are plenty of amazing artists, but proportionately, only some of these attain the sort of instant recognition that warrants the immediate purchase of a ticket, especially in an urban area where there is a steady stream of musical performances. The generalized audience does not care what prizes or degrees a performer holds, or how sensitive their touch on a Steinway might be. They care about their experience of the performance or the caché that they will gain by being able to exclaim to others that they.were.there.

    When it is music that they know and love, the tried and true warhorses of the rep, as well as personal favorites, they are left to either be enlivened by the access to a performance or disappointed because of this or that variation from their preferred recording. Moreover, attending a live performance of experimental/art/classical concert (excepting some newer events such as Fast Forward Austin, the concerts at Le Poisson Rouge, et al. which attempt to directly contravene conventionalized aspects of presentation) demands much more of the concertgoer. They must know when it is permissible or expected that they cough, clap, cheer, enter, exit, stand, or otherwise allow themselves to feel like a real boy or girl. The currency of a pure live recording of a work and the general predisposition to identify oneself as belonging to a social group superior to another leads to the most absurdly rancorous glares when any neophyte inadvertently violates these customs. Just to be clear, this is not to suggest mingling during a piece, but rather that expressions of enthusiastic appreciation or visceral emotional response ought not to be regarded as NEA-defunding, art-killing sins.

    This brings me to the point that you were sure I didn’t have. I question the sincerity of some who claim that they want to connect their obscure experimental music world with a (significantly) larger audience. Whether it is something we choose to acknowledge or not, there is a tendency within this community to derive its sense of worth either from defining itself as intrinsically “better” than the mainstream (the Justin Bieber/Hungybert Fischtibuns references hint at this), or, for another constituency that wants to be TRULY progressive, to define itself as having shaken off the encumbrances of our stodgy institutionality (here’s looking at you, indie-classical types, and especially the ones who hate the term). There are everywhere jealousies and exhortations against populists, copulists, and others who violate the sacred code of the Brotherhood and Sororal Society of the Highest Ineffable Things. It’s ugly, unhelpful, and ultimately a part of the problem. Learning to support those local bands, our unabashedly tonalist colleagues, and the so astonishingly avant as to be après would probably help to bridge our islands to the communities in which they float. But even with the negotiation of this task, there will be grizzled and unkempt folks who polemicize that we have to go back.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Music is Hard 47: Repeat Attendance | SoundNotion.tv

  4. Sugar Vendil

    @David Smooke- Thanks for this post!

    It seems to be everyone’s mission to connect with a broader audience (my organization’s as well). Re: Justin’s comment: sometimes it is a question of sincerity for some music groups (i.e., wanting to connect with larger audiences looks great on a grant application), and oftentimes, I think, there is simply a lack of knowledge in regards to marketing and, more importantly, actually knowing one’s target audience (if there really is one aside from industry people).

    An experimental music group is likely to attract other industry people, and a majority of these people are most likely their friends or colleagues. On top of that, there is more supply (concerts) than demand and the same people do not have the energy or time to support every concert out there. Trying to get the same people narrows the likelihood of filling seats. Facebook invites are a good indicator of how many people you need to simply inform about your concert in order to get the response you want.

    To get repeat audiences, I think a group needs a strong identity and I agree that repetition is a good start to help form a part of that identity. We need to think about why someone would want to come to our concerts as opposed to every other thing they could be possibly doing that night. As performers, we aren’t just competing with similar activities…staying home is also a very appealing option (hell, it’s all I want to do after a long day). Attracting audiences outside the new music industry is a whole other beast…too much to discuss here.

    My group is trying to do more repeat performances ourselves, not only for a sense of familiarity, but to better promote the composers we work with. Performing something once is ineffective in promoting the composer and giving a group a sense of ownership over a piece. Ironic how new music stems from classical music, which is all about repeat performances, yet disposable premieres seem to dominate the new music scene.

    Reply

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