Engaging Audiences: What Does It Actually Mean?

Janine Hanrahan

Some people actually hate the word ‘Engagement’ in relation to talking about audiences for orchestras. Gene Carr, CEO of Patron Technology in the USA is one of them. And he is not alone.  The theory goes something like this: if we need to talk about engaging audiences, then we know we have a problem.  For the ADO, this seems like a moot point: there is a problem!  The real point of Mr. Carr’s response is to highlight that we seem to spend more time raising awareness of the problem, than tackling the problem head on.  Orchestra innovation expert, Greg Sandow, is also ambivalent about the concept of the ‘engaged audience‘ suggesting that it is a danger sign that “something’s missing” in a contributed blog on Matt Lehrman’s influential page (Audience Wanted) on the artsjournal.com website.

Whereas we broadly agree with Greg’s sentiment, it’s not quite as easy to compare the pop music marketing machine revelling in dissecting, for example, the minutiae of Kanye’s preferred [insert any object or product here] to his army of doting (read: engaged) fan base: a machine driven by huge promotional dollar spends, widespread and increasingly convergent media coverage (often unrelated to the music-making accomplishments or performances of Mr. West, or any similar high-profile entertainers) to the comparatively small marketing budget and de-emphasized media exposure of classical music.  Of course, we wish it were otherwise.  Who wouldn’t want to see classical music press push some of the more inane popular music coverage off the front-page off the primary media outlets! But is it really plausible for the classical music industry to achieve similar level of media saturation coverage?

The simple answer is, unsurprisingly, no. Classical music, at its best, is not always facile. It’s not meant to be.  It’s meant to ask questions, to elicit a response of some kind – to make us feel something; to be thought provoking; possess the power to be transformative for an individual, to stir memories – and the list goes on.  It is simply what makes classical music so powerful.  Its repetition – not as a recorded artefact – but as a live performance retains an almost unique capacity to capture a glimpse of the human spirit in all its greatness. On these extraordinary and rarest of occasions, orchestra and conductor combine with an esprit de corps that is nothing short of magical.

Although I have a real fondness and liking for much popular music (as most orchestral musicians do to some degree) I don’t personally consider the idea of going to a concert by a popular music artist (or band) as being an opportunity to be changed, as I always hope to be when deciding to attend an orchestra performance.

Perhaps, the truth is that we unjustly forget that orchestras and orchestral players have the means at their fingertips to provide a level and depth of visceral excitement through classical music performance that is beyond compare?  Perhaps we should be exploiting this rather than trying to compare what we do to the vagaries, and vulgarities, of the pop music machine?

Best wishes to everyone for a happy and safe holiday season.