Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005
The Good, The Bad, and The Embarassing: A Marketing Brainstorming Session

Greg Sandow recently posted about some classical music PR and Advertising flops, and closes with “We don't realize that the people we're talking to are smart, and have plenty of contact with music of other kinds, and with art and media generally. In fact, they're far more media-savvy than we are, and they know far more than we give them credit for. We have to meet them where they actually are, and not speak to them on the level either of a music education text of the 1940s, or else of the kind of hype they reject in four and a half seconds when it comes to them in normal advertising.” So let’s do a little brainstorming on how Classical music PR and Advertising succeeds and fails and try to come up with some guiding principles. Here are my thoughts:

1. Using Greg’s posting as a starting point, I think it’s safe to say that “Outreach” is a doomed strategy for classical music. “Outreach” is a specific kind of marketing that assumes the product is inherently worthwhile and should be inherently appealing to all right-thinking people, and that all we need to do is show the ignorant masses the error of their ways, and raise them from their ignorance – since our product is inherently worthwhile or superior, all we need to do is give people the opportunity they haven’t been smart enough to seek out for themselves to experience the product, and they will see what they’ve been missing and be converted. Outreach is a reasonable strategy for some kinds of things – an anti-poverty program, for example, might very reasonably think that everybody know that reducing poverty is inherently good, but people are ignorant about poverty because they don’t want to think about it; so we need an outreach program to show people just how severe the problem is. Music doesn’t work that way. Classical music isn’t inherently more valuable than the music that the targets of outreach programs already devote their resources to pursuing, and to assume or imply otherwise is offensive. Furthermore, people who don’t like (or simply aren’t ticket-buying fans of) classical music didn’t pick pop music as a result of stupidity or bad taste, and implying otherwise is offensive. It’s true that there’s a segment of the population that isn’t interested in classical music but does believe that classical music is inherently superior to the pop music they like – but outreach won’t work for them either, since they are the very people who would already _be_ classical music fans if an appeal to cultural superiority were going to work. Avoiding doing “Outreach” that looks like “Outreach” doesn’t mean not getting the word out – you just have to do it in a way that doesn’t condescend to the target demographic. The goal is to achieve market saturation in a way that implies “Hey, we’re here, if you’re interested. We’re having a good time, and we think you might too” rather than “Hey, we’re here, and you should give us a chance to educate you, you cultural troglodyte.”

2. We do far more telling people that classical music is cool than showing them that it’s cool. Unfortunately, the result is that we look like we’re overstating the case because we’re desperate for audiences, and we sound pathetic. A marketing campaign with the tag line “Classical Music can be Fun” (see Greg’s post) is doomed to fail, because it’s predicated on the understanding that the target audience doesn’t think it’s true, but that the belief in the non-fun-ness is simultaneously stupid and weakly held. I don’t find Country music fun, but a lot of people do – who’s right and who’s wrong? Nobody, it’s a matter of preference – and treating Classical music differently is elitist and unreasonable. On the other hand, a campaign where the orchestra makes it easier than usual (read: cheaper) for people to attend some of the concerts that are part of the regular season and advertises it with something like “This season, we want to show you a good time” might well work. It’s a very similar message, but the first case is message for the sake of message and phrased in a way that implies that you, the reader, are wrong about a fact; the second is message for the sake of getting you to come to the concert, and phrased in a way that takes responsibility for providing a good time.

3. Gimmick concerts don’t work as tools to expand the base of support. First, people aren’t stupid – they know a gimmick when they see it. And a gimmick is, by definition, something that you do to attract the attention of people who wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention. Gimmicks tend to be used for two purposes: making money, and outreach. Sometimes you have to raise money, and a gimmick is a perfectly reasonable way to do it, but don’t expect it to work as outreach. The people who attend the gimmick know it’s a gimmick and assume it’s not representative of the regular programming, so they won’t buy the regular programming on the basis of the gimmick. An additional risk is that they might feel that the gimmick is condescending if they get the impression that the musical selection for the Gimmick concert was guided by the belief that the Gimmick audience isn’t smart enough to handle the regular repertoire.

3 (b). There are two kinds of gimmicks: superficial gimmicks and substance gimmicks. A superficial gimmick is a flashy packaging designed to attract attention to an otherwise standard event – “this Saturday we’re going to perform Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ and the audience will be served Jello during the overture to symbolize the slipperiness of the harmonies.” As long as “The Creation” fits with the ensemble’s usual programming, this might work nicely. A bunch of people who had been thinking about maybe going to a your concert some time (but might never have gotten around to it) will decide this is the weekend to do it, and if they like it they can be confident that they’ll like other, non gimmick concerts. On the other hand, if your ensemble would usually perform “The Creation” but this Saturday you’re putting on a concert of arrangements of the music from the original Super Mario Brothers you might get a great turnout, but nobody will come back because they know that you don’t usually play this kind of music. (Of course if you usually play Super Mario Brothers, programming “The Creation” wouldn’t be any more effective.)

I also have some thoughts on how special deals on ticket prices should be used and on the dangers of trying too hard to seem like a “hep-cat,” as the kids say, but I’ll save them for later. The kids do say that, right?


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