After yesterday’s meme-warning, it seems important to illustrate that the Web is capable of extraordinary flights of poetry as well.

A large public is daily at a further remove from the literary temper of a Martin Amis who could refuse to read 1984 because Orwell used the worn expression “ruggedly handsome features” on the first page. The editor of The Onion — of all people well-placed to suvey the Zeitgeist (if that word hasn’t itself become a cliché in English) — attacks the meme-menace with a will.

Even in a stagnant economy, people are still supporting what they value, and many nonprofit arts organizations report that contributions remain strong. With all the robust signs of life in American orchestras, I thought I’d have conversations with the heads of marketing for the two polls of the continent’s orchestras. Both the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have opened new seasons that also debut the régimes of exciting young music directors. On the right, we have a local boy who grew up with the orchestra, Alan Gilbert, while the left coast welcomes Gustavo Dudamel from the hotbed of lively, youthful music that Venezuela has become.

At the NYPO, David Snead, Vice President, Marketing, is clear that innovation and creativity are employed for a reason and that, for thirty years his reason has been the same: “turning people onto the music.” The best way to get exciting and excited new audiences, he has proved, is not to offer them dinner or preferred parking but to offer them exciting music in a way that projects its inherent nature and excitement.

What he calls his “epiphany” came when the twenty-something daughter of a friend visited him in New York. She asked Snead if he would take her to a rock concert. He was a little taken aback that she wanted to trek out to Farmingdale, Long Island to hear Duncan Sheik — on what was for him a “school night.” This was before the Broadway hit, Spring Awakening, and her host was not really sure just who Duncan Shiek was but consented — stipulating that he must be in bed by 11. His visitor also asked Snead to bring his camera to take her picture with the artist. He took this to be an instance of naïveté of the ways of concert life, since he knew her chances of getting that close to a rock star would be slim indeed, and he certainly didn’t want to have his camera confiscated, as he knew to be the practice when a guy showed up at a concert hall with the conspicuous intention of taking photos. Not only did the young woman — and many others of the audience — get an individual photo with Duncan Sheik; not only did he find himself falling into bed at 4 a.m.; but next morning he learned that his guest, far from retiring in contented exhaustion, joined hundreds of other enthusiasts online to discuss what they had heard at the concert. There they not only shared their pictures from the event but dealt with a minority complaint that there had been too many slow songs. Snead was thunderstruck to learn that Duncan Sheik had then appeared online as well, where he defended his programming. All this had been an integral part of the event, so far as the fans were concerned.

That’s when Snead thought, “Here we are in New York. Manny Ax and Gil Shaham live in New York, and they’re very open guys with a great attitude towards the public. Why can’t people hungry for musical fellowship be provided with more access to them and other towering artists than just seeing and hearing them on the concert platform?” One result of this question has been a whole program of engaging interviews with a performer or composer for each event — at least one per concert — pasted on the orchestra’s Web site. These seem to have greatly decreased the sense of perceived distance between audience members and the musicians that they go to hear. In addition, the site also provides downloads of music from the Philharmonic’s internal label, along with access to more material via iTunes and mobile phones.

The free concerts in New York’s public parks, already favorite summer events for large crowds, came to yield an increasingly participatory experience through devices like the two-season-old practice of inviting audience members to contend via mobile phone on behalf of different encore alternatives. At least as invigorating for these events have been the online photo contests, for which pictures of the event taken by audience members are submitted to the site and prizes are awarded for various categories of views from the evening. These have without doubt represented a significant change of emphasis from the stage to the audience experience of the music emanating from that stage. Thank you, Duncan Sheik and young woman visiting from out of town!

“We’re a learning organization,” the thoughtful Philharmonic marketer tells us. This presupposes a vision far different from the idea of marketing as dictating the experience that the public is expected to take — or leave. Snead seems to feel that the most compelling “brand” is created by the consumer rather than by the management. A fruitful result and evidence of this is the enormously successful Create Your Own Series subscription program. This has been a powerful way for younger audiences to form the conditions of their participation in the season for themselves, while at the same time communicating some useful information to the management. Naysayers had predicted that people allowed to design their own series would make a rush for the most popular familiar repertory, leaving the more challenging (read: “unpopular”) evenings comparatively deserted. The facts have been quite otherwise. The Philharmonic has balanced the time invested in learning about their audience with much effort at communicating with that audience about the thrill of discovery available to those who engage with new musical experiences at the highest level. Those who customize their own subscription have renewed at the stunning rate of 90%. What’s more, they are trading up in number of concerts and to better seats — clear evidence that they value the experience that they are getting and want to enhance it further. Thus the organization sees increases in customer satisfaction, longevity as subscribers, and motivation to become donors. Another sign of satisfaction is that, when they are given discounts for various reasons, statistics show that these are overwhelmingly inclined to use the saving for … wait for it: more concert tickets.

All these programs, their devising, thinking-through, execution, supervision, and — crucially — their evaluation are expensive in thought and staff hours. But, in money, the entire online multi-media program, for example, costs for a whole year approximately what a quarter-page ad in the leading metropolitan daily costs. These kinds of comparisons command attention.

An hour of conversation with David Snead was succeeded by an hour engaged with Shana Mathur, who is Vice President, Marketing and Communications at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After what I had heard about consumer-designed experiences, I was eager to know how the Create Your Own Season program was prospering on the other end of the continent. Evidently we’d have to say that it’s a success when participants in the program have doubled from last season to this. If we remember that this was hardly a limping organization before, such response from the public must be respected — and examined. Naturally the popular fervor that the arrival of a new music director has inspired makes people want to see him, if nothing else. But people are buying not just Dudamel concerts. There is a clear age difference between the modes of subscription: the average age of fixed subscribers is 65, whereas that of Create Your Own is ten years younger. “It takes a lot of 30-year-olds to bring it down that much,” Mathur points out. While these, not surprisingly, flock to the visits of the Berlin Philharmonic, John Williams, or Steve Martin, there also seems to be no letup in the willingness to buy tickets for the non-familiar and adventurous — a legacy of 17 years of steady progress in this direction under Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The Los Angeles administration is particularly alert to lifestyle issues as they reflect and affect participation in the seasons. Since the prosperity of the Philharmonic had long been subscription-driven, when Mathur joined in January of 2008, she realized that this round hole, while wonderfully effective in its way, wasn’t quite right for a lot of square pegs who needed to be reached out to. She recognized her good fortune in having two iconic venues that in themselves drive audience interest (the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl), each with a distinct season. She found “a well-oiled machine” in place that she was wise enough to respect. “I didn’t want to stick my foot in a wheel that was running smoothly.” On the other hand, there was no digital team in place, and it seemed an obvious step to create a department of digital marketing. One result of this was a growth in the extent and effectiveness of the e-mail list.

Mathur saw the digital realm as providing greater opportunities for engagement. When the idea of online games came up in internal discussion, she said, “We have an opportunity to have lots of fun here. Let’s just do it.” The resulting games have been an “incredible hit.” One of them introduces “what a conductor does.” It thus teaches nuts and bolts relative to experiencing the Philharmonic, but it also incites commentary and brings new audiences closer to what goes on at the concert venues. She sees the games as a way to involve and engage audiences.

Web analytics are also key. How did the user get to that video? A link in an e-mail or on the site of an educational institution? That will inform what they buy. How does a print ad or an ad on a newspaper’s Web site get the user to a point of purchase? Her staff also created mobile programs so people could text in their photos to a “What Happened Last Night” feature after a Hollywood Bowl evening. The increased return-visitorship has persuaded them that to implement a program tailored for the Walt Disney Concert Hall as well.

The team’s creative thinking was guided by the perception that subscription is a luxury — not so much financially as in presupposing a well-regulated schedule and more or less predictable habits and needs. This corresponds, of course, to the secure and settled retired person — which helps explain the age difference in modes of purchase. On the other hand, they look closely at other lifestyle needs: for example the two-career young marrieds-with-children for whom planning ahead may be the only chance for a night out at the Philharmonic as a couple, with babysitting engaged and demanding work schedules arranged.

The relationship between marketing and artistic administration at the LA Philharmonic is highly collaborative. The artistic side typically comes to marketing with ideas, and the many successful festivals that the organization is known for are necessarily cross-departmental initiatives, since a festival is among other things a marketing package. Festivals like their “West Coast/Left Coast” (in which California was celebrated as the home of progressive ideas in music and society) involve marketing from the very beginning.

But Mathur emphasizes that the kind of marketing we’re talking about here is not all about “what sells/doesn’t sell.” Other motives take precedence all through the discussion. It can’t be coincidence, therefore, that the public too seems to be getting the message that the Philharmonic can be trusted to give them substance that is worth their time and money. “Our role as marketers is to find our place in the larger enterprise.” The result, she says with evident conviction, is “a brand that has love inside it.”

As the Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser, renowned as “The Turnaround King,” said in a January 9 WNYC-FM interview: “What’s important to running a successful arts organization is to produce great art and then to market that art very aggressively. Everything else will follow and fall in place… There is money for the arts if one is producing interesting art.”

Roger Evans wrote a version of this article for the DCM newsletter.

Dueling Organs

May 7, 2010

Another highly effective example of two Italian organs, and two players, facing off:

Johann Pachelbel: Partita on “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan”

Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, supplied a group of people with Sobe Adrenaline Rush, an “energy” drink that was supposed to make them feel more alert and energetic. (The drink contained a potent brew of sugar and caffeine which, the bottle promised, would impart “superior functionality”). Some participants paid full price for the drinks, while others were offered a discount. The participants were then asked to solve a series of word puzzles. Shiv found that people who paid discounted prices consistently solved about thirty percent fewer puzzles than the people who paid full price for the drinks. The subjects were convinced that the stuff on sale was much less potent, even though all the drinks were identical.

The same article — which doesn’t intend to say anything about music — goes on to a familiar kind of observation about wine-connoisseurship:

It’s pretty clear that we expect more expensive wines to taste better. (This expectation is visible in an fMRI machine.) But it’s also clear that, at least for amateurs, this expectation is mostly false: when you give people bottles of wine without any price information, there is no correlation between the cost of the wine and its subjective ratings. A $8 bottle is just as enjoyable as an $80 one.

One thing I wonder, though: is it all about what I personally am paying, or is it more about theoretical value? If I’m given a free ticket to a gala, do I nevertheless enjoy it more for knowing that other people are paying a thousand bucks? Did the people who got the energy-drink discount know that they were getting a special deal? This seems to me a crucial factor.

Another wrinkle: money may not be the only marker of exclusivity that operates in the enjoyment of music. The late Sir George Guest told me that, when he took over the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, even their developing excellence didn’t bring an audience for anything they did. Everybody went to KIng’s College down the street and ignored St. John’s. He then had a shrewd idea. He advertised their Advent Carol Service as involving “Admission by Ticket Only, to be Obtained Gratis at the Porter’s Lodge.” The college was not only besieged by the hordes wanting to get in, but the event provided a popular annual broadcast for the BBC. There were many other factors that made the choir deservedly world-famous, but Sir George was convinced that the initial leg-up for them came from that innocent ploy.

UPDATE: Perhaps even more impressive:

Hat-tip to Steve Best

The whole subject of how opera productions should look is much controverted these days, especially in online discussion. Much is made of the idea that Broadway and its practitioners are influencing, for conspicuous example, the Met. Some find this a blessing and some a bane. But we should remember that Broadway shows have changed at least as much as opera productions have. Here is a set of video views of Noël Coward’s 1929 Bittersweet, which was presented in that year both in the West End and on Broadway. It should help clear our minds of any idea that lavish, hyper-realistic productions began with one Signor Zeffirelli.

Tip of the hat to Robert Francks

Idea Man

May 1, 2010

Opera Chic has the most extensive interview with George Steel that I’ve seen since he took over the New York City Opera. In it, he not only lays bare some of his hopes for that company, but does some remarkably thoughtful processing of opera history and its implications for truly popular art today.