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.

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Over at Avery Fisher Hall, they’re wallowing in Stravinsky — under the title “The Russian Stravinsky.” Is there any other Stravinsky, you might ask? Well, yes, it seems so. Richard Taruskin, as usual contrarian but right, tells us all about it.

I was able to hear Les Noces, The Symphony of Psalms, and Firebird after the Icelandic volcano let St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater Chorus get through, and I’m certainly glad that I did — and that it did.

Coming up is one of my favorite Stravinsky works, which happens to have been commissioned by the Philharmonic. The main point of this post is to point out that they have taken the extraordinary step of posting online a free recording of the composer conducting the Symphony in Three Movements at the time of the premiere. Though I’ve certainly heard more fetching performances of it, it’s always a privilege to hear what the composer was able to get out of the orchestra when the piece was spanking new.

(And, by the way, I here register a rare disagreement with my colleague La Cieca, who spoke on Facebook of the work’s title as the “least palatable opus name.” I always found “Symphony in Three Movements” particularly elegant in a neo-classical sort of way.)

The Envelope. Please.

October 5, 2009

What did we ever do without low-res iPhone snaps?

What did we ever do without low-res iPhone snaps?

Those of us who got to see Waylon Flowers and his ineffable puppet Madame will always recall one of their greatest lines: ” Sylvia Miles would attend the opening of an envelope.” In a Manhattan autumn, the opening of many envelopes with nice, stiff invitations or tickets in them, is followed by many an opening gala.

My first opening of the new season was at the Dicapo Opera, in its surprisingly elegant church basement. No peeling concrete floors or piano-destroying dampness here. This is, after all, an upper-East Side church basement. It was the premiere of a new chamber version of Tobias Picker’s opera Emmeline . After a reputedly grand production at Santa Fe (which I did not see), it was good to have a chance to absorb it in intimate circumstances in a very creditable performance.

Next, on the way to the Metropolitan Opera opening night, there was a Steinway Hall event for Sony Masterworks to launch a remarkable project in which very, very advanced physics are called into play to recreate piano performances by Rachmaninoff — on a piano he may have played in his day. The climax of an already pretty exciting hour came when Joshua Bell showed up to play a duet from his own new release — with “Rachmaninoff” at the piano. The keys moved; the sound was glorious; but we saw only the violinist, since the pianist breathed his last in Beverly Hills in 1943. It was a little spooky and plenty thrilling.

Then, a half-hour later, came the Met opening, which has been sufficiently discussed in the world media, goodness knows. My own experience was to enjoy the performance at the time, allowing myself to wait until later for most of the inevitable critical reflections. That way, the negative perceptions didn’t spoil a brilliant evening. I’ve been able to read all the pros and cons (and to enter into many discussions of the production) without the bitterness that many seem to feel on both sides of the argument. After all, you don’t go to an opening night at the Met to be unhappy.

Though I wasn’t at opening night of the New York Philharmonic, I did hear the dress rehearsal that morning. Having known quite of a lot the work of Magnus Lindberg in the past, I was nevertheless astonished at his ability to capture just what was needed for the festive opening of a new season — and of the new régime of Alan Gilbert — in his premiere that opened the program. I have since heard it again in a subscription concert, and my admiration only increases, as does my conviction that the Philharmonic has made a very good choice in committing so much important work to Lindberg for this crucial season. In another piece of outside-the-box programming, we heard the oft-heard Renée Fleming as I’ve never heard her before in Messiaen’s luminous Poèms pour Mi, and subsequent performances this past week of Charles Ives masterpieces continue to encourage one about the Philharmonic’s immediate future.

Because of another obligation, I had to miss the first night of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, but I did get to the gala — and very lively it was — that opened the New York Film Festival in the same hall a few nights later. As always, it was a thrill to be seeing a new film, with its director and stars present. Really good food, too, which seems to be a dependable feature of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s shindigs (he said, feigning habituation after only two experiences of their galas).

The next night brought the opening of the recommended series Yale in New York, when the School of Music, under the shepherding of David Shifrin gave a stupendous concert at Zankel Hall in honor of Benny Goodman’s centenary. It was made up of classical works with which The King of Swing was closely associated (and which were mostly commissioned by him). While it was all eminently worth hearing, the pièce de résistance, inevitably, was the Copland Clarinet Concerto, played without a conductor by an orchestra from the Music School, with Shifrin himself as the soloist. Sheer beauty.

Then last night, at the other extreme of scale from the large concert halls, there was the opening concert of the Helicon Foundation‘s new season. Since the closing of Albert Fuller’s magnificent salon upon his death, these remarkable sessions have been moved to an ample drawing-room just off Fifth Avenue. My grateful recollection of a delicious Vienna-saturated evening moves me to recommend this membership-based organization for those who like intimate music-making at the highest level.

So many openings; so many pleasures to anticipate. It’ll be nice not to have to dress up quite that much all the time, though — and it’s off to my first fall visit to Le Poisson Rouge tonight.