Deadly Arts Marketing Cliché # 6: “Culture”

So I’m rehearsing with Gustavo Dudamel last night…

Sorry.  I’m not a shameless name dropper, but in this case I just couldn’t help myself. I actually was rehearsing with Dudamel last night and I’m going to use the experience to illustrate a point about communication and culture.

(I’m singing the Mahler 8th this Saturday with the L.A. Phil, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and over eight hundred other singers, not because I’m a great musician, but because I sing with the Pasadena Master Chorale and we were asked to help fill the ranks.)

Maestro Dudamel speaks English not so good. He says so right away but it’s not really an issue because music provides him with a language that his singers readily understand.  If he wants us to speed up in certain places, he says, “accelerando.” If he wants us slow down in other places he says, “ritardando,” And if he wants the tenors to be a bit more lively in some spots he says, “Tenors, don’t be boring there,” in which case his English works just fine.

But on my way home after rehearsal, if the jerk in front of me is too busy texting to see the light turn green, I don’t shout “Molto accelerando!” That would be ridiculous.  I shout “MOVE you friggin’ bonehead! What the hell are you waiting for?” or something like that, because that’s the language spoken by people who drive cars in L.A.

If you want to get the job done, you have to use the language that the people you’re speaking to understand, the language that means the same thing to them as it means to you, the communication you have in common.

So with that in mind, let me ask you a question:  Is “culture” an insider word or a common word? Do people on the outside attach the same associations to the word “culture” that we on the inside do?  Do new audiences – those younger, more culturally diverse people we talk about so often – think the same thing when they hear the word “culture” that we do? I once asked my young niece what popped into her head when she heard the word “culture” and she said, “boring stuff Grandma liked.”

We’d have to do a lot of research to learn what “culture” means to new audiences, whether their connotations are positive, neutral or negative, and whether the word has the persuasive power to lure new audiences into the fold. But in the meantime, we may want to err on the side of caution and try not to let one of our favorite insider words creep so automatically into our external promotional language. If your street pole banners say “Cultural District,” for example, and young people like my niece think that means district for boring stuff Grandma liked, you might want to try “Arts & Entertainment District” instead.

I’m lucky to be participating in an extraordinary cultural event this week, but I would never try to persuade someone to come to the performance by describing it that way. I say, “the music will send chills down your spine,” because that’s exactly what’s going to happen to them within the first two bars and culture has nothing to do with it.

Next up: Travel Metaphors


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