Why Did You Put Your Conductor on that Brochure?

I read about another financially troubled symphony orchestra yesterday, this one in America’s heartland – in a world-famous music capital, no less – where folks are finding it difficult to pay for their shiny new concert hall.

When I hear about these orchestras I usually go to their websites and look at their season brochures for clues as to why they’re having so much trouble building audiences, and what I find there is depressingly familiar:

A multi-page brochure that was designed in the 1970s when Danny Newman wrote Subscribe Now! The details change of course, but the overarching format and message is relentlessly consistent. Here’s a tip for struggling orchestras: if you want to attract audiences that are under thirty-five years old, you might want to avoid using marketing materials that were developed before they were born.

A cover shot of a formally clad conductor waving a baton. This is often just one of several shots of the same conductor scattered throughout the brochure. In the rare instances where the conductor is a bona fide celebrity who has measurable drawing power with new audiences, this could be a good idea. But if he’s not, it’s an absolutely terrible idea. Note to conductors: If you’re using your organization’s sales materials to try to make yourself famous or further your career, or if you’re allowing your staff to flatter you by slapping you all over the brochure, you are a big part of the problem.

Pictures of everything but target audiences enjoying themselves at the events. Every professional marketer knows that one of the most effective ways to convince customers that their products are worth their time and money is to show those customers enjoying the product. If you’re a marketer at a financially ailing orchestra who publishes 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 shots of your conductor in the same brochure (yes, it happens), cut the number down to 1 next time and fill all that extra space with pictures of the people you’d like to see in your venue enjoying themselves in your venue. (Note: pictures of people clapping at your conductor don’t count.)

Bullshit. The copy in these brochures is dreadful. One of the great tragedies in classical music is that an industry on the brink of collapse continues to publish hackneyed, archaic, artificial, amateurish, formulaic, masturbatory gobbledegook in its marketing materials in a vain attempt to appeal to shrinking audiences of avid fans. If you disagree, go find one of those young, culturally diverse new audience members you’ve been talking about for the last 20 years and read them your brochure copy as if you’re trying to persuade them to come to a concert. You’ll be so embarrassed, you won’t get past the first page.

Formal trappings of the concert experience. Music is an extremely difficult thing to photograph so most orchestras photograph the things that have traditionally gone along with classical music-making and assume they’ll resonate with the needs, wants and desires of new audiences. If you’re a marketing director of an ailing music organization whose new audiences say they want fun nights out with friends that include drinks, food and great live music, stop publishing pictures of tuxedo-clad artists operating 18th century music making machinery and start using pictures of young, diverse people enjoying drinks, food and great live music in your venue.

Joshua Bell. Yes. Guest artists need to be promoted and, within the world of people who care about such things, notable artists continue to influence sales. But outside the world of people who care about such things – the place where new audiences come from – guest artists may be secondary considerations. If you’re a financially troubled institution and you’re wall-papering your brochure with every guest artist on the roster (yes, it happens), it might make more sense to focus on the marquee names and use the remaining space for explaining why one of your faithless churners might want come back for another concert – irrespective of who’s on the program.

Institutional baggage. The season brochure and its cousins are there to sell tickets. Unfortunately, the world of nonprofit arts blurs the line between messages that are meant to earn revenue and messages that are meant to further the institution’s mission-oriented objectives. The result is sales tools that talk about how excited the executive leader is about the upcoming season, the great work the education department is doing, which composers took their cues from folk traditions, who showed up at the gala, why the money we’re asking you to spend isn’t enough and how important the whole thing is to the continuity of Western civilization. If you’re a marketer at an institution that needs to sell tickets in order to survive, it could be a good idea to make sure your sales messages focus exclusively on persuading people to buy tickets.

I know I’ve said it all before and I apologize to regular readers who’ve already gotten the message, but I can’t help it. It’s painful to watch so much effort on the part of so many talented, passionate dedicated people go down the tubes when one of the industry’s core problems is so glaringly obvious and so easy to fix.

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4 thoughts on “Why Did You Put Your Conductor on that Brochure?

  1. I have often wanted to take pictures of our audience members enjoying themselves, but am afraid to publish photos without getting their consent. How do we avoid that legal hurdle?

    • I think the easiest thing to do is get consent. I’ve identified people I’d like to use as they arrive for the performance and ask them if they’ll let us shoot them at intermission (people love this). They can sign release forms then. It’s a great way to select the right “models” and make sure the shots we most want have been set up in advance.

  2. Trevor, no need to apologize. I’m a regular reader and I can’t get enough of this message. I’ve shared this entry via my Facebook page. Your link under the category of “Bullshit” will point readers to one of my favorite past entries you’ve posted. Well worth reading again!

  3. This is brilliant. Great blog.

    I particularly liked:
    “One of the great tragedies in classical music is that an industry on the brink of collapse continues to publish hackneyed, archaic, artificial, amateurish, formulaic, masturbatory gobbledegook in its marketing materials in a vain attempt to appeal to shrinking audiences of avid fans”.
    Nail- meet head!

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