Philadelphia Orchestra Fails the Gal-in-a Starbucks Test

We read last week that the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra is losing audiences.

Attendance in 2014/15 was down by 7,000 paid listeners from the previous season and off goal by 36,000. When board chair Richard B. Worley announced the bad news he said, “I don’t know if it’s because the audience isn’t here, or the audience is here and we don’t know how to reach them.”

As regular readers of this blog know, when I read about arts organizations that don’t know how to reach audiences – or don’t know if their audiences even exist – I visit their marketing materials to look for signs of trouble.

Take a look at this brochure and count how many photos there are of young, culturally diverse people enjoying one another’s company at a concert. Then count how many photos there are of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.


Or you can judge how well the orchestra does on the “Gal-in-a-Starbucks” test:

Imagine yourself sitting in a busy Starbucks where the woman sitting next to you is a smart, 28-year-old tech executive who, as it turns out, played viola in her college orchestra. You get to chatting and you decide to persuade her to come to your concerts, so you lean in and say:

“A very good friend of The Philadelphia Orchestra, the much-sought after Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda returns to lead two programs of musical travelogues. This first program kicks off the wintry season traversing the icy landscapes of Finland, Poland, and Russia. Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony (“Winter Daydreams”) paints a vivid picture of the snowy Russian countryside. “There is a particular quality of the sound of this orchestra, which is connected with the old Russian way of making sound,” says Noseda, and it will be on full display with this shimmering delight by Tchaikovsky. The “spectacular” Leonidas Kavakos, “a marvel of exactitude” (The Philadelphia Inquirer), returns with the exquisite and demanding Sibelius Violin Concerto. Kavakos, who was still in his teens when he came to international attention winning the Sibelius Competition in 1985 performs Sibelius’s depiction of chilling Scandinavian fjords. Lord Byron and Victor Hugo both told the tale of Ivan Mazeppa, a Slav who seduced the wrong Polish princess and was tied to a wild horse as punishment. Liszt’s fast-paced symphonic poem sets the folk story to lively music in our opening work, which, like the stallion in Byron’s poem, is “loosed … with a sudden lash.””

Yikes. Travelogues? Icy landscapes of Finland and Poland? Snowy Russian countryside? The old Russian way of making sound? A marvel of exactitude? Chilling Scandinavian fjords? Lord Byron and Victor Hugo?

What hot-blooded young music lover wouldn’t rush to buy tickets to all that?

Chances are the 36,000 people who stayed away last season have a lot in common with this horrified young coffee drinker. They’re looking for stimulating social experiences with rich emotional content while the Philadelphia Orchestra is selling convoluted history lessons with frigid geography, Italian exactitude and obscure Byronic horses.

Is it fair to suggest that this dorky chunk of pompous blather is the cause of the orchestra’s audience problems? Maybe not. But if the language is representative of the self-centered, self-important and self-flattering – not to mention condescending and insufferably didactic – communications content that marketers in Philadelphia (and elsewhere) use to sell classical music to the world outside the bubble, it’s worth pointing out.

The article says that Michael Kaiser has been brought in to help. Perhaps he should start by asking the communications department to spend a month or two at their local Starbucks learning how to talk to real Philadelphians.

Here’s a tip for classical music administrators who still think that narcissistic bombast is good marketing strategy: The language you’d use to persuade a young woman in a coffee shop to enjoy a night out with friends at a concert is the language that belongs in the brochure.


3 thoughts on “Philadelphia Orchestra Fails the Gal-in-a Starbucks Test

  1. You’ve got a point. The brochure is pompous and self congratulatory. That being said, how does one turn the Starbucks gal conversation into text? “Um….it’s really cool……think you’d like it. And Kavakos won like a Grammy and stuff” ??

    • Thanks for your comment, Advocate. It’s a great question.

      I find the best way to do this is actually to talk to someone who represents the demo I’m trying to persuade. If you sit down with a young woman like the one in the Starbucks and go through the exercise of trying to convince her to come to your concerts, you’ll find yourself using fresh, potent persuasive language that sounds nothing like the canned nonsense in this blurb. A surprising amount of what you say will be about the person you’re talking to and how the concerts will satisfy her desires and expectations – something that’s conspicuously absent from the Philadelphia brochure.

      Record what you say, if possible, and use it as the basis for constructing your copy. The end product will probably combine the essential information in the blurb with your casual, colloquial conversational tone. But most importantly, it will be as much about your customer, and how your product will make her happy, as it is about how wonderful and important your product is.

      • Good advice, thanks for the reply. The implication of what you’re saying here is that creating a person to person connection with the desired demo is what arts orgs need to do and what many clearly don’t do-with these pretentious brochures as exhibit “A”.

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