An Orchestra That Actually Listens to New Audiences

Kudos to Greg Sandow for pointing us to this incredible post from the California Symphony. Every leader of every major orchestra in the world should read this post and do what California Symphony is doing.

What’s so exciting? Well, Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer and her team are listening to new audiences to learn how to communicate with them. And they’re actually changing the way they do business.

Yeah. I know. Sounds like a “duh” sort of announcement, but this is nothing less than monumental because large, ailing classical music organizations simply don’t do it. They all pay lip service to the idea, of course, but there are two things happening at California Symphony that make this situation exceptional.

First, Bergauer is actually using what she and her team are learning to change the way they communicate with their customers – a practice that’s virtually unheard of among large traditional arts institutions. Take a look at any major orchestra’s marketing materials and you’ll be hard pressed to find evidence that they spoke to new audiences, let alone listened to them or allowed their perspective to influence the content of their communications. What makes Bergauer extraordinary is that she’s an executive leader who is not only willing to listen to new audience members, but she’s willing to shake up decades of entrenched music industry tradition to speak to them in a language they understand.

Second, California Symphony is not paying expensive consultants from deep inside the industry to tell them how to do it. They’re going out and finding likely new audiences in their community, inviting them for pizza and beer, listening to them – even when what they say is painful to hear – and learning how to facilitate their access. It’s something any arts organization can do at little to no cost, and something no established industry consultant is going to recommend. (Consultants sell elite arts leaders what they want to buy and inviting young brown strangers to tell them what they’re doing wrong is never on the list.) But once again, it’s not just about gathering information, it’s about using the information to change organizational behavior – which is something entrenched arts leaders just can’t bring themselves to do.

The fact that this is a surprising discovery speaks volumes about the sad state of marketing in the classical music world. This should be common practice throughout the cultural sector – and new audiences should be pouring into theaters and concert halls.

I’ve always been happy to mention Jason Nicholson in Austin who’s been learning from new audiences for several years now. I couldn’t be more pleased to see the folks at California Symphony carrying the same torch.

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