Here's a test for symphony orchestra lovers. True or false:
1) To woo younger audiences, which are bored by Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, orchestras must play more contemporary works, even at the risk of alienating their aging core audience.
2) By offering free concerts, orchestras will expose more people to classical music and generate new ticket-buyers.
3) Orchestras can create new audiences by designing and offering educational programs for the vast numbers of Americans who know little about classical music.
4) To ensure the survival of orchestras over the long-term, schoolchildren must be exposed to classical-music concerts.
The answers are false, false, false and false.
If a new report is indeed correct, much of the accepted wisdom about saving America's orchestras -- which rests on the idea that if people can just be lured into the concert hall, they'll buy tickets and come back -- is wrong. And that explains why, decades after the alarums were first rung, the knell still sounds and the debate within the classical-music set remains much the same.
It was, in fact, 1994 when the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation decided it could no longer respond to individual requests to bail out floundering symphonies. Too many were in financial crisis, and the emergency rescues never seemed to lead to long-term financial health. Instead, Knight started an ambitious "Magic of Music Initiative" of research and experimentation that lasted 10 years, cost $13 million, and involved 15 orchestras from Long Beach, Calif., to Philadelphia.
The foundation has now published its findings in a 59-page report. It deserves attention precisely because it debunks many salvation strategies -- free concerts in clubs, cafés and museums; using jean-clad, not tuxedo-garbed, musicians; online instruction and other programs to educate the masses, among others -- that symphonies keep using to attract concertgoers, to little avail. These efforts may have other benefits, but they're not increasing the number of tickets sold.
The report, which is based on both the experiences of participating orchestras and audience research in their communities, isn't all negative. It asserts, for example, that nearly 60% of adults said they had some interest in classical music, and nearly a third said it was part of their lives on some regular basis. Of that 60%, however, fewer than 5% actually patronized their local symphonies. (Even fewer, the research shows, buy the tickets, make the decision to attend, or subscribe -- but let's not get bleaker than necessary.)
So how are those interested adults -- the broadest target audience -- getting their classical music? More than half of them said they listened to it "at least several times a month" on the radio. They also own classical CDs -- 16, on average. The single most popular venue for listening is the car, then the home. It's not the concert hall.
Could this big group, the 60%, be converted to concertgoers? Doubtful, the research indicates. In contrast to past beliefs, and hopes, appreciation of classical music is not enough to make someone purchase tickets to a concert.
The Magic of Music symphonies offered hundreds of innovative concerts and programs, but overall ticket sales continued to decline, the report says. Free events drew crowds, but attendees did not later shell out money for tickets. Nor did the bountiful numbers who attended off-site concerts later patronize the box office. Outreach programs to new audiences also failed to get people to buy tickets. Educational programs were generally attended by people already attuned to classical music, not those bored by the Three B's.
The research showed that predicting who will buy tickets is difficult, except for one variable: 74% of ticket-buyers had played an instrument or sung in a chorus somewhere, sometime, in their lives. Rather than large-scale concert programs for schoolchildren, it seems to be the active, participatory educational efforts that produce concertgoers.
So what is the answer to the orchestras' dilemma? The report doesn't prescribe a course of action -- though it says orchestras must be focused, relevant to the community and team-based, and it suggests pretty strongly that orchestras should stop giving away their music as a marketing technique. It also calls for more research on classical-music lovers who don't attend concerts.
Reading between the lines, however -- Lesson No. 1 in the report blames the problems of orchestras on "the delivery systems" -- it's clear that people do not want to pay hefty sums for a long concert in a large concert hall. That, in turn, suggests that a lot of money is going down the drain as communities build big, slick concert halls and support old ones. (The study did not cover ticket prices, but big buildings usually translate into big costs.)
None of this means that symphonies should stop experimenting with video projections, jazzy lighting effects, interactive program guides, informal settings, and other ways to enhance concerts. They would also do well to keep searching for new revenue streams, be they radio concerts, music downloads, charging for off-site concerts, or enlisting Oprah. There are, after all, plenty of people interested in classical music -- just not the way that music is being served up.