Why Should They Show Up?
That’s the question I was asked a week ago at a pre-conference panel discussion for the 2014 Chamber Music America 2014 conference in New York City. It was a great conference and I was thrilled to be able to take part in this discussion about how to engage audiences in the 21st century. But back to the original question– why should they (our audiences) show up?
That’s the short answer. If you want to build audiences, the first step is to consider what incentives your performance offers that would attract new audience members. You might find yourself asking, “But isn’t my excellent technique and virtuosic ability on my instrument enough?!” Perhaps it is, if so, then you are one of the lucky few. You must first understand that this doesn’t mean that you have necessarily failed in anyway. In my journey as a performing musician it was a difficult reality for me to accept that it wasn’t the quality of the music I was making that failed to draw audiences. As professional musicians, we are trained to accept full responsibility for our performances. We are taught from a young age that working harder will fix our flaws and that our success will trickle down from our work ethic. But what if that wasn’t so?
Let’s think about this in terms of today’s culture. I live in a city where my groceries are delivered, my dinners can be delivered, my bills can all be paid online, my dog’s food and toys are delivered, and if I wanted, I could keep up with all my friends from the isolation of my living room via Facebook or FaceTime. What do I do when I’m bored? I can binge watch every episode of The Walking Dead at once, download any and every piece of music I want and listen to it on my awesome Bose speakers, play Scrabble with my friends (on my phone), read every book of the Hunger Games on my Kindle Paperwhite without ever touching real paper books, or I could just sleep. The best part, is that I can do all of this in sweatpants.
When we talk about engaging audiences of 18-35 year olds, the Holy Grail of audience engagement, it might seem that there are none left on Earth. Arts organizations and performers everywhere are searching high and low for these folks to bring them to the concert hall. The reality is that we are all at home on our couches in sweatpants, we never left— and don’t really want to.
So, where does that leave us in the performing arts? As I see it, if we want to draw these folks to our performances then we are going to have to offer some pretty good incentives for them to make an effort to leave all that comfort and convenience. When you look at the situation through this lens, I hope that you’ll stop beating yourself up and you’ll start focusing your skills and ingenuity toward creating incentives to bring new people to your performances.