As reported in the Evening Standard today, research at concerts by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra shows that younger audiences are put off attending traditional concerts.
A survey of people aged between 24 – 36 showed that they feel alienated by concerts. With cuts to the Arts Council of 30% announced today, it’s getting more and more difficult for orchestras, ensembles and arts organisations in general to survive. Classical music needs to find ways to re-invent itself in order to continue, and the format of presenting music in traditional concert settings also needs adapting, if younger audiences in particular – the Ticket-Buyers of Tomorrow – are to be drawn in through venue doors.
The OAE has created the ‘Night Shift,’ concerts where audiences are encouraged to clap when they feel moved to do so, rather than waiting until the end of a piece, and ticket-prices are student-friendly and include the cost of a beer.
I’ve written previously about the lack of power cultural consumers appear to wield, given that it’s our wallets that arts companies and institutions are fighting over. What should put us in a position of strength, and result in a Golden Age of Artistic Creations which the masses are clamouring to experience, doesn’t seem to be happening. Why ?
Part of the reason, it seems to me, may lie in the infrastructure that comes between the artistic object (a concert, CD, art exhibition, or latest novel) and the consumer experience.
Before the object even reaches the public, all manner of individuals have made decisions about it: what people want, what they will like, what they might pay, how it should be packaged to appeal to them, and so on. From marketing managers to distribution teams, sales executives and in-house staff, the object has had decisions made about it, and the way it should be pigeon-hold, packaged, promoted and presented long before the actual consumer gets anywhere near it.
This means that all sorts of decisions are made as a result of distribution strategies (release date, performance run, tour dates, retail price) and marketing psychology (presentation style, launch, advertising imagery and attendant promotional campaign) without necessarily having any bearing on the work itself.
How the cultural object reaches the public is the result of protracted planning and ideas about what will appeal, and ultimately what will contribute to successful sales. This takes away the innate appeal of the object itself, and replaces it with hyper-marketing trappings designed, not to make it accessible, but to make it sell well.
This latter factor, the distinction between accessibility and successful sales, is where part of the problem may lie. If everything is made accessible, there could be too much to choose from, and consumers would drown in a wealth of too much to experience. Instead, let’s make certain things inaccessible, either through pricing or rendering something Esoteric and Difficult in comparison, so that people will buy the rubbish. Let’s package artists that are only half-decent as easy to access, performing works that everyone half-knows or knows that they like, such that they will sell. Why buy discs of Renée Fleming or Cecilia Bartoli, when you can have a CD by this lovely young girl with blonde hair singing stuff you probably already know, and ok, she doesn’t sing it very well at all, but hey, she’s a Bright Pretty Young Thing and the album won’t challenge you ?
How can that be good for the cultural market-place ? Instead, why not let consumers decide, and trust that they can make informed decisions for themselves ?
As consumers, we should have a lot of power. It’s our money that companies want, that marketing strategies are devised for, to help us to part with our cash for things we either want, or didn’t realise we wanted. Audiences are turned into commodities, entities with profiles and habits towards which companies can tailor their marketing campaigns to achieve maximum efficiency, which supermarkets can index and target with specific adverts for products relevant to particular consumer groups. Products are matched with relevant consumers, with advertising crafted to appeal specifically to them alone.
The culture industries are no exception to this: as consumers of culture, we are also labelled, profiled and targeted: how often have you been asked to fill out a questionnaire that came with a CD, or sign up for promotional features by an arts organisation’s website, or been confronted by a pop-up survey on a website saying ‘your views are important to us ?’
The cost of producing a cultural commodity for popular consumption is balanced against consumer group spending power: cost-effectiveness is key. Ticket prices for concerts and exhibitions, the number of dates on a performing tour, number of nights’ run on a show: all these are factors in off-setting production costs against income recovered. Competition for audiences in the cultural sector must be huge.
If, as consumers, we are so important to arts industries, if companies and organisations are so desperate to attract our custom, and hence our cash, why aren’t we wielding more power ? Why aren’t promoters offering us things that we do want to visit, to see or to hear ? Why isn’t competition for audiences and for ticket-sales translating into a Golden Age of Artistic Production and consumption ?
The loyalty-card schemes run by supermarkets are a tool for helping them define customers in terms of the products they purchase regularly. A person who buys nappies and powdered formula milk is probably a good target for money-off vouchers for baby food and clothing; but it’s getting harder to divide consumers so easily across the wider spectrum when looking at their cultural consumption.It’s easier to run a list of products someone purchases from a supermarket, and ascertain what they purchase regularly and what related products might be of interest. It’s perhaps less easy to do this with someone’s cultural predilections (unless companies can access one’s browsing history, and assuming one does most of one’s reading and listening on-line).
As Nicholas Garnham writes, ‘’What analysis of the cultural industries does bring home to us is the need to take the question […] of cultural resources seriously, together with the question of audiences – who they are, how they are formed, and how they can best be served’ (my italics) (from ‘Concepts of Culture – public policy and the cultural industries’, printed in Gray and McGuigan, Studying Culture, 1993: 60-61). That last part is crucial: as far as dis-empowering the spending power of cultural audiences is concerned, companies are more likely to prefer ‘how they can best be manipulated.’
Why are we often dissatisfied with what we are offered ? One only has to read the critics’ columns in the papers to read of another disappointing exhibition, an artist’s newly-released album that’s a let-down or another mindless summer action blockbuster film.
Perhaps it’s complicated by the plurality of society, both in terms of consumer group identities as well as the multiple streams by which culture can be created and consumed. Society is too diverse in its interests to be formed into meaningful or significant groups, easily able to be defined. With everything from medieval music to Muse, Botticelli to Bacon, Chaucer to Chomsky, it’s difficult to define individual consumer bases as having a specific taste that makes them a marketing consultant’s dream: the intellectual who reads Schopenhauer, listens to Slipknot and Webern, is vegetarian, likes Studio Ghibli films and paintings by Monet would be a marketing nightmare. Television schedules of course have to please as wide a spectrum of viewers as they can, and what is enjoyable to one is dross to another.
I don’t have a simple answer to the question of why we, as cultural consumers, don’t have more power in our wallets. Perhaps the realisation that we ought to is enough to start with. It’s time to start using our power more effectively. How we begin to do that is another question.
Because it does. Doesn't it ? Blogging about extra-curricular musical life at the University of Kent.