Call Off the Requiem: The Classical Music Business Is Not Dead Just Yet

Minnesota Orchestra

Some of the top symphonies in the country, such as the Grammy Award-winning Minnesota Orchestra, have gone to extraordinary efforts to force innovation and risk taking upon themselves. Travis Anderson

It’s clear that, by the numbers at least, the business of classical music has been in a heap of trouble for some time; what is less clear is why. Pundits from different corners of the arts world have no shortage of explanations or theories about what has most contributed to the genre’s decline in cultural relevancy. (British novelist Kingsley Amis once wrote that late 20th century classical music is to blame, asserting that the modern symphony has “about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia.” Ouch.)

But the music, according to most, is not the problem.

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According to Aubrey Bergauer—who has been called ‘the Steve Jobs of classical music’ by colleagues in her sector due to her Midas-like ability to turn around sluggish money-losing orchestras, reversing decades-old trend lines pointing toward fewer (and older) ticket holders—the problem is actually quite simple.

“The music itself is not the problem, in fact it’s what we do best—it’s our core product. Yet so many organizations think that if we change the product, it will help the bottom line, but it won’t,” observed Bergauer, who most recently gave back the reins of the San Francisco Bay area-based California Symphony after shaking things up with tactics more commonly found at the startups and tech companies up the road in Silicon Valley. “The problem with classical music is everything except the music; in technology parlance, we might say that our ‘UX,’ our customer user experience, generally sucks.”

Keep that thought; we’ll come back to Bergauer and classical music’s sucky UX in a moment.

First, let’s jump across the Atlantic to Warsaw, Poland and take a peek at what is going on at the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Here, you might find a conductor-composer by the name of Radzimir Dębski, who goes by the stage name Jimek (yes, a conductor with a stage name), simultaneously conducting a full 70-odd piece orchestra and dropping bombs in the style of Funkmaster Flex, navigating what has been called the greatest crossover achievement in the history of classical music—a 10-minute, whirlwind tour through nearly 30 of some of hip hop’s most signature melodies.

After opening with Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Jimek guides the orchestra through some of rap’s classic anthems by 2Pac, Jay-Z, A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West, 50 Cent and, of course, the Beastie Boys; though, the visibly engaged crowd of concert-goers’ biggest reaction comes when the resident xylophonist in the percussion section begins framing out the theme to Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.”

Jimek, it would seem, thinks classical music is due for a makeover. Tony Woodstock, the former president of the New England Conservatory of Music and current interim dean of the School of Music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, would tend to agree, arguing in an op-ed for HuffPost that the classical music field in general is “particularly resistant to the notion of innovation because there has been virtually none in… the last 100 years.”

“Organized religion and church services have changed more during the same time period,” he concluded.

On the club and disco circuit, Ferry Corsten, the world-famous Dutch trance DJ, is increasingly experimenting with classical chord progressions and orchestral-inspired sounds in his music, which has been consistently on the top of dance charts in the U.S. and Europe over the last decade. His newest project aims to take that cross-genre synergy to another level, creating the first tech symphony.

“I firmly believe that if Mozart were alive today, he would be composing trance,” said Corsten in an interview with Observer from his recording studio in Rotterdam. “Classical music in its traditional sense may be losing a step with the public, but its DNA is very much alive in electronic music. I suspect the two genres will tend to grow closer and closer in the coming years as orchestras begin embracing new technology, as they seek new ways to connect with a new generation of audiences.”

One often hears that certain popular mainstream artists are “classically-trained,” a somewhat back-handed compliment meant to convey that a singer or musician can actually read music. But increasingly, artists who learned to play an orchestral instrument are looking for ways to infuse their performances with their classical skill set. Perhaps the biggest example of this classical infusion into Billboard’s Top 40 is Lizzo’s expressive use of her flute during breaks in hits like “Juice” and “Truth Hurts.”

So it appears that, on the margins at least, classical and more current genres of music are engaging in their own version of the great Columbian exchange, influencing each other and breaking down the silos that have kept these genres walled off from one another for decades.

But for concert halls and professional symphonies across the world, change is happening at a snail’s pace and will have to come sooner rather than later, as public sector support for the medium dwindles and an aging patron class dies off.

“As an industry, we are incredibly insular; we need to look outside our field for inspiration and innovation,” Dr. Nancy Uscher, dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ College of Fine Arts, told Observer. “We can’t rely solely on vestiges of the past. We need to figure out how to broaden what we are without damaging what we have. The goal should be: play Mozart and Beethoven as if the ink was still wet.”

Uscher believes that the only way to change how classical music operates is to shake it up from within. “The big donors hold all the cards,” observed Uscher. “If they were to tie experimentalism and risk taking to funding, you would see some pretty dramatic changes pretty quickly in the sector. The classical music community won’t innovate as long as there is no financial incentive to do so.”

Almost all U.S. orchestras regularly operate in the red. Income earned from ticket sales usually accounts for less than 50% of the operating budget of a musical performing arts organization. Even a packed house, night after night, generally won’t do, as ticket revenue will be eclipsed by the cost of sales, facility operating budgets and musician pay. Ugly as the truth may be, unlike their European counterparts which are largely subsidized by national and local governmental entities, American orchestras are pretty much on their own; National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants have been so emasculated in recent years that they have no substantial impact on the P&L of most major orchestras.

Some of the top symphonies in the country, such as the Grammy Award-winning Minnesota Orchestra, led by Finnish musical director Osmo Vänskä and president Michelle Miller Burns, have gone to extraordinary efforts to force innovation and risk taking upon themselves. Earlier this year, a battalion of musicians and support staff (including the rapper Dessa, embedded as a correspondent reporting on the trip for public radio under the hashtag #dessainsafrica) departed on a five-city tour of South Africa, marking the first visit to the country by a professional U.S. orchestra, as part of the worldwide celebration of Nelson Mandela’s centenary.

The Minnesota Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra’s recent trip to South Africa came on the heels of a similar cultural exchange in Cuba in 2015. Minnesota Orchestra

For Miller Burns, the tour wasn’t about imparting one particular cultural tradition on another. “The tour drew together South African and American performers and their music, offering extraordinary musical exchanges with student groups across large-scale performances auditoriums in colleges, city halls and churches,” she explained. “For our orchestra members, it was as much about learning and absorbing as it was about sharing.”

Michelle Miller Burns

Michelle Miller Burns is the president of the Grammy Award-winning Minnesota Orchestra, which has actively sought out innovative partnerships and venues to broaden her organization’s reach and relevancy. Josh Kohanek

This ground-breaking tour wasn’t the first of its kind for the Minnesota Orchestra; in 2015, the organization became the first professional U.S. orchestra to perform in Cuba since the United States and the island nation began normalizing relations during the final years of the Obama administration.

Legendary musicologist and acute observer of the professional music scene Robert Freeman lauds efforts such as orchestras that tour around the world to unexpected places, eschewing the traditional pit stops in Vienna and Berlin, as well as those which experiment with live film scores and other unique draws aimed at cultivating interest among a new cohort of concert ticket-buyers. However, in Freeman’s view, the overriding issue facing classical music is further upstream; Freeman cautions that a surfeit of professionally trained musicians is what is pressuring the industry from within—too much supply for a fairly limited demand.

“Music schools train their musicians far too narrowly,” Freeman, the former longtime head of the world-famous Eastman School of Music, told Observer. “Conservatories need to teach musicians on becoming entrepreneurs, and this, in turn, would eventually translate into a more dynamic and creative way of thinking about what it means to be a classical orchestra in the mid-21st century.”

According to an official NEA report, there are 1,214 orchestras in the U.S., although their budgets can range from only a $1,000 a year to the relatively substantial annual operating budget of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which clocks in at $120 million. But, of all those musical organizations, “only a dozen or so can afford to pay their musicians $50,000 a year or more. There are really less than 1,000 full-time professional music positions in the United States,” observed Freeman, who is also the author of the seminal clarion call to the professional music world, The Crisis of Classical Music in America.

Put another way, there are more full-time positions across the rosters of the 32 professional football teams in the NFL than there are full-time professional music slots in U.S. orchestras.

Which brings us back to the classical music sector’s wunderkind, Aubrey Bergauer, who used a Silicon Valley playbook to turn around a fledgling orchestra in the Bay area. Her development of a robust tool kit featuring key performance metrics, a laser-like focus on user experience and iterative experimentation worked wonders in turning around the California Symphony. In her four years at the helm, ticket sales increased by 70%, donors nearly quadrupled and the symphony is adding, not subtracting, performances to keep up with demand.

Although Bergauer believes that classical music is not necessarily on its deathbed, she agrees that the industry is certainly at a crossroads; Bergauer believes that some will find their footing by innovating or copying what works elsewhere and customizing and implementing it back in their home markets. Others, sadly, will react too slowly to changing demographics, or pay scant attention to user demands, and may eventually fold.

Aubrey Bergauer

Aubrey Bergauer has been bringing a Silicon Valley mindset to classical music and finding success. The Morrisons

Bergauer shared with Observer a ‘Top 10 Check List’ of ideas that all major professional orchestras should be (at a minimum) studying or contemplating as they pivot their marketing and outreach toward Millennials and Generation Z and begin rethinking their programming and operations.

1. Mix It Up!

Unlike an opera, which has a set number of acts that must be performed, Bergauer doesn’t understand why more orchestras aren’t mixing and matching contemporary pieces with classical standbys, and maybe throwing in a fun crossover piece or two. “‘Mostly Mozart‘ type series make so little sense to me—vary the programming. Find something for everyone in every performance,” counseled Bergauer.

2. Drop the Draconian Anti-Phone Policy

Orchestras are notoriously unforgiving to patrons who whip out their phones and begin filming or taking pictures, but just look at how many phones are out at any other type of concert. Fans of classical music, according to Bergauer, want to Facetime Live and ‘Insta’ their experience just as much as somebody at a Jay-Z concert. “It’s free marketing—millions of lost impressions for no good reason,” she exclaimed.

3. Serve Booze

Music is entertainment; let concert-goers enjoy a libation or two (or three) in the concert hall while they enjoy the performance. (But maybe avoid drinks on the rocks.)

4. Jumbotrons

Most people aren’t equipped with opera glasses, so why aren’t concert halls implementing large-screen monitors showing all the action? Fans would love to see a high-definition visual of the beads of sweat trickling down the first-chair violinist’s brow right before the big solo. (We all look so much better in full 4K anyway, right?)

5. Give the Audience Some Context

Bergauer found that many first-time concert-goers couldn’t even name all the basic instruments in an orchestra. They aren’t familiar with the Italian music vocabulary so prevalent in concert programs. Don’t dumb it down; instead educate. Allow the conductor to teach and share with audiences what they are about to hear, what to look and listen for, and maybe a bit of the backstory.

6. Encourage Applause and Audience Engagement

According to Bergauer’s studies, as many as 90% of attendees at a classical music concert never return, and she reasons that many found the experience unapproachable. The unspoken house rules about coughing or when to clap is a major turn off to younger audiences. Orchestras need to find ways to engage the audience during the performance and make them feel comfortable and free to express themselves.

7. Cultivate a More Honest Approach to Failure

Bergauer feels that a lot of orchestras have their head in the sand when it comes to self-criticism. “There is not a lot of truly honest information sharing among leaders in the sector, I think, because the entire culture is one of getting funded,” said Bergauer. “We are trained, no matter what the project is, to frame it as a success. And that’s not helpful because we know not everything is always a success. As a result, as an industry, we have a very inward-focused dialogue.”

8. Develop Mobile-Friendly Websites

Bergauer says that its incredible that in 2019, there are still many orchestras sans optimized mobile versions of their websites. “Talk about a turn off to a Gen Zer or a Millennial,” commented Bergauer.

9. Diversity Is Not Just on Stage

Bergauer sees that too many orchestras see diversity through the prism of who is performing on stage or which composers they choose to play, but many have a lot of work to do in making sure the audience mirrors that same level of diversity.

10. Don’t Manage by Anecdote

Too many orchestras bend and bow based on the opinions of particularly opinionated board members or cantankerous life-long patrons who threaten to cancel their season tickets if they don’t like some of the experimentation going on. “Manage with data, not by who has the loudest voice,” warned Bergauer. “Too many times leaders at professional orchestras are hamstrung by highly influential board members. Leaders need to cultivate boards that share their same attitude towards risk taking and data-driven management.”

Those on the frontline of this battle have the unenviable task of working to preserve and save the classical music tradition while, almost paradoxically, seeking to update it for 21st century audiences. It’s no easy task, but with visionary leaders like Aubrey Bergauer and Michelle Miller Burns, not to mention disruptors such as Jamik, Ferry Corsten and Lizzo challenging what is and is not within the domain of classical music, the entire ecosystem seems poised for major change in the coming years.

As for the concert experience of the future, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Michelle Miller Burns summed it up as follows: “More spontaneity and surprise, a greater connection to community and probably less structure and formality.”

In other words, whip out your phone, clap when the spirit moves you and don’t forget to pick up a mojito before you take your seat.

And enjoy the music.

Call Off the Requiem: The Classical Music Business Is Not Dead Just Yet