What the PSO can do to make classical music mainstream

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High-culture elitists probably wish they did not have to recognize this, but the youth market is huge. The college market alone has over $200 billion in spending power, and to tap that, old and venerable symphony orchestras use novel methods, but they still have a long way to go. Orchestras, to retain their importance in American society, must always stay true to tradition but must continue pursuing ways to branch out.

Orchestras have already implemented some smart techniques. The pops concerts performed by most orchestras employ an impressive range of styles — from jazz to Annie — that people can relate to. These concerts bring in a lot of money for orchestras. Also, if you’ve visited the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) website recently, you’ve noticed a new set of blogs written by orchestra members and first-time concertgoers. These are unique records of experiences with the world-class orchestra in a format accessible to the many youths addicted to the Internet. However, orchestras can do a lot more to attract a bigger part of that $200 billion.

Modern marketers know that youth culture represents a huge potential market, and new powerful selling strategies take advantage of this all the time. For instance, the marketers of the energy drink Red Bull have devised ingenious ways to reach college students. On some campuses, they pay people to walk around libraries and distribute “books” titled Modern Information Retention Techniques. These “books,” which are really plastic models, open to reveal two cans of Red Bull.

Marketing itself is key to filling more chairs in the concert hall. It’s difficult to advertise to the evolving ADD society where deaf iPod-wearing consumers of culture industry represent even more buying power than ever. Those who refuse to change approaches to marketing can easily be pushed to the margins of the economy. Red Bull has harnessed the fickle youth culture through stimulating, adaptive marketing with character and flair. Orchestras can do this, too, and keep both old and new audiences coming. Strategic marketing appeals to the young while keeping the traditional. The PSO places ads in student newspapers, but it can also easily advertise on Facebook and on more campus posters that catch the eye of the college student whose attention goes five different ways at once.

But can symphony orchestras commit themselves completely to appealing to the young and the restless? Classical music performers depend on a completely different age group for financial support. A typical listener of a Chopin concerto is about 55 years old, and his or her cultural preferences differ greatly from the student drinking Red Bull. Organizations like the PSO receive most of their funding from foundations, endowments, and older audiences who see orchestra concerts as an escape from popular culture. Many classical music listeners feel that a live performance is a haven from the “outside,” the world of graffiti and rap music.

Because orchestras depend on these audiences, traditional concert program structure, etiquette, and atmosphere will remain a solid part of the concert experience. For high-culture elitists like me, this is a very pleasing thought. The trip to Heinz Hall for a night with the PSO is a predictable and comfortable experience where passion for the music makes everything worthwhile.
For these reasons, any new steps taken by these organizations must have an orchestra-centered plan that will not marginalize the performers, because rejecting the centuries of tradition removes an important part of music culture. However, if orchestras want to rein in some of the huge youth market, they must continue branching out. This is a delicate business, because to innovate, orchestras have to remain the same in more adaptive ways.

Last May, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (LAP) gave an unorthodox performance that embraced orchestra traditions and brought in many new faces. The LAP performed the American debut of “Dear Friends,” a concert of music from the wildly popular video game series Final Fantasy. The first Dear Friends concert sold out three days after tickets went on sale, and its following tour filled concert halls to the brim across America. Two new video game symphony tours — Play! and Video Games Live — will debut this summer.

Video game concerts will draw a specialized audience, but it still will be a new audience. These video game symphony concerts could very well give a first taste of the classical medium for many audience members. Orchestras, with a fresh audience, have a fresh chance to show how wonderful the symphony experience is. With massive amounts of advertising and communication on a youth-oriented level, these concerts could easily inspire new faces to become regular faces.

However, these video game programs have not been readily taken up by the top-tier orchestras. The Houston Symphony Orchestra will perform in a stop of the Video Games Live tour, but the country’s best talents, performing in cities like Pittsburgh and New York, have not whole-heartedly jumped on the video game symphony band wagon.

Outside of the video game genre, orchestras can step out of tradition for more unique concerts. Perhaps one of the most famous collaborative projects between an orchestra and a modern ensemble is the album Master of Puppets. Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra released an incredibly popular and very well-engineered album that represents a successful synthesis of the old and the new.

The PSO had an excellent chance to pursue a project along those lines. The orchestra brought in Jennifer Higdon as the resident composer this season, and she wrote works specifically for the PSO that both showcased the musical voices in the ensemble and showed how appealing new works can be.

Higdon readily admits to a childhood based around rock music, yet her works exclusively feature classical ensembles. She also frequently calls her music accessible. During one concert intermission, I asked her why she did not write for more modern and accessible ensembles if she loved them both so much.

“It’s just what people keep asking me for,” she replied. Does this mean that the PSO had the chance to premiere an immensely popular set of pieces like Master of Puppets? I think it does mean that, and it also means that the PSO could have taken a new orchestra-centered path that would have made more young people regular concert-goers.