Audience Cultivation In American New Music

The milieu of new music has splintered into factions, each with its own loyal but marginal audience. All of these groups believe that they have meaningful formulas for creating provocative work, but what good is that work if no one outside the communities where it is generated has access to it?

Written By

Sam Hillmer

“Isn’t it amazing, that we can all sit in the same room together…and not understand each other?  It could only happen in America!” —Richard Pryor


Historically, new music has sought to confront general audiences with unexpected sounds and forms.  The present, however, sees the milieu of new music splintered into factions, each with its own loyal but marginal audience. One is more likely to find these groups at odds with one another than in dialogue, and many groups congratulate themselves for being the most marginal or esoteric. These divisions within the new music community foreclose on its original mission of confronting traditional audiences, as the factionalized groups that most new music now attracts already support and expect the work in question. All of these groups believe that they have meaningful formulas for creating provocative work, but what good is that work if no one outside the communities where it is generated has access to it?  In order for new music to remain a meaningful category of cultural production, it requires successful strategies for cultivating newer and bigger audiences.

While often used to refer to the experimental within the world of classical music, the term “new music” can be more broadly applied to any music that employs innovative, unexpected sounds or forms with the intention of challenging audiences to examine their assumptions about music, performance, and the consumption of musical experiences. When approached so broadly, new music is vast and hugely varied, but the central division within the array of new music practices is that between new music that is practiced in institutional settings and new music that does not receive institutional support, corporate sponsorship, or financial backing from investors.  The latter creative communities of practice often operate off the grid and, at times, outside of the law.  I will refer to these two areas of practice as “institutional” and “DIY,” respectively.  This classification is necessarily reductive, as there are many groups and individuals that embody hybrid forms of new music practice. Nevertheless, integrating these modalities remains difficult, and dominant traditions within new music lean toward one style of practice or the other. Similarly, each constituency represents a strong but discrete audience base—the concert-going, classical-music-based community, and the DIY community, which is aligned with band culture. This bifurcation suggests that the divide is of special relevance when considering the project of audience cultivation for new music in America today.

Current engagement with audience cultivation often finds expression in terms of collaboration and dialogue, not only within respective communities, but also between them. Audience cultivation strategies centered on cross-communal new music programming are often developed around a set of axioms, which may best be expressed as follows:

  1. The music of multiple new music communities, though touted as different from one another, actually has a lot in common.
  2. Each new music community has its own audience.
  3. The composite of all new music audiences, though never manifested as a single audience, would be bigger than any one new music audience.
  4. Collaboration between multiple artists from diverse new music communities will lead to a bigger audience for all new music communities.
  5. This will happen because collaborative programming will lead to a combining of multiple new music audiences.
  6. Bigger audiences for new music mean greater impact of progressive ideologies as mediated by the music in question.

These axioms carry theoretical weight, but despite the prevalence of this thinking—visible in the programming of many new music presenting organizations—the super-audience promised by such a collaborative spirit is not materializing. Even in New York, a veritable hot bed of collaboration and dialogue within new music communities, audiences—communities of fans!—remain, for the most part, segregated.

For the past decade I have played in ZS, a band which has had the lucky misfortune of being resident outsiders in multiple new music communities—most notably at the fringe of the underground noise or DIY scene, while also at the periphery of the institution and the academy. Our deliberate compositional method and disposition has garnered us an air of otherness in the underground community, and the abrasive dynamic and timbre of our performances has set us apart from our classical new music counterparts. ZS has charted this course deliberately, and it has afforded us a unique vantage point which may prove to be useful in the ongoing dialogue around the cultivation of larger audiences for American new music. My aim in the following discussion is to use this vantage point to explore the various factors at play when attempting to mobilize collaborative strategies for audience cultivation.  These factors cover both the practical and social features of musical performance, as I believe it is the attachment to these specific means of creating that is at the heart of understanding why the multiple communities have a hard time becoming one audience. To form an understanding of such attachments, one must consider the community structures at play wherein specific means of creative production become useful. These considerations must be addressed if we hope to bring about lasting and increased meaning, for more people, vis-à-vis the challenging and refreshing musical content created by multiple new music communities!

Videos featuring Eli Keszler, Tristan Perich, and Patrick Higgins accompany this article. I chose to feature them because their practices as musicians, composers, and artists embody something that works with the strategies I’m presenting here. All three of these artists operate with ease in many contexts, including the institutional new music setting and the DIY.


Concert and Show

When considering the sound artifact—record, CD, mp3, etc.—the differences between classical or institutional new music and the new music produced by the DIY scene are present but not so pronounced. It is not hard to imagine someone who likes Tortoise recordings enjoying Steve Reich’s music, or a person listening to both Xenakis pieces and Wolf Eyes or Black Dice records. It is harder, however, to imagine a person who frequents Miller Theater for Steve Reich concert programs catching a Tortoise show at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. The similarities between these kinds of music are easy to notice when stripped of the social context that the performances take place in, but what can be said about listeners and the sound artifacts they consume cannot necessarily be said about concertgoers and the performance rituals they engage.

Ideally, performances are constructed frames in which, for a brief period, every detail serves to articulate something about a particular version of, and vision for, the world. Considering such details, then—how the audience is positioned, what the performers are wearing, the audience’s attitude, the atmosphere within the performance space—expresses the values of the environment in which a given performance takes place. A good place to begin is with a simple examination of terminology. The colloquial difference between classical “concerts” and noise “shows” are indicative of deeper disparities, and while similar in construction, the two questions, “How was the concert?” and “How was the show?” ask about different things. The former question is used to request an evaluation of the musical quality and content of a performance. The person who asks the latter, however, enquires about a broad range of elements: Who was there? Did it start on time or run late? How was the venue? How was the sound? Did anything crazy happen? The quality of the band’s performance and an individual’s response to the music are factors within a much larger set of elements that are at issue when describing a given show. When asked to describe a concert, details about whether Prosecco was served at intermission and whether or not you met anyone you knew are often not at issue. Rather, there is a privileging of the musical performance as the meter stick for determining the quality of a given concert.
In a classical setting, audiences must sit and be quiet. Those visibly doing something other than watching the concert are discouraged in the space where the concert is happening. The ensemble and the conductor wear uniform clothing so as not to distract from the event of the music making, and so on. Compare this setting to that of a show: members of the audience may be doing any number of things besides watching the bands—catching up with friends, consulting one’s phone, or participating loudly in the performance are all acceptable varieties of audience participation.  Regardless of preference where these settings are concerned, it is clear that there are different paradigms for audience-ship afoot in the different musical milieu in question, and these differences present clear obstacles for those attempting to combine new music audiences.


Band and Ensemble

The different expectations placed upon audiences in the social frames of “show” and “concert” are matched or even preceded by structural differences within the generative processes of different branches of new music. Where institutional new music is concerned, it is ordinarily the work of a single person, the composer, who has designed a specific musical experience for the audience to have. The content is chiefly communicated to the ensemble via sheet music, a set of instructions that expresses the musical design of the composer. While the balance of creative contribution may vary from ensemble to ensemble, it is clear that the role of the composer is the most generative, while the ensemble and conductor chiefly perform interpretive and executive labor, serving as vehicles for the composer’s content. Importantly, this division of labor is performed before the audience. The conductor stands with her back to the audience and presides over the ensemble; the ensemble is most often seated, wearing all black and performing for the audience, whom they face. Composers are often not visible but are generally identified in a printed program; if they are in attendance, they are acknowledged by the conductor and/or ensemble at the end of the performance of their work.  In this setting, there is a commitment to a lack of mystery surrounding individual contributions to a given performance; the place and role of the practitioners involved within the ensemble is clearly demarcated, and the composer’s authorship is clearly acknowledged.

Conversely, in a DIY setting, all generative mechanics of the band often lie under the hood of the band name. Whereas the ensemble divides the labor of music-making into discrete specialties and hierarchical execution, the band model is largely typified by a pervasive lateral quality. Band members act as composers, interpreters of material, and performers; every member is able to contribute to the musical content of the work being generated, and these contributions are happening constantly throughout the process of writing, rehearsing, and performing. Additionally, leadership in the band setting is often nebulous, and though a band may have a front woman or man, this is not understood to mean that they are responsible for authoring the musical material they render.
We have already noted the many differences between the concert and the show setting.  The divergent generative practices engaged by bands and ensembles serves to deepen the divide between these performance rituals—audiences at shows and audiences at concerts, though both viewing live performances of music, are consuming radically different culture products.


Audiences in Social Space

Where institutional new music practitioners disguise their bodies and individuality so that the audience may receive the design of the composer with extreme clarity, bands disguise notions of agency and authorship by not crediting work to specific individuals.  Instead, they foreground individuality in performance and group dynamics. By not calling attention to authorship and highlighting agency in performance instead, the band and the show create a different kind of space for the meaning-making practices of the audience. Audiences at shows understand that bands create the music that they play, however the audience’s focus is often not on the intentions of the band and its members, but on the audience’s own style of participation at a given show. Audience members may stand silently while the band plays, yell out phrases or sounds during or between performances, respond bodily, even throw a cup or bottle onto the stage (depending on the show you happen to be at!). The finished product of the show is a composite of the musical performance and the audience’s response.

Audiences at concerts and audiences at shows are thus not only consuming different culture products, but they are playing different roles where the construction of meaning is concerned. The decision that audiences make when they choose between attending a concert and going to a show can be couched in terms of consuming and creating. Concerts and shows are more than specific means of presenting music, they are cultural spaces where rituals of social identification are practiced and expedited. Concerts provide conditions for repose to be struck by connoisseurs, while shows create platforms for cultural actors who will shape their experience via participatory style. The idea that show-goers and concert-goers are seeking out different experiences impacts heavily upon audience cultivation where multiple new music communities are at issue. The real concern is no longer what music people are encountering, but how and where they are encountering it, and what their role is in the production of meaning while doing so. Traversing this invisible boundary is the real work of audience cultivation and expansion.


Obstacles and Best Practices

It follows, then, that those who wish to expand audiences in new music must consider what might make such different communities of listeners wish to widen their experiences and practice different methods of cultural engagement.  A good frame for an inquiry about best practices for audience cultivation is the interrogation of assumptions.  Both of the communities in question are able to manifest flexibility in prescribed areas of practice, but remain rigid where core values are at play.  In proper dialogue it is important for participants to enter their most deeply held core values as possible assumptions, and subsequently interrogate those assumptions in order to determine whether or not they are meaningful in the context of our current project of audience cultivation.  A widely held assumption about music in general is that audiences separate along lines of aesthetics.  In this essay I suggest that audiences of new music listeners separate not because of aesthetic barriers, but due to the specific mechanics through which music is created, presented, and consumed.  In order to address this point, every aspect of a musical production must be considered, not just the specific musical content being presented at a concert or a show.

Over the years I have encountered and enacted a variety of strategies for growing audiences for new music.  Some of them work, some of them don’t, a few of them are discussed below.

For the Institution

Institutions are responsible for many of the programs that pair diverse communities within new music.  This programming happens under relatively ideal circumstances, with significant financial backing, proper facilities, and cogent marketing teams representing the programming to the public.  Often this work manages to create pairings of artists that would otherwise not be “possible.”  That said, we have noted that this programming is not substantially expanding the size of the existing audience for new music.

One of the greatest assets that institutional support brings to the endeavor of audience cultivation is the ability to provide respectable fees to musicians. However, rather than being used to incentivize artists to engage in otherwise unlikely collaborations, funding may serve better if used to reward artists who engage in self-elected collaboration. By shifting the allocation of funds from the financing of unlikely collaborative projects to the support of existing collaborative projects, festivals and institutions will foster an overall valuation of cross-communal collaboration within new music.

There are many examples of large institutions opening their doors to a broad array of practitioners from the DIY underground. There are far fewer examples, however, of members of the institutional new music community coming to DIY venues and concertizing there.  Institution-based new music groups who wish to expand their audience base would be well served by performing in such settings, however familiarity with institutional support leaves many practitioners expecting to be compensated at rates which are unfeasible in many DIY situations. Of course it is possible to write grants, appeal to patrons, and lead Kickstarter campaigns in order to secure what is regarded as the required funding to make individual concerts happen, however I recommend against this. Musicians in a given ensemble being compensated at a rate that differs from that of other musicians on the bill at a DIY show creates social distance which defeats the purpose of this exercise.  Where the institutional new music practice is chiefly premised on aesthetics, methodology, and philosophical bent, the DIY scene is, fundamentally, an expression of something social, a fellowship among people, a community.  In order for the institution-based new music practitioners to cross over and gain awareness in this world, they must find a way to participate as a member of that community.  Accepting the terms of the DIY community—financial and otherwise—is one way for classical and institutional new music practitioners to expand social depths, form relationships with musicians in bands, and expand their audience base.
Unfortunately, there are often other obstacles for institution-based new music groups that would like to concertize in the DIY setting.

I have spoken with multiple new music groups for whom audience expansion is a priority, but whose hands are tied due to extreme exclusivity clauses imposed by large-scale classical presenters, or who face management and publicists resistant to the notion of concertizing for so little money and even less prestige.  This resistance is of note: it highlights that while there are many people within institutional new music for whom younger, broader audiences are of central concern, in many cases, the question of whether or not the general public likes new music is simply not of value to many involved.  Institution-based new music practitioners who are concerned about expanding audience size must do some campaigning within their own milieu if they wish to experience success in this endeavor.

Most importantly, institutional new music must bring an end, at least partially, to its most beloved practice—enforced silence.  There are many people who do not like being forced to sit still and be quiet.  This practice, and some of the other rituals endemic to the concert setting, need to be reconsidered and applied only selectively.  The performance of musical hierarchy described above is also inscrutable if not off-putting to listeners not familiar with the customs of concert music.  A more casual setting and presentation will benefit institutional new music practitioners seeking to expand their audience base. Acceptance, even valuation of these attributes when concertizing in the DIY setting is a good way to begin thinking about bringing some of that spirit to the concert setting.

For DIY Communities and Organizations

The DIY community has its own responsibility in the matter of audience cultivation, and equally as much to gain from an expanded audience for new music.  As far as communities of practice—artistic, professional, and social—go, the DIY community tends to value “openness,” that is, awareness of and curiosity about the values and practices of others. This said, there are sacrosanct core values within the DIY community around which little or no variation is tolerated. For the DIYers to participate in the cross-communal project of audience cultivation, it will first be necessary to reframe the rigid nature of these ideologies as more fluid aspirations that are shaped by the particular projects that they engage with.

Within the DIY community, there is skepticism, bordering on dislike, of hierarchical power dynamics, especially when the allocation of resources is at issue in the context of a supposed meritocracy.  It should not be hard to see why this vantage point presents difficulty for collaborations that pair DIY organizations with official cultural institutions. The DIY community places value on conducting business in a way that is transparent, lateral, and democratic, while the institutional milieu places emphasis on clearly articulated standards for excellence and cogent processes of becoming involved. These two strands have much to learn from each other—DIY communities could stand to become more cogent and efficient, while official culture organizations could imagine new ways of preserving and presenting standards that do not locate the project of determining quality and allocating funds at the top of a hierarchy. Instead, official culture organizations might look more readily to the ground level of their operations where the people most aligned with the audiences they seek to reach dwell. This mutual learning will require a softening of the DIY’s ideological position in order to facilitate dialogue.

Operating within their dislike of the edifice of power, DIY communities at times engage in subtle social maneuvering for devaluing dominant practices, often resulting in a communal habit of “becoming minor,” that is, seeking to frame any given practice as “most other” or “least dominant.” Within a seemingly homogenous community, subdivisions occur over any number of major or minor social differences—those who come from money, those who have been to prestigious schools, those who have good jobs but go to punk shows at night, those who did not attend college, those who are unemployed, those who come from familial backgrounds of little means—each splinter group seeking to become minor. Rather than fostering a broadening of social depths to include more and more cultural actors—a task we have seen is necessary for the project of audience cultivation—this practice forecloses on collaboration with entities outside of the DIY and causes discord within. The attitude of “becoming minor” is complexly associated with questions of power and privilege, but it is important to note that anyone who is in a position to be able to entertain the concerns expressed in this essay is already in the category of the extremely privileged.  Whether university professors or crusty punks who have renounced the shower and covered their hands with tattoos, we all exist within and embody the ostentatious wealth of our nation, replete with its power and influence. These assets can advance the agendas of communities of practice, and for this reason, divergent communities such as DIY and institutional organizations are well-served by identifying points of similarity and overlap rather than engaging in the factionalizing attitudes that value becoming minor.


The discussion of obstacles and best practices in this section is far from comprehensive.  It is easy to imagine further discourse on matters including the architectural space, geographic location, gender dynamics, ethnographies, or more nuanced discussion of the socio-economic dimensions of cross-communal collaboration.  My hope is that this essay will help to begin dialogue around all of these subjects and many more not named here.  Cross-communal dialogue is our first best hope for addressing the matter of audience expansion in new music.

Recently, I was on tour with ZS in Europe, where the distinction between grassroots communities of practice and institutional communities of practice is much less pronounced, and of lesser import to practitioners.  Our booking agent, a master at negotiating between these communities, informed us that the new prevalent slang was not DIY (do it yourself), but DIT (do it together).  Yes!  What an excellent and obvious evolution for our thinking about cultural musical action in the world.  As Americans, we do not have cultural homogeneity of participants in our communities of practice.  The word “American” itself connotes a lot.  However one interesting take on being American is that the designation implies that somewhere in your relatively recent past or ancestry there is “someone originally from somewhere else besides America.”  This makes the project of American DIT more compelling, and more important!  Through dialogue, the interrogation of assumptions, and by not turning ideals into expectations in the cases of our core values, new music can arrive at hybrid forms of practice, both aesthetically and in terms of mechanical production and generative practice.  These hybrid forms can lead to bigger audiences for American new music, if we are willing to do the often uncomfortable, often exhilarating work of getting to them.
See you at the performance!


Special thanks to Hannah DeFeyter for her assistance with this article.