Removing Barriers to New Music

How can we create a new music concert experience that is more welcoming, more engaging, and more inclusive?

Written By

Carol Ann Cheung

My job as a marketing communications manager at Boosey & Hawkes brings me out to multiple concerts a week, at venues large and small, fancy and scrappy, spread out around New York City. Still, you go to enough new music concerts and you start to notice a lot of the same faces. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—part of what I enjoy about this industry is its strong sense of community and support for one another’s work. But it begs the question: Can we develop a broader, more diverse audience base for the new music scene?

As a marketing person, when I consider concert-marketing strategy it’s helpful to think about what barriers keep people from attending a concert, not just identifying the people who would likely come to a show.

So what keeps people from checking out new music concerts?

People want to know if they’re going to like something before they invest the time and money.

1. The Unknown. Will I like this music? What’s it sound like? Does anyone I know like this music? Contemporary music as a niche genre is a big risk with a lot of question marks, with generally lesser-known composer and performer names, and few points of reference in daily life for what the music sounds like. People want to know if they’re going to like something before they invest the time and money.

Can we build points of reference? How much does your music overlap with a more traditional classical music sound, and how much does it overlap with other more broadly recognizable types of music, like pop, electronic, jazz, or rock? Can we appeal to the crossover nature of some of the music being produced today to reach a new audience through different channels, outlets, and creative collaborations?

We should think about how to remove some of the unknowable risk of going into the concert experience. Can we make other aspects of a concert more familiar? An organization like Groupmuse is an example of making classical music less formal and bringing chamber music groups into people’s everyday lives and spaces. LoftOpera has made the experience of attending the opera feel like a huge warehouse party, something that can more easily align with a person’s lifestyle than, say, a standard opera performance. Several larger institutions like Carnegie Hall host free concerts in community venues that invite people who wouldn’t normally go to a concert hall to experience music in a more accessible space.

2. Insecurity. Experiencing new music live can sometimes feel opaque. Will I understand what’s happening on stage? Do you need a degree in music in order to enjoy it? Will I get bored? Will I be uncomfortable?

Those insecurities have proven time and again to be well founded, as new music is indeed often presented in an intimidating way. I once attended a concert that was marketed as welcoming to neighborhood community members and families with children. The lights went down, and two hours of continuous drone sounds passed in almost complete darkness. Then the lights came on and the show was over.

Part of the problem is that even people within the new music scene are unwilling to admit when they don’t enjoy an experience (which feels unhealthy on many levels).

How can we challenge and encourage each other to create better art and produce better, more welcoming concerts? Can we communicate what makes the music interesting both at the concert and ahead of time? Can we dive into a single moment in the music and share what’s meaningful about it?

The podcast Meet the Composer with Nadia Sirota spotlights a composer in each episode, illuminating his or her history and mindset, and dives into the heart of what makes a piece of music so vital, interesting, and emotionally compelling. This past season, Alarm Will Sound presented a podcast-in-concert hosted by Sirota and Alan Pierson at Zankel Hall about the life and work of Gyorgy Ligeti. The performance portions of the evening were energized and informed by the exploration of the dramatic events in his life, and the format gave audience members points of connection from minute to minute.

How else can we create the experiences you want to (and can) engage with?

People read not seeing composers or performers who look like themselves as a cue for whether or not they will feel like they belong at this concert.

3. Not belonging. A very real barrier for many people is not seeing composers or performers who look like themselves—age, gender, or race-wise—represented on stage. People read this as a cue for whether or not they will feel like they belong at this concert and if there will be other people who look like them attending.

Who are you inviting to your concerts? Whose events do you attend yourself? Who do you collaborate with? When we ask ourselves how to broaden our audience base, the best solution I’ve come across is to strengthen and expand our community from within, by seeking out and listening to the ideas and experiences of people from diverse backgrounds.

Helga Davis discussed these questions, among many other illuminating matters of diversity, in her powerful keynote address at last week’s New Music Gathering. She challenged the audience to earnestly look at the makeup of the new music field and reflect on what the industry needs to do in order to connect with and be relevant to a larger community.

Watch Davis’s speech starting at 32:45.

I’ve asked a lot of questions in this space, all summed up by this: How can we create a new music concert experience that is more welcoming, more engaging, and more inclusive? The new music industry has great potential to improve the classical music concert culture. Composers and musicians are already stepping out of the box to create music and experiences beyond the traditional setting, taking risks with the performance experience, and constantly grappling with how to move the art form forward.

What are your thoughts for reaching new audiences? What concerts have you seen that made the music experience more engaging and welcoming?