Stuck in Popsville

March 25, 2012 by Paul Gambill
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Why do orchestras insist on recycling the same programming models over and over again while at the same time expecting new audiences to show up? As the orchestra field works furiously to try and reverse the long trend of shrinking audiences and revenue, you can find innovations in marketing and audience development everywhere. Studies on audiences’ behavior and interests, along with various ticket-price models, have been extensive. And new music is being embraced with a fresh spirit as orchestras reach out to the next generation of composers who can help them connect to and engage with that oh-so-sought-after demographic of 30-to-45-somethings.

Although we are swimming in innovations designed to serve our existing programming models, our field has steadfastly avoided even modest changes to the basic product that orchestras deliver. Those core programming models remain as they have for decades, with “Classical” programs on one hand, “Pops” on the other, and never the twain shall meet. Orchestras continue to act as if those are the only options, when all the while the iPod-er, who is shuffling through music-without-boundaries playlists, is bored to tears with that monolithic approach to music making.

Pops programming is the biggest offender in the “I like it like it’s always been” programming mind-set. It seems there are actually only six pops programs being performed by orchestras today, recycled season after season with different soloists and repertoire. Those six basic programs are stuck in the following ruts:

1.  Holiday Pops – you name the holiday

2.  Broadway – Rogers & Hammerstein to Divas of Broadway, stars we know and most we don’t singing hits  from the stage

3.  Hollywood – Hurray for Hollywood, Lord of the Rings, whatever

4.  Pop/Rock – being the back-up band to a pop/rock star that has fallen off the charts, or an imitator of a star from yesteryear: Fab Four anyone?

5.  American Song Book – yada yada yada

6.  Jazz – The Big Band Era, The Smooth Jazz sounds of [????], Innovative Jazz Master(s), and all that jazz

That’s it. Six programs that define every pops series in the country.

Today’s pops and classical programming falls into the category of “give them what they want.” But now we know for certain that this approach isn’t working. It’s time to take to heart my favorite quote from Steve Jobs:

It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.

Indeed, it is our job as artists to lead audiences to discover something new about themselves and their world. That is the great power of art: to surprise us and make us think and feel differently. How we get people into the hall and lead them to that kind of experience is the question at hand.

Yet we continue to be stuck in our old programming models, doing the same things and expecting, miraculously, that more people will start to embrace the orchestra. But you can’t build a business by exclusively offering your customers the same product year after year. At some point, a new product will come along that is better or more interesting and your customers will embrace that instead. That is happening now to the or chestra field, and orchestras are slowly crumbling, everywhere. As the performers and curators responsible for keeping alive the great music that orchestras perform, we can’t let that continue.

To that end, I am excited to announce the formation of the Orchestra Engagement Lab. For one week each summer, the Lab will convene in Vermont to experiment and design bold audience engagement projects around the premiere of a new hybrid work. This process of experimentation and discovery will involve the commissioned composer, soloist, musicians, teaching artists and leaders from the co-commissioning orchestras all mixing it up together at the Lab, before the work is composed. In this way, we have the best chance of creating community engagement designs that are organically integrated with the music to serve a singular purpose:

Engaging and Inspiring Audiences

My partner in this venture is Eric Booth. His unparalleled experience in arts education makes him the most exciting colleague to help bring to life our shared vision for the Lab. Our goal is nothing short of redefining how orchestras approach community engagement. You can read an essay by Eric about his passion and goals for the Lab here. And you can learn more about the Orchestra Engagement Lab on its website.

For our first season, the OEL has commissioned Kenji Bunch to write a concerto for electric violin virtuoso Tracy Silverman. Just as their hybrid aesthetic will influence the engagement project designs that come out of the Lab, I expect that creative models for concert programs that can accompany Kenji’s new work will also emerge form the Lab.

Although traditional programming models will continue to thrive to serve a particular audience, we must also offer fearlessly imaginative programming and engagement designs that challenge audiences to rethink their notions of what an orchestra can be. It is time for orchestras to spread their wings, celebrate the intersections of musical cultures and bring the orchestra to life for the next generation of audiences.

If you share a passion for these goals, we need your voice and creative energy in Vermont this summer.

Come join us at the Lab.


In my next post I will present examples of programs that break out of the programming cul-de-sac. 


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