LIVE Blog – Talking About Audiences – Event and Webcast

What follows is a live blog from our Talking About Audiences event in San Francisco on Sunday, May 13.

Speakers included:

  • Keynote: Alan Gilbert, Music Director, New York Philharmonic in conversation with Matthew VanBesien, Executive Director Designate, New York Philharmonic

  • Spotlight #1: Sunil Iyengar, Director of Research & Analysis, National Endowment for the Arts
  • Spotlight #2: Elizabeth Scott, Chief Media and Digital Officer, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; formerly V.P., Major League Baseball Productions
  • Roundtable: Spotlight speakers in conversation with Brent Assink, Executive Director, San Francisco Symphony; Matthew VanBesien, Executive Director Designate, New York Philharmonic; Mark Clague, associate professor of music, University of Michigan, and Steven Winn, San Francisco arts journalist and author


4:33pm Audience member: Orchestral music is a more positive experience than bull-fighting.

4:30pm Assink: Orchestras have an important role to play in getting rid of the divide between professional and amateur musician.

4:24pm The NY Phil does do dynamic pricing. But as a mission driven organization, it’s also about making tickets available to people so price isn’t a barrier.

4:17pm An audience member’s point: the first introduction someone often has to the art form if they are thinking about coming is the box office.

4:16pm In some ways, modern technology offers a more robust “baseball card” – the stats, pictures, behind-the-scenes info.

4:11pm Winn: Concert etiquette changes. Centuries ago people ate and drank in the concert hall. So in some ways, it’s all artificial.

4:07pm What is the role of concert etiquette? VanBesien: this is a sensitive subject for orchestras. We like the ritual, but we need people to come who haven’t been to the concert hall before.

4:00pm Assink: We listen with our eyes. The concept of removing the elevation of the stage is a great metaphor for what orchs are trying to do though.

3:54pm Scott: But that can’t be the only thing we’re aspiring to. There have to be other experiences for the audience. We are one of a many entertainment experiences. You don’t want to be a passenger, you want to co-author the experience, you want to give feedback. And as much as we facilitate that, we make audience feels like they have a voice.

3:54pm Assink: Quality of the performance on the stage depends on the energy coming from the audience. We leave uplifted, partly from what happens on stage, but also what happens when we share it. Audience surveys show people come for a deep experience, and to share it with 2500 strangers. That’s meaningful. Those of us who run orchestras, are nervous about losing that.

3:49pm Winn: Everyone, even now, has their own experience as an audience member. To read the program notes or not, to glance at them during the music, that’s get some people more involved. To others it’s a distraction.

3:49pm Iyengar: What has worked? VanBesien: We have not found the sweet spot in the orchestral world for digital capture and distribution. Still figuring it out. But the win for us is always what draws people into the live experience.

3:46pm Scott: We need many different keys for many different audiences to open the door. Here are the many different ways you can experience this.

3:43pm Scott: technology can democratize. This is great, but feels unnatural for the industry in a lot of ways.

3:41pm Assink remembers asking a musician to talk to the audience. He said no. “No, they have to look at me with a bit of mystery.” The orchestral field has for a long time put up a wall between the musician and the audience.

3:35pm Brent Assink: received wisdom was that people take a break from regular attendance to raise families and come back when they are older. But that’s been turned on its head with recent research. VanBesien: if they are not coming back, is it that they consume arts in a different way. Or if we delivered it differently, would they come.

Spotlight #2

3:13pm In a few years at the movies, you might hear “please turn on your cell phone” not please turn them off. Arts need to be proactive and be there.

3:12pm You have to be ok with the fact that things can and do go wrong. Perfection is not true to life. Also, even if you forbid the broadcast of your performance… it will happen anyway. Anybody and everybody can put it out there.

3:09pmScott’s work at Lincoln Center — technology offers additional ways in. Digital broadcasts, re-thinking PBS presentations (“second screen access”), making a priority of getting data and mining data from the audience, to reach, segment and target. And allow those folks in turn the ability to mine what you do.

3:07pm It’s about ceding the brand, a bit, to the customer.

3:02pm How are audiences similar and different? Both forms of entertainment exalt virtuosic live performance in a local environment. Audiences for both industries are aging – in live attendance. Differences – greater opportunity to be involved in sport, more platforms for participation. Little league, fantasy leagues, batting cage before the game, post-game experiences and shows. Performing arts don’t have that in a participatory way to the same extent.

2:57pm Scott was involved in the creation of the Showtime Giants baseball reality show. It was something people on both sides had to get used to. But the access is important for audiences. Parallels to the arts? For example, hearing a soloist talking his way through the concerto – as a “secondary screen” experience you could watch.

2:54pm Elizabeth Scott spent 12 years at MLB – at the forefront of a digital revolution in sport. It can be like tap dancing in sand – all the different channels, all the different devices – but being proactive is essential.

Spotlight #1

2:48pm NEA has a lot of research on the value of the arts in the community. They mailed to superintendents across the country. A lot of the research is online at

2:41pm In presenting music and growing the audience – it’s about location, location, location. It can’t just be the hall. It has to be out on the street, on the subway platform, everywhere. You have to get the music out there to the people who like it but don’t go to current concert offerings. This calls for more community partnerships, perhaps. A new Arts and Human Development task force is looking at ways to integrate the arts with health and human development, across agencies of the federal government.

2:38pm Mark Clague: Students today see music as a boundary-less place — still trained in classical music but interest is much wider.

2:32pm Sharing and being a curator/collector of arts is another new role that technology facilitates.

2:30pm Attending a live arts performance is a high predictor of likelihood to volunteer (in general, not just volunteer in the arts).

2:27pm Those who engage in live performance are more likely to do a large number of other public, civic activities: volunteering, other types of performances, etc. Sociologist have a theory of the “omnivore” type.

2:24pm People who watch performances online are 2-3 times more likely to watch live performances. Also, it’s not just young people who are engaging in content online. Middle-aged and older people are embracing it as well.

2:22pm One question the research raises… Has people’s leisure time contracted over time? Does technology enable participation or does it crowd out other forms of participation?

2:16pm NEA research shows that 24% of people say they like to listen to classical music. 9% of people say they have actually been to a live performance in the last 12 months – which is a drop from 13% in 1982. In 2008, “baby boomers” showed a notable drop in attendance.


2:11pm On orchestral clothing – Gilbert believes there should be a uniform, but it doesn’t have to be tails. It should look like a uniform, to dignify the proceedings, to get dressed up for work, kind of thing.

2:60pm We never talk about needing X number of new works in the season – it’s more about the range and the balance of what our audience should hear. There are no quotas. What I hope is that when we play a new piece there’s a much bigger context that it can be listened to than just “it’s a new piece.” It’s music.

2:00pm Feels there has been an evolution in New York even in three years as Music Director of being able to introduce a composer like Magnus Lindberg to the audience.

1:54pm Things like the the NY Times feature showing the physical side of conducting and the interactive feature online – add dimension and scope for the public

1:52pm Must be careful about blanket statements about “the audience”. People can be led in a good way, can be shown thing, can learn things. And that’s an important function of the orch and the music director.

1:49pm Gilbert on “special” projects (like Ligeti Le Grand Macabre) – eventually they should be central to what the orchestra provides. They should not be held at a distance as something unique, out of the ordinary. Orchestras should produce symphonic concerts, but more and more should be catalysts for intellectual inquiry and cultural leadership.

1:45pm Gilbert likes preserving the tradition and feel of the concert experience – to make it special – but that doesn’t mean every concert has to be that way.

1:43pm For Gilbert, the takeaway from the famous NY Phil cell phone incident is that on an intuitive level people responded so strongly because they understand the inviolable content of what happens in the music hall. People were truly disturbed that the live concert experience was stopped/interrupted.

1:42pm In a world of immediate gratification, it can be hard to let go and let someone else choose what you hear and what is told to you. It perhaps makes what we do in the concert hall even more impoatant.

1:35pmMatthew VanBesien and Alan Gilbert take the stage. Gilbert is in his 3rd season as Music Director of the NY Phil. The relationship with the audience is on his mind “all the time.” Gilbert first experience the NY Phil as an audience member and that informs his work as Music Director. Interested in building a relationship over a long period of time – and what’s possible over the long period is connection and trust. That can be the basis for exploration and risk-taking.

1:25pm Audiences is coming in, Alan Gilbert takes the stage in a few minutes.


  1. Szwiebach says:

    All important questions in this lively conversation. More of this type of thing would be great.

    • Beth H says:

      Yes, it was a great conversation yesterday. We’ll have videos from the event up in a few days… and podcasts coming later this month, FYI.

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