Art that is unable to constantly and consistently “brand” itself stands at a distinct disadvantage more than ever

Reading time: approx. 3 min.

Our world has changed with our collective fear of Sars-cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. Along with that have been swift repercussions in our social lives and local culture, including live concerts of all genres.

The live performing arts (hereon, simply “arts” to save space) have been impacted at its core. Deprived of crowds, atmosphere, and intuitive interaction, not to mention “business,” the foundation of the arts have been placed into existential question.

The slide deck attached to this blog article explores some of the issues that impact the arts from both artistic and business-model standpoints. My hope is that these few slides may produce some thinking and action.

In an online-centric world, where we are either sheltered in place, or fearful of congregating at events for the foreseeable future, what are the problems the arts face?

In this blog article, I’d like to expand the discussion of slide 4 of the attached deck, headed:

Problem: Art that is unable to constantly and consistently “brand” itself stands at a distinct disadvantage more than ever.

The internet makes the entire world the market. Competition is therefore global, complex, and intense. Tools now empower practically every individual, creating as many ambitious competitors as there are people. In such chaos, “brand” is perhaps the single most important factor determining whether something has a chance to stand out, over time.

What is brand? It’s the image or vibe associated with a specific entity (i.e., company, group, or person). It’s the vibe communicated through multiple points of contact, whether that be products (e.g. songs, shows, packaging) or publicity. The strength of that vibe is usually determined by the frequency of its exposure. And the clarity of that abstract image is what gets something on the “short list” of a customer’s mind.

And consequently, what this means is that, art that is time and energy consuming to prepare stands at a distinct disadvantage when online rankings prefer constantly updated material that leverages current events and popular ideas. Art will require time and money to create a stream of supplementary content specifically for marketing.

Many artists and organizers already create tons of supplementary content for their concerts and shows, of course. But now, when artists or presenters/organizers put together supplementary content, they will need to project – more carefully and consciously than ever – a consistent brand image that is precisely in line with the show, the organizer, as well as the artist. It can be an extremely tall order, since the stakeholders’ various images may not necessarily align. It is also hard to do when artists, such as musicians, may play a variety of musical works, and not all in the same kind of vibe.

Actors – especially movie actors – have understood this keenly for ages. An iconic role is both a blessing and a curse because it can bring fame and fortune, but also make it fatal to break out of the brand image created by that role. Trying different types of roles (e.g. for artistic reasons) ironically can ruin a star actor’s power to draw an audience.

I predict this conundrum will only magnify with everything going global, all while simultaneously, real life “local” connections and culture get decimated due to people “staying at home.” This issue of branding may become one of the biggest challenges the arts will face in a online-centric world.

The way for art to get onto their core audience’s mental “short list” will often not be ‘content’ – it will be “brand.” But that’s not to say that content doesn’t matter. It does. And the comprehensive value of that content will be determined by ranking algorithms dictated by the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Spotify.

No matter the variety of techniques and paradigms pursued by these big data companies, for business reasons alone, it only makes sense to prioritize metrics that measure the popularity of a given piece of content. Art will therefore need to communicate a brand through producing content that has a chance at rising toward the top, where ‘popularity’ is king. And that content needs to still project a consistent brand…

Paradigms will change, as will artistic priorities. The solution to the problem posed here – constant exposure with consistent brand messaging – is already by the most successful. The most widely loved/hated/respected/influential artists tend to be able to do the branding without being brazen about it.

For artists, the hand-over-heart question may be: For me, does “artistry” equal “branding,” or can my artistic output be curated into a “brand”?

Contagious Kontomo – Public

(Reading time: approx. 3 min.)

In this fourth brief essay bouncing off of Jonah Berger’s book on information virality, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, I’d like to tackle the public/private paradox.

Let’s start with an example Berger gives about how public visibility (or the lack of it) can affect transparency and interpretation of information.

For a…familiar example, think about the last time you sat through a bewildering PowerPoint presentation. …At the end of the talk, the speaker probably asked the audience if anyone had any questions.

The response?

But not because everyone else understood the presentation. The others were probably just as bewildered as you were. But while they would have liked to raise their hands, they didn’t because each one is worried that he or she is the only person who didn’t understand. Why? Because no one else was asking questions. No one saw any public signal that others were confused so everyone keeps his doubts to him- or herself. Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.

Jonah Berger (Contagious, 133)

One could disagree with Berger’s proposed interpretation of course. The silence could be partly cultural; you could be refraining from asking a question that might be misunderstood and cause unnecessary controversy. Or perhaps, the question was too personal to air publicly. Or maybe you simply didn’t care enough to make it worth the effort of asking. And yes, perhaps, it could be an issue of confidence and courage…

Regardless, Berger’s hypothetical example feels familiar to us because ‘herd behavior’ and ‘social proof’ are hard to deny and are such powerful forces. At the same time, people don’t arbitrarily hop on just any bandwagon just because “others are doing it.” Berger doesn’t explore this aspect too much in Contagious, but for people to join in a certain behavior or belief, there must be some level of sympathetic concurrence between individual egos. That is, there has to be some level of common interest in some area. Plus, the “cost” of joining in the behavior has to feel morally and financially within reach, relative to the attractiveness of joining.

Likewise, the above hypothetical scenario could unfold differently. If one person were to confidently challenge the speaker with questions or comments that strike a chord with the audience, others might indeed rise up as well. But add strong negative feelings of anger or frustration to that, and we’ve created heated arguments. There’s a reason moderators are placed on discussion panels and courtrooms are designed the way they are with barricades and separated sections. Without some buffers, both logical and physical, it’s all too easy for a discussion to devolve into a frenzied brawl.

The point I’d like to emphasize here, and to borrow from Berger’s hypotheses, is not so much that herd behavior happens, but that the magnitude of such behavior is related to how visible it is.

Visibility is truly a multi-edged sword. The more a certain behavior is publicly exposed, the more that behavior becomes a possibility for people who wouldn’t have even thought of it in the first place. And this is for all types of behavior, whether happy or sad, beneficial or detrimental, productive or destructive, thoughtful or thoughtless.

It is not coincidence that, for better or worse, the visual aspect of social media has both made it easier to magnify actions and behaviors in both scale and duration. Particularly pointed examples are everywhere – whether it is the impressive intensity and longevity of the protests in Hong Kong, the Climate Crisis marches inspired by Greta Thunberg, migrant caravans, and I would argue, even the increased frequency and scale of gun violence in the U.S..

Now, in concerts, the simplest and most obvious observable action is probably the applause. Perhaps you’ve been to a concert where you weren’t actually too impressed, but saw some enthusiastic people in front or beside you jump up and give a standing ovation? And even if you had a strong and confident contrary opinion, perhaps you felt quite a bit of pressure to join the crowd in the standing ovation, especially as more and more people join in? (Add to that that your view is nil if everybody around you is standing up and you’re the only one sitting!)

Standing ovations, however, only affect the behavior of those who are there at the concert (and have stayed to the end). And from a marketing and social, perspective, the realities of today suggest that concerts are in need to go beyond applause as the channel of social approval or abstract discourse. And yet we have not moved beyond or built upon applause because there is not yet a consistently better alternative.

(Please note, I am intentionally leaving out the variable of concert ‘content’ here. Neither am I suggesting that applause should be replaced. And yes, I am envious of European audiences who manage to spontaneously applause in sync – it eludes American audiences!)

In this perspective, one hint in the direction things are going is the trend of taking photos of playbills as a memento and evidence of participation in a concert, and sharing through social media.

It only feels natural that we want to be proud of belonging to a concert, and to leverage that by being visible. We also appreciate having a souvenir, even if we might end up losing it or throwing it away. It is literally, just as the word souvenir means in French – to remember/recall. There’s this strong desire to belong in a group yet still have a private identity that’s kept just to yourself; to have the option of being able to recall yet willingly forget.

At Kontomo, these philosophical yet practical issues are part of the foundation of how we think. In our soon-to-be-released new version, we’re proposing a new way to address these issues of visibility and the public/private paradox in concerts and events. Sensitivity to the balance between private thoughts and public camaraderie is central to the eventgoer-centered social experience.

Contagious Kontomo – Emotion

(Reading time: approx. 4 min.)

In his book on “virality,” Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger posits that emotions drive the sharing of information. And it’s not just about the heart, but the body.

I wanted to test a simple but intriguing hypothesis. At this point we knew that emotionally arousing content or experiences would be more likely to be shared… If arousal induces sharing, then might any physiologically arousing experience drive people to share stories and information with others?

…Running doesn’t evoke emotion, but it is just as physiologically arousing. It gets your heart rate up, increases blood pressure, etc. So if arousal of any sort boosts sharing, then running in place should lead people to share things with others. Even if the things people are talking about or sharing have nothing to do with the reason they are experiencing arousal.

And it did. Among students who had been instructed to jog, 75 percent shared the article – more than twice as many as the students who had been in the “relaxed” group. Thus any sort of arousal, whether from emotional or physical sources, and even arousal due to the situation itself (rather than content), can boost transmission. (Berger, Contagious, 121)


…people are less likely to talk about or share things that make them content because contentment decreases arousal. (Berger, 110)

No, Kontomo is not pivoting away from the performing arts to turn into yet another fitness app.

And this is not a discussion of how concertgoers who walk up the many stairs to their seats (like the Dress Circle at Carnegie Hall) may be more inclined to share their feelings about a concert than those who sit below in the more expensive Parquet seats. (I do believe in all seriousness, however, that it would be an interesting and worthwhile study to do!)


Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

But, OK.

No wonder people don’t share information about serious performing arts concerts. You just sit quietly for the concert, and if the concert is good, you become content from listening/watching something profound.

Which leads me to where I’d like to draw your attention.

How can the performing arts (especially, the serious type) better define, project, and encourage appropriate emotional-physiological responses — outside of the presentation?

No doubt, the performing arts is about emotion (and often, much more). Receptive audiences come away in awe and get excited from great performances. And it’s that experience of awe we cherish and subsequently pass on to others.

But let’s consider for a moment in what ways you, as a concertgoer, are physiologically excited before and after a concert, especially if the concert is an unfamiliar one. Maybe you feel some anticipation before going, and hopefully there’s a ‘glow’ within your soul afterwards?

Let me describe my own current perspective on how I feel before and after a concert. (This is going to be frank…)

I do not normally get physiologically excited or immersed in the vibe of a concert beforehand, because it just doesn’t happen naturally unless I’m already invested in it as an ‘insider.’

Social media, websites, videos, flyers, and posters create a vibe that is almost always one-dimensional. Understandably, marketing requires obvious hooks and for ‘the message’ to be clear for its target audience. But with the exception of really well-managed social media campaigns, these channels aren’t conducive to making me into an ‘insider.’ At best, it’s an infomercial I don’t mind being shown a few times. At worst, it’s boring or even a turnoff (which is unfortunately, too common). So I find it difficult or impossible to guess the vibe of an upcoming concert. I have to interpret the PR marketing and before I know it, I find myself stereotyping and assuming what the concert’s going to be like. And perhaps as evidence I’ve become jaded, I usually feel little or no specific emotional-physiological response as a concertgoer before going to most serious concerts. I’ve always wished I could get a better feel for what a concert’s going to be like in deciding whether I’m going to go to a concert or not.

As for recalling the special feeling a particular concert has given me, I find that ticket stubs, playbills, merchandise, social media, and Google Photos or Apple Photos can serve as good triggers for such memories. But when it’s disorganized or presented out of context (or out of mood), it feels strangely discombobulating. And with the recent rise of AI-managed personalization services, the selected ‘memories’ pushed at me by those apps and services ironically turn my mementos into something cold and creepy rather than warm and nostalgic.

I would love to hear your response, especially if your thoughts and outlook are different from mine!

How can people really get an intuitive feel of what a concert’s going to be like, and even help define its vibe beforehand?

How can a fun and welcomed emotional-physiological element be absorbed into the vibe before and after a concert?

How can concertgoers feel a new dimension of belonging to a particular concert?

These are some of the questions we ask here at Kontomo.

Please let us know your thoughts!

Contagious Kontomo – Triggers

Blog abstract: Serious performing art presentations are often not-at-all-commercial, complex, and diverse. Because of this, cultivating relevant ‘triggers’ (i.e., things around you that remind you of ideas) that are coherent and commercially viable have been difficult. Kontomo can help cultivate triggers in much less haphazard ways. As a point of reference for discussion, we explore the idea of ‘triggers’ as expounded in Jonah Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Reading time: approximately 6 minutes

“Interesting products didn’t receive any more word of mouth than boring ones.… [There was] no correlation between levels of interest, novelty, or surprise and the number of times people talked about the products.” (Berger, Contagious, 67)

The above is a quote from Jonah Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, and the observation relates to whether people talk about a product or experience for more than a few days after initial contact.

For example, after an impressive or unusual concert, you might talk about it or remember it well for a day or two afterwards. However, whether you would continue to bring it up in conversation for more than few days after that, is another matter.

If I may make a spoiler for those who have yet to read Berger’s book, he reaches the plausible hypothesis that the difference between something that continues to get talked about and something that doesn’t, is the existence (or lack of) ‘triggers.’ He defines ‘triggers’ as “little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas.” (Berger, 70)

Triggers themselves can be anything. It could be, for example, the scent of a perfume – maybe it would remind you of a specific person? Or how about the sound of a wind chime – could it remind you of a memorable place or time? And certain foods and flavors can remind you of your childhood or family because,. . .it’s probably the taste you remember from when you were young. But it seems in our screen and advertisement-dominated society, that the majority of triggers are found in the visual sphere.


Triggers are important in studying ‘virality’, since having an idea be ‘top-of-mind’ is critical to whether you share it with others. It is also essential to your decision-making process. When deciding what to have for lunch, if you don’t recall tacos, it is unlikely you would decide to have one, even if a great tacqueria around the corner is just one block away. Thus, absent a trigger that frequently appears in our immediate environment, the way marketers try to get people to even just recall things, is constant reminding in the form of advertising.

Let’s look at the scheme of things with ’triggers’ from the other side (i.e., marketer). Here, the focus is identifying what relevant triggers there are for the product or experience (e.g. a concert). It becomes sort of like playing charades. What environmental cues are likely to elicit a reminder with your target audience?

Before we consider the situation with performing arts concerts, let’s briefly take, for example, merchandising. If I may poison your mind for a moment, these Star Wars lightsaber chopsticks are goofy (or cool, depending on your point of view), but most of all, effective in ‘infecting’ your mind.

You might agree with me that the idea behind these chopsticks is not unique – probably every Star Wars fan (including yours truly) has imagined using some stick-like object as a lightsaber, including chopsticks. But once you actually see these lightsaber chopsticks (which are not that high-performance in terms of utility as ‘chopsticks’ according to some Amazon reviews – though of course that’s not the point), you may be reminded of the Star Wars franchise even when using ‘normal’ chopsticks. To what degree you will have “chopsticks = Star Wars” implanted in your mind probably depends on whether you’re even a fan of Star Wars in the first place. From this, we realize that some level of intrinsic interest and understanding has to exist for a trigger to make an idea ‘top of mind’.

Triggers for the performing arts?

Now, let’s think of performing arts concerts. What triggers can we count on in the real life environment of an eventgoer? And what amount of the eventgoer’s understanding can be leveraged by the trigger?

What if you saw someone carrying a cello case in the subway? Perhaps you’ll recall ‘music’ on a general level, and perhaps ‘classical,’ but it’s unlikely to be more specific unless you recently experienced a fantastic cello concert. If you know New York City well, what about “57th Street”? Is that enough for you to think of Carnegie Hall? Moreover, is it enough for you to contemplate finding out what concerts are going on at Carnegie and buy a ticket? What about “34th Street”? I would wager that a lot of people would be reminded of the famous movie Miracle on 34th Street (or at least the title), Macy’s, and Christmas. And that movie, meanwhile, despite its feel-good message, reminds us of gift-giving and the need to shop for those gifts. Meanwhile, what about purple lighting? Would it remind you of something like, a pop concert? And if you had a great time at the last pop concert, might a purple light entice you to look up the concert schedule of your favorite pop star? I pose these questions quasi-rhetorically, and the answers I suggest are off the top of my head.

The point is, triggers don’t necessarily lead to action, especially if there is no perceived immediate need for what pops into our head. However, because triggers are everywhere, not having a reliable channel to cultivate meaningful triggers in the first place, is a severe marketing disadvantage in today’s world. Popular art, through music videos, branding, creative album art, cohesive fashion culture, and commercial brand tie-ups, figured out channels to cultivate a variety of triggers. Serious performing arts – partly by nature of its complex, diverse, and often not-at-all-commercial message – have long had difficulty in creating coherent and commercially viable channels for cultivating triggers.


Kontomo allows eventgoers to revisit their digital playbills at will and as frequently as they like, wherever they like. It cultivates triggers through the phone and the app. Moreover, flexible eventgoer feedback provides presenters and artists an understanding of what matters to (and what is being understood by) their eventgoers. And by leveraging the ability to follow-up with the eventgoer, presenters and artists can cultivate unique triggers that produce meaningful on-going relationships in eventgoers’ real lives. Triggers, really, would be a by-product of this kind of interaction between presenter, artist, and eventgoer.

Berger writes: “Consider the context. What cues make people think about your product or idea? How can you grow the habitat and make it come to mind more often?” (Berger, 209)

Conversation with the presenter and artist can help keep the concert relevant and authentic. Activities tied into the experience (and not necessarily through forced participation) can create subtle triggers allowing the experience to resurface back to ‘top of mind’ more often. By opening up the channel between the eventgoer and presenter, Kontomo proposes a way to cultivate triggers for performing arts presentations that have not existed before.

We hope to show you soon with Kontomo used at a concert or event near you.

Please let us know your thoughts!

Contagious Kontomo – Social Currency

Blog abstract: Performing art, by nature, is out-of-the-ordinary. However, the remarkableness of an art or culture sometimes needs to be emphasized so that the eventgoer is both ‘prepped’ to experience something remarkable, and has the means afterward to share ‘what is remarkable’ with some fidelity and context. Kontomo can help make this happen. As a point of reference for discussion, we explore the idea of ‘social currency’ as expounded in Jonah Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Reading time: approximately 5 minutes

The other day, I went to a concert given by the Silkroad Ensemble where they presented a work-in-progress for one of five pieces comprising their new “Heroes Take Their Stands” project. And it happened to take place at my alma mater, Juilliard, for an invitation-only audience of faculty, staff, and supporters.

The presented segment was music combined with solo dance and the polish and quality was extraordinary (even though it was supposed to be a ‘work-in-progress’). The East-meets-West music combining Western and Eastern instruments was entrancing, the Indian dancing was riveting, and it was just magnetic as a show. There was discussion with the artists and creators afterward that gave insight into the inspiration and work behind “Heroes.” And, as an encore, there was a repeat of the final portion of the music and dance, giving the audience a chance to re-experience some of the performance in the context of the discussion.

“Heroes Take Their Stands” is a show I’m now looking forward to seeing when it is complete. It’s also something I’m likely to bring up in conversation to a friend or colleague who might be interested in going to something like this.

The Silkroad concert definitely has “Social Currency,” as defined in Jonah Berger’s best-selling book about why things ‘go viral’ – Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Social Currency

Regarding social currency, Berger states that, “People share things that make them look good to others.” And the content of what’s being shared counts too. He advises, “Emphasize what’s remarkable about a product or idea and people will talk.” (Berger, Contagious, 33, 44)

In this perspective, I believe the Silkroad concert and its method of presentation really hit the right marks. They presented the art to a select audience that would be knowledgeable and likely to support it. The physical and psychological distance between artist and eventgoer was close, which made it all the more an ‘insider’ event. And the discussion, targeted to this audience of people with in-the-know familiarity of classical music and contemporary dance, was entertainingly informative.

As evidence of its social currency, here I am, electing to rave about this Silkroad “Heroes” project and concert, and to tell you about it. And I’m happy to do it because I was excited about its remarkableness, and I believe it also makes me look good as someone who was privy to the experience.

But now in the second half of this blog article, I want to think beyond what’s possible ‘today.’

The question is: Would it be possible to further empower the social currency of a remarkable concert or event?

To explore this, I’d like to again refer to Berger, who poses the questions underpinning social currency as: “Does talking about your product or idea make people look good? Can you find the inner remarkability? Leverage game mechanics? Make people feel like insiders?” (Berger, 209)

So, talking about Silkroad makes me ‘look good.’ Check. I was invited to discover its ‘inner remarkability.’ Check. It made me ‘feel like an insider.’ Check.

However, game mechanics? Game mechanics at its core usually hinges on enabling participants to earn a sense of pride tied to a visible status of privilege or success.

How is a concert of serious art, for example, supposed to leverage game mechanics without resorting to gimmicky promotions that might negatively affect its intrinsic poetry and profundity? (Note, for the moment, we will not be talking about game mechanics implemented within a concert or event presentation itself. There are popular shows that do this brilliantly without alienating or embarrassing anyone in the audience – Blue Man Group for example, comes to mind.)

“Social media,” is probably the obvious answer relating game mechanics to events, particularly in terms of the online world. Event promoters use social media in hopes to have an event shared. And social media ‘influencers’ share and associate themselves with an event, looking to maintain or raise their own ‘personal brand.’ Many mobile ticketing platforms also make it easy for people to share their event experiences. Plus, there are apps like Foursquare Swarm that gamify the activity of just being out and about. But we also realize now that it’s a double-edged sword. Chaotic game mechanics on social media have led to a world today that is also a mad frenzy of misinformation. One recent article looked into aspiring influencers who create fake ad posts to appear as if they are sponsored.  (And someone please let me know if that is fake news!)

The prize in the social media ‘game,’ is not quality of information or popularity – it is perceived social status in the eyes of a target audience. (My writing this blog, is no different, however relatively tiny my audience might happen to be.)

Taking a step back, there’s an additional fundamental challenge to applying game mechanics to the promotion of serious concerts and events. For one thing, there is the disadvantage, by nature of copyrights, image rights, civility, and etiquette, of not being able to video record for the sake of sharing. It probably goes unread most of the time (though clearly printed and sometimes announced), but the rule for most concerts is:

Taking photographs and using recording equipment are not permitted.

This makes sense, just out of respect to the artists and presenters who put their lives into preparing and then risk doing something ‘live’ on stage. And, personally, I think that any amount of time fiddling with a phone camera not only disturbs others but sabotages yourself from experiencing what might possibly be a mind-blowing artistic moment that cannot be felt other than in that very moment.

This means that for serious concerts to maximize social currency, there needs to be another medium, along with a channel to make interacting with content in that medium, a positive thing for the individual. Since interacting directly with a concert is not possible (at least not in the way one can interact with a product or service), one solution is to create a proxy for that concert experience that is portable, immutable, and personal.

Kontomo is precisely the tool to create that proxy – an interactive digital playbill.

A digital playbill would enable the presenter and artist to provide information-with-context. It can be interactive to help ‘prep’ the eventgoer be receptive to what is special about the event. It would allow the eventgoer to show the playbill – and thus, accurate and detailed information – on-demand to anyone they happen to talk to in real life. It would enable the eventgoer to revisit an official souvenir of the event. A digital playbill could serve as a symbol of social proof – that an eventgoer actually went to the event. And when that happens, meaningful personalization becomes possible. Then, game mechanics become possible – both within and outside of Kontomo.

Thank you for reading this far. I kindly ask you:

What if you could easily share a concert playbill, with official proof of attendance, and have easy and visible ways to show your level of positive involvement with the concert?

As an eventgoer, would you like this?

As an artist, would you like this?

As a presenter, would you like this?

Please let me know what you think!

What is “Audience Development”?

What do you think of when you hear the words “audience development”?

In the performing arts, the term “audience development” usually refers to any activity that is intended to capture or grow an audience. It is often associated with an array of activities, ranging from traditional marketing to outreach activities, education, and social events; the aim being, to engage existing eventgoers, and to appeal to potential new eventgoers.

The various approaches to audience development usually belong to two categories.

  1. Promoting an artistic/cultural message by increasing the depth and frequency of contact with a potential audience. Outreach, education, and social events are examples of this.

  2. Focusing on business objectives to make an event or concert sustainable. This business-oriented approach uses both time-tested and innovative marketing and campaigning techniques to bring in and retain an audience. Word of mouth, posters, direct mail, emails, and social media marketing are examples. Social events may also fall into this category, especially if there is a fundraising element.

There are a myriad examples for either approach. And an artistic enterprise with cultural influence will probably need to have a blend of both.

To frame a concise and manageable discussion for this blog article, I’d like to highlight two relatively recent articles.

One is an article from January 18 of this year in the New York Times titled, “Can Philippe Jaroussky Help Fix Classical Music’s Diversity Problem?”

Another is a blog article dated February 1 of this year from Spektrix titled “3 KPIs You Should Care About: 1. Customer Retention.”
(Companies such as Spektrix and Patron Technology specialize in cloud-based CRM (i.e., Customer Relationship Management) for the performing arts, with systems for ticketing and interfacing with patrons.)
Both articles are well worth reading in full as they also present data from documented sources.

The New York Times article reports on the classical music outreach and education initiative led by the French superstar countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. Citing data that, “Half of those who attend classical music concerts in France are executives or managers, and their average age is 54, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the French Association of Orchestras,” it outlines the hopes that the Académie Musicale Philippe Jaroussky will succeed in its mission to ‘democratize access to classical music’ by extending classical music education to working class and immigrant youths.

The Spektrix blog article states that, “Industry trends and data suggest that the not-for-profit sector funding model is changing, and the focus is now shifting to encourage organizations to build a resilient business model…” The article goes on to reference data claiming that it costs up to 5 times more to acquire new customers than it does to try to retain them, and suggests marketing methods. The refrain is familiar to marketers in the for-profit space: use personalized emails with dynamic content; incentivize repeat visits with offers; and program shows according to popular demand (i.e., perform concerts that are sure to please). This last suggestion, which is probably the touchiest one for artists because it can impinge on artistic direction, unfortunately has the unclearest advice. The author of the blog, Kate Mroczkowski, writes: “Think about what show to advertise to [eventgoers] for their second visit. Ideally, you’ll work with your programming team to achieve this. And if you can, program another hit event within 6 – 12 months so you have a great offer for your new customers.”

Both articles promote approaches to audience development that are meaningful, important, and effective. Outreach and education develops that person to person connection that is essential to building any cultural understanding. Meanwhile, modern CRM, with its array of database management, ticketing, eventgoer-facing communications, and advertising tools, helps reach out to audiences, and is more efficient than ever. These CRM tools, however, may collect private information of the concertgoer (i.e., you) and communicate with a feverish frequency and intensity that some may find to be creepy, or ironically, off-putting.

However, just as the Spektrix article says, “if you can, program another hit event,” this raises some important questions that can be hard to answer – like, what’s a hit event? Here are some more such questions that many may have a hard time answering:

  • How do you identify cultural aspects that are truly meaningful to a particular social group? And how can empathy paired with such knowledge help resonate a specific message beyond a classroom or lecture?

  • How can supporters of a certain artist create a community that is ‘deep and complex’ but still approachable to outsiders who are just curious?

  • How can art strive to be intrepid while acknowledging what’s ‘comfortable’ for a particular audience?

  • As a presenter or artist, how do you stay attuned to what is truly meaningful to your target audience, but also challenge their boundaries?

  • As an artist, how do you gauge what kinds of artistic risks can be conducive to building a vibrant culture, for your community?

  • And to return to the issue of ‘hit events,’ what information helps you decide, plan, and prepare a genuinely meaningful ‘hit’ for your target audience (i.e., an event that could stand on its own artistic merits without added incentives, like free food, etc.)?

The common approaches to audience development drive in one direction: from presenters and artists toward the eventgoer. One hypothesis for why this is, is that our tools and methods have developed through commercial necessity. After all, regardless of profit or non-profit, disseminating information and drawing an audience by whatever means necessary, is usually a critical step.

But what about audience development focused on the ‘other direction’? Do we really have an effective means for the presenter and artist to listen to the honest opinions of the eventgoer? Could such information help toward answering the types of questions listed above?

Surveys and social media may seem like the solution, but we find that surveys are invasive and often invite only the extreme opinions. Social media meanwhile is a curated veneer, with untruths and exaggerations in every corner. Also, engaging through social media can be overwhelming for many artists, as it becomes unwieldy to deal with strangers who seek an ongoing conversation. It’s subsequently a huge drain on the emotional and psychological energy that could be going into producing more, and more profound, art.

It is therefore time to close the gap between the presenter, artist, and eventgoer.
We need a channel to listen to the eventgoer.
We need a real-time connection beyond the stage between the presenter and eventgoer so that cultural contexts can be more accurately communicated.
We need to allow artists to listen to their fans, but also be free to concentrate and invest their souls in what they are dedicating their lives to – creating art.
There’s a way to do this with the technology we have today.

Do you believe that such audience development is possible?