Tulare County Symphony: Tuning In to a Millennial Generation
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
– Socrates, as attributed by Plato
Crotchety old Socrates might have huffed, “And the little punks don’t go to the Symphony, either! – had symphonies yet been a thing. He philosophized about uncultured, feckless youth fully two millennia before Western Classical would hit the Top 40 equivalent of the 18th Century.
Instead of Socrates’ vinegar, today’s Symphony marketers have figured out it’s more effective to lure young concert audiences with honey. The waning Baby Boomers and Silent Generation members comprise most symphony audiences, and as a result, arts organizations are being bombarded with headlines that scream in unison: Symphonies Must Adapt. Symphonies Have Two Decades Till Curtains. Classical Audience Crescendo Long Past. It’s enough to rattle your pacemaker.
Most Classical aficionados and symphony administrators are well-attuned to these existential issues, although the questions about enduring solutions and structural change await full resolution: How is this art form going to make the jump to new generations, those who will then, in turn, be responsible for its reach into new and devoted audiences beyond them who will continue symphonic music’s core and hopefully, stewardship through volunteerism, donation, and board service?
Without audience revenues, or without much governmental support, such as European arts institutions used to perpetuate themselves, American symphonies are guaranteed little if no one remains to carry the torch. Who will carry it forward, if not our millennial youth?
That uncertainty has motivated the Tulare County Symphony Orchestra (TCSO) to improvise one way forward for its March movie score-themed concert. The Symphony’s executive director, Juliette de Campos, approached the Visalia Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Network (YPN) to ask how the Symphony could reach out to the young networking group members and encourage them to begin attending and supporting the Symphony.
“After brainstorming what a networking mixer with the Symphony could look like, we decided on a red carpet event,” said YPN Coordinator Nicola Wissler, who also serves as the Chamber’s education & workforce development manager. Hence was born, “Join Us on the Red Carpet,” slated for March 11 at the Visalia Fox, the TCSO’s longtime home venue.
“The Tulare County Symphony faces many of the same obstacles as other local nonprofits. Older generations who have always supported the arts and nonprofits are getting older and are not able to be as involved as they have in the past. Many nonprofits are trying to find new ways to engage a younger demographic and that is not always easy to do,” said Nicola. “Events like the Red Carpet Concert are a great way to help introduce young professionals to the Symphony.”
Sara Kabot, who is a strategic planner at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, is helping the Symphony meet that goal of cultivating younger audiences. “I’m consulting with the TCSO to understand the barriers to attendance and the opportunities to deepen engagement within this age group. Once we thoroughly understand the problem, there are opportunities for developing solutions and, crucially, ways to test those solutions.”
Sara says TCSO leadership is on the right track. “The most important thing that the TCSO is doing right is not assuming that they know what this demographic wants. It may be that this age group sees symphonic music as stuffy or it may be that Saturday night is their only opportunity to be together with their family.” The solution to one of these problems would look very different from the solution to the other, she said, so it’s imperative to be sure TCSO has identified the right problems to solve and barriers to remove.
Those barriers to entry for younger generations include matters as simple as wondering what to wear, uncertainty how to behave, and which of high society’s mores they’ll need to affect, to more complex factors such as which concerts to prioritize, given lack of music awareness and limited finances for season tickets. Internet Age device addiction, uncertainties over value, captive time and audience requirements, lack of music education, and social motives are all potential factors as well.
Demographic shifts mean that the younger Joneses are still keeping up; just with different things these days. Millennials crave and value experiences over material stuff. But therein lies the Symphony’s opening.
“Recently I have talked to multiple young professionals who mentioned that they have always wanted to attend a symphony or learn more about the symphony, but they just had not had the time, money, or a purposeful reason to do so,” said Nicola. “This event is focused on getting young professionals to attend the symphony and making them feel welcome. Young professionals know that if they come to this event, there will be other young professionals in attendance, and they will not only get to watch the Symphony, but they will be able to learn about the history and the important role it plays in the community from Music Director Bruce Kiesling himself.”
While TCSO’s current concept attempts to make newcomers comfortable with the existing ways of Symphony culture, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) has taken the honey lure concept even further into Trojan horse territory by meeting young audiences where they live with its SoundBox. The noted SFS conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and his troupe have carved a nightclub-like setting out of its vast rehearsal warehouse where typical rows of concert hall seats have been eschewed in favor of couches casually draped with lounging concert goers who sip cocktails and nosh locally-sourced treats.
Furthermore, attendees are not scolded for device addiction or admonished against Instagramming or Snapchatting the show’s happenings in real time, but are rather encouraged to ‘selfie’ away. Classical, both old guard and contemporary, mixes with more modern offerings for a wide-ranging curatorial approach to music programming at SoundBox, which seems to have struck a chord with young audiences as the program enters its third year.
Classical music as pop culture is well more than a century past its prime. Scott Joplin and Ragtime, the Roaring ‘20s and all that jazz, and Big Band music sent Classical into mothballs in rapid succession. Rock ‘n’ Roll was merely the more recent nail in symphonic music’s musty old coffin. In places like Tulare County, Hip Hop, Country, and Contemporary Christian music now squeeze Classical to a mere sliver on the FM dial, usually saved from oblivion by public radio’s funding model.
And yet, Classical is still there. And the Tulare County Symphony is, too, having weathered the major economic downturn of 2008 and a number of generational shifts since its inception in 1959 in Pat Hillman’s back yard.
Somewhat surprisingly, a report by the East Bay Area-based California Symphony indicates that clever programming may not be what new generations want. New symphony goers love Mozart – once they get their butts into the seats. Getting them there in the first place appears to be the big hitch, especially when the homebound interactivity of the Internet, computer games, and immersive virtual reality offer instant gratification. Classical can be an acquired taste that may unfold more slowly over time.
According to the report, “A new [California Symphony] program called Orchestra X with the idea that arts organizations must change the way we think about new audiences, and specifically, must change our willingness to have hard conversations about the things newcomers hate, are turned off by, or are just uninformed about. We decided if we at the California Symphony are serious about cultivating new audiences, we better stop talking about how much we care about this elusive group like so many organizations do and actually take an interest in what this group has to say.”
In addition to youthful indolence around old school culture, other threats loom on the horizon: The proposed demise of the National Endowment for the Arts; continued cuts to music education in schools; and the notoriously not-philanthropically inclined rumored end to tax breaks for charitable nonprofit contributions. An average 40 percent of annual revenues come from donations to symphonies. And that tax break is a huge motivator, in addition to love of classical music, community boosterism, and basic altruism, an enduring trait that seems to have made the leap to Millennials.
Sara believes that future success for the Symphony will lay in adaptability. “All arts organizations are trying to tackle these [audience building] issues, but the strategy needs to be individualized to the unique circumstances and community – neither of which remain static over a 10- or even five-year period. Success will be driven by flexibility, an open dialogue with the audiences we’re trying to reach, and a willingness to experiment and learn.”
Even those like old Socrates could learn a few things from the Millennials, if they’re similarly receptive and willing to think anew.