Different concert-goers have different expectations

Alexandra Coghlan’s Spectator piece last week has prompted a bit of thought.

I’ve seen contacts of mine (marketing types) applaud it. Conversely, it’s prompted a discussion amongst fellow audience members that defends the concert-going experience.

I’ve hesitated from writing in response to it for 24 hours or so, just to get my own head around where I stand on the subject.

As you might expect, I’ve got a slightly different view.

The ‘Wasted Opportunity’

In case you’ve not read it, Alexandra’s thought-provoking piece flags a couple of negative concert-going experiences. She’s right to adopt a big picture view – looking on these two concerts from the perspective of the events as entertainment destinations.

That’s valuable because if people who are distracted by a myriad of entertainment opportunities are to feel tempted to listen to live classical music, then the destination needs to be appealing and welcoming offer.

In this way, everything about the concert-going experience should be under scrutiny – front of house, publications, programming, fixtures and fittings, and prices at the bar. I’ve had a number of similar experiences myself. Such elements are much-underplayed and perhaps even overlooked.

Like Alexandra, I’ve also attended concerts where the musicians appear less than enthused to be on the platform. Sometimes the standard of the performance is under-par.  In some cases I’ve left a concert feeling mildly dissatisfied; in others sufficiently motivated to pen a blog post about it.

Acknowledging imperfection helps us appreciate what’s involved

Funnily enough, I’m not especially bothered by what goes on on the platform. Here might be where me and Alexandra differ in our opinions. Since attending the Rosenblatt Recitals, getting along to more Wigmore Hall events, discovering Mahler and Wagner, and immersing myself in more and more chamber music, what I’ve come to appreciate is the joy inherent in a live performance. Part of the joy for me at least is recognising the consitutent parts that make up a cracking live performance.

Whilst I might feel disappointed about a sub-par performance, or a string section not smiling at the audience at the end of the gig, there is an authenticity to the experience that serves to illustrate just exactly what is involved in putting on such a performance. 

In this way there are many different elements that contribute to a concert-going experience, both on the part of the concert producers (performers, marketers, et al) and especially the quality of my own attention when listening.

I revel in the serendipity of live performance. If an audience isn’t attentive, for example, then that’s not because they’re unruly, but because there wasn’t magic in the room, so to speak. That doesn’t make the experience any less valuable. It illustrates just how miraculous live performance really can be. Concert going cannot be manufactured. That’s what makes concerts strangely addictive. 

On perfection, context, and uniformity

As an audience member, I don’t seek perfection. To do so will always result in disappointment. I seek to be moved and, if I am, would like to see my appreciation reflected back at me from the stage. But, if I feel moved but don’t see a similar experience on stage, that isn’t going to dent my memory of the moment. I don’t expect everyone in the concert venue (players and audience alike) to experience the event in the same way that I do – that isn’t what concert-going is to me.

Similarly, I don’t need context. So programme notes aren’t necessarily vital. I used to feel like I needed an explanation as to what I was sat listening to. Now I’m quite happy to avoid a programme note and approach the experience with nothing more than curiosity. Such personal listening strategies are of little value to a marketing person who need to sell tickets because I think there a sense that we should support a new concert-goer as far as we possibly can to help them feel welcome. To a certain extent I agree. But, I wonder whether there is some truth in what one chief executive reminded me of recently – that it may well take more than two or three concerts before a newcomer feels accustomed to the repertoire and the conventions. In trying to make people feel more welcome and understand what’s going on more, I wonder whether we put too much store in programme notes anyway. 

And perhaps the oddest insight I can share about my concert-going experience (assuming you haven’t already realised this) is that there is something of a venue’s implicit character communicated via its public spaces, the movement from foyer to auditorium, and its stage practice which contributes to the overall experience. I don’t seek uniformity of experience.

And in a similar vein, I like the differing audience groups I come into contact with in the concert hall. I’ve said before on this blog, that its one of the rare places where such a mix of different ages occurs. I think we overlook that. 

Different people have different expectations in the concert hall and I celebrate the fact that those different expectations won’t always match mine. That’s another reason why the concert venue (whether it be a hall, church, recital room or a pub) is a difficult place to market.

We need to be on our guard. We need to remember that a range of people come to the concert for a variety of different reasons. What works for others may not work for me. In striving to connect with a new audience I wonder whether we sometimes overlook the existing one. 

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