Sarah Gee - partner

Under-developed audiences?

Posted by Sarah Gee - partner on 19th March 2010

Yesterday I had the privilege of sitting on the Royal Philharmonic Society’s judging panel for their audience development award. Held annually, it’s always a very genial affair, with a panel made up of interesting people working in this area from around the UK who spend several hours cogitating, debating and ruminating over the shortlist and eventual winner, and then retire to a local restaurant for a very gossipy lunch. Pretty much my idea of a perfect working day!

I can’t tell you anything about the projects on the shortlist – not least as I had to sign something akin to the Official Secrets Act to say that I wouldn’t – but I can offer some general thoughts on the state of audience development in the UK classical music sector. And before anyone thinks that these comments are confined to classical music, I can assure you that they are just as relevant to other areas of the arts and cultural sectors.

Firstly, we need a better definition of what audience development actually is. The current term being used by Arts Council England, amongst others, is actually ‘Audience Engagement’ which is more encompassing as it includes opportunities for people to become involve in an active way, rather than the more passive sitting in a concert hall listening to music between 7.30 and 9.30 on a wet Wednesday during the winter months. And audience development, or engagement, isn’t just about finding new converts to our artistic endeavours; it’s also about ensuring that the existing audiences remain excited and passionate about what we do, and quite possibly developing their knowledge or depth of involvement in the process.

Secondly, we desperately need organisations breaking out of their departmental silos and working together to place their audiences at the centre of everything they do. As a first step, programming, marketing and outreach/education/engagement colleagues should either sit in a darkened room or go and get uproariously drunk (* delete as applicable to your organisation) and figure out that they have to work together to maximise their impact. Too many of the projects I looked at yesterday were not joined-up across organisations which led to situations such as great marketing schemes with no relevance to the organisation’s core objectives, or fantastic events with tiny audiences because the marketers either didn’t understand what the organisation was trying to achieve, or – worse still – got the information too late to do anything meaningful with it. Thankfully, the advent of social media will help provide a remedy for the latter, but I do fear that it will simply encourage some programmers to continue their existing ‘just in time’ working practices.

Finally – and this is possibly the most important of them all – arts organisations really REALLY need to monitor and evaluate what they produce and who comes to see it. Some of the comments around the table yesterday when we’d seen yet another evaluation that cited “We exceeded our targets” as evidence of success are probably best not repeated. Come on, we’ve all played the target game: set ‘em low to manage expectations and then gaining anything approaching a decent size of audience looks like you’re a marketing guru. Hmmm.

Guys and gals, we need numbers. We need to know how many people were new, how many were coming for their second visit. We need to know how you plan to convert casual listeners that happened across your performance in a shopping mall/community centre/music festival into die-hard fans. I’m not talking here about committed 30-concerts a season subscribers; I’m talking people who are ambassadors for your cause. It’s not rocket science. It’s about taking email addresses or mobile numbers, and then starting a dialogue through SMS or Facebook or Twitter or something equally exciting that isn’t yet invented. We also need to know what your audiences felt like at the end. Call me new-fangled but a four-star review in a national paper doesn’t cut the ice any longer, whereas Mavis from Handsworth telling me that this has changed her life really does.

Is that really too much to ask? Based on the evidence of yesterday, it seems that it is.

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