Audience Development for the 21st Century

Can we translate the good news of Chorus America's "chorus impact study" into larger audiences for choral music?

We all knew it was true, but it's nice to see it in writing: More Americans participate in choral singing than in any other performing art. The statistics put forth in the Chorus America study, America's Performing Art: A Study of Choruses, Choral Singers, and Their Impact, are impressive. But do these numbers match our own reality? If this is true, why do we struggle each season to maintain our audience base, attract donors, and secure grants? If there are so many people out there who love choral music, why aren't they beating down our doors?

It's important to note that the Chorus America study focused on choral music participants, not audiences. In order for these findings to be useful for our audience development efforts, we need to look at them from another angle.

All of us who sing in choruses understand the musical, social, and civic fulfillment we receive as a result of our participation. But does the audience member attending our concerts feel the same passion? What motivates audience members to purchase tickets to a choral music concert and what keeps them coming back? How can we communicate our passion for the choral art to those who haven't experienced it before?

Challenges for the Performing Arts Nationally

Audience development in the 21st century presents unprecedented challenges for community-based arts organizations. National studies, including the Rand study on The Performing Arts in a New Era, tell us frankly that we're in trouble if we continue to follow the status quo in our attempts to attract audiences.

These studies outline a number of danger signals: Younger generations participating in the arts at lower levels, consumer participation habits changing, and a decrease in traditional arts lovers who come into the marketplace already educated about the arts.

Since 1965, when the National Endowment for the Arts was created, there has been massive growth in the numbers of arts organizations. The rise in the numbers of available audience members as the Baby Boomers moved into the buying public supported this growth. But generations behind the Baby Boomers are not only fewer in number; they are participating in the arts in smaller percentages and are more comfortable experiencing the arts through technology.

Today's audiences need to know more about what's in it for them, not just what's on the program.

Today's audiences are coming to arts activities for different reasons than just for the sheer love of the arts. They are likely to say with a straight face that "I'm not into the arts" after attending a theatre performance with friends and buying something at an outdoor art fair. They are eclectic and open, but much less forgiving of snobbery and poor quality. They care as much about the experience of attending as they do about the art form itself.

All of this adds up to the fact that our traditional marketing methods, which usually center around some variation of a) planning the perfect program and b) making sure everyone knows about it, might not be enough anymore. Today's audiences need to know more about what's in it for them, not just what's on the program.

Communicating the Choral Music Experience

Bradley Morison and Julia Dagleish, in their book Waiting in the Wings: A Larger Audience for the Arts and How to Develop It, tell us that audiences are coming to the arts for other reasons than for the pure love of art; they are accessing art because of spiritual, social, intellectual needs or as a result of an interest in a related area.

The need to express communal grief and solidarity against the ravages of AIDS was a powerful point of entry into choral music for many gay men in the 1980s, fueling the GALA chorus movement. The popularity of the movie Titanic has been a profitable point of entry for the Irish band Gaelic Storm, who has translated a brief appearance in that movie into an active touring career.

What are the points of entry that lure audiences to choral music? Perhaps an association with tradition, as in the desire to hear music during the December holiday season or listening to the folk songs of one's heritage. Choruses have created points of entry by programming in less traditional ways, involving guest artists with local connections, linking programming to current events, or piggybacking with community trends.

Creative examples include commissioning new works to celebrate a community anniversary or special event; using poetry from local high school and middle school students as the basis of new composition; collaborating with other arts organizations to offer joint performances and events. The Chorus America study contains moving examples of choral groups responding to the tragedy of September 11 in their communities with an array of concerts, benefits, and community group sings.

Finding those points of entry and communicating them is key to attracting new audiences and motivating our current audiences to attend more frequently. This does not mean, however, that we must lower our standards or change our mission. Simply programming music that we think will "sell" tends to backfire in the end: Studies have shown that audiences who are attracted by a "pops" concert do not automatically cross over into more serious fare.

Finding points of entry and communicating them is key to attracting new audiences and motivating our current audiences to attend more frequently.

One of the ways we can use the Chorus America study to create new points of entry is to find ways to bring new audiences into the choral experience. Pre- and post-concert discussions, social events, and sing-alongs are some activities choruses have used with success. Combining a choral concert with poetry readings, visual art images, or dance links choral music to other familiar art forms. A commissioned work can be introduced gradually into the community using open rehearsals, television appearances, or clips on the website.

Creating points of entry can also mean working with community partners, like other performing arts groups, schools, tourism bureaus, social organizations, and chambers of commerce to develop partnerships and collaborations.

Barriers to Participation

In addition to finding points of entry for our audiences, we also need to take a careful look at what may be keeping them away. For new younger audiences, the entire experience of the event is as important as the art, if not more so. Every point of contact our audience has—from purchasing a ticket to parking to conversing with an usher—has the potential to solidify a positive experience or turn them away forever.

Think about what happens when you are planning a retail purchase. You see the product you desire on sale at a particular store you've never patronized. If you go to the store and are greeted at the cash register with a smile after easily finding the product, you will probably return to the store. If you have to fight for a parking spot, if you ask a clerk a question and don't get an answer, or if they're sold out by the time you get there, that store will have to work twice as hard to get your business in the future.

Every point of contact our audience experiences has the potential to solidify a positive experience or turn them away forever.

Choruses don't often own their own performing space and are limited in their venue choices by what is available in their community—many perform regularly in churches with inadequate facilities. These barriers can be made less problematic with a special attempt to communicate with patrons about their options, with notices beforehand and directional signs at the event, and an extra effort to ensure that the facilities are clean and unlocked before the concert.

It seems harsh, but the reality is that our patrons have plenty of choices for spending their arts dollars. If they have a bad experience with us, we may never see them again. Paying attention to volunteer training, honing our ticket sales procedures, working with our venues to ensure comfort, and doing regular market research to ensure that all is working smoothly will help our patrons experience our music in the best possible frame of mind.

New Target Audiences for Choral Music

All of us receive thousands of advertising messages every day. We are bombarded with media—television and radio commercials, Internet spam, pop-up ads, telemarketers, direct mail, newspaper and magazine ads, and other increasingly desperate attempts to get our attention in a sea of clutter.

The best defense the arts have against multimillion-dollar aggressive advertising is to more closely identify the persons most likely to respond, to personalize our messages to them as much as we can, to ensure that they have a good experience, and to follow up with them afterwards.

I wish I had a nickel for every arts organization I've heard say, "we need to attract a younger audience." In my experience, this attitude is not only simplistic; it may be based on faulty assumptions.

First of all, one of the reasons the arts attract people older than 35 in large numbers is that many of us are at a stage in our lives where we have the time and income to enjoy the arts (were you a symphony subscriber at age 25?). Also, younger people have very different consumer habits than our traditional audiences, and unless we include young people in our market planning process, we risk looking silly trying to appeal to them and also risk alienating our current audiences in the process.

Instead of segmenting our potential audience by demographics (age, gender, geography), it may help to segment by psychographics (lifestyle, attitudes, habits). Then, instead of just saying "let's target younger audiences," we can also say, "let's create a campaign for empty nesters who have time on their hands," or "let's give a discount for this family concert to grandparents who bring their grandchildren."

Instead of segmenting our potential audience by demographics, it may help to segment by psychographics.

Statistics from Chorus America's annual operating survey show that most choruses also see the value of education programs in introducing the next generation to choral music. Creative collaborations between schools and choruses attest to the fact that choral singing provides an extraordinarily accessible entry point for arts exposure, with fewer barriers to participation—economic, cultural, and educational—than posed by other art forms.

Who are good target markets for choral music? Let's go back to the Chorus America study for some clues. The key to finding likely target markets is understanding the characteristics of those who currently participate and finding others who share those characteristics. Knowing that choral musicians are politically aware, active in community and religious organizations, and participate because singing is personally fulfilling offer some tantalizing links to others in the community who may be similarly motivated.

Research is the Key

The Chorus America study has provided us some valuable information that we can use to our advantage in promoting and advancing the choral art. But it also shows us the value of using research to confirm our assumptions, discover new facts, and plan for the future.

We spend most of our marketing efforts on creating brochures and posters and sending out press releases. If we took the time annually to include audience surveys, observational research, and community focus groups in our planning, I believe it would pay huge dividends and save us time, energy, and money in the long run.

With all we've got going for us, we can't afford not to.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2003.