Audience Development for Choruses: What’s Working Now?
As 2022 came to an end, audiences that had been gradually returning to the concert hall began to pick up the pace. In December, many choral organizations experienced remarkable ticket sales for their holiday concerts, and reduced concerns about COVID may not be the only reasons for their success. We spoke with leaders of six choruses about their audience-building efforts and what is working well for them right now.
“We had our biggest audiences in years at our holiday concerts last Friday and Saturday, and a significant percentage were first-timers! We were thrilled.” Holly Strawbridge of the Master Chorale of South Florida shared that comment on a December thread in Chorus America’s Online Community, one of several posts expressing joy over holiday audiences that matched or exceeded pre-pandemic levels.
For its Audience Outlook Monitor, launched early in the pandemic, the consulting firm Wolf/Brown conducted a November survey of performing arts patrons that found nearly 85 percent of the respondents were attending events in person, and many others said they would be back soon.
After a fall of fretting about audience numbers, choruses surveyed for this story report that their most recent concert experiences mirror the Online Community thread and reflect Wolf/Brown’s findings that a large majority of the performing arts audience has come back, at least for now. What new lessons are these choruses learning from their audiences?
Snapshots from December: Who Is Buying Tickets and Why?
Cathedral Choral Society (CCS), Washington DC
“After our fall concert, we were cautiously optimistic because we were only trending about 20 percent down,” says executive director Christopher Eanes, but holiday performances “defied” cautious expectations by bringing in more revenue than CCS had ever earned in a concert weekend. And there are more new faces in the CCS audience. In its fall concert, he says 29 percent of the audience were first-time ticket buyers, up from 18 percent pre-pandemic. Despite COVID’s persistence, “people are just ready to get back out of the house,” Eanes says. “They're ready to have a nice community experience.” At the same time, interest in auditioning for the chorus is higher than it's ever been, he adds, “so there might be this sort of pent-up energy that's now being released.”
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (LACC)
In any chorus, singer engagement plays a role in audience engagement. In a children’s chorus, that role is vital, which is why executive director Andrew Bradford is happy to report that LACC enrollment is at record levels this season, up 60 percent from its virtual 2020–21 season. That’s one reason the LACC sold out its two December concerts, he says. Another, he believes, is its stance on COVID. “We are one of the few performing arts organizations in Los Angeles County that has continued to require audience masks during performances,” he says. Singers were not masked for the December performances, but Bradford says they were tested 24 hours in advance. As the most recent Wolf/Brown research indicates, COVID remains a concern for some performing arts patrons, and Bradford feels the LACC’s reputation for “caring about the safety of everybody involved in our activities helped to drive strong ticket sales.”
Choir League, Denver, Colorado
Singers drive ticket sales at Choir League too. Launched in 2018, it bills itself as “the happy hour choir for young and young at heart professionals.” They sign up for eight-week cycles, rehearsing, socializing, and performing in bars, restaurants, or other businesses. Singers get the first crack at marketing concert tickets via a private link they can share with family and friends, says managing director Lizabeth Barnett. For Choir League’s December concert in a Denver brewery, “the singers sold out the tickets in 24 hours, so we were never able to make it open” to the public, Barnett says. By design, membership fluctuates, but she saw more new faces than usual when Choral League ended its pandemic hiatus in the fall of 2021, and the group became an outlet for members of more traditional choruses that hadn’t resumed singing, she explains. Although a lot of them have shifted back now, she says Choir League remains a brand-new experience “for a good chunk of our singers, every cycle. Their friends had no idea that they were even interested in it. So being a choir concert audience member is new, as well.”
Classical Uprising, Portland, Maine
Before the pandemic, Classical Uprising would nearly sell out its series, says artistic director Emily Isaacson. In the midst of her December performances, she confessed “we're not quite there yet, but we are pretty close.” Three groups make up Classical Uprising: the 50-year-old Oratorio Chorale, the Portland Bach Experience, which Isaacson founded in 2017, and Horizon Voices, a youth choir formed when the other two organizations merged in 2020. One goal of the merger, Isaacson says, was to create an “intergenerational space,” one that appeals to a variety of needs and audiences. “I would say 80 percent of the time, our programs have some sort of immersive, interactive, feel-free-to-dance-and-whistle experience to them,” Isaacson explains. “That's all aimed at getting a younger generation and families in there. And that's exactly what we're seeing.” Whether that’s because of the merger, or the new children’s choir, or diminished concerns over COVID, she can’t be sure. “Whatever it is,” Isaacson says, “we are seeing a very age-diverse audience.”
The Choral Project (TCP), San Jose, California
“Our crowds were wonderful” at TCP’s winter concert in December, says artistic director Daniel Hughes. In the 27 years since he founded the chorus, “we seem to have cultivated a really loyal following that is very understanding and sympathetic, and they just hang on,” he says. “We haven't really lost anybody when we've come back to full live performances.” In particular, Hughes observes, the annual Winter’s Gifts program has built a strong fan base, and this season it claimed an even bigger share of the regional spotlight because, he notes regretfully, some South Bay music organizations haven’t resumed full operation.
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC (GMCW)
For its holiday show, GMCW sold out two of its four performances and had “pretty good houses” for the other two, according to executive director Justin Fyala. He says word of mouth from members is an important driver of the group’s ticket sales and, by extension, its audience demographics. “If we're getting younger people auditioning and accepted into the chorus, then their friends and relatives tend to be a little bit younger. We're seeing our diehard fans come back, of course, but we're also seeing some new faces in the in the audience, which is really exciting.” Still, Fyala finds himself wondering whether a longstanding, popular holiday tradition is a reliable indicator for the rest of the season. For some shows earlier in the season, “it was a little more difficult to get people into the theater,” he says. But he’s trying to stay optimistic. “I'm knocking on wood that all of that is kind of behind us and people are really ready to come back.”
Lessons Learned: What Kinds of Programming Are Working?
The recent Audience Outlook Monitor findings suggest the factors that motivate—or inhibit—attendance are shifting. Audiences now appear to be more focused on programming. Whereas COVID was the reason most respondents were staying away a year ago, 60 percent of the November holdouts surveyed said they “have not yet found a program I want to attend.” Wolf/Brown principal Alan Brown interpreted that finding during a December webinar: “This signals to us that people are being more selective perhaps, or their tastes are changing, or both.”
Hearing pleas from its COVID-weary audience to bring them “more fun,” GMCW is responding this season with programming intended to “allow people to escape the outside world for a while,” says Fyala. But because it’s part of the chorus’s mission to inspire equality and inclusion and promote justice and dignity for all, he notes that LGBGTQ+ issues remain prominent in its programming. Hughes’ vision with TCP is to transform and heal through music and words. Focusing only on the “sonic experience,” he says, can “feel a little bit formalized and disconnected for some people.” The Winter’s Gifts concert centered on the subject of peace, showcasing compositions that reveal Ukrainian influences. “The choir has always been really willing to just shine a light on something that needs to be looked at,” he says, and our audiences are drawn to the programming because it feels so directed.” At CCS, Eanes says the chorus is “working really hard to reach new audiences and more diverse audiences, and so we are changing our programming.” This season, for the first time, CCS will perform a concert devoted entirely to African American composers, a collaboration with the Heritage Signature Chorale. “We know that if we did the Verdi Requiem and Mozart Requiem each year, we'd sell a whole lot of tickets,” but that’s limiting, Eanes says, because traditional choral repertoire “will always sell to a certain cross-section of people. And those people are also aging.” It’s not that CCS will abandon Verdi and Mozart. “We're simply expanding our repertoire to include a broader diversity of voices,” he says, “and we know we're going to bring more people into the fold that way.”
When planning a Classical Uprising performance, Emily Isaacson doesn’t start with repertoire. She says it surprised her to learn several years ago that “the amount of repertoire that the normal layperson knows is less than 10 pieces. It's, like, Mozart Requiem.” Instead, she imagines a production, an experience she wants to create. For example, she chose Purcell's Fairy Queen “because I wanted to be able to use drag queens, or Arvo Pärt's Te Deum because you can pair it with meditation,” as she did last fall in a program tailored for parents of young children (free babysitting provided). “We really make an effort to make a lot of our programs available to families,” Isaacson says, “and it's working.” Isaacson categorizes these programs as “unexpected” experiences—immersive, interactive, informal, often outdoors, and often involving food and alcohol. Classical Uprising also offers a traditional experience, the kind that “diehards” might expect, but she says there aren’t enough of them in the Portland area to sustain that approach alone—hence the “unexpected” experience and a third one, the “salon” experience, which Isaacson describes as a cocktail hour in an intimate, nontraditional space where the audience can interact with the musicians. “It's part of our mission to bring great art into everyday spaces and into people's everyday lives. In Portland, we need to make it available with as few barriers as possible,” she says.
Choruses are increasingly turning their attention to the “audience experience.” The term manifests itself in multiple extra-musical ways, from stage introductions and interviews to storytelling to lighting to dancing to sophisticated stage projections. Audience members may not always be able to pinpoint the reason, admits Fyala, “but they leave thinking ‘That was a really well put-together show.’” The audience experience is impossible to ignore when it attracts a markedly different audience—as Classical Uprising can attest, and so can Choir League. At a traditional concert, observes Barnett, “there's not a lot of room for movement, or noise, or children, and that's completely appropriate.” Whereas at Choir League, she says “a four- or five-year-old gets to watch their parents up on stage without them feeling nervous that my child's going to ruin this experience. Or your best friend is singing in choir for the first time in 20 years, and you can go to celebrate his new adventure.” And, she adds, they can get up to order pizza in the middle of the performance.
Lessons Learned: What Kinds of Marketing Are Working?
To convey thematic connections in his programming, Hughes and his marketing director spend considerable time choosing evocative colors and photos to represent TCP’s concert season. They know they’re on the right track, he says, when they can imagine a non-English speaker getting what they’re after: “If they saw these images and didn't know any of the text, could they see that, ‘Oh, these are all connected’?” To send the message about Classical Uprising’s kid-friendly programs, Isaacson says “we use a lot of pictures showing people things that they would not expect to go with a classical music concert: kids dancing, beer, yoga, outdoors, drag queens, stilt walkers, all those sorts of things.”
In verbal messaging, the chorus relies largely on audience testimonials to shape potential ticket-buyers’ expectations, and, she adds, “we are super-explicit that your kids should show up exactly as they are, that there's not an expectation about the behavior beyond, you know, ‘Let's not hit each other.’” Recognizing that some CCS patrons are repertoire-driven, Eanes is more inclined than Isaacson to focus verbal messaging on favorite composers or repertoire. But for others who respond more to programming with an extra-musical message or simply might enjoy choral music as part of a night out, Eanes says “we try to sell whatever that experience is and what the story of the concert is rather than just, ‘Here's the composer, here's the repertoire.’” In its storytelling efforts, CCS plans to begin “expanding the timeframe of the concert experience,” Eanes says. For its March concert featuring settings of poems by Edgar Allan Poe, the chorus will partner with the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, to engage concertgoers with the museum’s resources both before and after the performance.
Response to TCP’s marketing efforts has Hughes juggling two different approaches. Older patrons “prefer media that they can actually hold in their hands,” but he knows younger generations gravitate toward digital media, so the chorus maintains a consistent social media presence through Instagram, Facebook, and more recently TikTok, sharing interviews with singers and composers or rehearsal clips highlighting new pieces. Last spring, to promote a Choir League concert in a large airplane hangar, Barnett bought advertising on a podcast called City Cast, “and it was huge,” she says. “I think that's probably where a ton of our audience came from.” Because audience success for LACC begins with singer enrollment, Bradford says he’s invested in search engine optimization to identify the keywords most likely to lead families to its website. A survey of parents revealed a significant number “heard about us through a Google search or through a social media campaign,” which leads Bradford to believe one reason LACC experienced record enrollment this year is that “we really focused heavily on what our digital footprint was looking like.”
There can be no doubt that the digital footprint is deepening in the marketing budgets of many choruses, but not everyone is ready to make heavy investments. Although Fyala feels GMCW’s presence on digital platforms is “really good at getting the word out about what we're up to,” he’s learned it does not always translate directly into ticket sales. “We still find that good old-fashioned word-of-mouth is really one of our strongest selling points,” he says. Because word-of-mouth works so well for Choir League, Barnett rarely buys advertising for its concerts. “People have a good time when they're there,” she says. “They're having so much fun they want their friends to come.” Committed though he is to LACC’s digital strategy, Bradford would wholeheartedly agree with Barnett. “We're very conscious about the work that we do to provide an exceptional experience to the families,” he says. “One of the benefits to that is that they then help us by going out and spreading the word.”
“It's just a continual goal to keep expanding the net,” Hughes observes. “How can we get more people interested in us?” Rethinking customer relationships is a “big burning issue” in the performing arts today, notes Alan Brown, and he believes serious research is a good way to address it. Classical Uprising and LACC both plan surveys that will deepen their understanding of the factors that drive audience attendance. GMCW is already working on a strategic marketing project with Compass, a firm that provides pro bono consulting services to nonprofits in several metro areas. They’ll study what motivates current patrons, but because “our audiences tend to be very niche,” Fyala says they will also identify ways to broaden the organization’s reach. “We want to let everybody know that GMCW is a chorus that everybody can enjoy, whether you are part of the LGBTQ-plus-and-ally community or not.”
Learning how to forge connections with more diverse audiences begins with conversation and collaboration, as far as Eanes is concerned. For its March concert of music by African American composers, he says CCS is partnering with DC-area HBCUs, churches, and affinity groups and listening to their stories about the music’s meaning. It’s too soon for him to say how well that particular effort will work. But emerging from the pandemic, he’s noticed “much more diversity” among CCS’s new ticket buyers, and he attributes that to “trying to tell the story differently, expanding our programming, speaking to a broader audience, speaking about things that are relevant to people today, and engaging people in art in a way that moves them.”
Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.