How to Create and Nurture a Boutique Audience

Eight rules for keeping attendance down and contemporary music marginalized

Gamescore Blog/Wikimedia Commons

Gamescore Blog/Wikimedia Commons


Assuring a tiny, elite attendance for your music event requires careful and thoughtful planning. I’ve researched this exhaustively for 30-plus years and my findings come down to this: Completely Disregard the Audience. Forget modernist American composer Milton Babbitt’s infamous 1958 article, “Who Cares If You Listen”; you are attempting to surpass Babbitt’s disdain for the general listening public by eliminating it altogether! Here are eight steps to help you reach your goal of eventually having zero people in your audience.

Disclaimer: I take no responsibility if after following all these rules you STILL get more than 15 people in your audience.

Charge exorbitant ticket prices.

Even better, suggest an exorbitant donation. Psychologically it works just as effectively and it makes you look benign. Humans are loath to embarrass themselves by paying less than the exorbitant suggested donation listed. Therefore, you’ve weeded out approximately 90 percent of those who might have ventured into your event.

Program Beige

Make sure the pieces are all pretty much the same: bland. Same speed more or less, same mood, same (medium) loudness or softness. In insider circles, we call this mezzo-nothing. For GOD’S sake, AVOID DRAMA AT ALL COST! That might create excitement. Try to stay away from narrative too. After all, people are actually hard-wired to like stories, and you don’t want to give them a reason to wonder or even anticipate what’s going to happen next; they might stick around.

More is More

Under no circumstances should your show last fewer than two hours. Include an interminably long intermission. You have asked from your audience an exorbitant donation and they must get what they paid for.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

The venue should be stark, reverential, and at least three times as large as the size of the actual audience, the better to create an atmosphere of isolation that discourages subsequent attendance, not to mention enthusiastic performances.

Bonus tip: Try to avoid comfortable chairs. I’d recommend a funeral parlor but they tend to have only electric pianos. It goes without saying that beer and/or coffee should not be available for ingesting during the performance; just say “no” to stimulants that help your audience stay awake and focused on the program, or  to beverages that help loosen up the austere ambience.

Engage bland performers

See point number 2. Extra points if they’re under-rehearsed.

Avert the Media

Promotional materials, from posters, to programs to publicity for the press/media should be . . . . . well, see point number 2.

Avoid Creativity

Leave that to the entertainment industry where large audiences are relished, required even, necessitating new and vibrant approaches to presenting. Endlessly recycling the same old methods of presentation will do wonders to keep audience numbers lower and dwindling.

It’s All About You

And always remember, this is YOUR show. YOU want to be liked and admired by the jury of your peers and never mind what the audience wants. Go ahead and whine a little or a lot to your friends, colleagues, press about how hard it is to get people to attend your shows. You never know, it might gain you a little pity in addition to fewer people in your audience.

Portland pianist Maria Choban performs, presents shows and writes from the perspective of what will engage the audience, from her forays with the late iconoclastic St. Elvis piano trio to MC Hammered Klavier shows to her irreverent classical music blog, Alitisa – the gangster of classical music.

16 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    beautiful truth – PRINT!

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    why so guarded – name names!

  3. Maria Choban says:

    actually, I wrote the inverse article for alitsa way back in march, outlining a set of points that seemed to insure packed shows with wildly engaged audience:

    and while it’s true I was torqued by the 7th Species show on Saturday, it is by no means the only one that has set me off, just the last one to do so!

    • Jack Gabel says:

      thanks, just re-read it – but you know, some shows will just never measure up to all expected, e.g, NOT expect a New audience to get off on old repertoire. Unless it’s The Rite of Spring! – Last Friday they cheered it long and hard. NOT expect a New audience to get off on avant-garde, niche shit. Unless it’s 100 years old and still some of the hottest shit out there! NOT expect a New audience to get off on the 3 rehearsals you put in for the show. Unless that’s all your budget can sustain, and you got damned good pros – well in the case of Friday’s show, dancers rehearsed about 100 hours, students musicians about 20 and pro-ringers, hired to bolster them, about 3 rehearsals – all the budget could handle, but they played the hell out of it!

      Thank goodness, a sold out show saved our butts, hung out for the entire payroll… but no review; not here, there, nor anywhere; go figure…

      well, so what – we’re taking The Rite of Spring Centenary to a whole bunch of little communities all over the state of Oregon, whether we raise any more funding our not – they want it and we will deliver!

      but we’re just probably kidding ourselves – a more worthy outreach is more likely to gather up a bunch of unemployed classical musicians and do a load of 70’s rock covers in a dozen little pubs with dances derived from pole-dance repertory… awesome dude!

      • bob priest says:

        having a huge & worthy success with “the rite” is one thing, regular “day-to-day” repertoire in new music concerts is a COMPLETELY different story line.

        additionally, it would be interesting & worthwhile to do a statistical/demographic breakout of just who it was that predominantly constituted your overflow crowd. having been there, i would venture a guess that more than 75% of the mass was made up of psu students, friends & families of the performers, etc. in other words, rousing success that it certainly was, i think your “sell-out” was virtually guaranteed.

        now, mind you, i intend these questions & concerns merely as a catalyst for being very clear as to what exactly went right with this fine mounting of “the rite” in terms of audience response.

        of course, once standing room only has been achieved & duly noted (more reviews please!), additional momentum is assured no matter how the result was generated.

        so, what’s my real point here, you ask? well, as a concert producer, i’m always wondering how to interest a potential audience in music that deeply matters to me – blockbusters &/or not. some projects can’t fail – as this glorious rendering of THE 20th century classic amply demonstrates.

        the next question is, what now?

        • Jack Gabel says:

          I hate in-concert surveys – never take them, never give them – we’ll get a full report on sales and know student count (hopefully sooner than later – btw: PSU Vanguard was about the poorest preview of all) – don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me that the 100s of hours and $$$ dedicated to publicity was just a waste and the sell-out would have been automatic – nevertheless, can’t take that chance with so much fiscal responsibility at ones throat – certainly you, Bob, of all weighing in here, understand

          correct this show was totally different to a typical 7th Species show, in which I have participated dozens of times in the last 20 years – moreover, I too have been producing typical and not-so-typical contemporary art-music concerts in Oregon for over 30 years and am still learning what helps bring in an audience – obviously still learning as witnessed by the very modestly attended DIAMETERS – also a free one

          even in modestly jaded, modestly big cities like Portland such events get easily overlooked – by contrast, when I lived in Corvallis I produced one multi-media event (in many aspects similar to FREE MARZ shows, featuring music, poetry, visuals, dance), but with only my music, 1993 at the Corvallis Art Center – much to my amazement (as it was a very avant-niche event and most who attended did not know me nor the performers) it sold out to standing room only – I think because there is a genuine hunger for avant guard art in the hinterlands, where it don’t come ’round too much – so that shows like that can attract big local media coverage – something rare, you know, like a meteor crashing into a barn

          albeit Corvallis is not exactly the hinterlands – but, at that time, their one and only DaVinci Days (so-called arts festival) was pretty pedestrian – mostly geared toward kids: fun wacky science stuff and marginal art – no interest even in local jazzman Dave Storrs and his running mates, certainly not me and the electroacoustic music event I proposed that got a cold shouldered

          to their credit, The Majestic Theatre in Corvallis was one of the first onboard to host THE RITE OF SPRING CENTENARY OREGON TOUR to coincide with the Majestic Theatre’s Centenary – date to be arranged sometime near the end of 2013

          sorry if this sounds like shameless promotion – actually it’s just what’s on the board right now – I was intimately involved with both Cascadia Composers and 7th Species for a number of years – one of the more successful events: 7th Species, 1997, 7th Season, Kickoff Tour: performances at Lewis and Clark’s Agnus Flanegan Chaple, Eugene’s First Baptist Church and Western Oregon State College in Monmouth – the 7th Species model is a good serviceable one – composers bring your own performance – agreed the presentation is in need of some jazzing up – or sexing up as you’d say, Bob – take it up with Gary – you know what he’d like to see on stage, but might require staging at the Riverside Corral

          • bob priest says:

            yes, i know that you have experienced the gamut in terms of audience – or lack of audience – support. sadly, most of us are well familiar with what often amounts to an either/or response.

            as i plan March Music Moderne IV, i am deeply concerned with how to further grow our audience (ODDience?) while being as true to artistic standards & honest repertoire choices as possible. it’s in my melange nature that i often wildly vacillate between wanting to please “the crowd” & not giving fuck-all what “they” think. ultimately & MOST of the time, i program what i wanna hear, see, taste, touch &/or smell with the sincere hope that others might find something of merit in my choices.

            however, at the moment, i’m struggling with one particular work that i personally believe is a masterpiece for the rather limited string trio repertoire. it is a sprawling work of enormous variety, depth, compositional virtuosity, ambition & requires considerable stamina from both the players & audience. it is 60 minutes, straight-up & NO prisoners are taken. it would take the entire half of one program – some might say it could BE the program in its entirety.

            now, i KNOW that it would absolutely floor many in attendance. i also know that it would be VERY tuff for some, as well. so, what to do? if i don’t mount this particular work here, NOBODY will. do i believe in it enuff to simply “go for it” & take the risk of alienating some of “the crowd?”

            let’s put it this way, it pains part of me that i’m even asking these kinds of “mealy-mouthed” questions.

            so, we’ll see what we shall hear – stay ‘tooned . . .

            thanx so much to maria choban for getting this intensely worthy conversation underway.

            in terms of sexing it up & pole dancing, well, check out the 3 clips by london’s “ballet boyz” on you tube. dial-up:

            *** ballet boyz – rite of spring (sm/fetish version) ***

            personally, i’m lovin’ it over here, droogies!

  4. Jeff Winslow says:

    I’m not so sure what’s so terrible about a “boutique”. The word wouldn’t even be in our language if it didn’t refer to a commercially successful enterprise. There’s nothing wrong with a niche either. Nearly every musical style in the marketplace today is a niche of one size or another.

    Someone must have forgotten to tell the sold-out “Rothko Chapel” Third Angle / Resonance Ensemble show last summer not to program non-narrative music.

    Someone must have forgotten to tell the full house for Marc-Andre Hamelin’s recital this spring that its presentation was reverential and uncreative.

    Someone must have forgotten to tell the overflow crowd at last fall’s Crazy Jane concert that churches were bad venues for attracting people.

    Just because a concert can pack a MUCH smaller venue than any of these three doesn’t mean it’s got the be-all, end-all winning formula.

  5. Those are excellent examples of presenters who failed to follow all the rules. I don’t read the article as saying you have to obey any of them in order to assure failure, but rather that the more you follow, the higher your chances of achieving a noble failure. Lots of excellent, well attended shows happen in churches, including some of Maria’s own. I didn’t see any mention of churches in the article at all, merely a warning about setting an inappropriately reverential attitude. Nor do I spy any mention of non-narrative music; in fact, the story didn’t mention a musical style at all, but focused on how the music is presented. The Hamelin and Rite shows weren’t about new music at all, so they don’t really apply here. Crazy Jane was new music, and I wasn’t there, but the last one I went to certainly managed to violate most of the precepts set forth here — and brava for the organizers for doing so. It actually proves the story’s point.

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      Under “Program Beige”, which does indeed deal with the musical content of programs: “Try to stay away from narrative too.”

      There’s nothing in the body of the article which indicates it applies only to new music. The subhead mentions “contemporary” but that’s easily overlooked, and Maria has expressed many of these opinions about the concert experience regardless of repertory before. (To further muddy the waters, the Hamelin recital included a sizable new work, and I didn’t mention The Rite.)

      However, in my focus on identifying what bothered me about the article, as so often happens I brushed past the larger picture. And, full disclosure: I couldn’t help being tweaked by the implied criticism of blandness in a piece of my own work, a piece which for me is an experiment and which therefore I have less confidence in than usual.

      So yes, I hope concert presenters read Maria’s article and thoughtfully consider each point. Not as a rule to be followed but as a test of their assumptions. I see nothing but good coming from the exercise. (Yeah, you can quote me.)

      P.S. I laughed out loud at “Avert the Media”. Do I sense an editorial contribution? 🙂

  6. Jack Gabel says:

    nice healthy conversation here – enjoying it

    as for ‘The Rite…’, of course, certainly not new, “100-years new” might better express it, or “new to you”, depending on ones background

    in setting up the Oregon-wide ‘tour’ (series of run-outs – still growing) I am speaking with presenters from Astoria to Klamath Falls, Elgin to Bandon – not keeping score, but can report that over 50% claim to have never heard of ‘The Rite…’, though some do respond when I say, “You know, dinosaurs, Fantasia?”

    anyway, now their audiences are going to learn it from the ground up, because we are insisting the programs include historical notes, and we are offering to facilitate educational outreach (gratis) – hope that doesn’t sound too pedantic – guess we could mitigate the pain by holding symposis in pubs

    the other half of that touring program will very likely be ALD performing with 7 of Tomas Svoboda’s ‘Nine Etudes…’ – – all in all a pretty challenging 55-min. program for the Oregon hinterlands

    were it music alone, could easily be done without intermission – but, dance programs often need one, so dancers can change costumes and take a breather – on the other hand, we could try dancing them all to death – maybe what the Klamath Basin needs to bring on the rain

    naturally we don’t know how hard any of their seats are, nor whether they’ll serve coffee, beer, wine, etc. at their intermissions – should we ask, or would it sound impertinent?

    if interested to see how this might play out, come catch us on the Liberty Theatre stage at the Astoria Music Festival, June 29, where Keith Clark is pairing ‘The Rite…’ to Stravinsky’s piano-4-hands arrangement, with a live performance of Aaron Copland’s APPALACHIAN SPRING to a screening of the Classic Martha Graham Film – comps for media professionals, of course – let us know

    hope you’re enjoying yourself in Ojai, Brett – thanks for the fine preview – really was standing room only, numerous ovations and thank goodness we’re not bankrupt just yet

  7. Jay says:

    “Mezzo-nothing.” That had me in stitches.

    One other thing I’d add is to make sure you as an arts administrator are always walking backwards through time. What I mean is to always be looking backwards while the rest of the arts moves forward. If we can just perfect the nuance of the 500,000,000th performance of Beethoven 7, then the true artistry and subtlety will at last come through. This is especially effective for opera folks.

    And for the love of God, whatever you do, DON’T REACH OUT TO LOCAL COMPOSERS!

  8. Kate says:

    There’s interesting and there’s painful. When it’s painful, easy access to the exit door is paramount.

    There’s enough and then there’s too much. When there’s too much, easy access to the exit door is paramount.

    A little professionalism doesn’t hurt, ditto one’s ability to perform on the instrument one’s chosen to blow or bow. And can we talk about lighting? For Rite Of Spring, I chose to sit in the very back of Lincoln Hall. The red lights obscured half of each dancer!I had to wonder if, during a rehearsal, anyone had sat where I was sitting?

    And exactly what is wrong with a comfortable chair? If I’m in for a waterboarding, at least I prefer to take in on a comfortable chair.

    During the past week, I experienced five concerts of unacceptable music and dance. I felt like I was back in high school at The Beard School For Girls, Orange, New Jersey, flinging my mane back and forth, stamping, swirling and slithering mostly on the floor.

    Amateur hour is not worth the bathing, the dressing and the getting to wherever it is I got to.

    Were any of you at the PICA-sponsored dance event in the BV space last Sunday. That was the final straw; it put the dimple in the icing on the cupcake.

    Whew, Kate

    • Jack Gabel says:

      RE: “…The red lights obscured half of each dancer!I had to wonder if, during a rehearsal, anyone had sat where I was sitting?”

      thanks for your observation – sounds like you know something about lighting

      Agnieszka would be the first to agree that the lighting was not perfect – of course we’ll study the footage closely especially in editing – one camera was at the very back of the hall (where you say you sat)

      though regarding your comment, location wouldn’t make a difference – I was in the booth, highest location in back of hall – I didn’t see what you cite as an “…red lights obscured…” effect – there was one cue that had dancers simultaneously illuminated red at one level & white at another, if that’s what you mean, it’s intentional – a striking effect – seems you thought is was a technical miscalculation – probably just a matter of artistic preference

      to be sure, there were some mistakes – a few holes at the DS edge of the apron – essentially a problem of not being able to position vertical wing-booms that far DS – but all such problems are solvable with enough time

      Agnieszka was tweaking lighting cues right up to DR – there were a couple moments when dancers missed their marks – were outside their specials when they came up – well, when it’s live it’s rarely perfect

      no, didn’t see the PICA offering – sorry you ranked ‘The Rite…’ on your weekend’s ‘unacceptable’ list – exceptional from everything else we’ve heard – e.g.

      anyway, hope we measure up next time and do hope you come back – again thanks for the comment

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