The SHIFT festival — failure or success?

I’m late in getting to this, thanks to some traveling. But I’m asking a vital question. Both because the SHIFT festival was a major move for two top DC institutions. And because the marketing lessons here can be helpful to everyone.

What SHIFT is:

A festival of orchestras, coproduced in DC by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts.

Four concerts. Called SHIFT, because (like the festival it’s partly modeled on, Spring For Music in New York) it’s designed to show that orchestras are different now.

Or, to quote the festival’s program book, to show

≥the dynamism of four exceptional American orchestras…[how] through  creative engagement and artistic daring they’re distinguishing themselves as leaders…[how they’re] SHIFTING our perceptions of what an orchestra is by doing amazingly innovative things in their communities…

Plus more, scattered through separate sentences floating in a full page of fine print. All, for me, s little gushy. Can’t believe the purpose of the festival couldn’t have been said more strongly in one clear paragraph.

But later for that. The festival wants to shift our perceptions of what American orchestras are.

So in more detail…

SHIFT was four concerts, given at the end of March and beginning of April. All tickets were $25, and the orchestras encouraged to do programming they loved, programming typical of them at their best, programming that would be key to them and their dreams.

The orchestras were the Boulder (CO) Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, and The Knights (a Brooklyn collective born from changes in classical music).

And one measure of success…

…is of course the box office.

The Boulder Philharmonic had a triumph, nearly filling the Kennedy Center concert hall (more than 2000 seats), with an audience that roared with delight.

The North Carolina Symphony — doing music by composers with ties to North Carolina — had rows of gaping, empty seats, the house not nearly half full.

And The Atlanta Symphony (doing a full-evening oratorio by Christopher Theofanidis) and The Knights (with a program featuring the very sweet and very capable San Francisco Girls Chorus) fell in the middle. They drew what seems to be emerging as the new normal for orchestra concerts in DC —  houses more or less half full.

There were also what the festival called “residencies,” community and outreach events. But later for those. The concerts of course were the main events. So did they fail or succeed?

A little of both, it seems clear. So for future planning — SHIFT will come back next year — it’s important to look at the biggest success and the biggest failure.

Why did Boulder sell so well, and North Carolina so poorly?

One analysis

I should say, full disclosure, that I’m not the ultimate expert. I couldn’t even go to three of the concerts. Family obligations and my Juilliard teaching kept me away from Boulder, North Carolina, and Atlanta. Though I did go to the Knights, a sweet but oddly disjointed affair, which I’ll talk about in another post.

But I’ve talked to people variously involved. And just by using common sense I can make a guess about Boulder and North Carolina.

To explain my guess, I’ll do an elevator pitch for those concerts.

First Boulder. They played three contemporary pieces, all about nature (about Rocky Mountain National Park, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the prairie). The composers were Stephen Lias, Jeff Midkiff, Steve Heitzen, not names that I’d guess would be known to many of us in the DC classical world.

But clearly the names didn’t matter, partly because hardly any classical composer has an audience, and partly because of everything else about the concert.

What mattered, I’m guessing, was first the nature theme, which of course resonates wonderfully with Boulder, a city in the Rocky Mountains, whose people famously love the outdoors.

Plus one of the nature pieces had video along with it. And then the grand finale was Appalachian Spring, which had aerial dancers, aka acrobats. Of course it’s a nature piece, too, but…acrobats!

So the elevator pitch is easy to make:

Mountains! Nature! Video! Acrobats!

Cut to North Carolina. They did two works by the dean of North Carolina composers, the late Robert Ward, also not a name to strike any sparks, though he’s known for his early 1960s opera The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play.

Then they did pieces by Mason Bates, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, all of whom turn out to have a North Carolina connectionI. Who knew? Of course they’re best known as leading younger composing stars (to whatever extent, without much audience, any classical composer can be called a star).

Certainly they’re bigger names than Robert Ward, or the composers Boulder played.

But look how little that mattered. Composers really don’t have an audience.

(And, special note for the Kennedy Center: Mason Bates has been your composer in residence for two years. With no disrespect to him or his music — he’s someone I’ve known cordially for years — you might ask what it means that the concert featuring him drew the smallest SHIFT audience. Something maybe isn’t working in your composer in residence promotion.)

So back to the elevator pitches. This is what North Carolina’s would have to be:

Music by North Carolina composers.

Boulder wins!

I don’t know in any detail how these concerts were marketed. But, whatever was done, Boulder gave much more to work with.

Not that the North Carolina music might not have been worthy. In fact, some of the  buzz I picked up called this the best concert, musically, of the festival.

But it’s not promotable as North Carolina music. To be brutally honest, no one — or anyway no one outside North Carolina — is likely to care. North Carolina composers! Doesn’t light any sparks.

Boulder wins.

Looking toward next year

I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that we need acrobats to sell tickets to orchestras. If that’s true, we’re dead. There are many other ways to make an orchestra concert seem interesting.

So of course this was an extreme comparison. But sometimes extreme examples are helpful to clarify things at the start of a discussion.

They make the basic point crystal clear. And the basic point here is that people need a reason to come to a concert. A reason that echoes beyond the walled city of classical music.

So since SHIFT returns next year, here’s a suggestion for my friends involved in producing it. Do an elevator pitch for each proposed event. At first do it just for yourselves, not for public consumption.

But take the pitch seriously. And be merciless about the results. If, for any event, the best pitch you come up with  — looked at in the cold light of reality — won’t sell tickets, don’t do the concert!

Plan something you can sell. Or at least put the concert with a smaller draw in a smaller hall.

And yes, this isn’t how classical music usually works. I’m suggesting you should avoid the time-honored classical thing, which is to plan the concerts your heart yearns for artistically, and only then think how you’ll market them. What you love may not be what the world loves.

Think of marketing right from the start, so at the very least you won’t be surprised.

(Cautionary example! In a previous post I talked about how smart Zuill Bailey is when he books classical soloists and chamber groups. Always he’s thinking how many tickets each artist or ensemble will sell. He mentioned another chamber music presenter who doesn’t think about that. Someone who books the artists they want, pays the fee the artist normally gets, then accepts whatever the ticket sales are. “Why do you do that?” Zuill asked, explaining his more grounded approach. The other presenter, baffled, said, “Hasn’t it always been done that way?” No wonder classical music is in trouble.)

Footnote 1

Wouldn’t help to make the NC elevator pitch “Exciting new music.”

First because all the SHIFT events featured new music. And also because not many people equate new classical music with excitement.

But, above anything else, this pitch won’t work because just saying something is exciting doesn’t make it so.

Think of the orchestras that — haplessly — use exclamation points when they tweet upcoming events. “Tomorrow’s concert — Mozart’s G minor symphony!” Routine announcement. The exclamation point doesn’t make it any less routine. .

If you want people to believe something is exciting, say something — something specific — that’s exciting about it.

Next:

Some conceptual problems. 

Here — from the cover of the SHIFT program book — is some marketing language. Prominent marketing language. The first thing you see, in big type, when you look at the program book.

SHIFT your expectations.

SHIFT your senses.

SHIFT your spirit.

What does that mean? What’s it even about? If you know the backstory — if you know the festival is all about changes in orchestras — then, fine,  you’ll understand what you’re reading.

But if you don’t know that? Look at Nissan’s “shift” advertising, which I believe is the most famous marketing campaign ever to focus on the word “shift.”

You watch their car commercials, and  you hear about the car. Only at the end, do they tell you to shift your thinking — after they’ve given you reasons to do it.

That’s how really top marketers work.

And anyway, the whole orchestra SHIFT promotion, starting with the very word SHIFT, and continuing down through those words on the program book cover…it’s all a bit vague, overthought, overhyped.

Why not just one strong, clear sentence, driving home what the festival is? Why couldn’t they call it “Orchestras Unleashed”? (Or something like that.)

To me that’s far more effective. A far better elevator pitch. Far more likely to get people to come.

Original Source: The SHIFT festival — failure or success?

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