In the wake of the 1990 recession, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation embarked on a historic program in an attempt to revolutionize classical music in the United States. The Magic of Music Symphony Orchestra Initiative lasted from 1994 to 2004 and aimed to transform the audience’s experience of music in the concert hall. At the end of the project, the Knight Foundation commissioned Dr. Thomas Wolf to document the impact of the program and the lessons learned. The 59-page report, “The Search for Shining Eyes,” was released in September 2006 and tells the story of The Magic of Music.
Wolf begins by tracing the background of the Magic of Music Initiative to the 1990 recession. The Knight Foundation’s president at the time, Creed Black, felt that the Foundation was constantly inundated with pleas for help from struggling orchestras in the 26 communities it serves. Typically, the Knight Foundation’s efforts to save struggling orchestras were short-term stopgap measures, failing to address the real problems facing those orchestras.
In this climate of crisis, Black came across a speech made by Oberlin College President Frederick Starr in front of the American Symphony Orchestra League in 1988. In the speech, Starr stated that the real reason for the decline in classical music’s fortunes was that orchestras had forgotten how to make compelling artistic experiences that connect with audiences. According to Starr, “Americans all too rarely get an opportunity to take pleasure in classical music. Instead they are being separated from it by a wall of grim convention and self-conscious ritual having nothing to do with the music itself.” Starr proposed that the secret to turning around orchestras’ fortunes was to focus on revolutionizing the audience’s experience of the music.
Black eventually spoke with Starr, and decided to attempt to put Starr’s ideas into practice. Along with the Knight Foundation’s new arts program director, Penelope McPhee, Black and Starr set about creating a new model for foundational involvement in orchestral programming. Rather than simply providing specific orchestras with short term general operating support, they sought to provide a group of orchestras with grants to develop dynamic programs to change the audience experience.
Conductor Benjamin Zander, who served on the Magic of Music’s advisory committee during the design phase of the program, articulated its core philosophy when he said: “When I look out and see all those ‘shining eyes’ in the audience, I know we’ve created the magic.” This quote is the inspiration for the name of the program, the Magic of Music.
For the first phase of the initiative, the Knight Foundation sent invitations to orchestras in its priority communities to invite them to apply for planning grants for new approaches to their programming. Unfortunately, this first round of invitations met with disappointing results. Knight Foundation program staff had put as few guidelines in place as possible, thinking that this would stimulate creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Because the invitations were sent during the summer, however, when key figures at the orchestras were away, orchestra development departments simply applied their usual grant application techniques. The result was a series of uninspiring proposals.
Rather than funding any of the proposals, the Knight Foundation decided to try soliciting applications again, expanding their reach outside of the original 26 communities. The second set of invitations was more prescriptive, requiring explanations of how all parts of the organizations would be involved, and that representatives from each department would attend regular summits.
The second attempt was more fruitful: of 25 projects proposed, 12 were funded by the Magic of Music Initiative. According to Wolf, the proposals tended to fall into five categories:
- Technological enhancements (such as video monitors)
- Technological approaches to finding new audiences
- Audience development programs
- Changes in musical content and format
- Educational materials and programs
All of the proposals were designed in accordance with the “shining eyes” theory that transforming the audience experience was key to lifting orchestras’ fortunes.
Over the next three years, those programs were put into action. Some orchestras found success—the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, for instance, created a new concert series called “Nerve Endings” that had a sell-out run and was witnessed by 2,700 people, 38% of whom were under the age of 40. Other orchestras saw much worse results: the Philadelphia Orchestra received such negative audience reactions to its video screens that the program was scrapped early, and the money was redirected instead towards improving internal communication issues in the wake of a bitter labor dispute between the musicians and the board. Most orchestras were in the middle, unveiling programs that did not seem to affect their audiences one way or another.
At the end of the three years, the Knight Foundation attempted to evaluate the program as it had elapsed so far, before embarking on the next phase. Unfortunately, the evaluation process also ran into unexpected complications. The Bay Group, a San Francisco consulting firm that was only brought in after the projects were done, found it difficult to gather any useful information. Goals had been poorly articulated, little pertinent data had been collected or preserved over the course of the first phase, and the data wasn’t consistent across the projects.
However, important lessons were already clear. The “shining eyes” theory was not the full story. As Wolf puts it:
Over time, the idea that changing the concert hall experience in and of itself was the key to reinvigorating any individual orchestra or the orchestra industry turned out to be naive. Too many other factors within the field, and more broadly in the larger society, were in play. But it remained useful as a starting point and it remains one of the hallmarks of Knight’s accomplishment.
The Knight Foundation decided to rethink its objectives for the second phase of the initiative. Although it continued to focus on transforming the experience inside the concert hall, the Magic of Music program would now also focus on generating a demonstrable increase in ticket-buying, and a clearer understanding of market dynamics.
Before Phase II began, the Knight Foundation commissioned what Dr. Wolf calls “the largest discipline-specific study of arts consumers” from Audience Insight LLC (whose president, Alan Brown, would eventually join with Wolf to form WolfBrown). The report, “How Americans Relate to Classical Music and their Local Orchestras,” was full of startling information that would become the basis for Phase II.
The report found that:
- 60% of adults listen to classical music, and 33% fit it into their lives on a regular basis. 27% were considered to be “orchestra prospects,” meaning that they had enough interest in classical music to be included in a potential audience for the orchestra. This population included prospects who were involved with orchestras, those who had been previously involved but were not involved anymore, and those who might be converted into audience members but had never been previously reached.
- Of those interested in classical music, 50% listened to it on the radio at least several times a month, and almost 75% owned one or more classical CD. The average owned 16.
- Concert halls ranked as one of the least popular places to listen to classical music; the top ranked place was in the car, and the second was at home.
- Only 6% of listeners considered themselves “very knowledgeable;” 50% considered themselves “not very knowledgeable.”
- 12% had never heard of their local symphony, and less than 5% of those interested in classical music had actually patronized their local symphony. 40% of those that had attended a concert had never purchased a ticket. Only 8% of those who had patronized were subscribers.
- 74% of those interested in classical music had played an instrument or sung in a chorus.
This report found that if only 10-20% of those who were “very interested” in classical music attended their local orchestra, the average orchestra’s attendance would double in size.
The impact of this report was decisive. Previously, conventional wisdom had believed that orchestras were in decline because fewer people cared about classical music. The report suggested that the problem was not classical music itself, but rather its delivery system. As Wolf puts it, “No longer was the challenge how to get more people to buy tickets for the existing product provided in the same old way, and in the same old place.”
Buoyed by these findings, the Knight Foundation accepted thirteen orchestras into the next phase of the initiative. This time, the orchestras were organized into three consortia whose members would work together on similar projects, exchanging information and providing support. The consortia’s members would design their programs together, and would also collaborate on standard methods of evaluation.
The three consortia projects were to
- Involve orchestra members in outreach with audiences,
- Generate educational programs and technological aids, and
- Engage in audience development.
For the next five years the three consortia projects were put into practice. Although in Phase II there were no failures to the degree of some of the Phase I orchestras, improvements were only modest. Some technological advances were highly successful: Wolf describes the ORBIT software developed to encourage ticket buyers to organize outings with friends as “one of the few aspects of the initiative that had long-lasting impact,” and the Concert Companion (a handheld device to accompany concerts with explanatory text, program notes, and video images) as the “most potentially transformational.” Other innovations succeeded in attracting new audiences, but few demonstrated the ability to translate new audiences into substantially increased ticket sales.
Once the five years of Phase II were complete, the Magic of Music Initiative had finally ended its decade-long experiment. Wolf sums up its legacy by saying that the projects were “intended to be transformational in nature—[but] most were only marginally so, and some of the most significant outcomes were only indirectly associated with the projects that were initially funded.”
For Wolf, the most lasting impact of the program was the knowledge generated by the Foundation. There were lessons to be learned about the organization of orchestras, about the classical music audience, and about the nature of funding music in an effective way.
The lessons for funders included:
- The amount of investment involved needs to match the scale of the desired change,
- The need to be clear with themselves and their grantees about desired outcomes – including the metrics by which the outcomes will be measured,
- Important innovations and changes cannot happen in an organization which is in the midst of a financial crisis, and
- Unintended results can be equally as significant as the desired outcomes, and funders need to be ready to support those unintended results.
The lessons for orchestras included:
- The problem with classical orchestras is not the music they play but the delivery systems they employ,
- Orchestras that are not relevant to their communities will be in increasingly endangered,
- All of the members of the orchestra family must be involved in changes – the music director, musicians, administration, volunteer leadership, and trustees,
- Free programming does not tend to create new ticket-buying audiences,
- Audience education tends to serve the existing audience, not new audience members, and
- Participatory arts education programs are a much more linked to future audience members than expository arts programs.
These are the lessons that each of the orchestras who participated in the initiative learned for themselves, and according to Wolf they are the lessons that future funding initiatives should take to heart before embarking on a large-scale project of change in the arts.
“The Search For Shining Eyes” is an extremely insightful resource that accomplishes the author’s goal “to produce something for a broad readership, not simply to add to the shelves of foundation archives.”
The insights gained from the initiative range from the obvious (financially troubled orchestras have trouble innovating) to the counter-intuitive (audience education favors existing audiences, rather than new audiences). The information generated by Audience Insight’s consumer study was particularly enlightening; the data provides a solid case for optimism and clarifies the true challenges and opportunities for classical music.
With that said, however, I felt that the report sometimes failed to confront the contradictory goals and accomplishments of the separate projects. For example, the report identifies the primary goal of the initiative’s second phase as a demonstrable increase in ticket-buying. The innovation cited as being the “the most potentially transformational” in this phase was the Concert Companion, yet there is no data cited to show that the Concert Companion impacted ticket sales in any meaningful way. In what way, then, does the device have the opportunity to transform classical music?
The report hints at positive benefits from the more qualitative aspects of the projects, but sometimes neglects to elucidate what those other benefits might be. For instance, in response to the Charlotte Symphony’s attempts to attract new communities, the author says, “Like many orchestras, Charlotte discovered that there are many benefits to community engagement activities but that creating ticket buyers is not one of them.”
The report implies that there is something equally compelling about these “side” benefits, despite their lack of translation into sales. For instance, in discussing the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the author writes,
“Perhaps as much as any orchestra, Brooklyn was able to shift its focus from the concert hall to the community… new audiences increased, though this did not convert into substantial new ticket buyers in the concert hall. By the end of the project, the expansion of audiences in the community came to be an organizational goal for its own sake, not as a tool for increased ticket sales.”
The Brooklyn Philharmonic may have achieved success, but it was the success of a different objective than that put forth by the Magic of Music Initiative, namely increasing ticket sales.
This tension gets at a problem that was present in the Magic of Music Initiative from early on. If, as the author states, the “shining eyes” theory is naïve and that reforming the performance experience does not translate into more substantial ticket sales, which should orchestras and funders pursue?
The report gives weight to both sides of the issue. Many of the programs that the report views as successful, such as the structural reforms of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra or the Concert Companion, are in pursuit of intangible benefits unrelated to ticket sales. On the other hand, the report clearly asserts that orchestras in financial crisis can’t innovate, and the financial crises of orchestras come directly from their declining ticket circulations. Furthermore, most of these “intangible” benefits did not have any effect on the trend of declining audiences—which, inevitably it would seem, will doom even the most innovative orchestras to eventual collapse.
What would have been helpful would have been for the report to return back to the original impetus for the Magic of Music Initiative and compare the different aspects of success to the original goals set forth by Creed Black: the long term stability of orchestras. Will the community performances of the Brooklyn Philharmonic at any point translate into a more stable, self-sufficient financial future? Will an orchestra that shifts its focus from increased ticket sales to community engagement activities be any more stable than an orchestra that continues to pursue the status quo?
The report does not provide a clear answer to that question, and therefore it is difficult to truly gauge the impact of the Magic of Music Initiative.
I was rather surprised by the apparent lack of discussion of this report among the greater arts community. My search of both the general internet and a wide range of specific publications didn’t yield any results from writers who were engaging critically with the material.
However, I did find a broad set of responses to the segmented study of classical audiences, “How Americans Relate to Classical Music and their Local Orchestras.” The study changed the mindset of many in the classical music field to change their approaches to developing new audiences. The study’s approach would be helpful in other disciplines as well. For instance, a cursory search for segmented consumer studies of theater audiences yielded only a few results, all of which focused on the existing theater audience, not the consumers who could be buying tickets but aren’t.
The most significant lesson from that study was that the repeated cry that Americans simply can’t be made to care about classical music is wrong. This cry, however, is not limited to classical music—just this past June, the National Endowment of the Arts reported that arts audiences are declining across the board, whether it’s museum-goers, opera lovers, or live theater attendees. Knowing that the potential audience is not as small as once believed, and that the situation is not as bleak as some would imagine, we can commit ourselves anew to finding solutions to the problem.
Although some of the circumstances described in the report are unique to the orchestra community, such as the distant music director or the sharp labor disputes between musicians, a number of the lessons can apply to any of the varying arts disciplines.
For instance, when Wolf writes that orchestras are “misusing scarce funds by spending too much to please a shrinking subscriber base and not enough to attract new audiences who may hold broader definitions of classical music,” I find it hard not to think of some of the large non-profit theaters in New York City. Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine who works as a literary intern for an established theater whose mission is to support the work of emerging playwrights. But I was discouraged from submitting one of my more recent plays because they didn’t like plays with non-traditional play structures, “like Beckett.” Another playwright I met recently, who had a play go up on Broadway to broad acclaim, spoke about a commission he received from a regional theater, and said with disappointment that they want this one to be about “real people saying real things in real situations.” While the report shows that not all departures from traditional views on the arts will be successful or gain new audiences, the resistance to mixing more contemporary forms with the more traditional structures limits the ability of orchestras to bring in new audiences.
The report also underlines the need for information sharing amongst funders and grantees, which falls in line with the last report I profiled, FSG’s Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement. Especially in the second phase of the Magic of Music Initiative, the Knight Foundation intuited the need to integrate measurement processes and information sharing with the projects as they occurred, rather than attempting to tack them on at the end.
In fact, the Magic of Music Initiative’s second phase qualifies as an attempt at an Adaptive Learning System. The orchestras were grouped together, shared common metrics developed by a third party (paid for by the Knight Foundation), and they met regularly to evaluate their progress toward similar goals. Contrasting the first and second phases of the Magic of Music Initiative provide a simple lesson in the difference between funding without an Adaptive Learning System and funding with one.
For example, in Phase I, orchestras did not learn lessons from one another until the conclusion of the project, and largely were not involved in each other’s projects. In Phase II, the collaboration between orchestras became crucial. Ideas generated in the consortia group were developed by a larger group of creative minds, and tested with different audiences. For instance, the successful ORBIT software was developed between three of the orchestras, allowing them to spread the cost of development and gather data on its use among all three orchestras’ audiences. When it was time to evaluate Phase II, the use of shared measurements made it easier for the report’s authors to assess the impact of the funding on the orchestras.
In the end, the report documents an attempt to revolutionize the classical music landscape through a diverse arsenal of tactics, such as using technological advances, employing new promotional techniques, sharing information, and revitalizing the concert experience. Although none of these techniques made significant strides toward the original goal of increasing audiences and ticket sales, the report does make clear that there is a large potential audience that can be bridged with the right distribution methods. Some tactics (such as the Concert Companion) are effective at reaching out to the casual audience, and others (such as the audience education programs) appeal only to the hardcore subscribers. Orchestras and their funders have to think carefully to match their tactics to their desired outcomes, and this report provides a good starting point for making those decisions.