Etudes on Innovation: What the Performing Arts Can Learn From Sports Marketing

Mark MacNamara on July 20, 2015
Empty seats at Davies Symphony Hall in 2009 (Photo by Sherol Chen)
Empty seats at Davies Symphony Hall in 2009 (Photo by Sherol Chen)

This is the third in a series of pieces on audience development in the performing arts.

It’s important to keep remembering that the prim and passive persona of the performing arts audience these days is relatively new. Broadly speaking, the audience experience of old — from say, the Theatre of Dionysus to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées  — was in tone often much like right-wing talk radio: political, raucous, even violent and unhinged, but also profoundly communal, and thoroughly democratic.

In the 1770s, performance halls in England and France offered a social souk to buy, sell, flaunt, sneer and feign. Performers and producers all had their paid claqueurs. Prostitutes worked the upper boxes in some theaters. But no matter how dysfunctional a performance might become the audience ruled. Literally. Remember the chairs thrown at musicians during Part 1 of the premiere of Rite of Spring in 1913. And who orchestrated the chaos? It was, by one account, none other than Diaghilev, himself, the impresario putting on the show, who paid off some partisans to bolster Nijinsky’s performance. But then, in the process, they fell into a fight with traditionalists.

In the late 19th century, the electric light bulb went on, the stage was lit, the auditorium went dark. This was a defining chapter in the sacralization of the arts and the move to the subdued audiences of today.

Lynne Conner, a Colby College professor of theater and dance, has written some wonderful essays about all this (See also her 2013 book, Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era). The gist of her argument is that modern audiences have lost their “sovereignty” and the meme of the day remains, “Sophisticated audiences do not interfere with great art, and unsophisticated people should confine themselves to other spaces.”

And she adds, “Throughout the 20th century, the sports industry has understood its responsibility to promote opportunities for public debate and civic discourse. The arts industry has largely neglected that task, and we are paying for it now…” “The sports industry has understood its responsibility to promote opportunities for public debate and civic discourse. The arts industry has largely neglected that task, and we are paying for it now.”  -- Professor Lynne Connor

Which is to say, there’s no corollary in the performing arts world to discuss and analyze, and otherwise be involved — and respected. Respect is an important point. Moreover,  there’s no “language of stats” or box scores. Nor is there any sense of “we.” On sports radio, callers will say, “we have to go out and find a middle-innings reliever,” with all the passion and conviction of an owner.

And finally, there’s no equivalent to the locker room ambiance of say, the BleacherReport, where anyone can start a column about his or her favorite sport. One imagines the BalconyReport, where people could rant on about the draft prospects for this year’s cello crop coming out of conservatory, or how so-and-so’s finger-speed in the Ligeti etudes, at the piano combine, was frankly disappointing. And, of course, who would you most like to see on the cover of the swimsuit issue?

Constraint Capacity Theory

Beyond lessons in the nature of audience “sovereignty,” sports also may offer insights into audience development, particularly in the area of infrastructure and marketing. For sure, the comparison between sports and performing arts is limited: Obviously, there’s no element of competition, no TV contracts, and much less private ownership of venues. Nevertheless, there are approaches that may have resonance, and reflect the way innovation is transferable; the way experiments and breakthroughs in one field may affirm and encourage breakthroughs in another.

Consider the San Jose Earthquakes, the 41-year-old soccer franchise, and for the last 21 years a member of Major League Soccer.  The Earthquakes rebranded themselves earlier this year. Changes included a logo design, completion of the new Avaya Stadium, and a reconsidered approach to fan development. The other day we spoke to Jared Shawlee, ‘Quakes’ vice president of sales and strategy, who explained some of the new initiatives, including pioneering what he called “constraint capacity theory.” Most MLS stadiums are built to hold 21,000 to 23,000 fans; the ‘Quakes built their stadium to hold just 18,000.

Said Shawlee, “We found out that many of the teams that went for greater capacity were not selling out, and when you don’t sell out fewer people renew their season tickets, because they figure there’s no problem getting a seat on game day. Which creates a downward spiral of ticket sales. So we designed our model to specifically make it very valuable to be a season ticket holder. Our goal is that this becomes a tradition passed down from generation to generation. It’s something a family always has: Earthquakes season tickets.”

Shawlee is quick to point out that this constraint only works if you have a way to acknowledge the “casual audience.” And so the ‘Quakes also use large venues such as Levi Stadium or Stanford Stadium to schedule big-name games where they can bring in as many as 50,000 people. “We have our hard-core base that fills up Avaya stadium, to keep up ticket demand there, and then we look for ways to bring in this other audience. And that’s where we give away a lot of free tickets to involve community groups, youth soccer clubs, and people who’ve never been to a professional soccer game. Naturally, our hope is that we can convert a certain percentage of those to season ticket holders once they sample the product.”  

“Perception is as important as success itself.”

The Quakes’ “Constraint Capacity Theory,” not to be confused with the Theory of Constraints, is old news in some respects: Restaurateurs and clergy have always known that if you want more business, have people line up outside your establishment. And now, more and more midsize symphonies see the value of constraint. “Intimacy” and “informality” are the buzzwords. For example, the state-of-the-art Kansas City Symphony Hall includes the 2,200-seat Muriel Kauffman Theater, but also the more intimate Helzberg Hall with 1,600 seats. Those were built as part of a 10-year project completed in 2011.

“A sense of success is all important,” said Roland Valliere in a recent interview. “People want to invest in something they perceive to be successful. It’s definitely psychological.” Valliere was the executive director of the Kansas City Symphony, then president of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and, since 2013, has been CEO of the Memphis Symphony. He also invented and developed the Concert Companion, a device designed to allow concertgoers a digital Playbill. The device completed a trial run but never went into production.

“We’re using this same constraint approach [as the Earthquakes] in Memphis where we sometimes move one of our series to a smaller facility. Our main facility has 1,800 seats; the smaller facility has 828 seats. There we tend to sell out concerts. The residual effect, the sense of success — the idea that you may not be able to get a ticket — really impacts contributors as well as ticket holders because sponsors also want to back a winner.”

Valliere points out that while there are strategic ways of constraining “supply” — by closing balconies and mezzanines for example — it’s difficult for many midsize orchestras to make those kinds of changes if they are tenants not owners of the venue. The bottom line, says Valliere, is that if you’re at 55 to 60 percent of capacity you’re forced to drop ticket prices, present fewer concerts, or otherwise find some way to change perception — “because perception is as important as success.”

The San Jose Ultras section of a 'Quakes game (Photo courtesy of the San Jose Ultras)
The San Jose Ultras section of a 'Quakes game (Photo courtesy of the San Jose Ultras)

Fanning the Fandom

Among other innovations the ‘Quakes are trying is a “Game-first initiative.” These days, when fans come to sports events they’re often told what to do, which may be one reason, along with HDTV, for the trend toward staying home, or finding a seat at the local sports bar. You think of the NBA with its elaborate orchestration that tells fans what to cheer and when, with a DJ spinning music in the background.

“We followed an opposite course,” says Shawlee. “Once the game starts the focus is strictly on the players and on the field; we as an organization step back and let the fans carry the energy and momentum in whatever direction they want.”

The momentum is largely maintained by four fan support groups, which operate in the European tradition. The four groups total about 1,200 fans. The main group, and most visible, is the 1906 Ultras, a cadre of 14 Eastern Europeans who in 2005 began their own cheering section. They have created their own signage, lead chants, and accept no instruction from ‘Quakes management.

“We provide them a special area behind the goals, give them a private entrance and discount tickets,” says Shawlee. “And we would otherwise try to help them, but honestly they don’t want it.”

Three other supporters "clubs" include The Faultline, for families; Casbah, among the team’s initial fan base and largely for tailgaters; and El Imperio Seismic, a Hispanic contingent. Naturally, these groups use Facebook and Twitter to communicate, and so greatly expand the ‘Quakes network.

In Search of Raving Fans

The idea of a dedicated and vocal fan base is not foreign to the performing arts. You think of the French claqueurs who from the 16th Century on ensured that performances were roundly applauded. The tradition goes back to Nero. You think of the Bolshoi, where prima ballerinas, to this day, might pay for “bravos” from the boxes. You think of Italian opera fans with their long tradition of raucous reaction.

In recent years, encouraging this retro notion is catching on in this country.  

Mark Hanson, executive director and CEO of the Houston Symphony, told us recently, “The common thread here with sports is the pursuit of more raving fans.” He was not being facetious. “Absolutely,” he went on. “We’re trying to engage with our audience in ways that will make it possible to buck the international trend toward declining bases and attendance.” “The common thread here with sports is the pursuit of more raving fans.” -- Mark Hanson, CEO, Houston Symphony

Hanson’s engagement includes minor and major initiatives. One minor initiative was to move lower-priced seats from the rear of the hall to the first few rows. “We’ve found that if you haven’t sold an additional seat, you can fill it in a way that suddenly makes the hall looks fuller.  It’s one way to increase ‘perception’ and becomes a self-fulfilling strategy.”

Major initiatives include an annual free music day, which took place most recently on July 12 in the symphony’s home in Jones Hall. Events ran from noon to 9 p.m. and included all the usual lures for families and children, along with salsa dancing and a food truck. There were two mainstage performances by the symphony and 18 other performances on smaller stages.

Among the groups were a high school blue steel drum ensemble, a Klezmer band, a brass band, a blues band, a mariachi group, the Gay Mens’s Chorus of Houston, and the Colombian Youth Philharmonic, which is in residency. Fourteen members of the symphony had gone to Colombia earlier to spend a week serving as mentors and coaches.

Altogether, the mood throughout the day was wild and during the Colombian Youth concert, members of the audience, much like the Ultras, actually waved flags and clapped in unison.

Also appearing at the event were music groups that grew out of the symphony’s creation in 2013 of “diversity councils”: one each for the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and the Chinese community. The councils were designed as highly formalized community partnerships consisting of the most influential and “impactful” people available. The symphony designated a full time staff member to coordinate the effort.

“We found that we didn’t always have the right idea in trying to reach out to communities,” says Hanson. For example, the symphony had often performed with local choruses but had no affiliation with a strictly African-American chorus. In 2013, the symphony sponsored the creation of the CityWide Grassroots Chorus, “conceived out of the notion that history had not recognized the musical contribution of many of the talented African-American composers.”

The symphony also collaborates with the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra and MECA Mariachi Autlán.

The Houston Symphony Orchestra
The Houston Symphony Orchestra

Embedding Musicians in the Community

The Houston Symphony is investing in one other initiative to attract an audience. It’s actually reminiscent of the San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music program, which began in 1988. In Houston, the symphony is hiring four, full-time musicians to spend 80 percent of their time “embedded” in the community. The plan drew 104 application tapes. The number has gradually been whittled down, and the final four will be announced later in July. Each will be paid $40,000, plus benefits and additional compensation in the form of favorable per-service rates.

“Our intention,” says Hanson, “is that these embedded musicians play a big part in growing our base of ‘raving fans’ of all ages. By having elementary school students get to know our musicians in the classroom, we hope they’ll come to youth concerts and instead of encountering nameless musicians they’ll look to see who they know. But we’re doing this not just to put a name on a face but also to give the symphony a personality, to build a friendship and real trust, so that over time more and more people will see this connection.”

Hanson concedes that this initiative has not been easy to launch. Some board members and administrators balked at “adding complexity,” dedicating more funds to expanding educational outreach, and worried over how the symphony’s 87 other musicians would respond, particularly about whether this was all going to come at their expense. Then there was problem of finding an independent school district willing to devote administrative and teaching resources to develop a pilot program, and finally, the need to develop a matrix to measure success.

Now the die is cast and the musicians are about to be hired.

Finding Identity

“We want to mean something to everyone,” says Hanson. “That’s really the common thread between a soccer team and a symphony: the need to remain relevant and worthy of investment. Naturally, ‘inclusion’ is a core value, although we don’t use that word so much. In our discussions we talk about ‘relevance' and ‘accessibility'.”

In 2013, the Houston Symphony went through a rebranding process and changed the language it used to describe both itself and its values. Here is a list of pre- and post- rebranding terms provided by Hanson.  The list has been slightly edited.

Pre-rebrand language emphasized: 

  • “Excellence,” “innovation.”

  • “A world-class orchestra for a world-class city”

  • The Houston Symphony as "one of America's leading orchestras"

  • Artistic and financial achievements

  • Support needed from the community

Post-rebrand language emphasizes: 

  • “Excellence”, “innovation”, “relevance”

  • America's “most relevant and accessible orchestra"

  • Approachable (while still sophisticated), Houston-proud

  • Listening to and serving the community

  • Expansion of education

  • Greater diversity in programming (summer concerts, multimedia, film, family, music for video games, presentations, heritage concerts for diverse community segments)

  • Diversity and inclusion of audiences and organizational make-up

  • Patron-centric; relationship-building in personal ways

Now, compare those terms with those used by the San Jose Earthquakes who, as part of their rebranding, created a “Brand Constitution.”  It’s a 56-page online document that very carefully and colorfully outlines every aspect of the team’s history and values. The tone is disarmingly direct. The message is, “The future for soccer in the U.S. is bright because of the foresight, energy, and ability of the Earthquakes.” Moreover, the club’s identity represents “a winning heritage, blue-collar, and our passionate and diverse community.”

And by the way, “Avaya Stadium is your home.”

The San Jose Earthquakes’ brand constitution
The San Jose Earthquakes’ brand constitution

The key words throughout the brand constitution are “excitement, passion, anguish, and exaltation.” Along with with a kind of motto, “unity, devotion, heritage.” Isn’t it interesting that the tie between club and fan sounds not unlike a set of personal values, and at the same time political values that might go along with a church, school, or social club? Moreover, “inclusion” and “diversity” are largely assumed. But most important, the subtext suggests an inducement and the idea that this experience involves your very identity, and will call up your best self.

To get there, you need only join your friends to be part of this great and noble endeavor.

Gaming the Audience

In the American sports tradition, fans have often been given a language and a sensibility to develop their own understanding and appreciation of sports. The tone is very much do-it-yourself. Meanwhile, symphonies have used more of an authoritarian approach.

The other day in a phone interview, Lynne Conner, the Colby professor, noted that in the late 19th century, the message to the audience was that the symphony, simply by its existence, was vitally important. “And why is it important? Because the message was that musicians and dancers and singers are these very talented and often famous people, and the performance itself is happening in what was becoming a sacred hall. ‘In addition, lots of important people are in the audience, and if you wish to be thought of as important as well, then you need to dress up and appear knowledgeable.’”

There are still vestiges of that today.

The problem, says Conner, is that for so long the message to audiences has been, “we’re not interested in your interpreting what you hear, we’re just interested in you buying a ticket and sitting here. And over time when you don’t have a truly authentic conversation with the audience about what’s going on, and you’re not really interested in what they feel, then they get that message and they drift away.”

Conner’s plea is for audience consciousness, but she acknowledges that may not stop the decline. “It’s not a fix-all, but I think it’s the beginning of a transition into a different model of presenting those art forms.

“The way to think about a healthy vibrant symphony now is to think about one that produces traditional concerts in the city symphony hall but also takes chamber groups out to different venues, for different types of audiences and different repertoires, and if we think about that as not only valuable but fun and meaningful — for everyone involved — then the symphony is apt to survive as a business operation and the community is more likely to appreciate being exposed to it.”

In part 2 of Etudes on Innovation, we look at attracting new audiences and sponsors. Among those we talk to are Jenny Bilfield, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Performing Arts Society.

CORRECTION: Roland Valliere was not the executive director of the Kansas City Symphony when it moved into the Kauffman Center in 2011. Valliere left in 2002, and Frank Byrne was named executive director. He still serves today in that role. The article has been corrected to reflect this.