Does the classical music industry need to innovate to survive?

After finally deciding that now is the time to think about the big questions, it seems that right now the biggest question for the classical music industry is one of survival. From speaking with friends and colleagues across the industry over the past few weeks, it is clear that this is at the forefront of people’s minds.

As a Board Director of two arts organisations, the last few months have highlighted the reality of the challenge facing the sector. Naturally, the biggest and most immediate concern is financial. Sadly, it is true that some organisations may not survive and, indeed, there have already been early casualties. Yet longer-term survival will be about more than money. For those that do make it to the other side, the road ahead will remain difficult.

The world is a changing landscape, and this pandemic has the potential to be the single biggest disruptor for the arts.

Therefore, in addition to the sector lobbying the Government for much needed financial support, we will need to adapt to the challenges that lie ahead, and find creative solutions to the upcoming problems. We will no longer be able to simply do things because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. However, as a sector of creative people, we will always innovate whilst remaining true to our existing missions.

As an initial (and by no means complete) exploration, seven points that we may need to consider for a post-lockdown world are as follows:

The Audience

Engaging with an audience that is different from before

Amid speculation that the UK Government may take a phased approach to easing the national lockdown based on people’s age, one of the considerations already being publicly discussed is the impact on the demographic of the immediate post-lockdown audience. If people over the age of 70 are expected to continue shielding until much later, then the classical music industry may see a significant proportion of its existing audience unable to attend live events when venues re-open. However, this change in demographic could spur organisations to engage with much more diverse groups of people that fully represent the society in which we live. Will a world where audience development is a necessity, as opposed to a “nice to have”, be the incentive that is needed?

Reassuring all audiences of their safety

Even after a complete lifting of the lockdown, audience attitudes may mean there is resistance to attending live events. Cultural sector consultants, Indigo Consultancy have asked over 86,000 audience members of nearly 200 cultural organisations ‘how they are feeling about returning to events’. Whilst this is admittedly a snapshot of the full picture, the results demonstrate that only 19% of audience members “would return to attending events just because venues re-open”, and 41% “would not consider booking for events for at least 4 months”. The take away message is that the industry will need to do as much as possible to reassure all audiences of their safety. (More practical steps below in The Physical Environment).

The Digital Aftermath

Evaluating the impact of the current outpouring of digital content 

The inability for organisations and artists to physically engage with audiences has resulted in an outpouring of free digital content. Embracing the power of digital platforms will no doubt enable engagement with a new audience who may have not previously engaged with pre-lockdown live experiences, however the question remains as to how to retain and migrate these new audiences into the physical space. We will need to speak to these new audiences about the physical experience in a way that communicates its true power. This means demonstrating the difference between the physical and digital experiences and, as a result, why the physical experience cannot always be similarly free of charge but is in fact incredible value for money. As articulated by a colleague in a recent ISPA virtual convene of international colleagues from the performing arts, “[In the virtual world], there is no reaction. No feeling of the audience breathing which is needed for a performance”.

The Artists

Re-focusing on UK and local artists as restrictions and regulations on international travel cause disruption for international touring

International orchestras and artists may find themselves unable to tour to the UK as extensively, leaving classical music seasons produced by UK venues with fewer opportunities to programme international artists. Similarly, UK orchestras, (many of whom are resident at such venues), may find themselves unable to tour as much overseas. This creates an opportunity for local/UK artists to increase performing at and touring to venues within the UK, working collaboratively with those venues to create something new.

The Physical Environment

Ensuring the physical performance environment is fit for purpose in a new era of social distancing

In a new world of enforced social distancing, our traditional venues of 2000+ people sat closely together, will no longer be fit for purpose. Venues will need to do everything they can to reassure concerned audience members of their safety.

There are many ways of being creative within the constraints of new rules and regulations. These might include:

  • Adapting the format of the classical concert, programming shorter concerts to accommodate the additional time needed for audiences to vacate the concert hall safely. This in turn presents the opportunity for breaking away from traditional programming conventions.
  • Selling fewer seats to adhere to social distancing rules, whilst being creative with regards to how we dress/decorate empty seats. Reduced capacity also means a focus on smaller scale, lower cost events in larger venues to ensure the financial model works.
  • For larger scale events, venues will need to completely re-imagine their operations’ infrastructure and utilise alternative, and perhaps unconventional, spaces in order to accommodate larger groups of people in even larger spaces while ensuring social distancing. This provides an opportunity to rethink the location of the live experience, and make it more integrated within communities and wider society. At this time of limited physical contact, musicians have animated our streets and brought communities together. In many ways the shift towards further integration within communities has already started. Developing this will require creative thinking and courage on the part of traditional venues with regards to their role in this new world.

The Classical Music “Season” 

Re-examining the concept of the Classical Music “Season” and planning cycle

With venues and orchestras currently unable to plan for the future, artistic programming has taken a hiatus. For organisations who already launched their 2020/21 season, event listings now sit dormant online, awaiting the inevitable beginning of season cancellations. While for organisations who didn’t make it to their 2020/21 season launch before the lockdown, season announcements remain on hold until further notice.

Anticipating that physical venues will, at best, be only partly operational from January 2021, one approach might be to launch or revise shorter 2020/21 seasons at the end of 2020, running from, say, January to June 2021. What does this mean for the 2021/22 season launches usually expected between February and April 2021? Industry professionals have been furloughed since the beginning of April, and even with an anticipated recall in advance of a January 2021 re-opening, anything from six to nine months will be lost from the traditional planning cycle. Furthermore, regardless of whether professionals have been furloughed or not, there still remains the question as to whether audiences will respond to organisations launching two seasons within a six month period. Organisations will surely need to be creative in their approach. Is this the opportunity to finally re-examine the concept of the classical music “season” and its timelines? Within this new context, does the concept of a “season” really matter?

The Finances

Re-forecasting for the financial impact

As mentioned, the biggest and most immediate concern for all organisations is financial. The Arts Councils, Trusts, and Foundations have demonstrated strong leadership in the establishment of COVID-19 Emergency Response Packages. However, organisations will need to re-forecast and re-model for the future, anticipating a delay in box office income returning to pre-pandemic levels, and a potential reduction in funding opportunities as a result of money redirected to create Emergency Funds. The financial impact will be felt into 2021/22 financial year budgets. This will surely focus minds regarding exactly how funding is being spent.

Navigating a changing funding landscape

Perhaps the most fascinating shift will be the impact on the agenda of funding bodies. What remains to be seen is whether the priorities of funders will change to encourage more of the kinds of activity that will emerge from the approaches mentioned above, and how organisations will respond to those priorities. Or from the other side of the table, will organisations themselves bite the bullet and use the learning from this post-pandemic world to change what they are applying for from funders?

The People

Enabling the right people to contribute to the conversation

Lastly, to develop creative solutions to the challenges that lie ahead, organisations will need to utilise the most creative minds. The lockdown has demonstrated the incredible amount of creative thinking that exists across the entire sector, from people employed across all parts of arts organisations, to freelance artists with no formal relationship to an established institution. When you need the best creative and critical thinkers in your organisation, does organisational hierarchy become irrelevant?

As I reflect on the above, I cannot help thinking that some of these different ways of working could have been adopted before, however it is often times of crisis that result in innovation. So perhaps what will be even more interesting than how organisations innovate to survive, is for how long. Will we as a sector default to the pre-pandemic way of working when the crisis is over in a distant future, or will we use these new found innovations as the basis for a brighter future?

The Conversation


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Only just seen this via LinkedIn. Thank you Toks – beautifully summarised.
Many questions, but who will take the lead to create the changes, like moving the pieces on the board to create space for change?
Can you be that person? I think you would have huge support.
Will you come and talk [online] to the RWCMD composers soon? We would love to hear your ideas and find out there are ways to contribute to positive change.

An vital piece of challenging thinking that requires us all to consider a counter-intuitively brilliant new phase in culture. Lead on Toks.

Really interesting questions raised here Toks. Good to start a dialogue about all these complex issues

Perhaps it is an opportunity. Not so great for many but still a positive. Thanks Toks for the provocation.

Great article Toks.

Really agree with orchestras have become more relatable during this lockdown period. We have seen players playing to their neighbours in smaller ensemble/solo context every Thursday during the #ClapForKeyWorkers, and it has certainly increased the engagement with classical music on social media. Alongside that, with the lack of concerts and performances, orchestras have been showing how their players are coping with the lockdown life through social media takeovers, covering things they do outside of their playing time. These activities help break down the ‘distant and boring’ impressions that some people have of classical music, showing the more human and, at times, funny side of the players, and truly reaching out and engage with the communities that live outside of the classical music bubble.

Fingers-crossed that this is a start of a new philosophy around what orchestral outreach really is about and in time it might shape approaches towards engaging and converting new-found audiences, convincing them to come to see orchestras live in person.

Similar discussions are taking place in the world of choral music, particularly in choral establishments through cathedral, collegiate chapel and church. The same basic issues arise, it seems that, no matter the scientific solution, the logistics will be the hardest part to overcome, and audiences, congregations and participants will all have to ‘buy in’ to the procedures for it to work.

Interesting. But I find the tone far too negative. Classical music and its performers are very good at moaning and advancing doomsday scenarios, less good at doing anything about it. The news that the gov’s new ‘Culture Task Force’ does not include ONE person from the world of music has been largely taken on the chin. It shouldn’t be. I much prefer the attitude of Versailles, which has just announced a wonderful series of opera and concerts for 2020/21 starting mid-December

I particularly liked, “Enabling the right people to contribute to the conversation”, and, “When you need the best creative and critical thinkers in your organisation, does organisational hierarchy become irrelevant?”
I couldn’t agree more. But how do you go about enabling these ‘right’ people? I fear the diversity question rears it’s head again.

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