This summer I have been seeing a lot of California Symphony Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer popping up in places like videos of conference talks she has been giving. It has been over a year and a half since I wrote about her Orchestra X project so I figured it was time to revisit and reacquaint people with the work she has been doing.
Recently she had a blog post following up on the conversations her organization has been having with the communities they serve. She mentions a theme I keep seeing in formal survey results and collected anecdotes — audiences aren’t clamoring for a change in programming as much as they are intimidated and confused by the decision and experience of attending a cultural event.
The bigger issue, she says, is that those of us on the inside forget what it was like being entirely unfamiliar with information or an experience. Even when we are faced with a new-ish experience, our past experiences allow us to make logical leaps that total novices can’t.
What we learned was that a “basic” level of understanding about the symphony or classical music does not exist among newcomers. Some people didn’t even know the names of the instruments in the orchestra, which to me, the person who had played an instrument all growing up and who wanted to manage a symphony since age 16, was pretty much unfathomable (remember hindsight bias?). The good news, we discovered, was that this group of smart people desperately wanted to learn about everything related to classical music though. And through the discussion we learned that the way we layout and present information on our website made it very difficult for them to do that.
Virtually every person in the room expressed the sentiment of “awe” when describing the art they saw and heard. No one said, “I need a shorter concert,” or “I need to hear more movie music.” They very much wanted to learn about all facets of the repertoire and were emphatic that the art is incomparable.
Bergauer says that now that California Symphony stopped stressing about programming mix and started focusing on retention versus new audience acquisition. Last season, their new attendee retention rate was over 30%.
Take a closer look at the post. She talks a little more about how rich experiences make us unable to anticipate what new attendees really need to know in order to enjoy themselves.