How to Build an Audience for New Music

It seems like almost every day I hear someone complain about how contemporary classical music has no audience. It’s true our audience is small compared to pop music. Even the top new music ensembles like So Percussion or Eighth Blackbird are only getting about 15,000 hits on YouTube. That’s not bad, but compared to 61 million hits for a Britney Spears track it’s small change. But our audience would be bigger if we worked harder at building it. Fortunately, there are some talented musicians doing just that.

Later this week on January 30 I’ll be playing with my dear friends in Alarm Will Sound. I’m a founding member of the ensemble and after 10 years I love it more than ever. We’re playing a concert on the Ecstatic Music Festival, curated by the talented Judd Greenstein. We’re sharing the stage with Face the Music, a collection of courageous teenagers. Pianist Jenny Undercofler and composer Huang Ruo founded the ensemble in 2005 with the mission of bringing great music to younger people. Since that time the group has played at reputable music festivals and played works by major composers like Michael Gordon and John Adams. We’ll be performing Steve Reich’s seminal Tehillim.

Face the Music isn’t the only group of youngsters creating new music. Pianist Katy Luo runs an annual concert called A4TY (Album for the Young), which includes a newly commissioned work by an established composer (I wrote one this past year, other composers have included Elliott Sharp, Caleb Burhans, and Dennis Desantis). The Blooomingdale School supports A4TY, providing students and rehearsal space. The great thing about the A4TY concert is that it includes works by most of the performing musicians, some only five years old!

That’s how you build an audience. From the ground up. Ms. Undercofler and Ms. Luo have realized that gimmicks don’t work. We can’t compete with the fancy light shows and sound systems that major pop acts carry with them. Neither do we have the advertising budget or the support of the popular media. What we can do is realize that young people like creative music, especially teenagers.

Think about it for a minute. The kids are going through a tumultuous period of their lives. Their bodies are changing, their sense of self is solidifying, and they are gradually leaving the nest and embarking upon adulthood. During this process most of them will experience anti-establishment feelings. The Man is school, parents, a flood of media images telling them that they aren’t thin enough, muscular enough, rich enough. What is more anti-establishment than contemporary classical music? It’s creative, committed, and radically individualistic, everything the establishment is not. If you really want to give the finger to The Man, what better way to do it than to throw down on some Steve Reich or Xenakis?

Furthermore, so much contemporary classical music is loud, intense, and amplified. Not so different than a lot of pop music. There is both an aural and a philosophical connection for these kids. With the right leadership, they have a way to channel their creativity and energy, as well as their anger and angst. Some of these kids will end up being professional musicians, but many of them will end up in other professions. But their experience in these ensembles will be enriching and will build a life-long interest in them for contemporary classical music. They will continue to attend concerts, bringing family and friends with them. Congratulations to Ms. Undercofler and Ms. Luo for building a bigger audience with integrity.

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