Arts Participation: It’s the Experience, Stupid.

Audiences adjust to the times.

“They didn’t come for the quality, they came for the experience.”

This was the conclusion that a colleague and I independently reached regarding a series of sold-out evenings of traditional opera populated by enthusiastic audiences of young people at LoftOpera in Gowanus. We had each joined some 500 people, a pretty diverse group, who willingly sat on concrete (or uncomfortable portable seating) throughout a full evening of music, acting and singing, mixed with socializing, cheap or free booze, and a real scene.

Interest in traditional artforms, which are often referred to as elitist, has been repeatedly reported to be alive and possibly even thriving amongst younger audiences, raising questions about earlier reports that suggested this group has less or even no interest in such artforms. These supposedly uninterested arts aficionados are showing particular enthusiasm for modern, new and adventurous work; they’re willing to take greater chances than traditional audiences. We have even seen reports of young people of color flocking to new theater pieces and sold-out music performances of classical music and opera.

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Is there a demographic “donut hole”?

The performances that my colleague and I sat through would never make it on the Metropolitan Opera stage. The singing, the staging and the music were not of a “quality” expected by those who would pay upwards of $100 per ticket at a great culture palace. But for those attending these operas (Puccini’s Tosca and Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia), none of this mattered: they were engaged and hung on to every moment of the production — in addition to pre-performance, intermission and post-performance socializing. While this circumstance may surprise some, it is already familiar to those up on the real data of what younger audiences look for and how they prefer to be engaged. Such data, however, also presents a major problem for traditional performance presenters, who continue to look through the lens of “quality” instead of “experience.” As long as they do so, they will continue to struggle with how to bridge what is becoming a yawning gap.

Several years ago, I attended a fascinating luncheon where Leon Botstein, the conductor and President of Bard College, was speaking on “technology in music.” In his lecture, Botstein laid out a theory of audience engagement that captured my imagination and has kept me thinking ever since. He noted how the invention of the piano was a revolutionary event in music history. Before the piano, all music was referential: there was no standardized tuning. Both musicians and listeners needed attuned ears in order to appreciate “tuned,” harmonious music. The piano’s physical structure, however, fixed a standardized reference point for tuning, reducing or eliminating the need for musicians and listeners to possess a referential aural capacity; now, one could create “great” music by exhibiting only physical expertise – that is, only musculo-skeletal coordination and skill. For listeners, this meant a shift in their basis for appreciating music — from being an active listening partner to being a passive spectator, like those at sports events who appreciate and cheer for the superior execution of physical skills. Just think about how “serious” music fans describe their past experiences, whether at a Grateful Dead concert or an opera performance: they fetishize the details, the heights to which the experience brought them, in the same way that we all memorialize amazing sports incidents.

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Here’s where Botstein’s lecture got really interesting. He theorized that the digital revolution has now engendered a similar but fundamental shift that is restoring the primacy of active engagement with music by the listener. This shift, from analog to digital, includes the implicit acceptance of a diminished reproduction quality and a diminishing of the importance of quality in performance appreciation. This is happening at the same time that we, the audience, can now mix or remix the music we like, whether through composing our own playlists or sampling music. In other words, we’re returning to a more active role in musical engagement.

A theory of audience engagement.

If Botstein is correct — a big if, but fascinating to ponder — then those who continue to view art through the lens of “quality” and not “experience” will be doomed to struggle for both audiences and relevance. To use a business term, the value proposition now is different: those chasing audiences on the basis of offering quality are, in fact, chasing a chimera. To be clear, in no way do I mean that younger audiences cannot or do not appreciate quality. Rather, the hagiographic elevation of “quality” in our appreciation of performance does not mean everything to many young people; they willingly accept the performance of what some might consider a lower quality because matters of quality are only part of their experience and engagement — what they value in, or at, an event.

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Like the experience of my colleague and I at LoftOpera, there is mounting data that the youngest cohort — age 18 to 25 — show greater interest in attending and experiencing live performance of traditional artforms. If this pattern holds true, we may observe, in retrospect, a demographic “donut hole” in which late Boomers and Gen-Xers participated less avidly than their forebears with these artforms. If this does turn out to be true, it’s important to acknowledge the shifted value-basis for each cohort’s participation in these artforms, and for the presenters of these artforms to engage with each cohort on its own terms — not on the terms chosen or imposed upon them.

The critical detail here is not that younger audiences fear or hold disinterest in such artforms, but that they hold distaste for the traditional means by which they’re presented — their rites and ceremonies. For institutions and performers interested in capturing their attention, it will be incumbent on them to shift their assumptions, their viewpoints, to more closely align with where younger audiences identify value, especially as older audiences fade off the scene. Any institution failing to do so will inevitably suffer the same fate as other maturing industries or products that fail to recognize — or do recognize but fail to adapt to — the changes happening all around them, leaving them to slowly but surely fade toward irrelevance or disappearing completely.