Where is my audience?

The relationship between composer and audience today is a strange one indeed. More to the point, is there an audience at all for so-called contemporary music? We need to be honest about it: the audience is disappearing. This is not something to worry too much about: it is only the natural consequence of the demise of the social role and status of contemporary classical music, and the related changes in music fruition and delivery. The music critic, another element of the traditional concert ecology, is also silently fading away, a powerless casualty of this evolving situation.

As a musician, I’m principally interested in live performance. The magic dimensions of a public concert is what we should care about: the ritual offering, the virtuoso display, the theatre happening on stage and the risky, adventurous nature of a live concert performance are a precious gift to all of us. But without an audience, live performance cannot survive. We already experience live performance without having to attend a ‘contemporary music’ concert: how do we convince our potential audiences that they are missing something that can’t be found elsewhere? Or, reversing the question, when was the last time you cried at a ‘contemporary music’ concert?

One obstacle, first brought to my attention by Peter Johnson, Head of Research at Birmingham Conservatoire, is the lack of a performance tradition for the vast majority of contemporary works. They are performed a few times and almost never recorded to the standards of a commercial release. They often include specific parts for specific performers, making it impossible or very difficult for other interpreters to tackle the works. A second related problem is the performers’ knowledge of the piece. How deep can your interpretation go if you are learning the piece for the first time and perform it only a few times? Compare this with the intimate relationship over the years, indeed over a lifetime, that most performers build with the classical music repertoire. A third problem is the nature of ‘contemporary music’ micro-market: the ratio between sellers (the composers) and buyers (the performers and the audiences) is incredibly skewed towards the former. The late Stephen Jay Gould had a very original interpretation for justifying this state of affairs, what he called the right wall of human achievement: in a society that favours innovation at all costs, there comes a time when the relative advancement of an art form, say music, becomes smaller and smaller, until it is imperceptible.

Current literature on audience numbers for ‘contemporary music’ concerts and audience development strategies are often enthusiastic, but, I’m afraid. always misleading. I’m referring here to the UK state of affairs, but the main argument could be applied equally well to French or Italian audiences. I would like to correlate the number of composers writing music today with the amount of people listening to their music. My impression is that the composer/audience ratio is dwindling ferociously, rather than expanding. The reason for this is probably a steeper pyramid, with few composers getting a lot of attention from the niche audiences of “contemporary music”, and a plethora of less well-known composers that remain virtually ignored.


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