Monday, May 27, 2013

"Mahler Meets Moneyball" and the Myth of a New-Music Audience

Last week, Tom Jacobs of the Pacific Standard reported on a recent paper in the International Journal of Research in Marketing that examined what compels people to buy tickets to an orchestra concert. Jacobs felt that Wagner Kamatura and Carl Schimmel's research--"Mahler meets Moneyball"--upset assumptions about new music by showing that "less-popular works written before 1900 have a stronger negative impact on occupancy than less-popular works from after the turn of the 20th century."

There were plenty of other things that, according to Kamatura and Schimmel, actively enticed concertgoers (a big-name star like Josh Bell and familiar works by Beethoven and Mozart) so saying that contemporary music doesn't drive people away as much as second-tier Romanticism is hardly an endorsement, and certainly not a revolutionary upending of conventional wisdom.

So many people in concert-music circles want to convince themselves that it's only weak-kneed artistic directors who are keeping new music from a willing-and-ready-audience. As a result, they'll overemphasize the importance of points made by researches like Kamatura and Schimmel to keep their own hopes and prejudices alive.

The truth is, programming unfamiliar music is hard. There's a lot of inertia to overcome and there isn't much of an audience out there screaming for new stuff. I think it's essential to the art form, and essential to keeping adventurous listeners engaged, to push musical boundaries but we can't kid ourselves: it will rarely be a short-term, single-ticket moneymaker.