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Discussions about the small audiences new music concerts attract have been a constant in my life since I entered university as a 16-year-old composition student. Just the other night someone explained to me that audiences are small for “this kind of thing” because, and I quote, “Australia is so backward”. I may have rolled my eyes. The simple and most likely reason of all possible reasons a new concert might attract a microscopic audience is this one – the music has no fans.
Live events are built on a fan base. This holds true for a pub band as much as it does for a purveyor of experimental sound art. Any performer needs to build an audience if they want to have an audience. There’s a proud aesthetic of writing with no thought of connecting with listeners, but seriously, someone who composes with no consideration of their audience can’t reasonably be surprised (or disappointed) when they don’t have one.
I once programmed cabaret at a then-new Sydney jazz venue, and performers would occasionally tell me an hour before going on, “I haven’t told my friends about this – I want to see what the general public looks like”. “There is no general public,” I would whisper wearily to myself as I pulled out my phone to persuade even two or three friends to drop everything to bulk out the “crowd”.
Even with right place/right time advertising and brilliant PR, the audiences for these fabulous performances were invariably friends, family, colleagues, and their friends, family and colleagues. Walk-ups were rare. Some of these shows went on to be performed in RSLs around the region. But RSLs have their own audiences, their own loyal fan base, their own communities with vested interests in participating. The performer is a mere detail.
Established venues and festivals deliver focused, committed audiences to performers because venues and festivals have already invested energy (one way or another) in developing relationships with audiences. But festivals and venues want partnerships with artists to be mutually advantageous. Performances with no fans are no good to institutions.
In the 21st century there is no general public. Even when you are an organisation with a subscriber base. Even when you are a producer of a Broadway hit musical. Even when you are a decades-old rock band. The audiences you connect with are specific, and have vested interests in participating in your event, even when they number in the tens of thousands. There’s no such thing as a “new music” audience. There’s just your audience: the group of people in your community, workplace, Facebook groups and Twitterfeed interested in what you do – people who care about your work so much that they want to be there, close to the action, giving you money so you’ll keep doing what you do.
My advice to new music people who want to break the low-audience cycle:
· Stop blaming the people who stay away. Just because people don’t care it doesn’t mean they are “backward”.
· Start thinking about your possible audience from the inception of the creative process. So you’re composing a 90-minute work about sewer pipes – who will find this work interesting? Why do you find this work interesting? Answering questions of this kind helps you edit and synthesise. It gets you ready to connect with an audience. · Stop thinking that the audience doesn’t matter. Without an audience you’re just engaging in personal growth. · Use social media. You don’t need an organisation to build a platform for you. Start finding yourself an audience in the global village.
· Know who you are. The more you know what you are aiming for as an artist, the more clarity you will have in shaping your work and in building an audience for it. And the less you will find yourself taking on projects that go nowhere and have no one listening.
· Stop performing for audiences you could have brought with you in a family vehicle. And start changing your/the world.