The Mystery Concert
16 May 2012
Inside the Classics

We’re taking questions and ideas from the room this month, and as I mentioned at the end of my last post, commenter Michael presented us with an intriguing marketing idea:

Here’s what I want to know: if the audience came a concert knowing that the orchestra would perform an opener, a concerto, and a symphony without telling them what the pieces (or who the composers) were ahead of time, how do you think they might react?

Well, my gut reaction is to suspect that most of them wouldn’t come at all, since everything we know about our audiences suggests that the repertoire on the program is far and away the most important factor in their decision to buy tickets. But I like the way this idea points, because I’ve said for years that a big part of the challenge to attracting new audiences to concert music is getting people who are already fans past the Warhorse Mentality (where some concertgoers only really want to hear their favorite ten pieces over and over again) while simultaneously finding ways to reach out to new people without first needing to explain to them who Schubert was and why they should care.

There are really two different ways to look at Michael’s idea. The first is as a special, one-time-only “mystery concert” in which the hook to get people to buy tickets is that we’re refusing to tell you in advance what we’ll be playing. Maybe there could be some sort of way for ticketbuyers to request favorite pieces, but with no promise of fulfillment. The message would be: it’s gonna be a great concert, but you’ll just have to be there if you want to find out what “it” is. If you priced it right (which is to say, priced it relatively low,) I think this could be a great gimmick, and could even be spun out into an occasional series of mystery concerts.

If, on the other hand, we’re looking to more broadly move the focus away from the specific rep and more towards the idea that the Minnesota Orchestra will give you an experience to remember regardless of what’s specifically on the program, then de-emphasizing (if not completely obscuring) the individual programs makes a lot of sense. This would probably require a large initial cash outlay to shift the focus of our messaging away from targeting specific audiences for specific concerts, and towards just getting the orchestra’s brand in front of as many people as possible as often as possible. Billboards, bus ads, online ads, radio spots, all saying the same thing, which would be some variation on: “The Minnesota Orchestra. The best band in Minneapolis is live at Orchestra Hall every Friday and Saturday night. Be there.”

Would this work? I’ve no idea. I like the concept, but there are all sorts of little niggling details that might derail it from a practical standpoint. For instance: marketing surveys tell us that there is virtually no crossover between the people who want to hear us play great symphonic music and people who want to watch us play backup band to Celtic Woman or Art Garfunkel. And I can’t imagine that the promoters behind Celtic Woman would be okay with our not promoting their specific appearance with us. So we’d be promoting our pops shows (which we play primarily to help subsidize the core classical music that orchestras exist to perform) specifically, but obscuring the week-to-week symphonic works that are at the heart of our mission. That could send a very different message than the one we’re intending.

“Institutional marketing” (the official term for promoting your general existence and value to the community, rather than any specific thing you’re presenting at the moment) is a topic that gets tossed around a lot in arts circles. Given a bottomless pool of money, it’s something every symphony orchestra would be foolish not to do. But with budgets as tight as they are these days, institutional marketing is sometimes viewed as an expensive luxury, and it has the added problem of being hard to evaluate. We have all sorts of ways of assessing how successful our various marketing efforts, ticket discounts, etc. are at getting people in our front door. But measuring how many people have started showing up because your barrage of billboards and bus ads got into their heads and made them suddenly think of you on a Saturday night? Not so easy, and arts managers hate not being able to quantify whether money they’re spending is having a positive impact or not.

I love the idea of getting people to come to Orchestra Hall just because they love the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and trust us to entertain and inspire them regardless of what’s on the program that night. But I would like it, wouldn’t I? It’s a much tougher sell for the people who would actually have to buy the tickets under that arrangement. So what about it: would you come to a one-off mystery concert? Would you keep coming if we did it every week? Or even just some weeks? The comments section awaits your verdict…

<January 2020>

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