What's the deal with demographics?

For the sake of argument, I'm going to make some sweeping generalizations today. Here we go…

If you talk to almost anyone who presents art almost anywhere (see? I told you…), and ask them to list some of their biggest challenges, audience demographics will almost certainly be near the top. Almost every art presenter recognizes the urgent need to not only bring in more audience members, but younger and more diverse audience members too. Here at jazz festival headquarters, we're also aware of this need - a matter we discussed at our recent festival wrap-up meeting. Moving forward, what programming can we present which will bring out an audience better representative of the city in which we're presenting the festival?

"So why, exactly, does it matter who's in the audience, as long as the audience is full?"

Fundamentally - and from a bottom-line viewpoint - I suppose it doesn't. Practically, however, the people in the audience today won't necessarily be in the audience tomorrow - tastes change, and as certain audiences age, we can't expect them to come out to concerts in the same way they might now. Therefore, it's vital that we bring in younger audience members - people with whom we can build a long-term relationship, people on whom we can rely to buy tickets for many years to come.

"Okay, fine - I get younger. But why culturally diverse?"

In my mind, there are a couple of answers to this question. First - the cultural makeup of the city of Toronto has changed and broadened substantially over the past few decades. We're now one of the most multicultural cities in the world. And people of all cultures are listening to music of a wide variety of genres. The audience of tomorrow literally does not look like the audience of today, so we need to make sure that everyone knows about the outstanding music at our festival, and that people from all cultures feel welcome to attend. Second - the music being made on stage is, more and more, fusing cultures. Musicians are now growing up with much broader access to music of all kinds, and what they are performing on stage reflects their various musical influences. It makes sense to me therefore that audiences at certain shows also reflect those various musical influences. We saw this, for example, at the Robert Glasper show this year - some of the biggest audience response was for the hip hop tunes, or the Radiohead tunes, or the Nirvana tunes…not the jazz tunes.

So how do we ensure that we're reaching new, diverse audiences? If I knew the magic formula, I would likely have already written a book and likely already be retired. Instead, I'm left to brainstorm and theorize. Here are some ideas.

Program music a new audience wants to see.
This probably seems like a no-brainer. If certain artists are going to appeal to a younger, more culturally-diverse audience, let's make sure they're on our stages. Sometimes, that's easy to do. Sometimes, math - and competition - gets in the way. In today's music market, artists who are hot right now tend to be getting hotter, and quickly. Their fees often reflect their rapid ascent, as does demand for the artist. In a city like Toronto, there are undoubtedly half a dozen presenters vying for the same artist at any given time. All that said, it's our job to present artists that certain audiences want to see - there is no point in trying to convince a certain demographic to attend a concert if the artist has no relevance to the music that demographic listened/is listening to.

Make the music more accessible.
This is a tricky one. What, exactly, does "accessible" mean? For many people, I think two things come to mind: make sure tickets are affordable, and make sure the venue fits the artist. I'll also add a less tangible (I think) definition: make sure that the music is enjoyable to as many people as possible.

The first two, relatively, are easy. It makes sense that certain artists will work best in certain venues, and we need to make sure that we're correctly matching artist with venue. For example - if an artist is primarily going to attract an older audience, we know from experience we need to find a venue with seats. Similarly, some quick research online can indicate the best ticket price-point for most artists - there is no point in trying to ticket a show at $50 if the artist has been selling tickets for $25 at every other show for the past six months.

The idea of ensuring that the music is enjoyable is slightly less straightforward. The idea of enjoyable music is different for every concert-goer. As I've mentioned in previous posts, what I think would make a great concert is not necessarily what you think would make a great concert. However, it is my contention that if we can get people in the seats, and we're presenting great artists - whether way inside or far out - the audience will enjoy the show. The challenge is to get people in the seats to begin with.

As you may know, when I'm not working with the jazz festival, I work with a contemporary music ensemble. I've been with Continuum for over six years and I can't remember a single instance of someone leaving a Continuum concert having not enjoyed it at all. Sometimes one piece or another hasn't resonated, or has even been off-putting, but on the whole, audience members - whether seasoned contemporary music veterans or discovering the music for the first time - enjoy what they see (and hear). The challenge is getting them to cross the threshold. We have a similar challenge at the jazz festival.

Aaron Gervais, a contemporary music composer who I met through my work at Continuum, wrote a very interesting blog post on accessibility in classical music (read it here). Two points stick out in particular for me: first, his suggestion that if someone doesn't know classical music, it doesn't matter if the program features Mozart or Glass - the barrier is the same. Second, his suggestion that "Mozart is not a gateway drug to Stockhausen." I agree with both of these suggestions, and I feel they can both easily apply to the jazz festival. I feel strongly that if someone doesn't know jazz music, it doesn't really matter if we've programmed Diana Krall or Rudder - if they're looking for a great jazz festival experience, they're just as likely to try either. Similarly, I feel it's a fallacy to suggest that someone will come to see Boz Scaggs (for example) and then buy a ticket to Jason Moran (or Nikki Yanofsky, or whatever).

As Artistic Director, I feel strongly that we need to be presenting the best artists on our stages, and making no apologies for doing so. Let's put on stage who is exciting now, and be sure to tell people what's so exciting about them. Let's ensure that a wide variety of demographics is being served by our programming, and ensure that we're building today the audience of tomorrow.

Easy, right?


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