BBC Music Magazine
15 ways to get bums on seats
What are the novel methods employed by music venues to flog tickets? John Evans finds out
Concerts so dark the audience can barely read the programme, so cold they can’t hear the music for their chattering teeth and so high up they get vertigo: just three of the many deprivations promoters have subjected the paying public to in the name of classical music with a difference.
Blame the premiere of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, with its canons and pyrotechnics. Never mind that a concertgoer’s dress was set alight, that one soldier lost a hand and another was blinded. The fact was, the promoter persuaded thousands of Londoners to turn up. Over 250 years later, they’re still using all the tricks of the trade to encourage listeners to come. At the same time, new approaches intended to attract fresh audiences to classical music have evolved. You name it, promoters will try it. Without further ado here are 15 of the more unusual ploys they have used to fill concert halls…
1 A match made in heaven
With apologies to Shakespeare, if music be the food of love, let’s shift some tickets. This was clearly the intention of folk in the marketing department at New York’s Metropolitan Opera when, back in 2007, they dreamed up Connect at the Met, a series of concerts for lovehungry singles. Twenty to 30 year-olds got Mozart’s Magic Flute, gay and lesbian concertgoers The Marriage of Figaro and the over 40s – maybe back for a second try – Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride.
2 Insomniac inspiration
In a new twist on bed shopping,
Spring Studios, a New York concert venue, drafted in 160 Beautyrest mattresses and beds to use at a concert of Sleep. Designed to help people nod off, this eight-hour lullaby was composed by Max Richter with the assistance of neuroscientist David Eagleman. ‘People aren’t getting nearly enough sleep,’ explained Richter. ‘When we perform it, some people lie down right away and fall asleep.’ Others dash around trying all the mattresses before, perhaps, plumping for the medium-firm Beautyrest Platinum Harbour Reach ($1,999).
3 The promotional godfather
As long ago as 1856, businessman Henry Lee higginson of Boston, Massachusetts, had a vision for an orchestra to bring the classics to the masses. By 1881 his dream had become reality in the form of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for which a ticket cost as little as 25 cents. Four years later he launched the Boston Pops Orchestra, whose most famous conductor was Arthur Fiedler. his sell-out holiday Pops and Fourth of July Pops concerts were the template for today’s slickly marketed classical extravaganzas.
4 Candlelight atmosphere
All those flickering candles, that eye strain… what Mozart would have given for a light switch. So imagine his surprise on finding that today’s promoters, blessed with all manner of electrical lighting, are doing a tidy business selling concerts performed by – wait for it – candlelight. In a new twist, a bottle of champagne is thrown in. Alcohol and fire: not a good mix, as any sozzled 18th-century composer surveying the smouldering wreckage of his wooden lodgings will tell you.
5 Mozart time-machine
We know the classics performed on period instruments sound different, but what about when performed in period dress? Does a wig-wearing violinist sound more authentic? That’s the idea behind Salzburg’s Mozart Dinner Concerts.
This more expensive variation on the candlelight concept finds the performers in fancy dress, while their audience enjoys the kind of nosh, including St Peter’s bread, lemon chicken soup and a honey dessert, that Mozart himself enjoyed, before writing another masterpiece to pay for it.
6 Midnight feast
When explaining the thinking behind its midnight concert series, the Budapest Festival Orchestra didn’t mince its words: ‘Symphonic performances are usually formal events full of senior citizens in old-fashioned music halls – but the Midnight Music classical-concert series was created for young people who live by the moon and sleep by the sun.’ Just so the city’s classical dudes were in no doubt this was cool, bean bags replaced chairs and ‘lucky listeners’ could sit next to ‘casually dressed’ musicians. hey, they could even turn their pages. Gimme five, Ludwig.
7 Beach party
If you think sand between your toes is a pain, pity the 70 members of the Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Symphony Orchestra as they hobbled across the beach, instruments in hand, to take up their positions. Actually, the pictures of the concert, held on Barceloneta Beach in 2015, show the players on a stage clear of the sandy stuff. Not so the poor punters who were relegated to the beach, forced to sit on towels instead of chairs, with one eye on the rising tide.
8 Lang Lang – you rock!
Ever since Liszt, the piano can claim more than its fair share of performers guaranteed to put derrières on seats.
They include Lang Lang who, at the
2014 Grammy Awards, duetted with rock group Metallica on their song, One. ‘He’s interjected himself into the song like no one else has ever done,’ promised Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. On studying a repeat outing in Beijing, his claim looks to be over the top. Lang Lang is relegated to sideman until a cadenza halfway through.
9 André Rieu’s palace
Violinist and conductor André Rieu was already the boss of his own 60-piece private orchestra when in 2008 he went for broke, splashing out £34m on not one but two almost full-scale touring palaces that would form the backdrop to his spectacular concerts around the world. Ice rinks, fountains, a state carriage covered in real gold… you name it, Rieu’s replicas of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace had it. It nearly bankrupted him but the concerts were a sell-out.
10 Mountain retreat
At over 5,000 feet above sea level, on top of a mountain, the Moscow Symphony Orchestra tunes up for a rock vs classical showdown with stars from bands including Chicago and Toto. It’s a key event in the tourist board’s bid to grow Ras Al Khaimah’s visitor numbers to one million by the end of 2018. Trouble is, as the United Arab Emirates’ tallest mountain, Jebel Jais gets chilly, and the audience is advised to wear something warm. At £165 a ticket, that’s one thing the promoter is definitely feeling.
11 Starlight expression
It sounds magical: an evening of live classical music under the stars, in the grounds of the Johannesburg Country Club. Over the past 20 years it has attracted a cult following. ‘When you see 4,000 people lighting candles and “sharing brightness”, you can’t help feeling positive about the potential for South Africa,’ says Richard Cock, the festival’s conductor. Unfortunately it’s a sentiment undermined by the programme’s small print, where the organisers ask that patrons refrain from bringing firearms, drugs and weapons.
12 Frosty reception
‘We’re in the middle of nowhere and the festival takes places in the depths of winter,’ says Martin Fröst, clarinettist and for ten years director of Vinterfest, held in the Swedish town of Mora and now overseen by Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson. So you can be sure there will be a fair amount of snow. It’s why concertgoers wear thermal underwear, tramp around in thick boots and speed between venues on sledges. With promoters keen to attract audiences to their particular corner of the globe, Vinterfest looks to be one festival that’s made of the white stuff.
13 Pooch-ini performances
‘Has your dog ever heard Chopin performed live?’ asks pianist Lisa Spector. Probably not, which is why Spector – she hails from San Francisco, where else? – created Canine Classical Concerts. ‘Dogs are always on alert, wondering if any new sound is safe or not,’ she says. ‘We provide dogs with beautiful, psychoacoustically designed music, and concerts that offer a bonding experience between two- and four-leggeds.’ Unconvinced? Spector also provides a photo of Sanchez, her late Labrador, practising to be the page turner.
14 Tabloid opera
‘Carmen geddit!’ was among the headlines that greeted the news, in 2008, of The Sun newspaper’s promotional tieup with the Royal Opera House (ROH) to offer discounted tickets to its readers. For the first night of Don Giovanni, Covent Garden made all 2,200 seats available exclusively to Sun readers, with tickets priced from £7.50 to £30, compared with the usual £195 for the best seats. ‘[This offer is] for people who perhaps may not have thought that the ROH was for them,’ said chief executive Tony Hall. The ROH still offers bargain tickets including, last year, to people prepared to stand in the stalls. Not the same, though, is it?
15 The one that got away…
Opera has never been the easiest sell which was why, in 2004, impresario Raymond Gubbay decided something had to be done. he launched an opera company at London’s Savoy Theatre to attract new opera audiences raised on West End musicals or the theatre and put off going to Covent Garden or the Coliseum by high ticket prices and their aura of exclusivity. However, despite the most expensive seats at his Savoy Opera costing a reasonable £49.50, sales failed to take off. After just one month, Gubbay pulled the plug, unable to explain why sales had tanked. It was probably the first time in history that a concert promoter was lost for words.
Covent Garden made all 2,200 seats available exclusively to readers of The Sun