Imagining the audience differently

Audience participation starts with acknowledging that audiences are an integral part of the orchestral practice: they are imagined in the organisation, programming, and evaluation of concerts. Most of the time, such imaginations of the audience remain implicit. The marketing department addresses the question of the audience – who is the audience, and how to relate to them?  –explicitly. In orchestral marketing departments audiences are usually imagined in two ways: as consumers and as amateurs.

Audiences as consumers

To sell the product of the orchestra, the marketing department develops campaigns addressed at prospective audiences. In most campaigns, audiences are seen as consumers, who need to be persuaded to buy a ticket. Ideally, the majority of the audience should buy their tickets for concerts or especially marketed series of concerts up front through subscription schemes: in this way, the orchestra is secured of attendance long before the concert night. As a consumer, the role of the audience is limited to indicate preferences: which concert-tickets they would like to buy for which programme, or which seat they prefer.

Audiences as amateurs

Another commonly imagined role of an audience is that of an amateur: a passionate lover of classical music, who wants and needs to be informed and educated about the rich history of classical music. This so-called Bildung-paradigm has a long history in classical music. The idea behind it is that if only audiences learn to appreciate classical music, they will attend classical concerts more. Programme notes inform audiences about the biography of the composer, the contextual history of a musical work, and the artistic career of the conductor or soloist. Apps such as Wolfgang that give real time comments on the music that is performed also fit the image of an audience that needs information to understand and appreciate the music.

The Wolfgang-app is an initiative of Johan Idema, in close cooperation with Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ and Dutch design agency Fabrique. Many Dutch orchestras use the app during the performance of a musical work. The app then displays textual information about the composition. You can find the Wolfgang-app here.

When marketeers have to sell experimental or participatory concerts, the audience needs to be instructed differently, especially when audience roles deviate from traditional concert behaviour (sitting silently in the concert hall). Often, giving instructions to the audience of how to behave during an experimental concerts is not enough.

See for example the experiment Empty Minds.

Empty Minds

These imaginings of audiences as either consumers or amateurs usually remain implicit in marketing campaigns – they are part of the routine way audiences are imagined and addressed from a marketing perspective. Making them explicit can help to explore different imaginations of audiences, to explore what other needs or concerns audiences can have.

Alternative imaginations of the audience

In the Artful Participation project, we addressed audiences as citizens instead of consumers. And instead of amateurs, we explored what kind of expertise audiences already have rather than what they have to learn. As a marketeer, what can you learn from these experiments?

Audiences as citizens

Considering audiences as citizens is not self-evident. In the experiment Bucketlist Concerts, a researcher and orchestral marketeers explored what happens if you imagine audiences not as consumers, but as citizens. As citizens with their own concerns, hopes, ideals, and responsibilities. The researcher observed a marketing campaign that was specifically targeted to youngsters, and probed the marketeers with questions: Why is it important and desirable that younger audiences come to concerts and experience classical music? What could a classical music concert offer them that other experiences cannot? Why would classical music matter to them? And how can audiences contribute to it?

At first, the marketeers had difficulty answering these questions. For them, the relevance of classical music concerts was a given, and did not play a role in developing marketing campaigns. When brainstorming together in the evaluation of the Bucketlist Concerts, the marketeers came up with some issues or concerns of youngsters, which they could use to make classical music concerts relevant in a different way. A concert could be presented as a ‘digital detox’, a way to leave your online social ‘bubble’, or offering a form of mindfulness. These ideas start by imagining youngsters as citizens with particular worries or concerns. Imagining youngsters differently, thus raised new questions and other ways to appeal to them.

Read more about the experiment The Bucketlist Concerts.

Bucketlist promotional images

Audiences as experts

In the experiment The People’s Salon, we explored what kind of expertise and experiences audiences already have, instead of addressing them as amateurs. We had conversations with audience members after concerts of the orchestra, around a long table in the foyer. Many concert-goers find it hard to articulate what they like about concerts: they often feel not entitled to voice their opinion. “I am not an expert” is a much-heard response. During conversations, a researcher probed audience members to talk about their personal experiences, anecdotes or memories regarding specific musical works.

In the The People’s Salon, researchers and staff of the orchestra took a step further. We invited some fifteen ‘friends’ of the orchestra – fans of the orchestra who donated to their orchestra – to program a symphonic concert evening. Through qualitative interviews and two focus groups with fifteen Friends, personal stories and memories were collected about how a particular classical music composition had been important for them during certain moments or phases in their lives. These stories formed the basis for developing the program of the concert evening.

For this special concert evening, we created program notes which did not contain information about composers or musical works. Instead, it included the personal stories and anecdotes of some of the friends, showcasing why particular musical works mattered to them. By contributing to the programming of the evening, the audiences took a an artistic responsibility for the orchestra rather than making a financial contribution through donations.

Read more about The People’s Salon.

Friends of philharmonie zuidnederland during The People's Salon

Practicing with imagining the audience differently

Audiences always play a role in the orchestral organisation. By experimenting with other ways to imagine audiences – as citizens instead of consumers, as experts-in-their-own-way instead of amateurs – different questions and ways of addressing audiences can emerge. It can open up discussions within the marketing department about the possible (societal) relevance of the orchestra and classical music, and how to communicate these in new ways. It also implies that the musical works become means to a different end: they are no longer only seen as the main ‘product’ that has to be sold, but they become a way to have a meaningful experience, or share a concern or ideal. Seeing musical works as means can be challenging because it questions the view that the work itself is the self-evident focus of any concert.

While there is nothing wrong in addressing audiences as consumers or amateurs – concert seats have to be sold! – it does narrow down the potential roles the audience can have. And it limits the relationship you can have as a marketing department with your audiences. Audience participation from the perspective of marketing could entail a richer or more diverse imagination of audiences – beyond consumers or amateurs.


Green Room Creatives (2018) Branding philharmonie zuidnederland Van instrumenteel naar menselijk. Report.

Continue your journey

Representing a Voice of the Audience

One task of the marketing department of an orchestra is to make sure the seats are sold. But marketing is more than selling tickets. Marketing departments carefully craft the relationship between the orchestra and its audiences. When marketeers start a dialogue with their audiences, audiences can contribute to the orchestra. Audience participation then takes an organizational form. How can you turn from marketeer into a representative of the voice of the audience within the orchestra?

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Explore Etudes

Practice exercises to learn skills needed for audience participation!

Explore etudes