Summer Summary 2: Audience Experiences

Tools of the Trade

I’ve only managed to cover a few of my recent wonderful (and free!) aesthetic experiences in the first part of my Summer Summary, so I’ll just mention here quickly my visits to the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool), the Tate Modern & Britain and the Whitechapel Gallery (London) – although I do intend to come back to my wonderful time at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao with the full-fledged post it deserves.

The second part is going to be all about the “working” side of my working holiday, but it’s not so much of a leap, because much of my work is actually concerned with the audience experience.

Part 2: The Audience Experience

The workshop: Growing Audiences for Jazz

One of the reasons for my summer(ish) European escapade was to deliver a workshop on audience development for NorVolJazz, a network of not-for-profit jazz promoters based in the north of England. My presentation is available online, and preparing it was a great way to reflect on what audience development means to me.

I started with a broad definition by Arts Council England, of which I like not only the multi-function approach (which suits my generalist nature), but also the distinction between audience development as a process (which is where most organisations stop) and ethos:

The term Audience Development describes activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences and to help arts [and cultural] organisations to develop ongoing relationships with audiences. It can include aspects of marketing, commissioning, programming, education, customer care and distribution.

Audience development can focus on finding audiences outside the mainstream –i.e. “new audiences” or “audiences from socially excluded groups”. Audience development also reflects the relationship with audiences that develops over time with a focus on the long term.

As a process, audience development employs a range of marketing tools such as research, publicity, communication and customer relationship management.

As an ethos, audience development places the audience at the heart of everything the organisation does.

(source: Wikipedia / Arts Council England)

The last sentence is particularly relevant to the small organisations and independent promoters I was talking to: it’s about a reversal of perspective, from perceiving audience development efforts as an extra – and optional – financial or time cost to thinking first and foremost about people who come – or don’t come yet – to the gig: they ARE the gig.

Of course, it’s easier said than done, and it takes time and commitment, but the mistake would be to think that if audiences don’t come, it’s because you lack money or special skills. Sure, it might help – but the key here is to adopt the audience’s point of view and to think through their complete experience, from the moment they hear about the gig to after they’ve left the venue. I approached this in my workshop with a narrative structure, getting participants to think about how to “make them come”, “make them stay” (a personal worry, with jazz) and “make them come back”. This all goes well beyond the music: knowing in advance about the length of the sets or when the kitchen closes, for example, could make all the difference in the decision to come or not.

Going further, this 2009 series of briefings on audience development commissioned by East Midland Jazz was developed to be used directly by small promoters, avoiding jargon and helping out with decision-making. Although it is based on a specific regional audience and offer, most of it can be used as a starting point for a reflection on motivations and barriers, developing younger audiences, persuading more people to come to jazz more often and pricing.

In 2011, US-based Technology in the Arts published a guide called Online Audience Engagement: Strategies for Developing Jazz and Classical Audiences, also very practical and action-oriented, with some interesting case studies to provide best practice examples.

The Meeting: The Experience Business

Looking for inspiration for my workshop, I researched a few different case studies, some of which I’ve summarised in a previous post about innovative audience development initiatives for classical music. I also stumbled upon a goldmine of tips and insights when I discovered The Experience Business, a UK-based arts consultancy that has truly taken to heart the audience-centered ethos advocated by Arts Council England.

I met with founder and director Lisa Baxter just between her lecturing and workshop tour in Australia and the Mindcamp Creativity Conference in Canada that she attends regularly. Her approach is resolutely boundary-crossing, breathing fresh life into arts marketing by drawing from design thinking and user experience design, applying advanced creative facilitation methods and working with full organisations (and not just the marketing or senior executive team).

On her website, she’s sharing the books and quotes that influence her thinking, as well as this video by Tedde van Gelderen, CEO of Akendi, that presents what Experience Design is and can do:

The Book: The Audience Experience

Fittingly, Lisa Baxter contributed a chapter to a book that I had ordered just before meeting her, The Audience Experience: A Critical Analysis of Audiences in the Performing Arts. Written by a wide range of arts research academics and practitioners, it aims at addressing the following question: “What are audiences thinking, feeling and doing as a product of their engagement with arts practices?” It is redefining the now-ubiquitous term ‘audience engagement’ as “audiences that are engaged in both experiencing and remembering”, hence going much, much further than the traditional bums-on-seats approach.

The chapters explore, amongst other topics, audience response to new trends in arts presentation, such as ‘Alternative Content’ (i.e. live streaming of a performance in a cinema, used for opera, theatre, ballet and music) (CH. 2, Barker); the influence of venues and settings in shaping the audience experience and participation pattern (CH. 4, Brown); new methodologies to understand in greater depth the meaning of performing arts experiences (CH 5, Foremand-Wernet and Dervin; CH. 8, Baxter, O’Reilly and Carnegie; CH. 10, Radbourne; CH. 11, Johanson); and the relation between playing and listening to music, or studying and watching dance, and its influence in shaping the audience experience (CH. 6, Pitts; CH. 9, Vincs).

It’s probably best to leave it to the audience to describe what the audience experience actually is, so here are a couple of quotes gathered through some of the book’s case studies:

What I love about audiences in the theatre is that collective surge that can sometimes happen. It’s not always palpable but there’s a sense of everyone moving forward, or of relief, or maybe of being uncomfortable, or feeling the next person next to you, reacting. It’s a reflection of the emotional character of what’s going on.

When you go to a live performance, it’s happening, it’s in the zone, it’s transcendent. You feel like you’re a part of something special: you’ve actually been present, you’ve borne witness to something.

And a final one from an audience member whose life might very well have been changed by a successful audience development campaign:

Wow, I have never given much respect or thought to this classical music genre, but this was actually very delightful music … Why haven’t I been introduced to this music before? … I have often been told that classical music is boring or not ‘great’ music. I’m disappointed that I let other people’s point of of view distort my taste in music … This music definitely changed my opinion on the genre, not to mention I will be listening to this stuff more than I have.

What do you think?

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