Marketing High Culture to the Post-Boom Generation

Marketing High Culture to the Post-Boom Generation

Let me begin with what I think is an instructive bit of history. . . March 3, 1933, the Academy of Music, Philadelphia. Three thousand (yes, that’s three thousand) wildly enthusiastic young people (teenagers and people up to age 25, not children) arrive up for a concert by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Many more are turned away. It is a huge success and even more successful ones follow.

Arrangements for the concert could only be called inspired. They included the following elements. The conductor met 250 students and teachers in advance, even visiting at some of the young people’s homes, and asked them to choose the evening for the concert. (They chose Thursday). He asked them to let him know what pieces they would like performed and filled half the program with them. He recruited some student musicians who played with the orchestra, not buried in the ranks, but on the stage in a group by themselves. The programs were written by the young people, who also provided ushers or bouncers who had instructions not to let in anyone over 25. While standing in line for tickets (the prices ranged from 5 to 75 cents) the young people chanted improvised texts.

Beethoven’s Fifth,
Beethoven’s Fifth
Beethoven’s Fifth
It gets monontonous
You know
It bores me stiffth!

The programs were excellent and included modern music. Various national anthems were sung as encores at the performances, including the communist “Internationale,” the latter causing a furor in staid Philadelphia. Stokowski was accused of corrupting American youth, to which he replied: “The youth public are not children. Some of them are adolescent but the majority are from 20-25 years old and so are adults. They are completely capable of doing their own thinking and of taking care of themselves. They would be the first to resent my interference with their opinions in any way.”

These concerts involve what I call inspired marketing. Some of the arrangements have been imitated elsewhere in recent years, but the whole package was revolutionary. Before I do a time-leap and put this in perspective for today’s organizations trying to reach the post-boomers, let me note what I think are the key elements of the 1933 package.

First. Consultation with the audience and knowing what their needs and wishes are. We have marketing people to do this but it’s interesting that Stoki, busy as he was, did his own fieldwork. Why not perform at times and on days that suit the audience? Why get stuck on rigid schedules that potential audiences find it awkward to meet?

Second. Participation. As far as is possible, get the audience involved in what’s being presented. Empower the audience, give them genuine channels of input. Let them have some say in the programming; let them put their comments in the program booklets, and put excellent young local performers on stage.

Third. Do what Klaus Heyman of Naxos Records has done in our time. (There are differences, to be sure). Get the prices down as low as you can and still keep quality. Young people should be able to go to ballet, theatre, and classical concerts at rates not much exceeding what they pay for movies and CDs. Otherwise forget it.

Fourth. And this is important, although it may seem trivial or facetious. Allow for the “thumbing your nose factor.” Give the audience breathing space, invite them to get hyped up, and the more controversial and challenging the occasion the better.

These are perhaps the key points, but I must also say: all the planning the world wouldn’t have created and sustained those excited Philadelphia audiences if Stokowski the Magician, or some equally potent conductor, had not been at the helm.

The young audiences of today are light years away from the Philadelphia young people of 1933. They live in a post-modern world where the collective belief in the icons of high art has vanished, along with family values, respect for tradition, and lifetime jobs. Today’s audiences have been doped out by decades of television (on which the so-called aesthetic arts have never been well-presented). In terms of marketing, they might be divided into constantly shifting focus groups that might include Jocks, Computer Nerds, New Agers, Goths, Cyberpunkers, Witches and Forties Freaks. (I owe some of these to my own classroom experience and some to my friend Alan Neal’s CBC radio show on Trend-Spotting). The democratic myth, a worthy one, that education would somehow transform young people into consumers of elite culture, has been shattered. Higher education has accomplished little in this respect, although individual teachers have done quite a bit. Some argue that the audiences for classical music and other high-art vehicles will never get much bigger than they are now, and will include no more than about 5% of culture consumers. Marketing, however, inspired, may never be able to change that.

One of the key transformations in the arts experience of the 21st century will involve the supplementing (hopefully not the superseding) of live performance by technological intervention. Janet Murray of MIT, in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck, has pointed out how the universal home telecomputer of the post 2010 period will be transformed into an instrument with amazing possibilities of audience participation. Viewers will eventually have the opportunity to “enter” shows to make personal rearrangements in time and space, and this will involve thousands of new and personal scenarios, thus confirming Alvin Toffler’s notion that the computer will fractionalize and possibly liberate the individual from the mass-audience syndrome associated with television and film. Murray seems quite optimistic that wonderful stories will emerge in the new media, that new bards will appear and use the super-technology creatively to plumb the human condition. Given what has happened in the case of television (for which some also predicted a great future), I am skeptical. In my view one of the big themes of the arts in the 21st century, long predicted by science fiction, will be the “playing with culture” theme. Post-modern people nostalgically yearn to establish contact with the past and will constantly find ways to re-connect with or to reinvent traditional art forms and cultural themes.

A word on the implications of this for Canada. Technology and the mass media are creating an international info-tainment culture, and if Canada does not have a share of this, we will, as John Ralston Saul puts it, disappear from the planet. To counterbalance and temper this internationalism, the 21st century will demand that Canadian arts groups make new and more vital contact with local audiences. If we don’t do this, Canada will equally well disappear from the planet in so far as national and local identity are concerned, the new technologies will be wasted and international contacts will be in vain. Good signs on the present Canadian scene include events like the fringe theatre festivals, Word on the Street, the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, our international film and jazz festivals, and our excellent author readings. Among the bad signs are: (1) dwindling audiences or uncertain financing for most large classical music performing groups, (2) the continued existence of the Hummingbird Centre, and the increasing outdatedness of many of our once-grand performing spaces, (3) the unfocused shopping basket type festivals we’ve occasionally seen at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, (4) the shrinking of contacts between artists and the schools, (5) the continuation of the bad old ways of dress codes and other trappings of nineteenth century elitism, such as the Canada Council Performing Arts Showcases, which give awards to our best performers in the presence only of the old, the well-heeled and well-connected political and business tycoons, (6) the splitting off of audiences into elite and popular culture factions and into ethnic and lifestyle groups. How many hockey fans are also ballet fans? How many baseball fans attend the opera? It’s wonderful to see art from suppressed or forgotten traditions, but let’s encourage the broadest dissemination of this and not allow the government “quota” mentality to politicize it in the wrong way.

We all know what Sol Hurok said: “If people don’t want to come, there’s no stopping them!” In the 21st Century the new generation may have permanently lost connection with the traditions of what I call “aesthetic” art. Commentators such as Donald Vroon, editor of The American Record Guide may even be correct in assuming that–in the U.S. at least–the “dumbing down” has gone too far, and that popular culture has pretty well obliterated the interest of the larger population in “Capital C Culture.” Optimists believe that new audiences will develop among the next generation if presenters appeal to their special group interests–which has dangers–or if they make their events “the place to be,” which has other dangers. Some are more in the Stokowski vein in believing that new audiences will appear only if they have a share in the action, or that they will be attracted by good prices, less rigid performance practices and schedules, and that they should always have a little space to thumb their noses at what they are experiencing.

Even though university education seems to have little direct effect on audience taste, I believe that unless young children are brought into contact with exciting “serious” art before they find themselves awash in television programming and the other artistically low-end products of our culture, there is little future for the traditional aesthetic arts. My wife has recently taught two very diverse Grade Four-Five school groups, one consisting of disadvantaged, mostly immigrant children with learning and behaviour problems, the other an elite group with considerable economic means and very strong learning support from their successful parents. She found the former group dependent on television for almost all its reference points, and quite caught up in television violence. The latter group (largely restricted from television viewing) had multiple cultural reference points. They constantly read challenging books, took an independent line on current issues, studied the arts privately, and were open to things like classical music and black and white movies, which the deprived children found very hard to get into. A gleam of light appeared, however: by diligent work, my wife managed to awaken the deprived children, and to give them some sense of a larger world of creativity. In one case she enlisted my help and I made a tape of classical selections that portrayed environmental scenes, a set of musical landscapes, so to speak. The deprived children responded to this, as they did to other imaginative approaches, with great sensitivity. Which makes their helpless immersion in popular culture of the most idiotic kind all the more sad, I think.

Let there be no misunderstanding. I myself enjoy popular culture. I love many kinds of jazz, some popular singers, film noir, horror and SF movies. I grew up with these and with Tarzan, Superman, Batman, the Green Hornet and the others. Like any other kid of my generation, I played sports and read comic books. I remain a great baseball fan, and I often watch and occasionally attend hockey games and tune in to Monday Night Football. I was one of many pioneers in trying to promote the academic study of popular culture at my university. As a kid, however, I was also fascinated by classical music, by the great orchestras, conductors and singers. I loved the Museum of Modern Art and its array of magical worlds, Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy at the top of the stairs, Magritte, Kandinsky and Guernica. I loved Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, and was stunned by the José Quintero revivals of Eugene O’Neill and by off-Broadway Chekhov and Brecht. I also read serious literature, and I never doubted that such realms offer the most profound connections with life and art. Unlike some adults I meet today, I did not put my whole emotional investment into rock music and hip art, and I am happy whenever I encounter a creative synthesis between pop and serious art.

Unfortunately, some commentators, Geoff Pevere, for example, who have grown up almost exclusively with pop culture and view the world through its hyper-lenses, project snobbery, elitism, “old-fashionedness” on those of us who insist on the vital importance of aesthetic culture. Obviously, they lack our conviction–our experience–that the most profound (and also the most basic) engagements of the human mind and senses with the world are reflected in the aesthetic arts. Such commentators have also largely misunderstood the concern Canadian nationalists have about the threat of American culture to Canadian self-identity. While we love American culture in many of its aspects, some of us realize that its artifacts often carry messages quite alien to–and even destructive of–Canadian values. Interestingly enough, serious American artists and audiences are just as threatened by some of it as we are, although for different reasons.

In addition, some of us perceive that mainstream American popular culture is an aspect of the capitalist world culture that is concerned with profit-making and popularity at all costs, that it projects a limited spectrum of American values, and exists partially to please stockholders. Yes, American pop culture can be wonderful. But it can also be trivial, stupefying and downright sinister, as well as destructive of valuable traditions. Which is why Canada and other countries are concerned to monitor it, control it, and to promote their own values in the face of it.

Of course it is possible that some futurists are correct, and that we are rushing inevitably toward a world culture dominated by Hollywood films, television comedy and rock music. And whenever anything smacks of the inevitable many academics will be found justifying it. Yet I hope this is not part of the “progress” that scientists see inevitably as part of our earth culture becoming a Phase One (or planetary) Civilization. If it is, I hope the first thing we hear from space from a superior civilization (assuming we recognize it at all) will sound not like Alanis Morissette, Elton John, or the Spice Girls, but will resemble a fugue in the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach, an orgy of emotionally-charged “Romantic” sound in the vein of Tchaikovsky, Strauss or Mahler, or else strike our ears as a subtle fabric of sound fashioned by a Ravel or a Takemitsu (although from a planet near Altair or Betelgeuse).

I don’t think we are going to convert all the arts consumers in the 21st century to ballet and modern dance, to serious theatre, opera and classical music, but quite possibly we can make such venues a more vital part of the 21st century experience. If we begin early enough, education can help young people appreciate the beauties of the aesthetic arts; it can also help to break down the barriers that exist between the fans of popular culture and those who love the fine arts. Such education, though, must not be merely for the economically privileged; it must be offered to all children, so as not to further widen the lamentable gap we see opening between rich and poor as the new century begins.

I opened this talk by referring to the great conductor Leopold Stokowski, who had the potential to be, and often was–although within certain limits–a significant educator. The world has changed a great deal; we have come a long way, and have taken some false paths, but if want to offer gifts of substance to the future, if we want to survive as a serious culture, we can still learn a thing or two from Stokowski and the Philadelphia Story of 1933.

Note (1). This is a slightly expanded and rethought version of a talk delivered to the Canadian Association of Presenting Artists at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, October 3, 1998.

Note (2). Information on the Philadelphia concerts is derived from my old teacher Oliver Daniel’s substantial biography of Leopold Stokowski. (Stokowski: A Counterpoint of View. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1982), chapter 35. But see also the interesting piece by Helene Hanff, (who attended the Philadelphia concerts at a young age) : “The Night Stokowski left the Peanut Shattered” from the London Times, 21 May, 1983, republished on the Leopold Stokowski web site:


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