In 2019, the League of American Orchestras together with TRG Arts, a marketing consultancy, reported that Black, Hispanic, and Asian music-lovers each accounted for less than 10% of orchestra ticket buyers. Those who identified as “white/other” made up roughly 80% of audiences, according to patron data on 27, mostly larger-budget U.S. orchestras. The findings were first published in the report, Orchestras in Recovery: Ticket Sales and Donation Trends, 2019-21.
Today, those numbers have barely budged, despite the greater societal and orchestral focus on racial and ethnic inclusivity after the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. And the music itself is not necessarily the barrier: other surveys show an interest in classical music that is comparable across all groups.
The limited progress is dispiriting for everyone who believes that orchestras must serve broader spectrums of society. If orchestras stick to current practices even as the U.S. becomes more racially diverse, classical music will only serve smaller and smaller shares of the population. Coupled with this is the vexing perception that audience diversification efforts are sometimes considered to be a drain on financial and staff resources—an activity that is somehow off to the side.
If orchestras stick to current practices even as the U.S. becomes more racially diverse, classical music will only serve smaller and smaller shares of the population.
Determined to act, the League began sourcing strategies and stories of impact from 15 orchestras that have made headway in this area, and the results are revealed in the Catalyst Guide: Audience Diversification, published this January. Written by Theodore Wiprud with Dr. Karen Yair, Vice President of Research and Resources at the League, and Donna Walker-Kuhne, a veteran writer and strategist in community engagement, audience development, and social justice, the Guide explores how—and why—orchestras can engage more diverse and inclusive audiences. In the Guide, 15 orchestras share the ways they are making progress towards engaging younger and more racially diverse audiences. The Guide explores eight key audience diversification strategies, discusses tactics to overcome commonly experienced challenges, offers practical tips and big-picture thinking, and includes case studies from orchestras across the country that are successfully taking action.
“The idea for the Guide is: Here are the people who are doing it, and if you have questions, ask them,” says Theodore Wiprud, a composer, education consultant, and Guide co-author. “This may surface issues that orchestras haven’t been thinking about. Or maybe they’ve been consumed with one thing and haven’t realized that this is another lever they could pull to make progress.”
“It’s been encouraging to see the efforts made by orchestras in recent years to hone the vision and EDI skills needed to center values of inclusion and collaboration,” says the League’s Karen Yair. “Now, we’re beginning to see results. Each of the 15 orchestras we feature in the Guide is taking what they’ve learned and applying it creatively to their programming, presentation, and audience engagement efforts. It’s truly gratifying to be able to share their stories and spread the inspiration for orchestras everywhere.”
The Guide’s authors report that the leading strategy that participating orchestras name for attracting new audiences is to feature compositions and artists from diverse demographic backgrounds onstage. Engaging local talent can be especially effective. One case study in the Guide involves the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra, which has built its subscription base and attracted corporate sponsorship by featuring popular Hawaiian musical artists and engaging Michael Thomas Fumai, a Hawaiian-born composer, as Director of Artistic Engagement and Composer in Residence. The orchestra’s music isn’t confined to the concert hall—it’s now featured on Hawaiian Airlines flights—and the orchestra plans to introduce new concert attire from Hawaiian designers Nakeʻu Awai and Amos Kotomori that reflect Island styles and communities.
The leading strategy that orchestras name for attracting new audiences is to feature compositions and artists from diverse demographic backgrounds onstage.
But beyond engaging diverse composers and guest artists, orchestras truly signal a commitment to inclusivity if there are faces of color in the ensemble itself. An unfortunate cliché has emerged that orchestras only bring African American musicians onstage for Black History Month concerts or Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.
“There needs to be an intention to specifically look at how to bring in more musicians of color,” says Walker-Kuhne. Discussing the necessity of building diverse audition pools of musicians, she says, “Let’s be intentional: ‘This season we want to have 20%, 30%’ [of BIPOC musician applicants]. And how do we get them? Let’s go after them. Blind auditions are nice, but let’s go for who we want.’ ”
Mutually Beneficial Partnerships
Other strategies in the Guide focus on establishing and deepening partnerships with local nonprofits. North Carolina’s Charlotte Symphony Orchestra views its programming in community centers, places of worship, and hospitals as points of entry for new listeners.
“It’s something that we recognize is not just important for the Charlotte Symphony. It’s important for Charlotte—period,” says David Fisk, the symphony’s president and CEO. “The major sponsors, foundations, and individual philanthropists in Charlotte are very focused on DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work.” This April, the orchestra is launching a mobile concert stage built on a convertible trailer that will park in different neighborhoods and collaborate with diverse partners. “We have the city as a 50% investor in this because they want us to use it in particular parts of the city that have been historically under-resourced. So they have public money joining us making sure the symphony is out there reaching more diverse audiences.
“It’s very much grounded in building relationships,” Fisk continues, adding that the project is the latest in a suite of efforts, from concerts at neighborhood breweries to those at Roof Above, an organization that serves Charlotte’s unhoused population. Over the last two years, the orchestra’s multi-pronged efforts have spurred a growth in the percentage of African American, Hispanic, and Asian ticket buyers, increasing from 11% to 16%. Millennial purchasers have increased from 22% to 26%, and Gen Z purchasers from 1% to 3.5%.
“Where I see movement is where the community is engaged in a sustainable, predictable way,” Walker-Kuhne says, adding, “People of color, we all have our own cultural experiences. We don’t need orchestras to be happy. You need us. So, if I’m going to leave the safety of my community, where I know what my experience will be, then I need to feel welcomed, acknowledged, respected, and now is the time.”
The Audience Experience
This points to another key strategy outlined in the Guide: ensuring that the in-hall experience is as inviting as possible. Research shows that audience members who feel unwelcome at concerts are twice as likely to be BIPOC than white. And the most often reported sources of discomfort are other audience members and front-of-house staff. The Guide advises that even when an orchestra doesn’t control its venue operations, it should work with suppliers to instigate EDI training for front-of-house staff and volunteers.
“That means that the house staff is welcoming, looks people in the eye, is happy that they’re there, and escorts them to their seats,” notes Walker-Kuhne. “Another piece is, what does advertising look like? Does it have anything that suggests that there are diverse layers within this experience? What’s the follow-up? Did somebody call or email and say thank you and welcome them to the next event? That’s where the discomfort comes from.”
Budget and staffing allocation are commonly perceived as stumbling blocks. But the Guide authors advise large-budget orchestras to hire a dedicated person with expertise in cultivating community relationships and trust. Smaller orchestras might recruit an experienced board member to fulfill a similar role. Budgets for audience development should be seen as an investment, requiring a dedicated budget line, and contributed income will follow. Still, diversifying audiences is about far more than financial sustainability, Yair cautions: “The mission is critical here. It’s all about relevance.”
It’s also important to recognize that progress can be measured not only through ticket sales or donations—which can take time to materialize—but through other metrics such as email open rates or promotions with diverse online influencers, says Wiprud.
The structures and systems around classical music bring a difficult history of exclusion that will take time to reverse. Walker-Kuhne says that orchestras shouldn’t be discouraged if results aren’t immediately apparent: audience diversification efforts need at least three years of operation before their impact can be fully assessed. “It takes a long time to really change people’s behavior,” she says. “It’s not an overnight fix; it’s not a pill. So if you fundamentally believe that people of color have a role in the orchestral world, then changing that is not instantaneous. There has to be a very consistent effort to realize the limitation of [old] thinking and behavior and to open up minds and hearts.”