Importance of audience development in music institutions

While the Cairo Opera House suspends all activities until 25 February, it is about time to raise the difficult issue of audience development in Cairo


The world we live in struggles to safeguard the splendour of arts. Social, political and economic challenges cast a shadow on that splendour. In Egypt, the revolution, the ongoing killing of Egyptians, make it hard for classical music to position itself within the broader scene.

Western classical music is not as popular as other genres; it faces a much greater cultural challenges here than in Western societies. Moreover the isolation of this art form in the past has only widened the gap between audiences and concert halls. Yet it is not the political struggle that pulls the rug from under the feet of classical music, whose position was no better prior to the revolution. Over the past years, the concert halls have failed to reach out to potential audiences while actual music lovers struggled to find information about events. Such administrative neglect is what generates the most pressing questions.

And since political factors make it even harder for classical music to surface, it is perhaps time for the management to study the problems at hand. The purpose of this procedure is not to forcefully promote music and turn a blind eye to the country’s bleeding revolution. This is rather the time for tactical thinking to help ensure that art forms which hold power of shaping future minds do not vanish from Egypt’s social arena.

As we have seen over the past years, the term Audience Development is hardly ever heard in any institution promoting classical music in Cairo. The Cairo Opera House’s promotional techniques are handicapped or nonexistent. Monthly valuable concerts held at the International Music Centre depend mostly on the same set of returning listeners, many of them devoted followers of Ramzi Yassa, the internationally renowned Egyptian pianist, who is the centre’s artistic director and its main dynamo. The American University in Cairo’s sporadic classical music events should benefit from the widespread advertising campaigns in which the university excels but only when promoting commercial, market oriented activities. Moreover, with its ambitious music education programmes, the AUC should use its tools in tailoring interesting musical activities and as such drawing large audience to musical events. El Sawy Culturewheel (El Sakia) seems to be managing well its own promotion of music, lectures and other activities addressing a mainly young audience well enough, with El Sakia String Orchestra, the only classical music outlet in this location, benefiting from the same channels of advertisement. Though on the right track, the centre still needs to go a step further and add creative ideas to promoting classical music, however.

Egypt is not the only country challenged by lack of interest in the classical music. Europe, USA and Australia face severe difficulties in filling the museums, galleries or concert halls as well. The problem became a worldwide phenomenon and grew even more serious in the past decade, when consumerism and the rule of money took over many aspects of the arts scene. Along parallel lines, most art forms are accessible through the internet; digital solutions allow viewers and listeners to indulge in a high-quality artistic experiences; a number of world renowned museums have already launched virtual tours, while music is shared through illegal file-sharing websites which include all the classical music recordings one would dream of. Those whose appetite for refined music was not yet killed by the consumerist monopoly on the music scene are equally tempted by many tools allowing them to  listen to their favorite compositions without stepping out of the house.

Egypt is no different from the rest of the world in facing that challenge, whether it is cultural, educational or economical. The only difference is that Egypt’s classical music scene refuses to take an action and work on audience development. Cairo’s problem is to find 1,200 people on weekly basis to fill the seats of a single opera house in the city, or 300 people to attend the International Music Centre’s concert once a month or a few hundred for sporadic events at the AUC premises. Doesn’t it sound easy enough considering that Cairo’s population reaches 20 million?

The challenge faced by hundreds of the concert halls and orchestras in each major city around the globe – London, Paris, Vienna, Sidney, New York – seems much bigger. Yet we always envy those cities for having their classical music events sold out, often months prior to the concert. This fact cannot be a result of the Western audience’s specific culture; it rather testifies to clear audience development techniques deployed by creative professionals working in each and every artistic institution around the world. Today, Audience Development became one of the most popular terms used by such bodies. Arts managers are pillars of the success of any institution, something that is still under-estimated in Egypt at the best of times it turns into the amateurish efforts of desperate musicians looking for an audiences.

But for those interested in knowledge and knowhow, the arts management scene gives glimpses into the professional approaches. One of the core educational activities of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC is related to arts management. In 2007, Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, held the Arab Art Symposium in Cairo. The symposium revolved around arts management and offered numerous clues for  artistic institutions and individual artists on how to increase visibility and attract audiences. The Cultural Resources (Al Mawred Al Thakafy) offers free access to the Arabic translation of Strategic Planning in the Arts: A Practical Guide, by Michael Kaiser, on their website.

Al Mawred also gives access to several other publications about arts management; it organizes dynamic workshops aiming to enhance skills not only in management but also in planning, marketing, fundraising, attracting audiences etc. Should we be worried about whether US- or European-devised methods will work on Egyptians? Al Mawred offers material tailored specifically to the region. In July 2011, with support from the British Council in Cairo and the European Cultural Foundation, Al Mawred invited Sarah Boiling, the Deputy Chief Executive at Audiences London to hold a Cultural Management Training workshop in Alexandria.

Audiences London supports dozens of cultural institutions there: theatres, museums, galleries and orchestras, helping them build and broaden an audience base. Much of their expertise is accessible for free on the London Audiences web site. One of the protégées of Audiences London is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Founded in 1986, the orchestra’s repertoire ranges from Renaissance all the way to the 20th century composers. With professional help, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has managed to attract a large number of young audiences to their concerts.

During my short visit to London in December 2010, I had the chance to meet – and to be deeply impressed by the hard work and dedication of – both Sarah Boiling and William Norris from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Boiling stressed the alarming diminishment of classical music audiences in London. She doesn’t feel that the cultural aspect of Egyptian audiences should make for unsold tickets in Cairo. According to her, the audiences’ preferences and the funding situation in UK and Egypt might differ, but the solutions remain the same. The crucial element of reaching to audiences lies in recognizing the audience, understanding the reasons people have for not attending, and then bolstering up the relationship with potential attendees.

Audiences London is not unaware that classical music audiences worldwide are growing old. William Norris revealed that a large percentage of UK classical music audiences is 60+ years old, while people in their 20s might have difficulties naming five classical composers. Hence more evidence that the lack of audience in Egypt’s concert halls cannot be blamed on the cultural elements since, UK orchestras are already struggling to find audience that is theoretically Western. In Audience Development Resources and Research, Denise Montgomery wraps up the most important elements in the field and directs the reader to many resources and institutions who can help.

Should we blame it on the Egypt’s lack of music education at schools? Here, let us not forget that the situation is no brighter in the Western world either. Though the presence of musical education in public schools is more solid in the West, its existence and efficiency has more holes than Swiss cheese – and from the European governments’ perspective, the situation will not improve any time soon. Budget for education is being reduced in many European countries and understandably arts education is its first victim. In UK people are sounding alarms about the decline in musical education over the past years. In a report done by University of Oulu in Finland, in 2000, we read “The problem was that while contents of music education at the comprehensive school have become considerably wider, the number of lessons has decreased.”

In 2005, the Australian Government web site published a long research paper evaluating the music education in the country. This lengthy report, the National Review of School Music Education, has a self-explanatory subtitle: “Augmenting the Diminished.” In it, several pitfalls are recognized and the solutions still wait to be implemented. Those and dozens other examples highlight the fact that formal music education whether almost nonexistent in Egypt or diminishing in the Western world, is not the main reason behind the erosion of the musical audiences. Of course today Egyptian realities are more challenging and more complex; yet blaming the culture or the educational system consists of escaping from responsibility. Can it be possible that in Egypt’s capital of 20 million inhabitants, the lack of audience in the concert halls results from a simple professional incompetence?

Arts Management and Audience Development strategies provide many valuable solutions to this problem, regardless of their reasons. Apart of the formal concerts, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment uses great strategies such as the project called The Night Shift, a groundbreaking concert series attracting a new and growing audience. Music is performed in a friendly environment, concerts are preceded by a short introduction to the composition, and aspects of formal concert hall etiquette elements are relaxed. In all Western cultures, open rehearsals, classical music appreciation workshops, educational concerts, dynamic TV and radio programmes, concerts tailored to the youngest audience are among the dozens of easy solutions. If the virtual world is one of the platforms connecting young people, orchestras use the very same platform creatively to attract their audiences.

Egypt used to practice some reliable concerts marketing methods years ago, and apparently they were bringing about results. The question is why were those practices abandoned? What happened to the transmittals of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra weekly concerts on national TV? What happened to the radio and TV programmes developing awareness of Western classical music, presenting symphonic, ballet or operatic material in an easy manner? Why did the concerts tailored to the young audience disappear? Why are students no longer invited to the orchestra’s dress rehearsals? What happened to the advertisement of opera events on national radio and TV? What is the reason behind total paralysis of the whole advertising mechanism of the Cairo Opera or the decade-old International Music Centre? One cannot help but wonder what is happening on the desks of the overpopulated marketing and public relations offices of those institutions. Today, Egypt has reached the stage at which many musicians use personal channels to promote their concerts, advertising them on Facebook, relying on word of mouth or going as far as printing flyers at their own expense to distribute around the city. Where is the personnel responsible for those tasks?

Most importantly, is the management aware of who the Egyptian classical music audience is? No studies have been conducted to find out and no statistics exist. Kaiser, Boiling and many other arts management professionals warn against such neglect. Boling says that making assumptions about the audiences is a deadly trap – and Egypt proves to be one of victims of that trap. If Egyptian institutions do not know who their audience is, how can they develop any short- or long-term plans of sustainable development? A concrete knowledge database, realistic and measurable goals, long-term strategies, short-term solutions, crisis management, an active and sustainable relationship with the audience, reliability and commitment, creative outreach plans, engagement and involvement, networking, understanding and finding ways of benefitting from Egypt’s cultural diversity are all keys to gaining audiences regardless of their cultural preferences or educational backgrounds.

Egypt is going through many changes and the arts scene needs to parallel them. Many 21st-century academics, researchers and dedicated business-minded art lovers developed manuals and provide workshops to share knowledge, often for free. Many of the aforementioned tools are in fact available in Egypt. What else can we ask for?

Sadly, Egypt’s problem is not in cultural, educational or economic obstacles. It does not result from a lack of resources. What Egypt lacks is the capacity to study strategies and implement them. Over the past years, this status quo was silently approved by the management of a number of artistic institutions. Today, there is a need for a revolution of the mindsets and priorities, as well as for a reorganization of the whole skeleton of the support team on the payrolls of artistic institutions.

As Heather Maitland, arts consultant providing audience development and strategic marketing support writes in The Marketing Manual, “Audience development is a planned process which involves building a relationship between an individual and the arts. This takes time and cannot happen by itself. Arts organisations must work to develop these relationships.”

Photo: Audience at the Cairo Opera House. Photo by Sherif Sonbol

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