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14 November 2007

Going Underground

Eugene Ughetti in Aphids’s <em>Schallmachine 07</em>, underneath Federation Square, Melbourne Image: Eugene Ughetti in Aphids’s Schallmachine 07, underneath Federation Square, Melbourne  
© Phil Chungl

In an article published by the American Music Center e-zine New Music Box on music economics in May this year, Marc Geelhoed discussed the difficulties facing composers today, in particular, that of audience-building, addressing methods for publicity and promotion (Geelhoed 2007). One of the issues raised in the discussion that followed was papering, the process administered by arts organisations handing out free tickets prior to concerts, which is an active part of serious music promotion, a last-minute attempt to fill empty seats. One composer went so far as to say she was happy with this state of affairs. She went on to explain that whether the audience paid or not, she preferred that her music was listened to, rather than gathering dust.

This attitude seems fair enough; most composers just want their music to be heard. Yet when it comes to long-term strategies for audience building, this method is problematic, as pointed out by Geelhoed when he quoted the American journalism firm Knight Foundation: ‘free programming and outreach do not turn people into ticket buyers. They simply turn them into consumers of free programming’ (Geelhoed 2007).

Sally Groves, Head of Contemporary Music with publisher Schott Musik, believes that there is a larger publicity issue at play: audience demography. When I spoke to Sally in London earlier this year, she stated that art music publishers and promoters need to search for new audiences, to embrace different demographics, rather than to try to shape repertoire around the tastes of ageing audiences. The general public has a lack of familiarity with current composition; stemming from a history of cultural elitism and consumer undervaluation. Groves suggests departure from the concert hall as one method for audience building – the presentation of new music moving to unconventional environments. New audiences provides not only the opportunity for alternative branding, but also results in a wider demographic spread. More importantly, it encourages a sense of exclusivity about the work, and, by implication, about the audience.

All audiences are not the same

There is a particular resonance with the Melbourne new music scene in the quest for new audiences, where a thriving subculture is combating stereotypes of older demographics and falling audience numbers for classical music. Classical music audiences might be growing older, but other genres of art music – contemporary, avant-garde, experimental or electronic music – are not necessarily in the same dire situation.

In government-funded or subsidised subscription classical concerts, such as those hosted by Musica Viva or the state orchestras (eg. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, or the State Orchestra of Victoria), programs are primarily conservative, comprising retrospective works in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic. With a less defined demographic, subcultures of art music can afford to be more adventurous in their programming.

Composers and patrons of the latter – though derived from classical traditions and techniques – often shy away from association with the classical for fear of association with outmoded forms and the wrong demographic. There is certainly no lack of audience in Melbourne for contemporary art ensembles such as Aphids, ELISION, Dead Horse Productions, and festivals such as Liquid Architecture or the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Aphids actively avoid classification, stating only that they began in 1994 with a project involving fashion designer Kathleen Banger, visual artist Sarah Pirrie and composer David Young; ELISION describe themselves as a performing arts company; and the name for Kate Neal’s Dead Horse Productions speaks for itself, in positioning the group as far from the concert hall as possible. Many Australian composers are increasingly tending towards a cross-disciplinary realisation of their works, and audiences have never been so happy to pay for admission.

Embracing the niche

As an element of last year’s Melbourne Arts Festival, Aphids took audience members in groups of three into the maze of vents beneath Federation Square. In an unforgettable experience, once the performance space was reached, audiences were treated to their own private showing, taking the meaning of going underground to a new level. This year they undertook a six month residency at an abandoned clay mine at Mt Egerton, Victoria. In May, audience members were taken by bus from Federation Square out to the clay mine to watch the performance. Not only were the work and environment all encompassing, but they also defined and embraced a niche audience. Audiences became unified through a shared experience, more active than the shared silence and passive listening of the concert hall.

In this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival, John Cage’s Musicircus incorporated the sounds of scraping cutlery as innocent diners in nearby cafés ate on amplified tables. Although Cage’s work approaches music from a philosophical standpoint, and therefore his integration of art and music come as no surprise, it is this kind of approach to audience integration that has raised art music in the hearts and minds of audiences, and invites the participation and enthusiasm of the kind of undefined demographic Groves has in mind.

A number of music critics have prophesised the death of classical music, such as the London Daily Telegraph’s Norman Lebrecht and the late Samuel Lipman, citing dwindling audience numbers and aging demographics. However, the subculture of experimental composition and cross-disciplinary music performance engaging other art forms is alive and well, with increasing audience members. Perhaps more importantly, art music cannot be quantified in the same way as other music genres. It is, by definition, non-commercial, and its success can only be measured with a considered calculation of time, longevity, remuneration and, most importantly, reputation. Audiences for art music will always be niche, and the most successful artists are those who embrace their niche and aim to propel the identity of their work within that demographic. Going underground may just be the best way to get new music out in the open.


Marc Geelhoed, 'New Music Economics'. NewMusicBox, http://www.newmusicbox.com/article.nmbx?id=4994 [Accessed March 14, 2007]

Michelle Phillips-Schork is editor of Oeuvre.com.au, a publication promoting contemporary composers from Australia and abroad. She is a graduate of both the University of Melbourne Conservatorium and Arts Faculty, with degrees in music: Bachelor of Music specialising in flute and musicology;and editing: Master of Arts (Editing and Communications).


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