We are joined by THE Aubrey Bergauer to talk about why classical musicians and organizations must make big changes to survive in our new world.
We talk about the trends in the classical music industry, why we must redefine who we think of as our audiences, how to program for audience building and retention, and how to change the concert experience to get first-time audiences to come again.
Podcast Interview with Aubrey Bergauer
Learn more about Aubrey and her work on building back classical music audiences at AubreyBergauer.com
Video Interview with Aubrey Bergauer
In this Episode:
- 00:00 Intro
- 00:22 Introducing Aubrey Bergauer
- 01:47 Defining “Building Back Audiences
- 05:00 Why 90% of Classical Music Audiences never come back
- 10:16 Programming for audience retention and growth
- 14:54 Upleveling concerts with visuals and stories
- 23:18 Plugs
- 23:42 Outro
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Note: this transcript was auto-generated and may contain errors.
Jeremy Cuebas: Hey there and welcome to the Podium Time Podcast. We are so thrilled to be starting this season of “Building Back Audiences” and to be joined today by the one and only Aubrey Bergauer. Aubrey, thank you so much for being here.
Aubrey Bergauer: Aw, you’re very welcome, Jeremy.
Jeremy Cuebas: Could you give us a really quick overview of who you are and what you do in the orchestra world?
Introducing Aubrey Bergauer
Aubrey Bergauer: Sure my entire career has been in arts management. That is a goal I’ve had since high school, which already puts me, I think, in this weird bucket, cuz so many of us do not decide in high school that we want to go into arts management. So many of us don’t even know that’s a job then, but that’s. That’s me, but played an instrument seriously, growing up as well and knew I wanted to put that love of music together with the business side.
Aubrey Bergauer: So fast forward, cause it’s been a number of years now. And the very quick resume is Seattle Symphony in fundraising, the Seattle opera in marketing, the Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival hired in as head of marketing, then promoted to number two over all the revenue streams there. And then the California Symphony as Executive Director. That’s how a lot of people know me.
Aubrey Bergauer: And for the last three years now, I can’t even believe it’s been three years, but I’ve been trying to make a bigger impact beyond one organization. So more consulting, speaking gigs, things like that, really trying to work on, uh, sharing the strategies that have proven successful, not just at California Symphony, even though that’s where a lot of people know my work from, but those other organizations prior to that as well.
Jeremy Cuebas: And so you’re doing, you’re doing a lot of writing and consulting now, is that right, and teaching?
Aubrey Bergauer: Yes. All of the above check, check, check. You got it.
Jeremy Cuebas: Yeah. And so today we’re gonna be talking about your work and, building back audiences, like what that, what that means. I think a lot of people say that, but we’re not really sure what that means or how to go about doing it.
Defining “Building Back Audiences”
Jeremy Cuebas: Let’s, let’s talk about audiences first and you, you and I have talked about this, um, before is that “audiences” is not like getting our old audiences back because, that wasn’t working like super, super well in the past. It means bringing new people in and then making sure they come back.
Jeremy Cuebas: Um, so could you, could you talk about what building back audiences means to you or how, how you would define that goal?
Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah, I think you nailed it. I’m gonna repeat a lot of that right back to you. So, and expound on it just a little bit, as you asked.
Aubrey Bergauer: So, as you said, as so many of us know, we have not recovered to pre pandemic audience levels. The latest national stat I’ve heard is that most orchestras, ensembles are at 60 to 70% of pre pandemic levels.
Aubrey Bergauer: But as you also said, so accurately, Jeremy, is, I mean that baseline wasn’t great to begin with though. So, uh, let’s unpack that a bit. Pre-pandemic, and this comes straight from the league of American orchestras, 90% of first time attendees never come back again.
Aubrey Bergauer: And so we say, as an industry, we need new audiences, we need younger audiences. We say that today too, for sure. And it’s not that that’s not true, but to unpack it, a statistic like that shows that no, we’re actually kind of okay at getting people to come. We’re just not good at getting them to come back again.
Aubrey Bergauer: And so when 90%, nine out of 10 people who give us a try say, no, thanks. I’m done.” that’s a really big churn issue. So you combine that, if that’s the baseline, and then now we’re, you know, only at 60 to 70% of pre pandemic levels, you know, this is just, it’s not great.
Aubrey Bergauer: I am a firm believer in bucking trends, but those trends will persist unless we change the way we do things.
Jeremy Cuebas: And if any department, I think thinks that their marketing budget is too high for getting people in. If you get somebody to come back then without having to market to them, because they become a loyal, a loyal patron, and they have a good enough time that’s what we hope for, with our subscribers, but that’s such a high bar to set, to only focus on.
Aubrey Bergauer: I don’t think we have to only focus on retention, but you kind of just said it: if an organization is, has limited funds, which hello, basically all of us, no matter how big or how small we are, that’s usually true. Um, then yeah, focusing or shifting that money to retention, or at least some of it to retention over acquisition all the time really can help us.
Aubrey Bergauer: And this is true for any brand anywhere is that retention, loyalty, it prevails in terms of a strategy and you know, every other industry and true in our industry too, is that it is cheaper to get somebody to come back than to get somebody to come for the first time. So, that all that then flows into the membership economy, subscription economy.
Aubrey Bergauer: That’s so prominent everywhere else. I think there’s reasons why subscriptions are different and a challenge for us. But anyways, I think you totally got it retention over acquisition when we have to make budget choices for sure.
Why 90% of classical music audiences never come back
Jeremy Cuebas: And so what, um, what is it that you found is causing only 10% of people to come back?
Aubrey Bergauer: It boils down to two things. One is this retention issue. Sometimes they don’t come back because they’re not invited to come back, or the invitation is come back and make a donation, come back and buy a subscription where it’s like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I just went once. You know? Um, so there’s that whole issue of just asking too much too soon.
Aubrey Bergauer: But the other big issue I’ve learned in my work, and this has now been repeated at multiple different organizations in the consulting role is that people don’t feel welcome. They don’t feel like they belong. And what do I mean by that? That’s everything from, they don’t know, they don’t know the words we use and whether that’s in the program book or they don’t even always know the names of the instruments in the orchestra. This was mind blowing for me, you know, as somebody who cannot remember not knowing the names of the instruments in the orchestra.
Aubrey Bergauer: Right. So things like that. Uh, sometimes just the words we use feel very intimidating. Um, these unspoken expectations, like, okay, I guess maybe we’re still having the conversation on when to applaud or not, but it makes a difference when somebody is having such an emotional reaction that it burst out of them after their first movement and applause, and then they get shushed or the dagger eyes from the people around them.
Aubrey Bergauer: Like, yeah, I don’t wanna come back to an experience like that either. Like shaming not gonna work to get people to come back. Right. So, you know, it’s just a lot of things like that, where we realize, wow, it’s actually very, very intimidating, very unwelcoming. Uh, I’m painting with a very broad brush, but again, I’ve seen these results reproduce now at multiple organizations and it’s always themes like that that emerge.
Jeremy Cuebas: Yeah. I heard somebody recently say that it’s not, there’s nothing wrong with classical music, the problem is with classical music concerts and that’s one of the things that I love about what you did with Orchestra X, is that it’s not just about going to the concert, it’s the whole experience of everything before you go to the concert and learning about, like what the website’s like and how easy it is to use. And that’s, you know, we always focus on the concert and only the concert, but just parking is part of the concert.
Jeremy Cuebas: My, my first composition teacher would always say like, the concert starts when you walk in the door, not when the concert actually starts, and so I’ve always thought of, yeah, like what’s parking like. There was a concert in Denver I didn’t want to go to cuz I just did not want to deal with parking. It just wasn’t worth it to me. That’s only thing in my head that I was worried about.
Aubrey Bergauer: And if you’re thinking that as somebody who eats sleeps, breathes this, then just imagine of course this, like frustration is shared among other people as well. I mean, of course, none of us want to deal with parking. Right.
Aubrey Bergauer: And that reminded me too. Yeah. It was things like also we heard just incredible apprehension about what to wear, which I guess we’re still having that conversation too.
Aubrey Bergauer: But, but I don’t mean, I don’t mean it to be like, um, I mean, I’m saying it kind of snarky right now, but I, and so I’m sorry for that, but the idea is not, like, oh, wear whatever you want, it’s fine. Obviously. It’s fine. It’s that they, and they didn’t wanna dress down, it wasn’t that either. It was that they were like, I just wanna fit in and show up appropriate, whether that’s, you know, dressed to the nines, cuz it’s my date night out. Or like. It’s no, it’s not that fancy. It is more casual. I, they were like, I just wanna know. And like, I just remember feeling, like, feeding off of their anxiety around it. And so to the point you were just making that this experience starts way before a note of music is ever played. You know, we’re talking days in advance here that they’re feeling stressed, they’re feeling concern, anxiety, all these emotions associated with the experience we’re trying to provide.
Aubrey Bergauer: Before the experience even ever truly began.
Jeremy Cuebas: Way, way before.
Aubrey Bergauer: Except it has begun. Yeah. Yeah. So, yeah. There’s so much about the, the experience surrounding the product, yeah.
Jeremy Cuebas: Yeah, and, to, to speak to what people wear to concerts, just cuz that’s such such a thing, and, and you found that it was for like almost everybody, like a point of stress. That’s not something that we enforce, but that’s a perception and a worry that they have, and so if we want people to not worry about it, we have to, we have to get rid of that fear. We have to meet it somewhere.
Aubrey Bergauer: That’s right. That’s exactly right. And what I learned to summarize all of that is like setting expectations in advance is what’s so necessary. People want information, and that goes right back to what are we putting in our websites? What are we putting in the pre-performance email? But honestly, website is where they’re looking way before they even buy the ticket. So it really does need to be there.
Aubrey Bergauer: Um, but yeah. It’s like this quote-unquote very basic information where it’s like, it’s not basic to them because they don’t know it, so.
Jeremy Cuebas: Well, and it’s hard for us to see it cuz we’re insiders and we don’t even know what it’s like to be an outsider. And most people coming to the Symphony, especially the ones coming for the first time, like you said, the, the like social protocols, like they don’t know those unspoken rules.
Aubrey Bergauer: That’s right. Exactly.
Upleveling Concerts with visuals and stories
Jeremy Cuebas: Hmm. Hmm. So one, one thing kind of similar to this that I’ve been thinking and feeling and wanting to write more about recently is the idea that our concerts should be more than just the music on our concerts. And we may have, we may have touched this earlier, but I’m always trying to explore ways to make the concert even just visually more interesting.
Jeremy Cuebas: For the orchestra I work with, we have at our pops concert venue, we have these two big screens on the side and we can show clips of the orchestra, but we’ll also show a still from the movie that we’re doing the score from, or we will follow the movie, and I think that just adds so much and we, we almost never talk about, you know, what, if we’re doing this piece based on a poem, why don’t we have somebody come out and read the poem?
Aubrey Bergauer: Yes, love it. I think, I think what is so wonderful about our product, about orchestral music, is that it is used in so many different ways, places, so many different analogies. Um, it really does intersect with a lot of different types of art and a lot of different places and culture, and so that is in our corner and I think we are under-tapping that largely. So yes, totally to work those things in, I think are great.
Aubrey Bergauer: And. If I could change one production element or add one production element to concerts, it would be imag screens. If we could add those to our concerts, I think that would be the one change. Like if I had only one wish for production elements, I think I would do that because to be able to see performers up close, totally changes things. And that’s slightly different than what you were saying of, but, but same vein of like, yeah. Let’s show photos of the performers or the, or still from the movie where this was used.
Aubrey Bergauer: Like yeah, whatever it is, do it, cuz it enhances what we’re doing, not takes away from it.
Jeremy Cuebas: Well, and what we, we do do that, also, we, we get a really good close up of the soloist, cuz most people can’t, can’t see the details of their face in their hands. They may sit on the left side of the hall for the, for the, to see the piano keys, but they can’t see what’s going on on the face. Um, and I realized that when we got, we were doing our livestream concerts for a year and the, the feedback we kept getting was I want more closeups of the players. There are too many wide shots. We are from different angles, but people really wanted to be close up like the Berlin Phil does in their, in their virtual concerts. Like that is, that is a view that you don’t normally get, unless you’re standing on the stage, and nobody’s standing on the stage during a concert.
Aubrey Bergauer: That’s right. This is reminding me of a story I heard somebody share. They were trying introduce…. They were inviting friends to a concert to see Lang Lang, and so they were trying to like prime their non-musical friends in advance about why Lang Lang is so amazing, and she showed this YouTube video of him playing and their takeaway was. Oh, my gosh, his hands are blurry. He is moving so fast his hands are blurry. This goes right back to right back to the top of everything we were saying, like that was their level. And like, it was enough for them to know, you know, they’re not saying, wow, his technicality in his right hand left, you know, like, no, no, no, no, no.
Aubrey Bergauer: But it was enough for them to see that he was masterful. They were blurry and like, great. Fine. So now they’re Lang Lang fans and they wanna go see him in concert. So if that’s what we can provide closeups that show the bead of sweat on their brow or, you know, whatever it is like, yeah, let’s do that.
Jeremy Cuebas: Well, or we’re again, we’re doing a Beethoven concert this week and the bass parts in a Beethoven Symphony are, they’re crazy. And so I’m gonna make sure that our cameras get a close up of one of the crazy bass licks in one of the movements, cuz I mean just, I mean, I bet those hands are blurry on the camera too.
Aubrey Bergauer: Exactly.
Jeremy Cuebas: Nobody in the audience is gonna, is gonna see that unless you, unless you bring it to the fore and put it on a big screen.
Aubrey Bergauer: Yeah. And what you’re saying right now is so important, like you, as the conductor are uniquely qualified to be informing these kinds of production camera decisions when, uh, when we are using cameras in our performances. And so like I guarantee not everybody on staff, maybe very few, maybe no people on staff are like, oh, we gotta get the bass players because that bass part is really outrageous. I wouldn’t know that. So, um, anyways, conductors just feel so empowered to be like, oh, you know, what’s cool, the double bass part, like, do that speak up for sure. Which you have, so.
Jeremy Cuebas: Yeah. well, yeah, and, and nobody knows the music as closely as we do. And you know, maybe the program note writer will know the stories and the other affiliations behind the music or some of the musicians, but nobody in the audience is gonna know that unless we bring them from outsiders to insiders, unless we tell them.
Jeremy Cuebas: These things that like Beethoven, wasn’t just deaf. He like, basically wrote a suicide note at before the third Symphony. Like that’s, that’s something that they don’t know unless we’ve told them.
Aubrey Bergauer: That’s right. That’s right.
Jeremy Cuebas: I really wanted, we were talking about hiring an intern and I really wanted to try and find an intern who wasn’t already a musician so that I could send them to go read program notes and like, okay, find the stories that just really grip you, like find the things that we are not seeing that are interesting to you.
Aubrey Bergauer: More and more, I think program notes. Oh, here, controversial statement alert. Maybe should not be written by a musicologist. I don’t know. That’s a pretty, that’s a pretty controversial statement. So maybe I don’t fully believe that, but just this idea of how do we make it…
Jeremy Cuebas: My wife is a, is a musician she’s a music therapist now, so she’s not into the classical music side of it, but, um, you know, she never really liked it until I started telling her like the stories of the composers and their lives. Like until we started talking about Brahms and Schumann and Clara, or until we started talking about like Beethoven and Mozart as people, I mean, like people go watch Amadeus and suddenly they have this portrait and the music means something, cuz they have a personality to put onto it. And I think that’s so missing from the way that we talk about music.
Aubrey Bergauer: And I will just, if I can add one more story to this, this, this goes right back to the Orchestra X findings. I remember, in the focus group, anybody who’s heard me speak or followed my work has probably heard this story, but it’s just so spot on for this part of this topic. Um, you know, so we’d heard all the feedback, your website reads like inside baseball. I don’t know what to wear, parking frustrating, blah, blah, blah, blah, all that kind of stuff. And then we get to the point where we are talking about program notes and somebody, uh, like wakes up and is like, Oh, my gosh, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony should have never happened. And I was like, tell me more, and they were, and somebody else chimes in, they were like, that’s right, his first was a disaster and wow, it took so much gumption, he waited 20 years before writing his second. Like, like suddenly the focus group just totally comes alive talking about the story behind Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. And they were like, somebody finally goes, whoever wrote those program notes should have written them all.
Aubrey Bergauer: I was like, well, same person did write them all. Um, but it was just, but the more I probed and really dug into this, that’s what it was, it was the story about his life, and like, he, you know, he thought the first Symphony might have been a failure and, but, you know, blah, blah, blah. So, that’s what they cared about and that’s what they remembered so much so that they could complain about parking, they could complain about not knowing what to wear. They, you know, felt intimidated by the words on the website, but, and then same thing in the program notes, they literally said the program notes sound like a wine description until we got to this piece. And they were like, oh man, Rachmaninoff’s so cool, you know, so I’m like, okay, so the storytelling, as you said, I just, it just it’s what resonates.
Jeremy Cuebas: Well, now, now they have another association when they see Rachmaninoff, now they know who that is instead of, oh, he had some nice music. Like, oh, he was a person with a personality and now I can hear that in the music. It’s not just pretty background noise in a, in a movie.
Aubrey Bergauer: Yep. Nobody’s talking about his exposition. I’m really salty today. I’m sorry.
Jeremy Cuebas: No, but no, but really like double exposition is not something, any program note needs to talk about, unless you explain it right after.