Accessibility is a Dead End | Aaron Gervais, composer

Accessibility is a Dead End

Accessibility is a Dead End

Dead End CC by Steve Kennedy on Flickr


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For decades now, classical music proponents have tried to make their organizations more accessible in order to attract audiences. This has always been a misguided and ineffective technique, and in fact I think it’s part of the reason we’ve seen shrinking interest in classical music even as other “high art” forms gain status and popularity.

The failure of classical music versus other art forms really hit home for me recently when I read this article: a young, cultured non-musician goes to hear an orchestral premiere of a composer he knows in another context and grapples to try to understand the music. He feels he “should” get it, but his lack of experience with classical music prevents him from enjoying the performance. If making music accessible were relevant this wouldn’t have happened: he would have had enough exposure to the standard canon to at least form an opinion on what he heard, whether positive or negative. Instead, he had no idea where to start and wrote an article about his frustrations.

For most people, classical music is more foreign than ever, and the focus on accessibility has siphoned attention away from audience-building techniques that actually work. I’m heartened to see more progressive classical groups experimenting with other models, but we need to completely reject accessibility as a concept in order to really see results.

The rise and fall of classical music (in 200 words or less)

Classical music is a retronym: prior to the 20th century the Western world only recognized “music” and “folk music”. The current name arose from the technology-fueled increase in cultural plurality that led to the creation of pop music. So while early 20th-century composers were busy expanding the limits of late 19th-century culture, new forms were slowly taking that culture’s place. The Cold War made this process less visible, because modernist music was useful for political reasons (aside from its artistic value) and received tremendous state support throughout the Western world. As that political need began to fade, however, funding dried up and classical music organizations were forced to pay attention to audiences. Clearly the organizations still believed in classical music and wanted to share it with as many people as possible, but cultural priorities had shifted away from the genre. In order to regain audience attention, presenters fell upon the idea of accessibility, which has two goals: (1) prevent current subscribers from leaving, and (2) lower the barriers to entry so that greater numbers of non-subscribers are willing to take a chance on your concerts.

[Edit 1 Jul 2013: To clarify, this is the definition of accessibility that I’m using here: Making programming or presentation choices that you consider inferior for the sake of drawing in the audience and/or employing an unfocused programming rationale like “it’s for everyone” or “anyone can enjoy it” to avoid the question of who you are making music for.]

The importance of connoisseurship

The main fallacy in this strategy is the assumption that people are more likely to attend if the experience is less challenging. We can look at virtually any area of human activity to see that easier doesn’t equal greater investment—and especially not when the space is crowded with competition. There are countless examples both in and outside of the arts that back up the idea that people don’t really care about something unless they’ve got some skin in the game.

Consider baseball. I don’t particularly understand this myself, but I know there are many many people who are fascinated with the statistics of the game (batting averages, runs, strikeouts, other metrics of player performance) and historical trivia (who hit which run in what game, who won which World Series, which team was the most successful at X or Y, etc). None of this is easy to learn. It takes hours of study on the part of the baseball fan, accompanied by financial investment in things like memorabilia, books, software, tickets to games, and cable TV packages.

If you took this element out of baseball, do you think the sport would have the same loyal following? Of course not. Half the pleasure of baseball (for dedicated fans) is being able to discuss all of these minutiae with their friends. It’s part of the social ritual of the sport, the shared bonds that make people feel part of a community. It fuels both cooperative and competitive attitudes, and it helps to build a hierarchy between people who might just sort of like baseball versus the “real” fans. The fact that it’s hard to learn all this stuff is crucial to its function as a ritual: nobody sits around discussing the beauty of basic multiplication tables (at least not past the age of 7) because it’s too simple and everyone shares this knowledge. The lack of ubiquity is what makes baseball trivia valuable.

We can extend this argument to any number of activities: stamp collecting, playing video games, wine collecting (or just connoisseurship without the collection), the “shop talk” of virtually every profession, growing orchids, buying vinyl records instead of digital downloads, golfing, baking bread, learning opus numbers, you name it.

Note that I used examples of this HAPPENING IN MUSIC. Connoisseurship is an important part of our art. I have a friend who loves dance music and has thousands of albums, categorized into seven-year increments starting at the disco era and moving forward. Why those divisions? Because he determined through listening that there was a significant shift in the dominant style of dance music every seven years, and the fact that he discovered that pattern vastly expands his enjoyment of the hobby.

Old-fashionedness and stereotypes

So maybe classical music is just too old-fashioned, too much associated with older generations? I don’t think this is true—not anymore anyway. Tastes go in waves, and people rediscover older trends once the negative associations of former generations have disappeared (cases in point: baroque music in the 19th century, hipster moustaches today).


In previous decades, I would have agreed that classical music’s associations with the establishment and its reputation as “your parents’/grandparents’ music” marred its prospects. But today’s seniors were coming of age with the Beatles, CCR, James Brown, and the Grateful Dead. THAT is what “old people’s music” sounds like today. I know lots of intelligent, young non-musicians who are curious about classical music, and when it is presented appropriately (more on that later), they want to learn more. They see the connoisseurship angle; they like that it’s a cultured experience with depth to explore. So I see no inherent reason why the genre can’t experience a resurgence in interest if presented properly.

To date, accessibility has simply reduced the mindspace for classical music so that most people’s only experience of it is in movies. In turn, people naturally associate film clichés to everything they hear in the concert hall, should they happen to go to a concert. You can chalk this reaction up to a lack of musical education if you like, but that’s just shifting the blame. Plato was essentially right that the vast majority of people associate certain types of music with certain activities or moods: you have workout music, driving-to-work music, music for getting things done late at night, music for cooking, elevator music, music for dancing, music for reading, music for films. We have taught people what classical music is for, it’s just not the meaning we wanted them to have.

The pigeonholing of classical music as a background to film gives us the ubiquitous “it sounds like a horror movie” reaction to modern pieces. These listeners’ reactions are not inappropriate: it does sound like a horror movie, in the same way that bulgogi or pad thai might taste “Chinese” to someone with a limited experience of Asian cuisine. If we want people to go beyond these basics, we need to invite them to invest energy into unravelling musical complexity, not pour MSG into the sauce. It doesn’t require a university music degree to understand classical music, but as with any cultural activity it does require some effort. Let’s not pretend otherwise, it just makes people suspicious.

The accessible competition

Of course, not everyone wants to be challenged all the time, and we all enjoy mindless, relaxing entertainment—classical music just isn’t a very good fit for this type of activity. “Classical” classical music requires us to have a feel for the musical culture of other centuries, and that doesn’t come without immersion or study. Few of us have a sense of the culinary styles of previous times—why should it be any easier with music? (e.g. Timbales were all the rage around 1900; basically overcooked spaghetti mashed into a round and baked.) Modern classical music presents a similar set of challenges, though this time the cultural climate to be learned is that of the Cold War musical intelligentsia or the artists that reacted against it. In both cases, effort also needs to be expended to get beyond the movie music associations.

Even the “easier” repertoire sounds alien today: you can do a concert of Haydn or a concert of Lachenmann, but either way you’ll have about the same chance of attracting someone with no preexisting ties to classical music. For all the contortions that music organizations go through to be accessible, at best they are slowing the ebb of subscriber atrophy and at worst they’re boring their subscribers and forcing them to look for something new to spend their time on. That’s a model doomed to fail. Eventually any subscriber base ages: every organization needs to find ways to draw in younger members or face extinction.

So what are the winning “accessible” pastimes? TV for one. If I just want to relax, why would I go across town to hear Palestrina or Mozart or Ives or a premiere by a local composer? I’ve got a TV, I know the culture of TV already, and I can enjoy the shows I like without putting in too much study or effort. If I want to have dinner while I watch, or stop watching early, or involve my friends in the watching, I can do all those things pretty easily and inexpensively. Classical music just can’t compete with that. Even the lightest of the classics has nothing on the Bachelorette or Dancing With The Stars.

Practical implications

What does this mean for classical music presenters? Obviously, the answer is not simply to program the hardest music you can and watch the tickets sell themselves. But accessibility is a dead end and presenters need to get more creative. A few ideas:

  1. Appeal to connoisseurship: People like festivals and themed programs. If they buy the idea that you’re presenting masterworks that everyone “should” know, or that you’re reviving an underappreciated oeuvre, or that you’re otherwise doing something important with your programming, they will be more invested in learning about it.
  2. Employ tiered access: Have donors-only or VIP events, backstage passes, or other exclusive elements that people will want to compete for. Don’t overadvertise these elements—get the information out with as much word of mouth as possible. You want people to feel that they’re in the know, not that they’re responding to a radio ad.
  3. Provide educational resources: Help people to get into material they don’t understand, but avoid solutions that look like edutainment or marketing gimmicks. Pre-concert talks, radio interviews, companion events, podcasts, collections of recordings or listening lists, study guides—all of these are viable ideas. The right selection will depend on the audience, but you want them to feel that they will enjoy the performance more if they put some effort in, then point them in the right direction so they know where to start.
  4. Get the word out the right way: You need to cut through the noise to get to your target audience, and you need to reach them in a way that they see as authentic. Advertising in the wrong place can be worse than not advertising, because it makes you look out of touch or desperate. If your audience is not using Facebook much, don’t try to force them to check out your quirky Facebook posts. On the other hand, if your audience is into watching YouTube videos, make a few interesting videos (or curate a collection) to draw attention to your event. Or maybe what you really need is to forget about the high-tech stuff and go for old-school direct mail and print ads. There’s no single right answer.
  5. Don’t go casual: Casual was risqué 20 years ago. Now, everything is casual by default. You’ll draw more investment if you insist on a dress code. Even stadium rock shows have dress codes—probably not the same as yours, and certainly they are unwritten, but dress codes nonetheless. Be a little snobby and make people feel that how they present themselves matters.
  6. Forget teleology: People don’t know the classical canon, and Mozart is not a gateway drug to Stockhausen. Look across genres for clues as to what will help people connect with a particular composer or stylistic period. You may have more success pairing elements of popular culture with classical music, or looking at connections through other art forms (e.g. minimalist music with minimalist art). In all cases, don’t assume your audience will get the connection just because you think it is plausible. Find connections that are broadly intuitive and appealing, test the concepts on people, then broadcast the theme as clearly and loudly as possible.
  7. Program for communities: Mainstream marketers have long since figured out that you have more success if you segment people into very specific buckets, things like “urban couple, 25-32, middle class, no children, renters, no car, buy organic food”. You have a mental image of who that is, right? Obviously most arts organizations don’t have the budget for such specific targeting, but it still pays to closely examine who in fact you are making music for. The more clearly you can define that community, the easier it is to find ways to access it. You also prevent yourself from trying to please everyone, or from spending energy on things you thought you should be doing but never questioned why.
  8. Pay attention to context: How and where you present your music is just as important as what you present. For instance, some classical ensembles have experimented with nightclub performances, which is fine in and of itself, but it doesn’t solve any problems. People go to nightclubs to dance to loud, rhythmic music without much dynamic contrast. If you can provide that, a nightclub is a good venue for you. If you can’t, you’ll just get boredom or indifference from the people there. Each performance space has a specific context, and working with that instead of against it will help win over your audience. You can push the boundaries of convention (e.g. I’ve long thought drinks (without ice) should be allowed in concerts) and/or do unusual things before and after the performance, but remember the function your default venue was designed to fulfill. There’s a good reason we have such thing as a concert hall—why not use it to its full potential?

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  • Gab

    Is trying to make the music accessible the problem, or just certain misguided ways of trying to do that? Educational resources are a different way of doing that, which I think you’re right to advocate. Dress codes? They seem irrelevant to the music or the development of the knowledge to me, and have great potential to alienate people. I do love most of your practical suggestions, but wonder about the logic you put forward earlier. For instance, no-one acts like you should know all the stats when you turn up for your first baseball game, and knowing the basic rules gets you a long way. Likewise, your first loaf of bread doesn’t need to be a week-in-the-making sourdough and there are plenty of recipes out there for simple dampa, soda bread of white yeasted bread AND I’d suggest that people who try those first are a hell of a lot more likely to progress to ‘expert’ status.
    Also, what’s wrong with listening to classical music at home as a relaxing option, or for while you’re cleaning up, eating, etc? There are plenty of different moods…

  • Dress codes seem to be the one thing people don’t like in this article… but I still stand behind the idea. People love having an excuse to dress up. There’s a reason Halloween (and any other dress code event) have become extremely popular among younger adults–because they have fewer ritualized ways of dressing in daily life nowadays.

    Sure, you can say how you dress is irrelevant to the music, but people don’t experience music in a vacuum, it’s one part of a cultural context where dress is extremely important. Another major mistake of the accessible mindset is to assume people come to the concert primarily for the music. That’s not usually true. The music is the excuse to come together for the social event that is the concert.

    As for starting easier and working your way into more depth–totally agree. I never said people should become musicologists before attending their first concerts. But “easy” is not a universal concept in music. We are all familiar with different things, have certain natural proclivities, etc. You have a greater chance of getting into a particular type of music if you’re shown a connection that you can relate to, which may or may not have anything to do with what we traditionally consider lighter or relaxing classical music.

    And on the flip side, consider how hard underage high school kids try to sneak into popular venues or indie music shows. Making something exclusive draws people in.

  • Jay

    interesting read but i largely disagree. it seems that by ‘accessibility’ you mean ‘simplification’ (or rather ‘over simplification’?). these two concepts aren’t necessarily linked. to me, making art accessible means increasing the means to receive, disseminate and participate in it. why shouldn’t we all be enriched? i think the biggest problem for classical music is exactly your proposed solution, which is to further rarify it as an elite activity which by definition diminishes its audience and risks marginalizing it. i also think it’s disingenuous to think that classical music isn’t “mindless, relaxing entertainment”; sure, a lot of it is quite challenging but i think that many people get into it because they DO find it relaxing and mindless; that’s why so much of it works so well as background music.

  • You’re right that I’m not talking about “accessible” in the sense of convenience or availability, because that’s obviously not the problem. However, accessibility as an audience building tool in classical music has been tried now for decades and it has utterly failed. I do classical music for a living and I have yet to attend what felt like an elitist concert. I have, on the other hand, gone to lots of nightclub shows, art openings, performance art events, and indie rock concerts that felt exclusive and elitist to the core. In fact, all the best ones always are.

    Classical music needs to regain some of that. Some people will never go no matter what you do–they’re not who I’m targeting. But lots of people who probably would go don’t even have classical music on their radar, and that’s the fault of music presenters for trying to turn classical music into the cultural equivalent of public transit.

  • Heather Heise

    I largely disagree with this post, too, as the Bay Area seems to be doing quite a fine job of things. For example (addressing your points by number):

    1. SF Symphony’s Mavericks Program.

    2. Bjork’s recent show at the Craneway (Richmond). There was VIP seating as well as “tiered” general admission (you could choose to stand close up or sit stadium style farther back). (Some may argue that this show falls outside the “contemporary classical” of your discussion, but that would probably be its own interesting debate, wouldn’t it?)

    3 and 8. Cypress String Quartet’s “Call and Response” program. This year it included a premiere by Jennifer Higdon with schoolchildren hanging from every rafter in Herbst Theater. “Call and Response” provides exhaustive educational and community outreach, including playing at Cafe Revolution in the Mission. I admire the classical musicians who, like Cypress, play in cafes and other quirky venues in addition to their scheduled concert hall gigs. (Though I’m curious who, specifically, is playing in “nightclubs” as that seems an altogether different thing.)

    4. Screening of Waxworks with live music by Mike Patton/William Winant/Scott Amendola/Matthias Bossi at the Castro (Facebook announcement). Lera Auerbach’s new piece for NCCO (postcard arrived in mailbox).

    5. The dress code commentary seems irrelevant. I would wear the same thing to SF Symphony as to the Bjork show.

    6, 7 and 8. Sarah Cahill’s annual Garden of Memory event held in Oakland every June 21st. Though most people attend this because they know it is THE Bay Area new music event, I have met people who went because they enjoy prowling around the Julia Morgan designed building for a few hours, and I know others who go in celebration of a new season (i.e., they like hearing bells at sunset to close spring and officially begin summer). These are fortuitous “pairings” that do not necessarily broadcast theme or assist with understanding, but … they get people to a venue where they can hear a whole sampler of new music and later follow up on things they heard and liked. The Garden of Memory event also appears wildly popular with families and the surrounding Oakland/Piedmont/Rockridge communities: in the hours before and after the show, people can be seen all over the neighborhood, walking to and from the event.

    These are quickly gathered thoughts, but the list could go on, I am sure. My examples point to “availability” (which you may say is not what you were getting at) but at the same time they appeal to such a broad audience, and people seem excited to talk about this music, afterwards, whether they like it or not. Sometimes the “figuring it out” is what’s fun.

    Ultimately, I may have found your definition of “accessibility” lacking. I feel like there’s lots to be excited about with classical music, contemporary classical music, new music (whatever moniker you like) and how it is organized and presented. Your post comes off like a long complaint, which is why it made me “B – Rather Sad.”

  • Those are all great examples of people/organizations that I think are doing it right! Thanks for sharing.

  • Rich

    One word: SEX. That’s what has sold popular culture. That and violence. Is there some cognate with classical music? Classical culture? Well, yeah, in fact there is. So many of the programmatic pieces are about love affairs and dismemberment. It’s just that it isn’t as graphic as our 21st-century sensibilities are used to, or rather, not as overt. Who today knows the story of Dido (of Carthage, not London) and Aeneas or even more than a few of the details of Hercules (dude killed his wife and kids) or the Trojan War? Of course, classics majors are even rarer than classical music listeners, but you don’t have to go that far back: “Afternoon of a Faun” is SEXY; “Rite of Spring” is violent. I hate to say it, but pop culture is trillion-dollar industry because it appeals to humanity’s basest instincts. Classical music and high culture in general has always attempted to appeal to our higher selves. So how to we fool humanity into coming around to doing/listening/thinking what’s right for it? I’m struggling with that very puzzle with a seven-year-old boy. I’m starting to think about the above 8 suggestions, and I can quickly see how some would work with him; it might take a bit more pondering to apply the rest. I guess, however, that that is the ugly truth about contemporary culture: It is, by and large, made up of 7-year-olds.

  • Chris Wilke

    I think the problem with so many accessibility efforts is that they simply come off as desperate pandering. Audiences may not be sophisticated in terms of musical knowledge, but they can sense a phony. They have even greater sensitivity in smelling the real motivation behind many “outreach” programs: fear.

    It’s like grandma trying to convince you she’s “down with it” by making you watch her hip-hop dance and rap routine. Even if her moves and rhymes are impressive for a person of her age, her tragi-comically pathetic attempts at forcing relevancy upon you have actually made you lose respect.

  • “The music is the excuse to come together for the social event that is the concert.” – This sums it up. Even historically the social context of concert going was important, but prior to the era of recorded sound it was also the only way to hear music. With today’s technology any music can be heard with just a simple search, even the newest of contemporary pieces. The ritual of the concert with all its trappings needs to be revalued.

  • Vince Peterson

    Mr. Gervais, I have posted a reply to this article on the blog of my organization, Choral Chameleon in New York City.

  • For the anti-dress code people, a quote from the opening paragraph of a recent interview with Prince in V Magazine:

    “Both shows stretch to a delicious two hours, as the crowd, in blowouts and Vegas-style cocktail dresses (it’s worth dressing up for Prince, even in California), screams and sings along with glee.”

  • Charissa

    I actually agree with the author’s diagnosis of the “problem” with classical music in today’s context, but I feel like there were a just a few oversights. Based on my experience teaching and working as a TA for university music classes, the majority of undergraduates (music majors included) still think of classical music as “highbrow” and inaccessible, AND they just don’t care about highbrow/lowbrow. Trying to sell people on classical music’s highbrow appeal would mean fighting against the grain of culture, because you would have to convince people that “highbrow” culture is valuable.They like what they like and they don’t care about being perceived as “urbane.” Only a handful of students would even say something like “Thom Yorke is better than Drake” (which might have been said when I was in high school). There is no comparable “highbrow” music anymore that can transfer the idea of “masterworks” and “canon” to younger audiences. If there is anything like a “new highbrow,” it’s eclecticism. In which case, classical music’s best bet is to lean into its appeal as a quirky, highly specific niche interest that people might want to put in their cultural shopping cart along with Andrew Bird, Sigur Ros, Feist, and maybe a vintage band like The Smiths. People won’t want a fancy dress-code, but having a costumed premiere event that goes with the period of the pieces (like 1920s-Paris-themed dress for a concert billed with Stravinsky, Ravel, and maybe early Copland) would probably make people more interested. Moreover, why reject the idea of pairing any music- classical or otherwise- with visual media? Nearly all art/cultural phenomena is now multimedia, so why not pair classical music concerts with images and texts from its context? It might help steep people into the culture of the music in a more relevant way than a pre-concert lecture. Just some thoughts- otherwise great article! Loved the baseball/concert music comparison- that is very similar to what composer Robert Ashley astutely observed about the future of “concert music” in his book Out of Time. Thanks for writing and posting this!

  • Charissa

    And let me clarify- the reason I talk so much about “highbrow” is because essentially, that is what is behind the author’s suggestion of “limited access,” “dress-up,” being a “connoisseur,” and even using terminology like “canon” and “masterwork”– a revival of the “highbrow” culture appeal of classical music, which I think has already been (unsuccessfully) attempted by having Renee Fleming model for Cartier, etc.

  • Thanks for these great insights. I agree this approach is a type of highbrow, but I don’t think the solution is to go back to the traditional highbrowism of classical music. The fact that connoisseurship is alive and well in so many different aspects of life shows that a form of it can work in classical music too.

    It’s true that the vast majority of college-age kids (or people of any age) wouldn’t make the kinds of value comparisons you suggest, but I don’t think that matters. We’re not talking about mass market phenomena here–those are already well-represented in society and trying to reach out to people who will never care is a classic “accessible” mistake. Why should everyone like the same thing anyway? Why is Thom Yorke supposedly better than Drake? If you like one more than the other, that’s what makes it better (for you).

    I’m more interested in the underserved niches who want novel experiences but perhaps don’t exactly know what they’re looking for. We know people like to define themselves in groups opposed to other groups, and the main way of doing that is through culture. So classical music just needs to find the right way to pair with a new group–likely the eclectic-taste group you mentioned–because the old group is disappearing.

  • Broke composer

    I personally do not want to dress up for a concert, though I might slip on a jacket. Really expensive concerts I would dress up for, but I don’t go to those anyway, because I can’t afford it.

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  • The modernism article that I wrote brought me here, thanks.

    I think that classical music would probably do itself a huge favor if it focused on the meaning of the music rather than its sounds — there’s some issues with the way classical music is marketed, but composers and performers need to take responsibility for what their music is saying, too.

    The modernists have made such sentiments unfashionable though, because they insisted that sounds should be listened to for its own sake, rather than its underlying meaning. And that sort of gives musicians the justification to write something with little or no meaning, which is fine if you’re just aiming to be entertaining, but honestly speaking Hollywood just does that a lot better and you’re not going to be able to compete with that.

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  • Harlon

    Beethoven is “accessible”. So? The essay above loiters around some interesting concepts without engaging with them too deeply. The attempt is commendable. The language employed is quite accessible.